Hooked in High School
Competitive fishing helps students excel and builds strong family bonds.
By Larry D. Hodge
Photographs by Erich Schlegel
Jannah Haney and Jordan Stanford come off the weigh-in stage at Lake Palestine all smiles and high-fives on their way to be photographed with the two bass they caught. Family members cluster around, with phones and even a real camera or two in hand. Fish up, faces beaming, the two Winnsboro High School students strike a pose.
They placed 99th out of 146 teams in the tournament, part of the 2015–16 Texas High School Bass Association series.
And they are PUMPED.
“If we’re not the best, we will learn to be the best!” Jannah says.
“Girl power! Girls can do it!” Jordan responds.
With that determination and passion, I believe them.
“It’s a coed sport,” says Tim Haugh, vice president of consumer lending at American State Bank in Tyler — his day job — and president of the Texas High School Bass Association (THSBA) — his passion. “We don’t discriminate. It gives girls the opportunity to compete against each other, and they’re not afraid to compete against guys. About 18 percent of our organization are girls, and they’re fearless.”
Of course, girls aren’t the only ones hooked on fishing, discovering that they seek — and find — more than fish.
The “other” high school sport
Haugh is a boat captain for the Bullard High School fishing team and one of the founders of the THSBA, so he’s seen results firsthand.
“The success stories I’ve seen are the kids who’ve struggled in school,” he says. “Fishing gives kids who don’t play football or basketball or other sports an outlet to do something they enjoy. Since we have a no-pass, no-fish rule, they take care of their grades or they don’t participate. I’ve had a lot of Bullard teachers tell me, ‘I have so-and-so in my class and he’s always struggled, and he’s passed every six weeks because he’s fishing.’ That’s the big thing. It’s given a lot of kids the motivation to do better in school.”
How many kids? Thousands. The THSBA has teams from 88 high schools spread from Houston to Odessa, and the Southeast Texas High School Fishing Association (SETX) involves students from 18 more junior and senior high schools in the Golden Triangle. Both organizations are growing faster than a baby bass snacking on silversides.
“In August 2013, myself and four or five other team advisers met and worked out the logistics and came up with the rules and the Texas High School Bass Association name,” recalls Haugh. “When we walked out of that room, we had eight schools and 24 teams on board. At our first tournament in October, we had 61 teams. At the end of the year, we had 124 teams from 28 high schools.”
Bryan Thomas, team adviser for the Lumberton High School fishing team and one of the founding members of SETX, says that organization followed a similar trajectory, growing from 30 schools to 50 and involving more than 1,000 kids.
“Our team was formed four years ago,” he says. “This year we have 87 kids on the Lumberton team — 59 boys and 28 girls out of a school enrollment of about 1,100. It is the talk of the town. I hear stories of eighth-graders talking about who they are going to fish with when they get to high school. It has allowed kids who would never have had the opportunity to represent their school wear the color with pride. And kids from my school have received over $20,000 in scholarship money in the last three years.”
Scholarships, discipline, family fun
Scholarships — the money comes partly from tournament entry fees and partly from sponsors, whose names adorn the gaudy fishing shirts flaunted by anglers — are important incentives for both students and their parents. But the fishing itself outranks money in importance. Fishing — at least in high school — is about much, much more than money.
“Kids gain a lot,” says Dan Mischnick of Mineola, whose son Bailey bugged his mom for two weeks until she agreed to be the team sponsor. “They learn discipline, how the honor system works, just being part of something and seeing it through.”
Parents make the whole thing work. Gereta Brown’s son, Kolby, also plays football and other sports at Winnsboro High School, and she runs the concession stand at football games.
“I closed the stand last night at midnight, and we met at the high school at 3:25 this morning to come here,” she says as she helps erect a pop-up tent for the weigh-in. “He never complains.”
A teenager not complaining about getting out of bed? And a mother who works most of the night and all the next day for no pay with only a couple of hours’ sleep? What’s up with that?
It’s something that seems to be in short supply today.
“There is a strong family feel to it,” says Brown. “It’s just been a lot of fun. There are lots of dads who wish they’d had this opportunity.”
Lots of those dads — like Kolby’s father, Randy — are out on the water with the kids, serving as boat captains. Kids can’t drive the boat with the big motor but can operate the trolling motor.
“I think the biggest thing the fishing program brings is a sense of family togetherness,” says Bryan Thomas. “In other sports parents are in the stands cheering for a few hours. In a fishing tournament, dads, brothers, uncles, granddads and even a mother or two get to spend eight hours in the boat with their child and their partner. This is time they may not have gotten otherwise.”
Time in the boat with an adult, perhaps one they do not know well, has unexpected benefits for the students.
“Being put in a boat with an adult, whether it is my dad or my fishing partner’s dad, has led to many great conversations about life and fishing,” says Lumberton’s Luke Hodgkinson. “There are even times when it’s not all serious, and they can turn a bad day of fishing into a great day on the water with funny jokes or embarrassing life stories. I have met many amazing people, learned several life skills, gained countless memories and strengthened many friendships.”
Mabank High School fishing team members get their tackle ready the night before the Texas High School Bass Association tournament at Lake Fork.
No one knows the value of time spent on the water with a parent better than Madi Mills of Lumberton. In March 2014, while on a practice fishing trip with her father, Madi had a seizure — her first — and fell into the water. “Everything went black,” she says. “I awoke in an ambulance, cold and very confused.” Later she learned that her father jumped into the water to save her.
“Before this, my relationship with my dad was a rocky road of disappointments and frustration,” she says. “Now he is my best friend. If it wasn’t for fishing, I wouldn’t have come close to dying, and I would have missed out on a great relationship with my dad.”
Lessons in life may be best learned on the water.
“Enjoy the simple things in life, whether it’s spending time with those you love or simply catching fish on the riverbank,” Madi says.
“Life is precious. Be humble, and make it count.”
Winnsboro student Jannah Haney couldn’t agree more.
“I always fished a lot,” she says, “but I wanted it to count for something. The chance for scholarships is a plus, but fishing helps me be more involved in school. It gives me things to do; I meet new people, learn new skills.” Gesturing at arms glowing red from a day in the sun, she adds, “You can get a rad sunburn, too.”
Competitive fishing fever
Competition is as much a lure for the high school anglers as a wacky-rigged worm is to a bass.
“My dad taught me a lot,” says Jordan Stanford. “I grew up fishing, and I wanted girls to be better than the guys. Fishing is something new every time, and I want to do more.”
Elliott Pipps of Lumberton also thrives on competition, but he recognizes that everyone who fishes is a winner. “Being an active member in the fishing club kept me out of trouble and gave me an incentive to keep my grades up,” he says. “There is nothing more exciting than competitive fishing; it was my reward for passing my classes and taking care of business.”
While many student anglers caught fishing fever from a parent, professional anglers infected others. “We took a group of kids to the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Fork, and Bailey got involved from watching that,” says Dan Mischnick. “It really grabbed young people and got their attention, and they visited nearly every vendor’s booth.”
The Toyota Texas Bass Classic (TTBC) is the world championship of bass fishing, pitting the top anglers from the professional bass fishing tours against each other, and some kids came away with visions of being part of that someday. Sandra Denton of Grand Saline says her son, Randy, met Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli at the TTBC and went home convinced he wanted to be a professional angler.
Lumberton’s Bryan Thomas used Iaconelli in his marketing class as an example of a company spending sponsorship money to advertise.
“Mr. Thomas taught us how to market ourselves to future employers,” says Alisa Moore, who plans to become a neonatal nurse. “We took trips to Bassmaster and FLW tournaments, and I was able to talk to pro fishermen and owners of companies, including Forrest Wood himself. They told me to set my goals high and never stray away. Hard work pays off, but you have to stick with it.”
They’ve learned the lesson while still young. As B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott said when describing the early days of getting the world’s first professional bass tournament off the ground, “I just kept chunking and winding.”
For decades, those who enjoy the outdoors have bemoaned the fact that participation in outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing is declining as our population ages. Hunters and anglers are, as a group, mostly gray-haired men. There has been much hand-wringing and soul-searching and solution-seeking.
But finally, someone is actually doing something about it.
Winnsboro High School students Jannah Haney and Jordan Stanford show off their tournament catches at Lake Palestine.
TAKE TWO KIDS AND ADD WATER
The striking thing about high school bass fishing is that kids started it. They begged, whined and promised to be good until their parents got the message: They really want to do this. With me.
“All you need to get started is two kids,” says Ken Starling of Quinlan, vice president of the THSBA. “It doesn’t have to be a school activity, but you do need to be able to check grades.” Most teams have a school adviser, and some wear the school name and colors, but others are independent.
Both the THSBA and SETX require that students be members of the Texas Bass Federation’s Student Angler Federation. The $25 SAF membership fee includes insurance. Additional club dues and tournament entry fees go to pay costs of running tournaments and to fatten the scholarship fund. Boat captains must carry $300,000 in liability insurance and pass a background check.
B.A.S.S. (Bassmaster Classic fame) also has a high school club and tournament membership option through its B.A.S.S. High School Nation program.
Local support is vital and not hard to come by, and national sponsors like Bass Pro Shops, Skeeter, Costa Del Mar, Cricket Wireless, Ford, Lew’s and others are now seeking out high school teams to sponsor. Part of the appeal is what happens to all the money collected.
“Everything goes back to the kids,” says Ken Starling.
Since they started the whole thing, that seems only fair.