Fothergill outlasts Smith to win Bassmaster College Classic Bracket

Throughout his young fishing career, several unfortunate incidents have ruined Easton Fothergill’s chances at winning tournaments he felt confident about.

Whether it was a mechanical issue or things he simply defined as “dumb stuff,” something always got in the way.

In mid-August, the University of Montevallo junior thought he would be adding emergency brain surgery to the list of misfortunes that derailed his path to success. But it turns out life works in mysterious ways.

“Now I know what God’s vision was,” he said.

Just over a month after undergoing surgery to remove an infected abscess on his brain, Fothergill won the 2023 Bassmaster College Classic Bracket presented by Lew’s by catching 11 pounds, 13 ounces on the final day at Milford Lake, defeating Auburn University’s Tucker Smith (9-8).

“I can’t really put into words what it means to me yet,” said Fothergill. “This is something I never thought I would be capable of. I never saw myself doing something like this. It is crazy special. The fact I wasn’t even planning on being here and then winning it, I really can’t put it into words.”

The Grand Rapids, Minn., native earned a spot in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota scheduled for Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees near Tulsa, Okla., March 22-24. Fothergill also earned paid entry fees into a division of the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens with the use of a fully rigged Toyota Tundra and Nitro Boat.

After qualifying for the College Classic Bracket by winning the Bassmaster College Team of the Year title with partner Nick Dumke, Fothergill caught 10-15 in the opening round to advance to the semifinal round over Montevallo teammate Jack Alexander (9-8). Fothergill then landed 9-1 on the second day to cruise past Auburn’s Hayden Marbut (6-11) before catching the tournament’s biggest bag on the final day. Fothergill caught mostly smallmouth, but he caught a key largemouth each day of the tournament.

While he hails from northern Minnesota, the section of the state most people identify with when discussing its fishing superlatives, Fothergill often ventured to the southern part of the state for high school tournaments.

He didn’t know it at the time, but those lakes set up much like Milford Lake and that past experience helped Fothergill break down his areas this week.

“In northern Minnesota where I’m from, you can see the bottom in 20 feet of water,” he explained. “You go to southern Minnesota, there is a lot of dirty water like Milford has. I had a couple of high school tournaments where we went down to those types of lakes and it was a huge learning experience, which now I think prepared me for this. I didn’t know it at the time, but it prepared me for the future.”

As he recovered from surgery, Fothergill studied Google Earth for days, looking for oddities in the rock-lined banks. He discovered there were bigger boulders in several specific spots on the lake. Those boulders turned out to be the key, as Fothergill caught nearly all of his bass around bigger rock.

“It was basketball-sized boulders, not the slab rock that the lake is littered with,” he said. “In the morning, they wanted the slow tapering banks and then a sharp break. The bass were in inches of water.

“Most of the spots I found were while I was recuperating and resting at home.”

A mix of baits contributed to his success. On Day 1, Fothergill tossed an underspin with a 3-inch swimbait along with a 3/8-ounce double-willow spinnerbait with a translucent skirt. As the tournament progressed, a homemade finesse football jig (made by his father) paired with a Strike King Rage Menace Grub played an important role as well as a 3.5-inch Strike King Coffee Tube rigged on either a 1/4-ounce or 3/8-ounce jighead.

While the spinnerbait bite fizzled some on Day 2, it fired back up on the final day.

The wind howled over Milford Lake from the moment anglers arrived this week and that played right into Fothergill’s strategy.

“My bite was wind-driven. Especially with smallmouth, you always want to chase the wind and if possible, you want the wind blowing in on your stuff,” he said. “My starting spot, the wind wasn’t blowing into it, but it was blowing over the point. I positioned my boat on the downwind side so I would cast into the wind so it looked more natural.”

The first two days of the tournament, Fothergill achieved a quick limit and Championship Monday was no different, as he filled a limit for just over 8 pounds within the first two hours.

“Last night I knew I had to brainstorm and come up with something new. I hopped on Google Earth and found two spots that could be promising for my morning pattern,” he said. “I tried my areas I had fished the first two tournament days and didn’t get a bite. I went to the stuff I found on Google Earth and immediately caught a keeper and then one of my bigger ones, a 2-7.”

From there, Fothergill rotated through several areas, catching smallmouth on spots where he had yet to get a bite. But it was a return to his Day 1 starting spot that proved to be the difference, as he landed three bass close to 2 1/2 pounds in a 20-minute flurry during the early afternoon.

“I was planning on hitting my main starting spot a bunch of times today. I knew what quality lived there if I could just get a couple of bites,” he said. “As soon as I left that spot this morning, there were a bunch of catfish guys walking down the bank. About an hour later I came back by and there were trotlines and four bobbers littered on my point. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I checked it two more times and they were still there.

“Finally, after the (midday) break they were gone and that’s when I stopped in there and caught the three upgrades, which ended up winning the tournament for me.”

While Smith achieved a limit shortly after Fothergill and even led for a good portion of the mid-morning and early afternoon, the Auburn junior from Shoal Creek, Ala., could not find a true kicker bass. Fothergill never knew what Smith had in his bag, but felt as though he needed one more bite to solidify his spot in the Bassmaster Classic.

“I knew I had the biggest bag of my week, so I knew I made Tucker earn it if he did beat me,” Fothergill said. “I had this feeling I was one fish away the whole afternoon. I just had a feeling, but it worked out.”

The event was hosted by the Geary County, Kansas Convention and Visitors Bureau.