Pair of Okaloosa County anglers competing in Abu Garcia national bass fishing championship
Two local anglers will compete this week in the collegiate national championship of bass fishing.
Evan Rice, a graduate of Choctawhatchee High School, and Niceville High School’s Dillon Butcher, both Class of 2017, will represent Troy University in the 12th annual Abu Garcia College National Championship. The tournament will be held Wednesday through Friday on Grand Lake O' The Cherokees in Grove, Oklahoma.
Rice and Butcher will compete as a two-man team against 154 other teams representing 81 colleges from 32 states. It’s only the second trip to the national championship by a Troy University team, and the first such tournament for Rice and Butcher.
"I’m extremely excited,” Rice said. “I’ve been looking forward to it since we qualified.”
To earn their spot in the championship, Butcher and Rice had to qualify in a regional tournament in February 2020 on Lake Seminole in Georgia. They finished the tournament with a five-fish limit weighing a total of 12 pounds, 15 ounces, which earned them fifth place out a field of 140 teams and a spot in the national competition.
“I’m always optimistic,” Rice said of their odds in the upcoming tournament. “The problem, though, is the lake was frozen over and the water temperature right now is something like 37 degrees.”
Oklahoma, like much of the United States, was caught in the grip of a recent winter storm that sent thermometers plummeting to record lows. Fortunately, the current local weather forecast for the tournament has daytime highs in the 60s.
And Rice, now a junior at Troy and majoring in environmental science, seems like he’s up for the challenge. He comes from a family of anglers and estimates he started fishing about “as soon as I could bend my fingers around a rod.”
He helped start a bass fishing team at Choctaw in 2015, driving seven to eight hours to high school tournaments in Central and South Florida.
Growing up on the Emerald Coast, Rice said he’s spent a lot of time saltwater fishing but still prefers bass.
“There are just so many ways you can catch them,” said Rice. “What works one day may not work the next, so you have to adapt. It’s a challenge”
“It’s a whole different skill set,” echoed Butcher, who will graduate this May with a major in criminal justice and a minor in psychology.
Like Rice, Butcher said he’s been fishing “since I could hold a pole.”
Butcher didn’t start bass fishing until he went to Troy, but it didn’t take long for him to get hooked.
“I came back from my first tournament and instantly started ordering a crazy amount of gear,” he said.
Although neither of them have been to Oklahoma before, Butcher said they’ve been doing online research to prepare.
“Its a lot of looking over graphs,” Butcher said. “Looking at different aspects of the lake to see if we can use it to our advantage.”
Butcher and Rice will also have a couple of days practice to scout the lake for fish before the tournament. Around dawn Wednesday, March 3, the pair will take off in a 21-foot Legend bass boat belonging to Rice’s father.
All 154 teams will fish the first two days, with the top 10 finishing teams advancing to the third and final day of the tournament.
First place is a $33,500 prize package, which includes a new Phoenix 518 Pro bass boat with a 115-horsepower Mercury outboard. In addition, the top three teams can participate in Major League Fishing’s Toyota Series Championship later this year.
There’s a lot on the line, but Butcher said they’re just going to keep focused on fishing and hope fortune smiles on them.
“When it comes down to it, it’s still fishing and not catching,” said Butcher. “So we'll need a little bit of luck.”