Harris County fisherman Cal Culpepper often wears a black hat with “DREAM” written across it when he hits the lake. Looking at the past few months for Culpepper and partner Mason Waddell, it’s safe to say 2017 has been just that for the duo.
In their first year of competitively fishing together, Culpepper and Waddell put forth several strong performances for the Harris County High School fishing team, including winning the state tournament at West Point Lake in February. The duo made even more noise at Fishing League Worldwide’s high school national championships in July, leading the competition through the first two days. The success has given both fishermen several valuable opportunities and has their minds set on doing even more as seniors.
Culpepper’s and Waddell’s first year of fishing together was impressive, but the pairing was actually one years in the making.
Culpepper caught the competitive fishing bug when he was about 11 years old, after he and his father entered a local fishing tournament and came out on top. Culpepper had spent plenty of time fishing with Waddell, the son of TV outdoorsman Michael Waddell, but Waddell chose to not join the high school team when Culpepper did in eighth grade.
Waddell had a change of heart before his junior year, and the timing could not have been better.
“My past partner was wanting to join the Marines, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do all the traveling,” Culpepper said. “Then Mason came up to me and was like, ‘Now I really want to join the team, but I want to fish with you.’ It worked out perfectly.”
The two took to it like fish to water, which helped the duo qualify for FLW’s national championships at Lake Pickwick two months ago. They scoped out the lake in a practice round before the tournament began but decided to try a new spot in the opening minutes of Day One.
Because of the hot July weather, the two and Cal’s father Todd — who always drives the boat — theorized a ditch about 15 feet deep could have some potential.
Waddell’s first cast proved that to be true. Like a punt returner awaiting a falling football, a bass possibly around 8 pounds took off with the bait as soon as it landed, setting off a wild struggle.
“We were just looking at each other with huge eyes,” Waddell said. “That fish wound up getting off, but we were immediately like, ‘Holy crap. This spot could have them.’”
The two hunkered down on their honey hole and hit their five-fish target in about 15 minutes. From there, they did what’s known in competitive fishing as culling: Trying to catch a bigger fish than one of the five you planned to keep.
After putting up 17 pounds and 7 ounces of fish on the first day and 19 pounds and 2 ounces on the second, the two were squarely in the lead. They set a goal of 15 pounds for the final day and just missed that by ounces, leaving them fairly confident.
The problem was Hunter Davis and Tyler Allenbrand of Mt. Ida, Ark., had the day of their lives. Davis, whose father is renown fisherman Mark Davis, and his partner put up 24 pounds, leading to a tense final weigh-in.
Culpepper said he and Waddell thought they needed 17 pounds, but the announcer instead said it was only 11. Penalties for things such as dead fish or leaving the lake late are common, so they assumed the Arkansas fishermen had been duly docked.
Culpepper and Waddell were declared champions, leading to flashing cameras, hugs and tears up on the podium.
“We’re just two kids from Harris County who love to fish, and here we are in the national championship with over 150 of the best in the nation,” Waddell said. “They announce us as national champions, and me and Cal are up there crying like babies. It truly just set in that we were the champions in that moment.”
That moment, unfortunately, was short lived. The tournament’s organizers quickly learned of a glitch in their computers. The Arkansas pair was in actuality the champions.
Happiness and jubilee quickly turned to disappointment and frustration for Culpepper and Waddell. The tournament offered to name them co-champions with Davis and Allenbrand, but that option just didn’t sit right.
“Me and Cal were both raised where nothing needs to just be given to you,” Waddell said. “We didn’t like the sound of (co-champions). We both said if we’d taken home that first-place trophy and looked at it at night, we would have been sick knowing we took that without actually winning it.”
The two took second in stride as well as $5,000 each in scholarship money. The experience over the week also helped set up a chance to lead a seminar on high school fishing at the 2017 Forrest Wood Cup, held at Lake Murray in Prosperity, S.C., starting Aug. 11. Along with being the faces of high school fishing, the two also get several perks, including backstage passes for the tournament’s weigh-ins.
Culpepper and Waddell have a few months left before competition begins for their senior season. Culpepper said they’ve received a few fishing scholarship offers already and are hoping to add even more during their last year.
More than anything, their goal is to win a national championship and actually bring home the trophies this time around.
“This is our senior year, so we’re going to try and go out with a bang,” Culpepper said. “We’re going to fish harder than we’ve ever fished before, try to get back to a national championship and try to win it.
“Whenever something like that happens and you come so close, it just drives you to get back and fish even harder. Really, it just lit a fire inside of us.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports