When Winyah Bay was announced as the destination for the 2022 Strike King Bassmaster College National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops, Tj McKenzie’s reaction was a little different than one might expect.
A native of Pawleys Island, McKenzie calls the Waccamaw River home and grew up fishing the vast tidal system. But the initial thought of fishing the biggest tournament of his life to date on his home waters was overwhelming.
“The initial reaction was panic,” the Emmanuel College sophomore explained. “Of course, there was a lot of excitement built into that. But there was a lot of panic and anxiety from being the hometown guys. As it has continued to set in it has turned into excitement.”
Now that the initial shock has worn off, McKenzie and his partner Seth Jenkins have been working on a strategy that will hopefully result in at least a Top 3 in the prestigious tournament set for September 2-4, which will earn them a spot in the College Classic Bracket, the details of which will be announced at a later time.
“We fish it to grow and learn, but we fish it for the Classic Bracket and we want to prove we are one of the best and we can compete with the best,” McKenzie explained. “The competition out there right now is insane and for us to make it there would be huge. The way we have broken down our game plan is, we are shooting for the Top 3 and we are either going to come in with something that is going to get us there or not come in with anything at all.”
McKenzie and Jenkins have already shown potential in their first year fishing together, winning another college event on the Harris Chain and followed that up with a second at the first Bassmaster event of the season on the historic Florida fishery with a blistering 60 pounds, 11 ounce performance, falling behind Lafe and Matt Messer who posted an incredible two-day performance of 61-13.
They followed that up with a Top 50 finish at the second event at Lake Norman, but their bid for a potential Team of the Year title came undone with a disappointing finish at Norfork followed by a Saginaw Bay event that was marred by mechanical problems on McKenzie’s boat.
Now, the sole focus is on Winyah Bay. Over summer break, before the fishery officially went off limits to National Championship qualifiers, McKenzie gave Jenkins, an Anderson, S.C. native who calls Lake Hartwell home, a two-week crash course on the rivers that make up tournament waters.
“(In my mind) I’ve got one of the best guys in the area on my side, so I have been thinking for the most part about how we were going to approach it,” Jenkins said. “There is one true fact I took away from that practice. We practiced for 15 days straight. This tournament will solely be based on how you do during the tide. The key factor is, we have to make sure we hit the tide right. There are only going to be small windows to catch them.”
Some of the information they gathered during the crash course will also help the six other Emmanuel College teams that qualified for the tournament.
“We’ve run a lot of the water, so we know where you are going to hit something and where you aren’t,” Jenkins explained. “We’ve talked to them about focusing on the tide a lot. We shared a lot of information so they can go out there with a game plan and not go out there blind.”
McKenzie thinks consistency will make the difference. He thinks an 11- to 12-pound average per day will have a team squarely in contention, but big bags can be caught given the right timing and conditions.
“Winyah Bay could probably shock a lot of people,” he said.
With friends and family likely to be in attendance at weigh-ins on Front Street in downtown Georgetown, McKenzie is excited for the opportunity to fish in his hometown. Even during his pre-fishing, he received many encouraging words from people he didn’t even know who have been following his young career from a far. It has put things in perspective, and he wants to make sure that in victory or defeat, he is able to use his platform to share his Christian faith.
“When I was practicing back home, I had a lot of people who I didn’t even know approach me and tell me they have been keeping up with me from high school and into college,” McKenzie said. “I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter how good I do in this tournament, being an Emmanuel College student, the only thing I want people to take away from our hard work and determination is, we are using our passion and platform to glorify one person.”
Takeoff each day of the Strike King Bassmaster College National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops will begin at 6:30 a.m. ET at Carroll Ashmore Campbell Marine Complex in Georgetown. Weigh-ins will begin each day on Front Street beginning around 2:30 p.m.
The Top 12 advance to Championship Sunday and the Top 3, along with the Team of the Year winners, advance to the College Classic Bracket.
As featured on Bassmaster.com.
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