MILFORD RESERVOIR — Tuesday morning, Lance Maldonado was a college athlete in training.
Up early, working hard and testing his body and mind, the 22-year-old junior was getting ready for a competition that will mean a 24-hour round-trip drive next weekend.
Such work helped him succeed at another contest last weekend.
“Fishing this lake so much really helped us last weekend,” Maldonado said as he arched a lure over Milford’s calm surface. “We are used to fishing for largemouth and smallmouth in the same water. That’s what we were doing at Pickwick. It had spotted bass, too.”
At Alabama’s Pickwick Lake, Maldonado and his partner, Nate Kozlowski, were the best of 50 boats, from about 10 states and 30 colleges at the college fishing Central Conference tournament.
Chalk up another win for the anglers in purple.
Last year, K-State angler Ryan Patterson won the College Fishing National Championship.
That a kid from Kansas won was shock enough in the sport dominated by colleges in American’s southern bass belt. Patterson, from Garden Plain, also won the team event fishing solo.
“When Ryan’s partner was deemed ineligible he became our first single entry in a college tournament, and then he won,” said Chad Gay, director of public relations for FLW, the event’s sponsor. “He ended up being one of the Faces In The Crowd in Sports Illustrated. It’s rare bass fishing makes Sports Illustrated.”
That may be changing as more colleges send fishing teams to tournaments.
“The popularity has just exploded over about the past five years,” Gay said. “There are now more than 500 college clubs.”
He said Kansas colleges float about 10 fishing teams, including Wichita State.
K-State’s membership of about 20 anglers is by far the largest in the state.
FLW, a major professional bass tournament organizer, helped speed up the process when it entered the college fishing scene in 2008.
It now sponsors five college conferences, each with about four large tournaments per year.
As well as finicky fish and bad weather, many teams say finances are their greatest challenge.
“Funding is absolutely the big thing for us,” said Josh Schmidt, of the Wichita State Fishing Team. “It’s not like (most college clubs) where you just split the money to go to a conference. We have to have a lot of tackle and other equipment. There are a lot of things that go into it, money-wise.”
Kozlowski, K-State team president, said things are better than a few years ago when attending a college tournament often meant sleeping in a cramped truck and eating cold food.
Patterson’s win last year brought about $50,000 to the team. The resulting exposure also made it easier to get sponsorships and hold successful fundraisers.
Kozlowski, a junior majoring in finance, has helped the team organize two fund-raising tournaments.
In 2012 their tournament at Milford netted about $5,000. Bad weather this year kept the amount to about $3,000.
They’ve also sold T-shirts at sports shows, and had raffles.
“Any way to get some money,” Maldonado said. “We have to keep working so we can keep fishing.”
This year their hard work at raising funds has freed-up money for more than just tournament trips.
For instance, the team funded a trip earlier this month for Kozlowski to practice on Pickwick for a weekend before the big tournament.
“That made a difference in how we did,” Maldonado said. “That’s about $1,2000 to make that trip down and back, everything included.”
Their win at Pickwick had a $2,000 prize for Maldonado and Kozlowski, most of which went back to the team.
“The first thing is that it’s used to pay expenses,” Maldonado said. “After that, we split the extra with the team.”
Their tournament next weekend is a college event sponsored by a fishing equipment company.
Team members also furnish much of their own equipment and transportation costs as they fish on local lakes for team tournaments, or to try new equipment or techniques.
To free-up as much fishing time as possible in the spring, Maldonado works two part-time jobs in the fall and winter while taking a full course load as he works toward a degree in finance management.
“You just do it when you can, but you do it,” Maldonado said of homework.
When asked if he takes studies on the road to college tournaments, he nodded and said, “Sometimes you have to. It’s all a challenge, but it keeps us out of trouble.”
True, but at least the days of K-State team members studying in the dim lights within a truck are gone.
“We got to stay in a nice motel at Pickwick,” he said. “The club paid for that and our meals and travel expenses. It’s nice.”