Somewhere between Super Tuesday and the COVID lockdowns, something was quietly happening in the Southeast that would be a bellwether for high school sports. Georgia became the fifth state to partner with FLW and The Bass Federation (TBF) in offering bass fishing as a sanctioned varsity sport.
The change, reported by the Georgia High School Association (GHSA), will go into effect for the 2020-2021 school year. It is the latest marker in a paradigm shift in high school sports. It’s also an indicator that opportunities are emerging – not just for youth in non-traditional sports who want to represent their schools, but for event owners and destinations that are savvy enough to partner with them.
According to FLW, bass fishing offers unique chances for boys and girls to compete not only as part of the same school team, but against one another on other schools, regardless of gender. Additionally, there is no designated season, thus allowing students to compete year-round in both GHSA-sanctioned events and non-sanctioned tournaments.
“High school fishing is an incredible way for schools to connect with students,” said Dave Washburn, FLW Vice President of Operations. “It instills a sense of pride and belonging that so many students are missing today. It gives students a reason to get good grades and provides a competitive outlet for those who may not have the opportunity in other sports.”
And indeed, at a time when many students are unable to be in class, fishing can offer a much-needed respite – and the potential for maybe some long-distance rivalry, since teens can text photos of their catches to one another and have impromptu competitions, reminiscent of the recent Huk Bassmaster B.A.S.S. Nation Tourney Series powered by TourneyX presented by Abu Garcia. (As with all kayak angling, anglers sent pictures to judges of their catches measured on a bump board). Arkansas angler Cody Milton bested the 145-kayak field with a five-bass limit measuring 100 1/2 inches.
Fishing as a whole appeals to many students who have not been a part of the “Friday Night Lights” scene in high school, and who now will have the ability to represent their institutions and to compete with other schools in championship events. Solitary sports such as fishing – along with other activities like archery and riflery – appeal to that ever-growing group of students and provide not only an outlet for their interests but an additional incentive for them to keep their grades up and to continue their education – particularly as more colleges emerge as hotbeds of competitive bass fishing programs.
The upward trend of interest in bass fishing is far from new; however, it is something the National Federation of State High School Associations has been tracking in its sports participation survey. As far back as 2014, Bruce Howard of NFHS noted, “Interest in a sport may start in one state and begin to build across the country. We’ve seen that recently with bass fishing. Illinois started it; now Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire have followed.”
In the most recent NFHS High School Sports Participation Reports, for the school years ending 2018 and 2019, states listing high school bass fishing programs included Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont. (There are likely others that offer it that did not self-report).
And now, Georgia will be added to the mix. The peach state’s competition will include four state qualifying tournaments held in different areas beginning in January of each year with the State Championship to be held in March or April. The schedule will be published every July/August of the new school year.
Back in October, the SDM Blitz profiled the FLW/TBF High School Fishing Circuit. The circuit, launched in 2011, offers students at more than 23,000 high schools across the United States and Canada the opportunity to compete in club, state, conference and national bass tournaments for the chance to earn college scholarships.
Those who want to host championships, says Joe Opager with FLW, should be aware the organization seeks “Three main factors – the fishery, the facilities, and the local support. It has to be a fishery that can handle the fishing pressure and not suffer – we want to leave these lakes as good as when we arrive. Second, we need a facility that can get dozens or hundreds of boats in and out of the water efficiently and safely. We need plenty of parking, and a location where we can host our weigh-ins, which are streamed to the world at FLWFishing.com. And we look for local support – is the community happy that we are there? Will there be fans and spectators? Etc.”
According to Opager, “the TBF organizes runs 42 State Championship tournaments, which feature high school anglers from that specific state competing for the title of State Champion. In these events, top anglers advance to the prestigious High School Fishing National Championship tournament. These events are standalone events.”
FLW also organizes and runs 24 Open tournaments. Those events are held in conjunction with its College Fishing Circuit – the college events compete on Friday, while the high school events are held on Saturday. Open tournaments welcome high school fishing teams across the country – there is no specific state requirements. Top finishers in these tournaments also advance to the High School Fishing National Championship tournament.
And, Opager notes, the high school and college tournaments serve as a feeder system for the pro ranks. “We’ve seen anglers come up through the system," he points out, "and quite a few FLW Tour professionals started out in the High School and College Fishing ranks.”
Bassmaster has also seen some college anglers moving into its ranks -- giving high schoolers something to shoot for. “Cody Huff, the college champion who earned a berth to the Bassmaster Classic, made the Top 25 cut last weekend,” notes Emily Harley of the B.A.S.S. communications staff. “He fishes at Bethel University, which is one of THE powerhouses of college bass fishing.”
Presently, bass fishing is offered at the club level at colleges. "To date, there hasn’t been any movement from the bass fishing industry to make the sport an NCAA championship," notes Gail Dent of the NCAA communications office.
The FLW/TBF partnership is far from the only organization that supports high school fishing. Bassmaster offers the Mossy Oak Fishing Bassmaster High School Series presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors. And Wade Middleton of the Association of Collegiate Anglers, noted, “High School fishing has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. This has led to a large increase in underclassman now competing at the collegiate level.”
“With the growth of youth bass fishing, we are proud to offer this activity for student anglers enrolled in our member schools and to provide them with the opportunity to win a Georgia High School Association State Championship,” said Kevin Giddens, Associate Director for the GHSA. And, he added, “we look forward to seeing who will hoist the first championship trophy in the spring of 2021.”
“History has shown us again and again that the high school fishing program can turn a young student’s grades and life around,” notes Robert Cartlidge, TBF President. “So together with GHSA, FLW and TBF/SAF if we can do that with just one young person anywhere in Georgia, and at the same time give all Georgia students a reason to get outside into the outdoors, then the program will be a success in my opinion.”