By Todd Ceisner
After Hunter Freeman blew out his arm playing baseball as a teenager, he suddenly found himself with plenty of free time during his summers.
When a friend asked him if he wanted to try a bass tournament, he figured why not. Freeman comes from a fishing family, but they weren’t heavy into tournaments. On the morning of that first tournament, Freeman discovered a new way to fill the competition void left by baseball.
He remembers competing out of a jon boat equipped with a 20-horse outboard, but he also recalls the excitement he felt that morning.
“Blast off was awesome,” he said. “I got hooked after that.”
Imagine what he’ll feel like next month when he experiences blast off at the Forrest Wood Cup as the reigning FLW College Fishing national champion. The University of Louisiana-Monroe senior-to-be will be among the field of 56 competitors at Lake Ouachita after he defeated teammate Thomas Soileau in a one-day fish-off at the Red River last month.
When Freeman and Soileau won the team portion of the competition, it assured UL-M of a Cup qualifier for the second time in the program’s history, making it the fourth school to win the FLW College national title twice. A last-minute cull proved to be the difference for Freeman, who also will compete in the Bassmaster College Series championship in Oklahoma later this month with a berth in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic on the line.
The victory was a culmination of all the time and effort Freeman put in since getting a taste of the tournament scene. Now he hopes the Cup can serve as the starting point of a new chapter.
“Before, I would go with my dad to the Ouachita River for a few hours and our best five would weigh six pounds,” he recalled. “I always wanted to fish as a pro back to when I was younger. To be able to fish as a job would be awesome. When I got to college, the goal was to win a national championship and now I’m going use the money from the Cup to fish Opens and other events to go further.”
It’s been a few weeks since he and Soileau captured the team title, but Freeman said he keeps replaying certain sequences in his mind. The wire-to-wire victory was anything but easy, Freeman says.
“I never would’ve dreamed that the tournament would’ve went that well,” he said. “After day 1, we tried not to bomb the next two days, so to come back on day 3 and catch the biggest bag of the event was pretty awesome.”
Indeed, after bagging 12-04 on day 2 to carry a 1-pound, 1-ounce lead into the final day, Freeman and Soileau got off to a slow start on the final morning. With three fish for roughly 5 pounds in the boat around 11 a.m., they decided to move to an area they’d not fished yet. Realistically, Freeman thought they could get to 10 or 12 pounds.
The spot produced three keepers, including two 5-pounders, to run their total to a tournament-best 15-13.
“It was one of those Jordan Lee days, except we weren’t behind,” Freeman said, invoking the come-from-behind winner of the last two Bassmaster Classics who himself was a college national champion during his time at Auburn University.
“To catch two 5s on the Red River just doesn’t happen,” Freeman added. “There were only four 5s in the whole tournament and we had three of them. Everything came together. We never lost any fish. The only one that came off was one I boat-flipped, but it landed in the boat.”
Freeman said squaring off with Soileau with a Cup berth hanging in the balance was not ideal, but they tried to make the most of it.
“It was rough,” Freeman said. “We got asked about it all week and all I kept saying was, ‘The only way we have to worry about it is if we win.’ We just went out and had fun.”
Port Lake, the backwater are near Red River South Marina, served as the playing field for the 8-hour fish-off round. The area had been off-limits during the team portion. After heading to opposite ends of what amounts to an oversized pond, Freeman and Soileau, who graduated this spring, went to work. Freeman threw a balsa crankbait to catch three keepers in a hurry, then switched a finesse jig setup to target shallow wood.
With time winding down, Freeman made a move back toward the ramp where there’s a series of covered docks with houseboats occupying many of the slips.
“Wouldn’t it be something if I culled on my last cast,” Freeman asked his camera man just before unleashing his final cast with a spinnerbait toward one of the docks.
Freeman had a limit, including a 3-pound kicker, but it’s always nice to catch an upgrade, especially in a pressure-packed situation when time is ticking away. As it turned out, the fish did help Freeman, who tallied 7-11. Soileau’s total was 7-09, but after dead-fish penalties were assessed, his official weight dropped to 6-09.
“I keep telling myself what if I had not gone to that dock and his fish not died, he wins,” Freeman said.
> Freeman will team up with freshman Wesley Banks at the Bassmaster College championship, which will held at Lake Tenkiller in Tahlequah, Okla., on July 19-21.
> Here’s a list of past FLW College Fishing national champions (team format was used from 2010-2015 with boater receiving Forrest Wood Cup berth; fish-off to determine Cup qualifier began in 2016):
> 2010: Jake Gipson, University of Florida
> 2011: Jake Gipson, University of Florida
> 2012: Ryan Patterson, Kansas State University
> 2013: Paul Clark, University of Louisiana-Monroe
> 2014: Austin Felix, University of Minnesota
> 2015: Patrick Walters, University of South Carolina
> 2016: Hampton Anderson, University of South Carolina
> 2017: Kyle Alsop, Kansas State University
> 2018: Hunter Freeman, University of Louisiana-Monroe