Recently, I visited with the Central Alabama Community College Fishing Team. A few weeks later, I attended a fundraiser for the Auburn University Fishing Team. That’s right, college fishing exists, and there’s high school fishing as well. I’ve had the good fortune to watch this phenomenon develop during the course of my career as a professional angler. The first time I heard of college fishing was almost 15 years ago. It seems there were a few schools in Indiana or maybe Illinois that put together some college fishing teams and allowed them to compete against each other. As a bass club member, former college athlete and a growing tournament angler at the time, I remember thinking this could be big. Now several years later, it is very big.
College fishing grew through the two biggest tournament organizations that existed at the time, B.A.S.S. and FLW. FLW was recently purchased by Major League Fishing, which hopes to build on the successful grassroots programs of FLW to further pursue the vision of growing the sport of fishing. It started as a club, much like Kowaliga Bassmasters, through which I got started. The top performing teams got to compete on behalf of their schools in the larger events. B.A.S.S. and FLW began holding high profile, televised events in which the best college anglers in the country could earn scholarship money for their schools, as well provide their schools with valuable exposure.
Not long after that I learned of schools that offered scholarships to anglers to join their fishing teams. One of the first was Bethel College in Tennessee. A small school that I had never heard of until they set a precedent by bringing in fishing talent to build a powerhouse in the college fishing world. Most of the schools sent teams to both B.A.S.S. and FLW events.
Having been the beneficiary of an academic scholarship that was attached to a college baseball team, I figured this was most likely how the teams could attract kids that were both great students and very talented anglers. Now, there are many schools that do the same. The practice is mostly limited to smaller colleges right now; nonetheless, schools are giving scholarships for fishing!
I often wonder why more schools don’t offer scholarships for fishing, what with all the added benefits to the school and the students. Unfortunately, despite evidence to the contrary, some school athletic directors don’t consider fishing a sport. They think of it more as a relaxing pastime, sitting on the bank and watching a bobber go down – which it also can be.
Competitive fishing is very much a sport. Speaking from experience, it requires certain physical and mental skills be used in concert to achieve success and strategy and execution of a game plan while making adjustments on the fly.
Some argue that luck is too much a factor. What I’ve learned over the years is that ‘luck’ is often used to describe what we don’t understand. Luck plays into any sport, but the best competitors find themselves on the right side of the luck factor through preparation, practice and strategy. Multiple competition days and points systems minimize the luck factor.
Studies by the American Sportfishing Association in recent years have shown that fishing, as a participation sport, rivals both golf and tennis combined, both of which are high school sports and common college scholarship sports.
With the growing success of college fishing, it was just a matter of time before high school fishing teams developed. This was a much larger undertaking, dealing with younger kids that had just learned to drive a vehicle and many that were still too young to get behind the wheel, much less able to hook up a bass rig and haul it to a distant tournament in the early morning hours before daylight. Many of the kids in high school were plenty experienced in hauling, launching and navigating boats while others were not quite as proficient. Common sense said the liabilities were just too high to turn them loose behind high-powered outboards in competitive environments. The need for boat captains was a must.
In high school fishing, two anglers are accompanied by an adult boat captain. The boat captain runs the boat to the locations where the anglers want to fish. The adult boat captain can also serve as an advisor on where the anglers should go and what to throw. Most all boat captains for high school fishing are experienced anglers themselves and naturally bring a wealth of experience that the kids can draw from in a tournament setting. Preparing tackle, making decisions about how to approach the day’s conditions and how to work together as a team are just a few valuable lessons learned.
A few years ago, I attended a regional high school angling event on Lake Martin. There were about 250 boats in the event. To put this into perspective, a good local tournament draws about 50 boats or more. So this was a huge draw for the lake and the surrounding community. What I witnessed at this event was encouraging on so many levels.
I saw excitement in the eyes of student anglers (boys and girls) at the pre-tournament meeting the night before an event. I saw parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with the kids in support of their passions. I saw adult boat captains serving as role models for kids on how to handle boats in tournaments and how to respect the other anglers in the field while competing.
And when the boats rolled in at the end of competition, I saw the same family members and friends waiting at the Wind Creek State Park docks to welcome their fishing warriors back. The stories of the day were shared between kids, families of kids and captains with other captains. Memories were made, and lessons were learned about fishing. I would argue lessons were learned about life, based on my personal tournament experiences in team events and individual competitions.
The sport of fishing is much bigger than just catching and reeling in fish. It’s a welcome escape from concrete, walls and controlled climates. To be floating in the confines of a boat over open water and in open air with a friend, a relative or oftentimes a complete stranger that shares a common passion is something special. The sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the outdoors, coupled with the unpredictability of nature, results in a familiar but new experience each and every time. Fishing is a rewarding venture for the individual, alone with nature or with family, the team or a group.
With the growth of high school and college fishing, I’m excited about the future of the sport and the potential that it could lead to some future conservationists. In a world that is more and more electronically connected, some feel that true connections with people and the outdoors are in jeopardy. Having more and more students get the opportunity to connect with each other and the outdoors gives me great hope that their experiences with fishing teams will result in greater appreciation for the outdoors and our resources. Today’s fishing team members very well could be tomorrow’s conservationists, whether they choose a career in the outdoors or elsewhere.
I am optimistic that the future of fishing and other outdoors sports will be in good hands.
Greg Vinson is a full-time professional angler on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour. He lives in Wetumpka and grew up fishing on Lake Martin.