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Bass
High School Team Bass Fishing Comes to Alabama
Rooting for your local school takes on a bass theme.
 
By Nick Carter
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of AON
 
Hartselle High’s Stephen Pope and Brad Vice won the Wheeler tournament with five fish weighing 10.13 pounds. They earned a spot in the championship.
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With tension almost as biting as the bitter cold, 32 student athletes milled around readying their gear as daylight crept over the horizon March 6 in Decatur. Then, one by one, as their names blared from the loudspeakers and across the state on radio, they ambled to the starting line and took off in a sprint.

Like any high-school athletic event, the nervous stomachs were left at the starting line. But this time, instead of a paint line on a track, the competitors erupted past a bobbing no-wake buoy at the mouth of Ingalls Harbor on Wheeler Lake.

This was the blast off for the first event of the Alabama High School Bass Fishing Club Tournament Series, just a ripple organizer Tim Tidwell hopes will grow into the wave that pushes high-school bass fishing into the realm of official high school sports.

Tim, a Birmingham bass fisherman, has been working for more than a year to build momentum with the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) to make tournament fishing a sanctioned high school activity complete with a state championship. If it happens, Alabama will be a pioneer in the movement. Illinois was the first state in the country to sanction high-school bass fishing last year. Alabama would be the second.

Tim has done the research, seen the red tape and decided to start this year with an unofficial club series that will hopefully drum up support.

“What we’re bringing awareness to is how many dog-gone kids have a passion for this thing called fishing. They’re ate up with it... with the competition, with everything about it,” said Tim. “We’re bringing awareness to how many kids we can include in school activities that otherwise wouldn’t be involved.”

At this point, awareness is exactly what the effort needs. In order for the AHSAA to even consider a sport for inclusion, 10 percent of its member schools, 40 of them by Tim’s count, must get on board. In the inaugural tournament, 10 schools, 16 boats and 32 anglers competed, and Tim thinks he’ll have the required 40 schools by next year if the word keeps spreading.

The word appears to be spreading quickly, by word of mouth, in interested student bodies and through the media. The blast off for the series’ inaugural tournament was broadcasted on “The Rack Attack,” an outdoors radio show out of Birmingham, and Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow recently (D-Red Bay) introduced a resolution in the Alabama House of Representatives urging the AHSAA to sanction tournament fishing.

“We have some great people who have come on board with this, but the people who really need to be involved in this are the coaches, the high-school educators and maybe a principal here and there,” said Tim. “We need to involve people who know how to make it happen. (The AHSAA) does what the schools want them to.

“I’m just trying to ease into this so people can really see how beneficial it will be. Just knowing the positive effect fishing will have on these kids as they grow up and get into it, as far as conservation or even as a profession. I don’t know if educators really understand the possibilities of fishing as a career path. Maybe not as a professional fisherman, but working for a fishing company or an outdoors magazine. These are the kinds of things we’re trying to get out there.”

But don’t dare tell kids they can’t be professional anglers. Imagine if someone had talked Bo Jackson out of playing ball while he was at McAdory High School in McCalla? It would have been similar to a high-school administrator convincing Ray Scott he couldn’t make a living fishing.

The Dream

Like all high-school athletes, many young bass anglers have the dream of moving on to the college or professional level. Brad Vice, 17, a junior at Hartselle High, is off to a good start.

“I used to play basketball and run track, but I quit because fishing is what I want to do,” Brad said. “I just like the competitiveness of it. Fishing against people my own age just makes it a lot more fun.

“This is what I want to do with my life. It’s been my dream since I was younger — to fish professionally. My dad and my mom have told me they’ll do what it takes if I work hard enough and do well in school. They’ve always been behind me.”

Brad has been tournament fishing since he was 11, and he’s won a good bit. He fishes the National Bass Fishing Trail, where he won the NBT Junior Nationals last year and was named Junior Angler of the Year for his club. Fishing for the Hartselle High School Tigers, he and his partner Stephen Pope also won the March 6 tournament at Wheeler with a five-fish limit that weighed 10.13 pounds. It has earned them a spot in the championship May 15 at Logan Martin.

“We were actually disappointed at first when we came in. It was just a tough day, I guess,” said Brad. “We just couldn’t get a big bite.”

Fishing out of Brad’s father’s boat with an adult captain to run the outboard, Brad and Stephen culled from more than 30 fish while throwing small crankbaits and finesse worms to pre-spawn fish in deeper pockets around the shallows in Flint Creek. Seeing the other sacks at the pro-style weigh-ins was a relief to the two anglers, who were dead set on winning.

“When we first got there and saw all the other schools that were there, I really wanted to win bad,” said Brad. “It being the first high-school tournament, man, I really wanted to win.

“The way they blasted us off in the morning and announcing everyone’s name, the way it was organized, it was like a professional tournament. I liked it better than any of the other tournaments I’ve fished.”

Of course it takes a lot of time, money and organizing to put on such events for the students, and that’s where parents, coaches and communities must step up.

Southside Panthers

At the local level, faculty sponsors and fishing coaches like Coach Chris Winningham, a special-education teacher and wrestling coach for Southside High School in Etowah County, are experiencing the buzz that’s building around high-school tournament fishing. Chris said his students didn’t know what to think about the school having a fishing team at first, but now there is genuine interest growing.

“A few of the kids here were having what we call wildcat tournaments, where they’d get together, throw a couple of dollars in a pot and go fishing,” Chris said. “One weekend they invited me along, and I thought I’d show those youngsters something. They ended up taking my money, too.

“When I saw what Tim (Tidwell) was getting started, I knew it would be a perfect fit. It’s really caught on at Southside.”

The students on Southside’s club fishing team had their own jerseys made, and they wore them to school the week before the Wheeler tournament.

“There are kids who need to get involved — to wear their school name on a jersey. Maybe they can’t compete in football or basketball,” Chris said. “It’s a chance for them to get into the school spirit, to have that pride that goes with wearing their school name across the front of their jersey.”

Southside’s two boats placed well in the Wheeler tournament. The Panther boats finished third and fourth with the heaviest total combined weight. That earned them a spot in the championship, and doubtless the team’s success will spark more interest.

“We’re having official sign-ups for the club next week,” Chris said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 25, 30 kids showed up.”

Moving from being a club team to an officially sanctioned high school team will be a little more difficult than just finding kids to fish, though. As a wrestling coach, Chris knows it’s difficult to fund the smaller sports in Alabama schools.

“That’s going to be tough. Just like anywhere, football, basketball and baseball receive the funding,” he said. “But I think we’ll see enough local support to get it done.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who bass fishes has said, ‘Hey, I’ll be happy to help in any way I can.’”

Because of parents and volunteers from local bass clubs, there is no shortage of boats or adult boat captains to run the outboards. Chris also sees the potential for funding in the form of sponsors similar to those that line the fences of every high-school baseball field in the state.

Chris thinks the Panther fishing team will have the support of the Etowah County School Board, as well. Southside’s principal Dr. Alan Cosby was recently named the superintendent of Etowah County Schools, and Chris said Dr. Cosby seemed to be 100 percent behind the effort to build the Southside fishing team.

In the short term, it’s all about fishing, though.

“Our goal is to get as many kids involved in this as possible,” Chris said. “Today’s kids are so indoor oriented. I’ve got two of my own that I have to run out of the house. We’ve talked about having crappie tournaments and possibly just teaming up with other area schools to fish when there isn’t a tournament going on. We want to get as many kids out there fishing as we can.”

But again, there’s more to organizing the sport than just gathering kids and going fishing. Thankfully, there’s a model to go by. Illinois’ high-school fishing program was a huge success in its first year.

Illinois

Seeing the Illinois program was the impetus for Tim’s vision of high-school bass fishing in Alabama. Tim had the opportunity to witness first-hand the tremendous event put on by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) at its first state championship.

In its inaugural season as a sanctioned sport last year, Illinois fielded teams from 199 out of 700 member schools for the sectional tournaments last April.

The IHSA ended up scheduling 18 sectional tournaments around the state for 400 boats entered in the events. IHSA Administrator Dave Gannaway estimated about 2,500 students participated in last year’s tournaments.

“We discovered that for 58 percent of those students it was the only school activity they were involved in,” Dave said. “We found an activity that filled a need for so many kids.”

The finals tournament at Carlyle Lake in Carlyle, Ill. was a huge deal for the anglers. Dave said between 1,400 and 1,500 spectators showed up to watch the drive-up weigh-ins, and the town of Carlyle put on a huge spectacle with a live band, a tent city, a big weigh-in stage, vendors and kids’ fishing events to go along with the tournament.

“It was a very nice event,” Dave said. “It was a big crowd. It was pretty awesome.”

This year’s tournaments are expected to be even bigger. There will be 19 sectionals this year to accommodate 230 member schools that have fielded teams. Dave said most schools blast off with more than one boat, so he thinks there will be more than 4,000 students participating in the sectionals.

With such large events, funding rears its ugly head again, but Dave said corporate sponors, including FLW, and the title sponsor Country Financial and others, stepped forward almost immediately. Municipalities even lined up to submit bids to hold tournaments.

“We don’t look to make a killing on any of our tournaments,” Dave said. “We just get what we need to do what we do and keep it running.”

As for the schools, Dave said the two biggest speedbumps to forming teams were insurance and the availability of boats. Both issues were solved with a lot less headache than expected. Bass clubs, parents and faculty members came out of the woodwork offering the use of their boats and their expertise as coaches and tournament organizers.

“Insurance turned out to be less of an issue than with a football program,” Dave said. “You’ve got a lot more liability out there running a football program than you do running a bass-fishing program. I know, I was a football coach.”

Dave had a few words of advice for AHSAA in developing the sport. He said to create a strong relationship with DCNR. With all the permitting necessary for the events, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources was key to getting Illinois’ state championship off the ground. The other relationships that need to be developed are with the local bass clubs. IHSA made a list of a bass clubs in the state with contact information for distribution to the schools. Dave said this was critical for the schools as they fielded their teams.

“The key is to provide it. If you provide it, they will be there,” he said. “They will be there because there is enough interest to get it done.”

The only big roadblock Dave sees to developing any new sport at this time is the economy.

“Timing is everything. I don’t know if we could have gotten it done in today’s environment of tightening belts,” he said. “The only negative is the economy and budgeting for schools. Everyone’s looking for things to cut right now.”

Budget cutting or not, Tim feels that if any state in the country can start high-school bass fishing, Alabama can. He pointed to Alabama’s long history with competitive bass fishing. It is the birthplace of serious tournament fishing, and vast sums are spent and made around fishing in Alabama every year. Putting kids on boats in the water is Tim’s main goal, but he also sees high-school bass fishing creating and promoting the next generation of anglers and angler-entrepreneurs.

“High-school bass fishing in Alabama is a no-brainer,” Tim said.

If you’re interested in starting a team at your school or if you just want to know more about high-school bass fishing in Alabama, go to <www.alhsbf.ning.com>. Tim’s contact information is on the website.
 
 
 
 
 
© 2014 Alabama Outdoor News