Planting the Passion Deep

by Ron Presley

High school fishing clubs give youth anglers a chance to compete and enjoy fishing.

Student anglers LJ Harkless and Jay Shipp from the Wetumpka, AL team weighed 33.22 pounds during the two-day event to take top boat honors at the 2019 ASABFA Classic on Lake Jordan.

For most anglers, the passion to fish begins at an early age with parents, grandparents, or friends. For some, it catches hold and becomes a lifetime hobby. In today’s fast-paced world of keyboards and screens, fishing sometimes fades into the background for youth that would otherwise enjoy it.

The development of high school fishing clubs sheds a whole new light on the road ahead. These clubs are creating new anglers and developing the potential to move the passion for fishing forward into adulthood.

Up to this point in time the clubs have been related to bass, but the beginnings of clubs for other species is at hand. The Bass Pro Shops Cabela’s Crappie USA Trail is in the beginning stages of high school crappie competitions. They are also pursuing the idea of high school catfish events.

Darrell Van Vactor, Operations Manager for Crappie USA, promotes the development of high school fishing programs as a means to create future anglers.

“As tournament organizers wanting to safeguard the life expectancy of our sport it is necessary to bring new anglers on board,” offered Van Vactor. “They will fill the gap created by those anglers who have gotten older and slowed down a little from the busy routine associated with fishing tournaments.”

“For years we have benefited from the ‘baby boomer’ generation,” explained Van Vactor. “Now as the boomers retire from tournament fishing the logical move is to bring in the younger generation to take their place.”

More than 200 boats participated in the ASABFA Classic out of the outstanding facilities offered at Lake Jordan.

“For fishermen to decide to take up tournament fishing they first have to feel confident they can compete. That is where high school fishing programs come into play. By offering a playing field that they can use to learn the sport and gain that confidence, without having to spend a lot of money. We hope to see them migrate to the tournament trails later.”

“Additionally, we are seeing more and more school systems recognize fishing as a valuable sport,” concluded Van Vactor. “We have seen the bass market working with college and high school programs for several years now and we wanted to expand on their success by offering high school programs for those who would like to target crappie as their favorite species to catch. As our programs expand, we hope to add catfishing someday as well.”

It was a recent trip to Wetumpka, AL in Elmore County that opened my eyes to the magnitude of the high school fishing scene. More than 200 boats were in town for the Alabama Student Angler Bass Fishing Association (ASABFA) Championship.

The folks in Elmore County get it. They understand the importance of the fishing programs to the students and the county. They eagerly support two teams in Elmore County, one in Wetumpka and one in Holtville.

“We are proud to support our local teams and help sponsor this tournament,” said Cary Cox, Economic Development Director for Elmore County.” Getting those kids out on the water is very important to us. It’s a big deal! We are proud of our two local teams in Wetumpka and Holtville.”

Lori McKenzie (L) and Liz Johnson are the fishing coaches at Wetumpka and Holtville High Schools. They enjoyed having the Classic in their home waters.

“We have a great fishery and lake here,” continued Cox. “The high schools use the fishing program to motivate the students. They experience camaraderie, teamwork, competition, and continual learning. The program motivates them to keep their grades up because they have to meet established requirements. Of course, the students learn fishing skills too, but the program is much more than the fishing activity.”

“From a tourism and economic development perspective the program and the championship tournament allow us to showcase Lake Jordan and Elmore County.”

“We support youth fishing and we love our kids and fishing. But the economic development that comes from this is a bonus. The participants are eating in our restaurants, buying fuel at our gas stations and sleeping in our hotels. It is a win-win for everybody,” concluded Cox.

First-year coach Lori McKenzie mentors the Wetumpka High School program with dedication and enthusiasm.

“I am not a big fisherman, my husband is,” said Lori. “However, I love going out on the water and working with the students. My son is a senior and he has been on the team for 4 years. All the students love to be on the water and are on it every chance they get. We have six students competing in the state championship and at least one will be fishing on the collegiate level.”

“Some are always better than others,” added McKenzie. “It is determination and practice that make the good ones. We provide various educational opportunities to help the student anglers. We have different people come in and talk to them. For example, we have had collegiate coaches come in and make presentations. They share additional information that we may not have.”

The Wetumpka team consists of 22 student anglers. They compete against each other through a points system that determines who will go to ASABFA state qualifying tournaments. Twelve students will qualify based on six local tournaments. That is a big deal to the students and a strong motivation for keeping their grades up so they can compete.

“…as the boomers retire from tournament fishing the logical move is to bring in the younger generation…”

Liz Johnson coaches the Holtville High School team. She believes that her own love for the sport puts her in a good position to pass on what she knows to the students.

“Given my experience on the water, I can give the students information and advice that will sync with real time experience.”

“ I am very competitive,” offered Johnson. “That may be the right reason or the wrong reason, but I love fishing and love what I am doing. We have student anglers that fishing is their thing. Of the 12 students I have on my team, only 4 compete in another sport. That means that two-thirds of my team compete only in fishing, no other sport.”

“I have been able to connect to some students that would otherwise be lost in the mix if it was not for fishing. We have rules that require the kids to keep their grades in good standing. Because they really like to fish, the team is a motivation for them to remain qualified by meeting the standards.”

“We have an awesome principal that supports the fishing program,” concluded Johnson. “He accommodates the need to miss a day of school. Elmore County and the school system also back the students. Actually, we have a school system that backs our students no matter what their passion is.”

It is true, fishing is something that can be done at any age. But the early start and support in programs like Wetumpka and Holtville high schools will have a positive influence on developing a passion for fishing that will continue into the future.

The efforts of people like Van Vactor and the officials from Elmore County offer evidence of the growing support that will likely expand student participation in fishing for all species. As programs expand the benefits to students, localities, and tournaments will also grow.

Youth fishing truly is, as Cary Cox suggested, “…a win-win situation.”

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