By Pete Robbins

As this year’s Boat US Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship approaches, last year’s champions, Ethan Cox and Ben Dziwulski of the North Carolina State BassPack, can’t help but feel a little bit wistful.

“I really wish I was going back to Pickwick,” Dziwulski said. “College fishing was the reason I went to NC State and it was an awesome ride.”

Alas, both anglers have graduated and moved on in terms of their fishing careers, but each finds himself dreaming of the big brown and green fish that inhabit the hottest lake in the southeast and visualizing the offshore ledges they plied for their victory. The 10 bass they weighed in totaled a whopping 45.60 pounds, allowing them to beat the second place team by over four and a half pounds. “That gave me a new confidence,” Dziwulski added. “I want to fish professionally at some point and that was the perfect ending to a successful college career.”

He’s a self-labeled competition junkie who has turned his attention to CrossFit fitness competitions while he endeavors to make his planned career as a pro angler take off.

Cox, on the other hand, gave serious thought to going to graduate school, simply so he wouldn’t have to end the collegiate fishing experience that meant so much to him. He’s fishing the EverStart tournament trail, and currently ranks third in his division. He’s clearly comfortable at the next level, but noted that there are certainly advantages to fishing collegiately over going it on one’s own. “I’m in the real world now,” he explained. “Back when we were in college, the school supported us. We used our own trucks and boats, but the school helped us with hotel rooms and gas. The tournaments were free and they were nationally televised. Winning the national championship is the biggest thing you can do at that level. It’s like winning the Bassmaster Classic.”

Both anglers said that the stiff competition at NC State contributed to their drive and their success. There will be nearly 200 teams at the upcoming championship, and it’s a certainty that NC State’s entries will be well-seasoned. “It’s so competitive just to go to nationals,” Cox said. “We have 60 members and only four to six will go to nationals.”

After their victory, the two now-graduated collegians were granted slots in the TBF National Championship, where once again they showed that their past success was not a fluke. The TBF championship is a no entry fee tournament with a payout of nearly a quarter of a million dollars in cash and prizes. The Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA) and TBF have been partners since the formation of the ACA and this opportunity provides one more “carrot” for young anglers looking to make a name for themselves in the sport.

According to ACA Program Director Danny Blandford, "I think this is one of the most lucrative programs out there for collegiate anglers, and I want to encourage our participants to take the time to understand it and participate. An angler can fish our BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship for no charge, pick up a $35 TBF membership which includes an FLW membership, and become eligible for a life-changing opportunity. That $35 can be parlayed into chances to compete for over 3.25 million dollars in cash and prizes, national exposure, and a chance to compete as a professional bass fisherman as part of the Living the Dream Package on the FLW Tour. It would be a shame to crown the 2013 BoatUS National Champions and have their journey end there on the stage because they didn't take the time join the TBF prior to the event. With the help of The Bass Federation, we are building a path for young anglers that lead them from high school to the big leagues, and the ACA is proud to be a part of this progression."

Regarding the TBF championship, “We both finished in 20th place,” Dziwulski said (he was a boater and Cox was the non-boater). “That’s better than half of the field. It showed that we can hang with some of the best anglers in the country.”

The solid TBF finishes reinforced the lessons that they learned in their time at NC State and on the road. Both anglers claimed that collegiate competition gave them time to hone a wide variety of skills, but in particular the electronics work and deep water techniques that paid off with the win on Pickwick and a second place finish at Kentucky Lake. “College fishing exposed me to all kinds of water,” Dziwulski explained. “And we had to learn to fish offshore.”

Their success at the collegiate level also translated into the type of sponsor support that will enable them to chase dreams into the future. Both acknowledged the support of JB Custom Rods for the entire NC State BassPack. Dziwulski has individual sponsorship support from Strike King and Hi-Seas fishing line. Cox is also affiliated with Strike King, as well as Seaguar, Lazer Trokar and Wright & McGill.

While both young men are pining for a dose of Pickwick’s generosity, Cox did note one advantage to being out of school: “All of my friends at school are in finals right now and I’m fishing at Wheeler. I keep on texting them pictures of big smallmouths.” In just a short time, the shoe will be on the other foot, however. His buddies who are still in school will be cranking the ledges at Pickwick in search of a trophy that he’s no longer eligible to chase.

Other than locations and lures, what advice would he offer them?

“Get away from the crowd,” he replied. “That’s what we did last year. We were the only team in the top ten that stayed in Pickwick the whole time and it paid off.”