PARIS, TENN. -- When Luke Dardeen and Clayton Halbig of the Lawrenceville Lunkers made the trip down to Kentucky Lake with their boat captain, Hotdog Dardeen, they entered the Mossy Oak Bassmaster High School Fishing Championship with a great frame of mind.
Dardeen and Halbig had previously stated there was no nerves associated with the elevated stage and they were set to treat the tournament just as any other time they've gone fishing.
But when the pair of Lunkers kicked off competition on Thursday, they were set for an incredibly difficult slate.
Dardeen and Halbig fought through the tough sledding and finished strong. By the end of Friday the two Mount Carmel High School students ended with one catch, one that weighed in a 3 pounds, 4 ounces.
The good news, they weren't the only ones who were experiencing trouble with the lake surrounding Paris Landing, where they launched from. There was a collective sense of frustration from the field of anglers, who were all struggling -- all but about 50 anglers, who enjoyed some success.
A total of 116 boats finished with one fish or less, including Dardeen and Halbig who placed 204th out of the 300 team field. The top team, Grayson Morris and Tucker Smith of Briarwood Christian School, caught 15 fish, five on each day, finishing with a total of 50 pounds and 1 ounce to claim the crown as back-to-back national champions and earn $4,500 scholarships.
Even some of the top anglers encountered trouble on Saturday with the field down to just 12 competitors. Three of 12 teams on the final day finished without catching a single fish.
Hotdog Dardeen had preached the importance of the mental aspect of fishing to the boys prior to the tournament, and his wisdom did indeed prove wise in hindsight.
"Once he gets on the lake and other boats are catching and you're struggling, him and Clayton may be struggling or whatever, and that's the mental aspect of it that's such a grind," Hotdog Dardeen said. "You might be out there for seven or eight hours not catching anything and then last 30 minutes you're grinding it out and catching something. That's the grind."
It was a tremendous experience for the pair, not just for refining their craft, but connecting with and meeting aspiring anglers from all over the nation, including teams from Canada.
Perhaps next year can usher in a fresh start for Dardeen and Halbig, who'll look to take convert their experience into better fortune in the future. Halbig will have another year as a Lunker and Dardeen will have three additional years. Hopefully, with a cast of luck, they can reach their goal, which they had previously stated was making it to the final day and weighing their fish in on ESPN on the big stage.
"They're both getting there, they're both starting to get focused and the preparation they put into it is a lot more than last year," Hotdog Dardeen said. "Clayton has another year and Luke has got three more years. I'm hoping they'll just continue to get stronger. Luke's going to have to pick up another partner in a couple years, but I hope they have another ride for the next couple years. For them to make nationals at this age, as young as they are is an honor really."