Fishing can mean many different things for different people; from a casual pastime to a link to nature to a way to make a living. For many fortunate folks, it can be a path to bring a family together. In the past, dads, and sometimes moms, often passed a love of fishing, and its skills, to their offspring. Given today’s busy lives, and with fewer rural families growing up near water, some of this interaction has dwindled.
In the last decade, we’ve seen huge growth in youth angling, with school fishing clubs forming across the country. Combine the fun of fishing with the excitement of competitive sports and it’s no wonder such clubs are growing by leaps and bounds. Moreover, they’re not exclusive to gender, size, or strength, since fish are widely known to be oblivious to all such factors.
Brainerd, Minnesota, home of In-Fisherman, is no exception. I recall doing a seminar for the fledgling fishing club four years ago and marveling at the crowd of youth of all ages who were interested in joining. The Brainerd High School team is now the largest in Minnesota, and among the best in the nation for participation. Much of this growth has occurred under with influence of head coach and founder, Jason Bahr. A life-long angler who often fished with his Dad, he typically chased walleyes, not bass. But sons Kyle, a junior, and Tyler, a sophomore, gravitated to bass fishing at an early age, often urging their Dad to fish for them instead. He caught the bug as well and eventually worked with school officials and sponsors to start the Brainerd club. Bahr has two assistant coaches to help with organization of activities and recruiting parents or other adults to serve as boat drivers and on-board tutors. The club has grown to 130 members this year.
As Kyle and Tyler grew older and more skillful, their dedication began to pay off with high finishes in youth and high school bass fishing competitions. Kyle began to fish high school competitions in 6th grade and has garnered top finishes on Mille Lacs. Tyler meanwhile won a Junior Bass Federation Tournament on the Whitefish Chain in Crosslake, which qualified him to fish the BASS national event at Carroll County Reservoir in Tennessee. They’ve also had success at famous fisheries like Pickwick Lake in Alabama and qualified to compete at Lake Carlyle in Illinois and on the Ohio River.
This form of youth fishing has altered the former parent-child dynamic. “Just last year, eight sets of parents bought boats in order to take their kids fishing in these events,” Jason reports. “The young anglers are teaching their parents how to fish, instead of vice versa. Parent support has been outstanding, as they’re glad to see the youngsters involved in such healthy and fun activities that encourage study and learning, as well as teamwork and communication.”
Asked about their individual angling strengths and preferences, Kyle points to power-fishing. “I really like flipping thick shallow cover with jigs and Texas-rigged plastics,” he says, “in addition to working weedless frogs around lily pads and other dense shallow vegetation.” Tyler, on the other hand, has become a wizard with new high-tech sonar systems that can reveal incredible details about the underwater world. “I’ve always enjoyed video games, so it was easy to transition to the sonar systems. We have Raymarine Axiom units with great side-imaging as well as highly detailed 2D sonar. I like to use the ‘Scroll Back’ feature to look carefully at some structure the boat passed over, then possibly drop a waypoint to return later.” Jason serves as in-boat coach and boat captain, as well as chauffeur on these trips. In addition to events affiliated with Bass Angler’s Sportsman Society (BASS; bassmaster.com) and The Bass Federation (TBF; mnbass.org) and its student affiliate the Student Angler Federation (SAF; highschoolfishing.org), the team participates in the Student Angler Tournament Trail (SATT; studentangler.org). In SATT tournaments, all caught bass over 12 inches are immediately weighed and released as a conservation practice. This avoids the high tournament mortalities that the Bahrs have witnessed at big reservoirs down south during summer events with hundreds of boats. College fishing teams have in turn become interested in recruiting promising high-school anglers. Bethel University, located near Kentucky Lake, is a perennial bass-fishing powerhouse and offers scholarships up to $20,000 to youth champions.
Tyler and Kyle also have become skillful ice anglers as well, competing at the prestigious North American Ice Fishing Championship (NAIFC) events and taking top finishes, including missing a victory on North & South Center lakes by just .02 ounces. The Brainerd team and others in Minnesota conduct outings to pursue other species, including panfish in spring and a multispecies array through the ice.
Juice Bait Company
When Kyle turned 16, he, like most youth of that age, became focused on getting his driver’s license and getting on the road. “Once he got a license, I told him he needed to get a job to pay for gas and insurance,” Jason says. Instead of bagging groceries or mowing lawns, Kyle decided to jump into the fishing tackle industry. “We attended the ‘Fishing Careers Workshop’ that Al Lindner put on in Brainerd, which encouraged us to explore the local tackle market,” Kyle says. “We saw a niche in selling bulk soft plastic lures, which can retail for less than retail outlets charge for brand-name products. We started Juice Bait Company (juicebaits.com), which offers a wide variety of styles and colors for bass, as well as panfish lures for ice-fishing or open water. We buy them in bulk from a wholesaler in Georgia.”
The boys bag and label the lures, then deliver them to local outlets including Boomer’s Tackle in Nisswa, 1,000 Lakes Sport Shop in Grand Rapids, and Pine Square in Brainerd, as well as at the family business, Anderson Cleaners on South 8th Street in Brainerd. The’ve also had a booth at the Northwest Sport Show in Minneapolis and plan to expand their sport show involvement in 2019. Another innovative move is offering their lures through vending machines at Cub Foods in Brainerd and Baxter as well as at Ernie’s on Gull restaurant. This, too, has involved family support as their uncle helps out the vending-machine operation and an aunt helped design the logo. Jamie Dietman, local guide, outdoor writer, and owner of Brainerd Signs, prints the Juice Baits labels.
These young anglers have become expert anglers way ahead of their time. They’ve benefited from all the communication venues available today, including television, magazines, and the internet. They and their fellow team members in Minnesota and throughout the country represent the next generation of avid anglers. They’re skillful, knowledgeable of the fishing industry, and focused on conservation of natural resources for future generations.