On a recent trip through the electronics department at my local Walmart, a college fishing broadcast was simultaneously showing on about 50 TVs. The highly caffeinated production, full of tight cuts and zooming close-ups, could have been any high-energy youth sport, but these scenes were full of excited young anglers with the letters of famous colleges across their jerseys, riding the decks of sleek bass boats.
As a high school junior, I would have gone home to immediately research college bass fishing before I sent out applications. As an adult, I was struck more than anything by how not out-of-the-ordinary it seemed to be standing there watching the show in Walmart: College fishing has evolved from head-scratching novelty to being another entry in the great program of college athletics.
Collegiate Fishing Origins
It’s a far cry from its roots, which can largely be traced to the visionary efforts of an Indiana University professor and a Purdue freshman, who happened to share an idea about the potential of tournament fishing as a collegiate activity.
As outlined on the Indiana University bass club web site, the club’s founder Stephen Lutz, was present at one of the first tournaments B.A.S.S. staged, the 1968 Dixie Invitational on Smith Lake, Alabama. Impressed by what he’d seen, Lutz began thinking about the possibilities competitive fishing held as a collegiate sport. But it wasn’t until 20 years later that he found himself teaching at IU and able to put his idea into action. The first club tournament was held on April 17th 1988, if “tournament” isn’t too strong a word.
Lutz recalls, “It was a humble beginning. I’d take one student at a time in my boat while the other students stood and fished on the bank at Lake Monroe. Every 30 minutes, I’d go back to the ramp and trade students.”
Lutz may have been percolating the idea in his mind for a couple of decades but just up the road, a bass-crazed freshman (and now successful FLW pro) named Shad Schenck was determined not to spend four years at Purdue without adding to his bass fishing resume. The answer was to start a bass club like the one he’d heard about at IU. For a couple of years, each club held friendly internal competitions but the hope and intention was always that the model would spread to the rest of the Big 10 and grow into a robust tournament series.
The first official intercollegiate bass tournament held in the nation was fished on April 18th 1992 between IU and Purdue on Lake Monroe, Indiana. It was dubbed, “The Old Minnow Bucket,” in homage to the Old Oaken Bucket of Purdue/Indiana football fame. The first Big 10 Classic was fished in 1995 and has gone on to become a fixture on the college circuit.
When University of Louisiana-Monroe teammates Paul Clark and Brett Preuett ground out a tough victory on Beaver Lake, Arkansas, to win last year’s FLW College Fishing National Championship, they not only took home the hardware and bragging rights for winning college fishing’s biggest tournament series, they also collected a $30,000 prize package and, even more tantalizingly, two spots to fish the FLW Cup on the Red River later that year.
After an early assist from ESPN’s groundbreaking decision to put the sport on TV with the first College Smashmouth Bass Tournament in 2005, and not diminishing the popular stand-alone events hosted by the Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA), that also began in the middle of the decade, it’s been the organizational will and resources of FLW that’s propelled the sport forward in the last half dozen years.
Their creation of a true national tournament series backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money was a bold gamble that the sport could catch fire given the right kindling. It worked.
There are now over 300 active and established college bass clubs in the U.S. and about the same number in the planning stages. There’s at least one club in all the lower 48 states, but the sport has taken hold most strongly in the traditional bass belt of Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. But New York and Wisconsin each have at least 10 clubs; California and Oregon are the standouts in the West, and there are even a handful of schools participating in Canada and Mexico.
Between FLW, B.A.S.S., the ACA, and established regional tournaments—often created and organized by the students themselves—such as the Georgia Southern Collegiate Bass Fishing Series, the college fishing season now stretches year-round. And it’s now regularly broadcast on ESPNU and the NBC Sports Network.
After ceding ground to FLW for several years, the new owners of B.A.S.S. have steadily rebuilt a college fishing franchise, putting on eight events in 2013, and adding outreach efforts with Elite Series anglers meeting and encouraging high school and college anglers. Not to be overshadowed by their corporate rival, they also dangle the ultimate prize to the winners of their Classic Bracket knockout tournament, a dream birth in the Bassmaster Classic. The organization gives every impression of committing to college fishing for the long term.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable if opportunities like those didn’t grind a few seasoned professional anglers the wrong way. But many pros, perhaps with a dose of nostalgia that such programs weren’t available in their own youth, have become involved by coaching and mentoring at college and high school programs: Skeet Reese with Oklahoma State University, Jay Yelas with Oregon State University, Bradley Roy and Timmy Horton with high schoolers in Kentucky and Alabama, to name a few of the most prominent.
It’s likely some of the most eagerly sought advice from the pros might have to do with securing sponsorship. As a club sport on the nation’s campuses, the burden for funding falls on the students themselves. Several successful clubs fishing the FLW circuit the last few years have been required to pass along thousands of dollars in tournament winnings to their schools, despite the institution barely being aware they exist.
In the years ahead, the money scramble may become easier. As momentum has grown, advertisers have gradually come aboard, attracted by this first real crossover between college athletics and traditional outdoor sports. Many of the biggest brands in the fishing and outdoor realm—Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, Pure Fishing, Ranger, Yamaha, Carhartt, and Costa del Mar sunglasses—have recognized the value in collegiate fishing. But the sport also has offered a good return on investment for smaller companies such as Bassaholics, The Rod Glove, Hydrowave, Solar Bat, Frog Toggs, and more.
Jim Van Ryn of The Rod Glove has incentive and sponsorship arrangements with more than 50 clubs and has noted the enthusiasm shown not just by the college anglers but by the organizers and sponsors as well. “Anytime you have a sport that people are passionate about from both a participation level and from a sponsorship level, it is destined to grow,” he says. “Not only do we get a lot of exposure through our sponsorship, but we’ve also been able to add some great anglers to our pro staff after they graduate.”
The annual recruitment of thousands of collegiate anglers likely promises a profound effect on the professional sport and on the tackle industry as a whole. Anecdotally at least, it seems like every college angler interviewed in the media is planning on taking a shot at the pro game. As unlikely as that might seem, the rise in college fishing has created a narrow but discernible path for kids dreaming of making it as a bass pro, that’s also backed by a college education if things don’t work out.
It might begin with a young angler joining a high school team coached by a local tournament angler. Perhaps he or she would get a bit of scholarship money and media coverage for high finishes. The next phase would be admission to a college that offered the best combination of academics and a strong fishing program. Gain admission to Tennessee’s Bethel University, for example, and you join more than 30 other college students with substantial multi-year fishing scholarships.
During four years of studying marketing or biology or some other complementary subject, while entering as many tournaments as possible, you’d create a professional fishing apprenticeship program. During the process, the angler measures talent on unfamiliar waters against some of the best young anglers in the country, learning presentation and fundraising skills, connecting with industry figures and the fishing media, and getting tips from guys who pay the mortgage as professional bass anglers.
That’s more or less how it went for anglers such as Chip Porche, Miles Burghoff, Brandon Card, Tyler Moberly, James Elam, and several other ex-college anglers, who’ve gone on to throw their hats into the professional ring. Brandon Card, the 2012 Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, is perhaps the most high-profile college angler to make it into the pros. As the first to make the leap to the Elite Series, he credits a lot of his career trajectory to the combination of skills and experience he gained fishing and captaining the University of Kentucky bass team, while juggling a demanding academic program.
Speaking on behalf of Porche and Elam, other new entrants to the Elite Series, he states, “Chip, James, and I agree that college bass fishing has given us the opportunity to pursue our dreams of fishing professionally. Who knows, in 20 years, 80 percent of the Elite Series could be former collegiate anglers.”
The Job Scene
With student loan repayments on the horizon, college grads who love to fish but decide they just don’t quite have the talent or desire for the vagabond lifestyle of a working bass pro, will be well focused when starting their careers. A good alternative to fishing for a living is to stay close to the thing you’re passionate about by working in the fishing industry.
Suddenly, the HR departments of firms in the fishing and outdoors business have a well-defined pool of educated, connected, and experienced young applicants to draw from. It shouldn’t be surprising that there’s been a noticeable boost in the number of industry jobs and internships aimed at college anglers from brands like Fenwick, Garmin, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops.
The ACA, which organizes the largest single event in college fishing, the BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship, has been a leader in connecting college anglers to industry jobs. That organization’s main point person, Danny Blandford, is himself an ex-college angler. And his counterpart at B.A.S.S., Hank Weldon, was also drawn from the college ranks. Wade Middleton, President of the ACA, sees a bright future.
“Opportunities are far better now than ever for 16 to 22 year old anglers to enter careers in the fishing industry because of the opportunities they’ve had in high school and college fishing programs. Those young anglers realize that while they may not become the next KVD, they can enjoy a job in a field they’re passionate about.”
High School Fishing
In some ways, the growth of high school fishing has been even more explosive than the college game. Over the years, many programs have encouraged kids to fish. But it was the Illinois High School Association’s decision to officially sanction a statewide bass tournament in 2008 that got the ball rolling. Their tournament was an immediate hit with young anglers, administrators, and parents. There are now more than 200 high school bass clubs in Illinois. That kind of participation underlines the difference between high school fishing and college fishing: there are so many more high schools than colleges.
To date, only Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Missouri have followed Illinois’ lead in officially recognizing high school bass fishing as an activity (though several other states are reportedly on the brink of doing so), but that hasn’t held back the sport. Between FLW and The Bass Federation (TBF), there are state championships all over the country that funnel to a national title, as well as open tournaments, most of which offer scholarship money to winners. B.A.S.S. held its first official high school events in 2013, supplementing its popular Federation youth tournaments. Mark Gintert, who heads TBF’s Student Angler Federation estimates there are already 10,000 kids taking part in high school fishing. That would seem to be quite a start for a 5-year history.
*Craig Buddo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a freelance writer. This is his first contribution to Bass Guide.