The start of Colby Hays’ college bass fishing career was a lot like catching a limit before lunch.
Hays, who fishes for the Campebellsville (Ky.) University team, qualified with angling partner Justin Mayfield for the FLW National Championships during their freshman and sophomore seasons. Hays narrowly missed a chance to fish in that circuit’s 2020 title event, but now a senior, he’s eager for another shot at a college national championship, and especially, he’s hoping to qualify for his first Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Championship this year.
Those dreams are on hold, however, as Hays and thousands of other college anglers await a return to competition that’s been paused to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. B.A.S.S. already postponed a college series tournament scheduled for Lake Hartwell in South Carolina on March 26-28 and additional events, including a May 6-8 tournament on Cumberland Lake right outside of Campebellsivlle, could be threatened, as well, if the virus continues to paralyze normalcy across the globe.
For Hays, 22, sitting on his hands while his final season at Campbellsville slides by is worse than getting skunked on home water.
“The team has discussed it, and we’re all really bummed out,” he said from his family’s home in nearby Somerset, Ky. “We’re looking forward to getting boats into the B.A.S.S. National Championship. We came up short at the tournament on Smith Lake — the College Series opener which was held Feb. 27-29 in Alabama prior to worldwide restrictions on travel and gathering in large groups.
“The whole thing right now, it’s disappointing, but it’s affecting everybody,” Hays continued. “If we lose this season, our college careers will only last three years. And that’s people in all sports, not just us.”
With the virus infecting hundreds of thousands of Americans and causing critical illness and even death in some cases, the postponements were an unfortunate, but necessary, decision to make.
“(The college tournament was) the first event to be postponed because so many schools were making students leave campus,” said Hank Weldon, Senior Tournament Director for the Bassmaster College Series. “They weren’t funding sports teams and clubs to go anywhere. And even if they got to a tournament, there are no restaurants where they can sit down and eat. The ramp where they might put in could potentially be closed.
“That’s where we are right now. There are just of lot of logistics to be considered.”
The tournament at Lake Hartwell had a full field of 250 boats (500 anglers) entered, and another 150 boats (300 anglers) on a waiting list, Weldon said. The Cumberland Lake event also was full, with teams eager for another shot to qualify for the college championship. The date and location of that event haven’t been announced, and there’s no certainty the date won’t have to be adjusted anyway.
Campbellsville University coach Pete Hedgepath said he learned students had to be off campus the day before his team was leaving for a tournament. He knew the team’s schedule was likely to be jumbled because of the coronavirus crisis, but still, the call was a shock.
“We were still raring to go, but then the schools shut everybody down,” Hedgepath said. “We were going to close for two weeks, then two or three days later, I got a call that I needed to get hold of all my anglers and tell them they had to move their stuff off campus.”
Hedgepath has five seniors on his team, and he said they keep in touch every few days.
“We’re a pretty close-knit group,” he said. “They’re still fishing local lakes, where they live. But they’re all asking what we’re going to do. I can’t answer it right now. No one can, really, until this virus plays itself out.”
Bethel University Coach Garry Mason has 27 anglers on his current team, and many of them came from states far from the McKenzie, Tenn., school to be part of what has been the most successful program competing in the Bassmaster College Series. Mason said his team is scattered back around the country now, but he knows they’ll keep their skills sharp during the hiatus.
“That’s just who they are, so I know they’ll be fishing,” Mason said. “Still, it’s pretty sad, to be honest. We try to keep things on a positive note, because the kids are upset right now for many reasons. They’re not getting to fish, but the seniors don’t even know if we’ll be able to hold graduation on time. They don’t understand what’s going on, and it’s devastating to them.”
Mason said whenever the season does resume, the Bethel bunch will be eager to compete again.
“These kids have a passion for what they do,” he said. “When you’re passionate, you wear your heart on your sleeve. But these are good kids who have good upbringing and have support. They are going to keep a positive attitude. B.A.S.S. made the right move. The main thing is to protect as many people as we can from this virus right now.”
Because he switched majors earlier in his college career, West Virginia University angler Nolan Minor actually has another year of eligibility remaining after the 2020 season, even though he’s currently a senior. Still, that’s no great consolation for competitors like Minor, who said being back home in Charlottesville, Va., waiting for tournaments to begin again is frustrating.
“I’m pretty bummed,” he said. “I was looking at fishing some local tournaments when I knew I was coming home, but now everything is being canceled. I just want to fish and thankfully I can still do that, even if it’s not in a tournament. It’s unfortunate because this is arguably the best time of year to fish. I’m trying not to focus on that, though.”
The same goes for Hays, who’s buckling down on his studies and preparing for graduation, though the ceremony might be delayed a few months. As for fishing, he said that’s certainly in his future, no matter what happens with the remainder of the college season.
“Even if I don’t have four years of it in college,” he said, “I still can go after it in the Opens. I’m not giving up fishing, no matter what.”