By Jayden Presley
Cal Culpepper says he always does his homework before leaving for a fishing tournament. Not schoolwork, but his lake research.
As a bass fisherman, he examines the lake map to see how deep the water goes. He plans out the fishing spots he will try before teams are allowed to practice.
“Another thing I do to prepare is get all my tackle ready, organize my boat and rig all my rods with what baits I think I’ll be using,” said Culpepper. “That way, I don’t have to worry about it when I get there. I can just focus on trying to find fish.”
From Hamilton, Georgia, Culpepper is a senior marketing major on the University of Montevallo’s bass fishing team. He grew up near a lake and says he’s been fishing his whole life.
His high school did not start an organized fishing team until he was in the eighth grade.
“I fished high school tournaments all through my high school years,” Culpepper said. “There weren’t a lot of teams giving scholarships when I first started, but as I got into my junior and senior years of high school, more and more colleges were giving scholarships for fishing.”
Director of the Outdoor Scholars Program, William Crawford, is UM’s bass fishing coach. He offered Culpepper and his high school fishing partner, Mason Waddell, scholarships through the program.
Culpepper and Waddell grew up together and remain fishing partners at UM.
“I think one of the more stressful things when transitioning from fishing in high school to college is a lot of people worry about having to get a new partner. I think it was really cool Mason and I got that scholarship offered to us as a team, so that we didn’t have to go through that trouble,” said Culpepper.
UM President Dr. John W. Stewart III began the Outdoor Scholars Program in August 2015, adding the bass fishing team the same year. UM is one of the few colleges in the nation to offer a program for students who love the outdoors.
“We felt like there wasn’t a college program available to them that would help them exercise that passion, but also, to help them find careers in the outdoors that would be rewarding and enable them to do something they love for their whole lives,” Stewart said.
The bass fishing team formed in 2006, but Culpepper says it was not as large as it is now. Stewart says past fishing teams had fallen away until adding it to the Outdoor Scholars Program.
Crawford says he’s impressed by the diverse group of fishermen the program recruits from all over the country.
“It’s amazing the skill sets and knowledge each and every one of them bring to the team,” said Crawford. “They work very hard in the classroom and on the water. It’s just a fun group to work with each and every day.”
The bass fishing team won the Alabama Bass Nation College state championships in 2019 and 2020. Culpepper was on both teams as a sophomore and junior.
Crawford says Culpepper helped build the team into what it is today.
“Cal was part of the first big recruiting class that was brought in to build our fishing program into a national power,” said Crawford. “He has an incredible drive to excel both in the classroom and on the water.”
Though Culpepper says he feels it is a huge honor to be part of the team’s accomplishments, the School of the Year title is most important to him.
The bass fishing team placed first in Bass Pro Shops School of the Year rankings for the second consecutive year on Jan. 10. They also placed second in the 2020 school rankings.
“Really the School of the Year title is more superior because not only were you the best team in the state, but you were the best team in the country,” said Culpepper. “When I got here my freshman year, our team had like 13 boats or something like that. Now, we have like 60-something kids.”
Culpepper praised Crawford’s recruitment decisions for the team. There are fishermen from Minn., Fla., Ala. and Ga. He says the diverse areas they come from shows the type of recognition UM’s fishing program has from its success.
“One thing I will say is he is dang good at recruiting a team. You’re like, ‘William, where did you find these kids?’” Culpepper joked. “They help build this team and make it even better.”
After he graduates, Culpepper says he plans to become a professional fisherman or work for an outdoor industry in social media promotion. Working in the outdoor industry would enable him to keep fishing amateur pro tournaments, which he says would help him qualify for the professional series.
“I do plan on coming back for a fifth year, not because I like school but because I want to fish another year in college,” he laughed.
After their last two tournaments, the bass fishing team lost ground in School of the Year rankings. As of Jan. 24, they rank second behind Auburn University. Culpepper is hopeful the team will once again win on the national level.