ABINGDON, Va. – The Tusculum College tandem of Nick Hatfield and Corey Neece had a secret weapon for Saturday’s Milton Sheesley Memorial Open fishing tournament on South Holston Lake. Just ask Neece.
“Yeah, I live right down the road,” said the Bristol, Tennessee, resident after the weigh-in ceremony. “That helps, especially on a lake like this where it’s completely different than a lot of other lakes we fish on."
Neece and Hatfield topped a field of 21 teams by catching five fish for a total of 14.80 pounds. “It was an awesome day, especially with this being a memorial tournament,” Hatfield said.
The tournament, directed by Abingdon High School graduate and Virginia Tech sophomore Tyler Dixon, was designed as a tribute to Sheesley, a member of the Bass Fishing Team at Virginia Tech who died in a 2016 car accident.
Sheesley’s parents, George and Dianna, attended Saturday’s tournament along with several other family members.
“We miss our son every day,” George Sheesley said. “He tried to make everyone around him happy.”
George said that his outgoing son took up bass fishing four years ago.
“He really fell into the sport,” George said. “He developed a love for bass fishing and wanted to keep that love going.”
The fellowship of the event was a hit with participants, who raved about the natural beauty and near perfect spring conditions on the South Holston.
West Virginia University freshman wildlife and fisheries majors Nolan Minor and Casey Lanier finished second with a weight of 14.335 pounds on five fish.
“This was actually our first tournament together, but things worked out and we take a lot of pride in how we finished for our school,” said Lanier, who lives in Sanford, North Carolina.
The West Virginia pair persevered through a long afternoon slump in the event which began at 7 a.m.
“I don’t think we caught a keeper for like three hours,” Minor said. “We fished all over the lake until we found a particular type of bank and bait we were looking for.” Lanier said he and Minor used jerkbaits most of the day. “But the bigger fish came on an Alabama rig,” Lanier said.
While Minor and Lanier had never seen the sprawling South Holston before practice on Friday, Minor was able to rely on a local connection.
“I have family that lives in Abingdon, so we had a place to stay and food to eat,” Minor said.
The team of Clayton Winebarger and Jared Hoss from Abingdon’s Virginia Highlands Community College took third with a haul of 13.425 pounds while the couple of Trey Joyce and Lauren Kipreos from Roanoke’s Virginia Western Community College earned the biggest single fish award after hauling in a six-and-a-half-pound smallmouth.
“That was my second citation smallmouth I’ve caught this year, but this was my personal best,” Joyce said.
It was not an easy weekend for Joyce, who had never seen South Holston before and was unable to find a place to charge the batteries in his boat Friday night.
“We might not have come to this tournament considering all the money we put into it, but we wanted to support this great cause,” Joyce said.
Persistence was the key for the VWCC pair.
“We really didn’t catch a lot today, and I didn’t catch that big fish until 2 o’clock,” Joyce said.
Joyce revealed that his winner was enticed by a spinnerbait.
“I had that in my rod box all day long,” said Joyce, a regular on Smith Mountain Lake in the Roanoke area. “I kept thinking to get it out. When I finally did, I caught the big fish in about five casts.”
The story of Joyce and Kipreos is a dream to many fishermen. After growing up as neighbors in rural Patrick County, Virginia, they now attend the same school and fish together as fiancés.
“Yeah, that works out well,” said Joyce, who plans to enroll at Virginia Tech and major in engineering.
After working virtually non-stop over the past two months to arrange Saturday’s tribute, Dixon said he was pleased with the results.
“It’s pretty cool that we were able to honor Milton this way,” said Dixon, who arrived at the site at 4 a.m. “Seeing his family here kind of touches your heart and brings back a lot of memories.”
Dixon said he also hopes that the tournament will generate more exposure and support for college fishing programs.
“Since we’re not an official college sport, we don’t get a lot of funding so we try to help each other out,” Dixon said. “This is really good exposure for college fishermen, this lake and this series. Hopefully, we can make next year’s event bigger and better.”
George Sheesley said he would love to return to the scenic South Holston next spring.
For now, the northern Virginia couple are eager to attend the May 31-June 3 FLW College Fishing National Championships on Wheeler Lake in Alabama. Sheesley qualified for that event with his teammate, Ian Hardesty.
“We will be there trying to give moral support to Ian and knowing that our son is looking down on everything,” George Sheesley said.
A tournament just for Virginia Tech competitors will be held today on the South Holston. Two other tournaments were held on the South Holston on Saturday, including one that attracted just under 200 boats.