Held this year on Lakes Monroe and Jessup, the Crappie Masters state tournament saw 120 competitors catch and release 371 crappie for a combined total weight of 400 pounds.
Teams caught an average of 6.63 fish per team, with an average weight per team of 7.03 pounds and an average weight per fish of 1.08 pounds.
With most of the field fishing in pairs, Willard was one of four anglers to go it alone. The solo angler’s top seven fish combined for a total weight of 10.23 pounds. His largest fish weighed 1.74 pounds.
For his efforts, Willard took home two large trophies, a pair of Minn Kota trolling motors and a check for $5,000.
Willard, the owner of Dales Superette, a convenience store, bait shop and grill in Wilkinson, N.C., spent the day fishing the eastern end of Lake Monroe. He used a “long line” trolling technique, moving at 1.1 to 1.2 mph with his lines set at a depth of 2.5 feet. Willard said he zig-zagged as he trolled in order to keep “the bait off boat.”
Willard’s equipment of choice included Wally Marshal and BnM poles. He began the day using live bait and switched to blue and white jigs with chartreuse tails when the sun came up.
The win was Willard’s first on the Crappie Masters tournament trail, which he has been fishing since its inception in 2004. Before that, he fished on the Crappie USA tournament trail.
He said he likes the Crappie Masters tournament trail because of its 100 percent payback guarantee that assures all money collected from entry fees is awarded to the fishermen.
Before taking to the stage to accept his winnings, Willard was asked how it feels to be crowned Toyota Florida State Champion.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s been a while since I won anything. The first tournament I ever won was with my son when he was 10 years old. He’s a Marine now.”
When asked if he enjoyed his day on Lake Monroe, Willard said, “When you’re catching fish, you smile all day.”
Willard finished 12th in Friday’s qualifying tournament, won by Florida residents Dennis Tittle and Dixie Glisson, who topped the other 137 anglers that entered.
Willard will return to Florida in October to compete in the National Championship taking place on Harris Chain of Lakes, in Tavares, Oct. 15 through 18.
Second place in the state tournament went to another solo angler, George Parker, known as “Mr. Okeechobee” to his fellow fishermen. With a total combined weight of 9.67 pounds, Parker took home $2,500 and two trophies.
Third place finishers Beth and Danny pulled in 9.58 pounds of crappie and earned a pair of trophies and $1,250 for their efforts.
Cash prizes were awarded to the top 10 teams, with 11th through 15th place finishers taking home non-cash prizes that included a Hummingbird fish finder, fishing equipment and Bass Pro Shops gift certificates. Entry fees were $200 per team.
This year’s tournament was sponsored by Bass Pro Shops, Tracker Marine, Toyota, Mercury, Minn Kota, Humminbird, Seminole County Tourism and the City of Sanford.
As the event came to an end, Crappie Masters President Paul Alpers said, “It was a great success. We had well over 500 hotel rooms booked and gave away more than $12,000 in cash and $3,000 in prizes.”
Alpers is now looking forward to the National Tournament, where more than $200,000 in cash prizes will be awarded, as well as a pair of 898 Nitro bass boats and a Toyota Crew Max Tundra truck worth more than $45,000.