Sophomores Breaking Down Fishing Walls
Courtesy of Andrew R. Mooney, The Harvard Crimson

Manny Cominsky’s presence at the podium early on the second day of the Cabela’s Collegiate Big Bass Bash on Lake Lavon in Wylie, Texas must have drawn more than a few curious glances. It wasn’t immediately clear what school he represented—his jersey carried no indication of it—and certainly no one could recall seeing him at a tournament before.

Then the announcer called out the name of his school: Harvard University, a place situated 1,520 miles from where he currently stood and even farther away from anyone’s impression of a contender in collegiate bass fishing.

But there was no getting around it. In the day’s first session, the sophomore from Utica, New York had placed second out of 94 anglers, with a bass weighing in at 3.77 pounds. As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas, but that doesn’t usually apply for a Yankee from the Northeast.

IF YOU TEACH A MAN TO FISH...

What was perhaps more remarkable than his big catch was that Cominsky and his teammate, sophomore Jake Boy, had even made it to Texas in the first place.

“In these tournaments, there are a lot of regional schools that own their own boats, get in the truck in the morning, drive to the lake, and compete,” said Association of Collegiate Anglers director Danny Blandford. “[The Harvard team] traveled farther, didn’t have a boat, and didn’t have tournament experience.”

But the path to Lake Lavon was even more complicated than that—as early as this fall, no such fishing student organization existed at Harvard.

The origins of what is now known as the Harvard Fishing Club lie in the spring of 2011, in an aborted attempt by a pair of seniors on the football team to start a Harvard chapter of Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit group committed to wetland conservation. Though the endeavor was ultimately unsuccessful, Cominsky was peripherally involved and decided to pursue the cause further, through a different avenue.

“[A Harvard chapter of] Ducks Unlimited would have to be controlled by the national organization, and in order to have a club at Harvard, it needs to be autonomous,” Cominsky said. “I happened to be surfing the web one day and came across a college fishing website. It looked like a lot of fun, and I realized it could achieve the same goals as Ducks Unlimited—to raise money and awareness for conservation purposes—just in a different way.”

At the same time, Cominsky, then a member of the football team, was dealing with a torn labrum suffered during the 2011 season, for which he underwent surgery in December, keeping his shoulder in a sling for six weeks. Confronted with the prospect of an arduous rehab, Cominsky decided it was in his best interest to leave the team.

With his newfound wealth of free time, Cominsky searched for a way to stay active and found it in the burgeoning fishing club, which was showing promising signs of growth.

Cominsky began working on the Office of Student Life’s application for official club standing in November, which includes a constitution, signed commitments from a faculty adviser, and a proposed annual budget.

On December 19th, Cominsky pitched his proposal to the university administration, and on January 17th, he received an email notifying him that the Harvard Fishing Club had been officially recognized as a student organization.

REELING IT IN

But Cambridge, Mass. is not exactly an outdoor sports hotbed. According to the club’s constitution, one of its primary purposes is to participate in tournaments, but most competitive bass fishing is conducted in the southern United States.

Furthermore, neither of the two had ever competed in a fishing tournament, though both had a large body of recreational fishing experience. Cominsky fished often in the summers with his family at a camp in the Adirondacks, and Boy was exposed to the sport through his family’s hunting and fishing business.

After researching upcoming tournaments, Cominsky identified the Big Bass Bash as the first in which the Harvard Fishing Club would attempt to compete. The club’s immediate challenge was now to figure out a way to get there, and more importantly, how to pay for it.

With the help of leads obtained through his parents, Cominsky contacted the marketing departments of various outdoor companies and pitched to them a sponsorship and marketing program he had devised.

Ultimately, Cominsky and Boy’s efforts raised $2000 for the club, mostly from donors with ties to the outdoors, like Ferris Industries, a commercial mowing company, and Deer Breeders Gazette, a deer farming publication started by Boy’s mother, Donna. Portable Shade, a company that sells outdoor canopies, donated the team’s jerseys.

But according to Harvard club by-laws, the Harvard logo cannot be displayed alongside those of non-Harvard-affiliated companies, making perhaps the most notable aspect of the team conspicuously absent from their tournament gear.

“No one knows we’re from Harvard, besides the fact that we say we’re from Harvard,” Cominsky said. “But it’s more space to sell.”

HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER

Their story caught the interest of Blandford, the tournament organizer, who also served as the liaison for Cominsky in working through the logistics of starting the club, gaining membership to the Association of Collegiate Anglers, and subsequently making the trip to Texas.

Blandford provided the two with a video camera to document their jour

ney and a cameraman in their boat during the competition to film the action. The footage will air later this summer as part of the 2012 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship Television Series on the NBC Sports Outdoors channel.

Given that they do not charge a fee for entry into tournaments and only a nominal charge for membership in the ACA, Blandford and his organization were disposed to facilitate the development of a club-level initiative like the Harvard Fishing Club.

“Growing the sport is what I’m in charge of here,” Blandford said. “One of the ways to do that is to serve as a resource for programs that want to get things started. I get probably three to four inquiries a week about how to start a college fishing club, and those are things I prioritize on my task list.”

Though competitive bass fishing is overwhelmingly the domain of the South, the sport’s reach is expanding northward. The 2012 Northern College Bass Series, organized by fishing clubs at Penn State University and the University at Buffalo, features four events north of the Mason-Dixon line, including three in New York.

Though collegiate bass fishing has yet to penetrate New England—only three schools from the region, Harvard, Vermont Technical College, and Castleton State College (VT), are represented in the ACA’s 132-team national rankings—Blandford believes that the idea is not out of the question.

“College bass fishing is probably the fastest-growing section of the fishing industry,” Blandford said. “[Fishing is] such a pervasive thing that people enjoy. I’m proud we can get some recognition for a school like Harvard that comes out and does well.”

MORE FISH IN THE SEA

On the morning of March 23rd, the Harvard Fishing Club finally found itself on the water, in live competition for the first time.

“The first day, we weren’t really sure what to do,” Cominsky said. “Neither Jake or I had ever competed in a tournament, so we just drove around, then stayed in one place for awhile. It was kind of a rough day overall. There weren’t many fish caught at all.”

By virtue of their poor finish on the first day, the team was among the first to launch their boat on the beginning of the second day—and their fortunes shifted quickly and dramatically.

“We picked out a spot we hadn’t tried the day before,” Cominsky said. “We were the first group over that area, and we caught four fish in the first 45 minutes, three of which were keepers [at least 14 inches long].”

One of those keepers turned out to be the second-largest fish caught in the morning’s first session, earning Cominsky his place at the podium.

“The thing that surprised me most was that they came to body of water they’d never seen and secured a boat from an individual they’d never met, so seeing them come across stage on the first day was great,” Blandford said. “Just coming down and catching a fish was an accomplishment in itself.”

For the weekend, Harvard finished tenth out of 40 schools in what was one of the largest events in the ACA season so far. Their strong showing in Texas earned them enough points to climb all the way to 28th in the ACA’s national rankings, despite competing in only one tournament.

“They capitalized on the opportunity to earn big points, and that’s what got them in the mix,” Blandford said. “The challenge will be to continue to perform well.”

The Harvard Fishing Club will next take to the waters for the national championships, held in May on Lake Pickwick in Florence, Ala, hoping to build on what proved to be a very successful learning experience in Texas.

“[Tournament fishing] is a lot more intense,” Cominsky said. “You have to be more lucky, and there’s a lot more strategy involved. You’re constantly flying around as fast as you can to different areas.”

Cominsky and Boy’s plans for the future of the club include a deep sea fishing trip in the Boston area, attracting more followers to the club’s Twitter account (@HarvardFC), and organizing fundraising activities in the fall, with the proceeds going to benefit Ducks Unlimited.

Though the club still counts only 14 people in its membership and one tournament under its belt, Cominsky is already planning outreach programs to include as many students as possible in competitive fishing.

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