Sharing A Love For The Water
The Academics Of Bass FishingBy Ann Dermody
Published: February/March 2014
You can probably list the elite college football and basketball schools. But did you know which is number one in fishing? Didn't think so.
It was the best and worst of situations: 10 days fishing in 100-degree heat on steamy Beaverfork Lake in Arkansas last summer, with elite college fishermen battling it out for one coveted place among the pros at the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. For the Lee brothers from Alabama, it was more personal than that. After beating out hundreds of other college kids in the elimination-style competition, the tight duo that had fished as a team all season saw their combined achievements turn against them. Now, in a bittersweet turn of events, they were pitted brother against brother for the final.
Matt and Jordan Lee had grown up with fishing poles permanently glued to their hands. Though neither parent had been a keen fisherman, both were avid boaters and bought a 37-foot Carver to keep on Lake Guntersville, Alabama, when the boys were young. Passing on a love of all things aquatic came naturally as their two boys grew. The countless hours of practice from dawn to sunset on the lake's docks had finally paid off. Matt (24), a senior majoring in industrial engineering, and Jordan were both stars on the Auburn University team. Now, they stood at the pinnacle of amateur fishing.
Ask any angler what their dream is, and most will tell you it's to go to the Bassmaster Classic, even just once — that loud, chaotic few days in February when 100,000-plus fans gather to ogle and marvel, in equal measure, their fishing heroes. In angling terms, it's the Super Bowl and World Series rolled into one. But for two kids from Alabama with the same lifelong dream, that one would be left behind was crushing. It did end in tears: Matt's, as it turned out, as much for his brother's loss as for the joy of winning himself.
Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
But Jordan, while deflated, knew his day would come. He didn't have to wait long. The younger Lee brother, this year fishing with his best friend and fellow Auburn angler Shane Powell, found himself in a now-familiar situation at the finals. Only this time he was facing his buddy rather than brother as the last two at the Carhartt Classic. Jordan triumphed, and now he'll get to be the one full-time college kid in a field of 56 pros competing for a share in the $1 million Bassmaster Classic purse in 2014.
And who was there to hand over the crown, or keys, in this case, to a Toyota truck and fully rigged Skeeter bass boat insured by BoatUS, wrapped in Auburn University colors, that he'll get to use all year? Why, brother Matt, of course. As if things weren't serendipitous enough, the 2014 Classic is slated to take place on the Lee brothers' boyhood home, Lake Guntersville.
Fish Guts & Glory?
It's a tale of passion, glory, disappointment, and determination that we'd usually associate with college or pro football or basketball, rather than fishing. But the Lee brothers' story is tapping into the zeitgeist of a boom in college fishing clubs around the country. There are three different college circuits — BASS, FLW, and ACA, which all hold different competitions — and while telling a girl you're the hottest catch on the bass-fishing team might not carry the clout of being a quarterback, if you happen to be a student at Auburn or Virginia Tech or the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, say, she'd surely at least hang around to hear a second sentence. Matt Lee, now into his final year, laughs off any notion that he's a big man around campus. "Not really.I'm 'that guy in the wrapped truck.' I think most people think it's Cam Newton [former Auburn footballer, now QB for the Carolina Panthers] pulling up. But no, it's just a college fisherman."
But while Lee doubts his individual stardom, his school and a generous handful of others have been garnering attention for their sport on the college circuits and in the Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA) Bass Fishing Championships over the past few years. The ever-growing world of college fishing has its own brand of May, rather than March, madness. That's when the BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship, the marquee event of the college series, takes place. This year it's in Florence, Alabama, with the usual 100 or more teams from around the country expected to participate.
There's no obvious reason why college fishing has become so popular over the past few years. Parts of the country where hunting and fishing are traditionally popular could always be relied upon to have several fishermen in their student ranks. But now, even some of the more unlikely schools, including the ivy-league Harvard, are fielding successful teams.
I don't think there's any one answer," says Wade Middleton, Director of Collegiate Operations at the ACA. "Some kids do it for a love of boating and fishing, others to compete and represent their school, and still others to help launch professional fishing careers." Middleton says he fields emails and calls daily from new colleges and collegiate anglers about how to start, manage, and have a team at their school.
Close to 300 schools around the country now have college fishing programs, putting it in the same realm as college ice hockey or lacrosse. And the clubs are not all populated with kids who've been fishing since they were toddlers. "We do talk to kids all the time who didn't fish or hadn't fished much before college," says Middleton.
Most clubs don't have their own boats, so they rely on their members, or family, or even alumni to get out on the water. "Many of the kids are fishing out of very old boats, though some do fish out of very nice boats. We see a wide range of boats at our events and have rules to ensure they are safe."
As its popularity grows, there's the potential for schools to use the groundswell as a recruiting tool, and with that may follow scholarships. Right now there's a distinct lack thereof. One of the few that do is Bethel University in Tennessee, now in their fourth year of offering bass-fishing scholarships, where they treat it as they would any other intercollegiate sport. Because so few schools offer fishing stipends, the ACA and tournaments such as the BoatUS-sponsored Collegiate Championship try to help out. "To have the most impact, rather than loading all the prize money at the top, we help every team at the events with gift cards, product from sponsors, travel stipends, and help covering some meals on-site," says Middleton. "All told we give back over $100,000 in various ways, all the way from first to last."
Like many college athletes, the 4 a.m. starts and the rush to put boat and bait away before class are interspersed with the biggest lure of all, the chance to go pro. From small qualifying events, college anglers hope to break into the major made-for-television affairs with glitzy podium ticker-tape celebrations, considerable prize money, and sponsorship — and the incalculable lure of doing this for a living.
That's really all I've wanted to do — my brother and I both — is fish," says Matt Lee. "As we've gotten older, our love for fishing has only grown. It's all we think about. It's all we do." In a sense, theirs, and that of their fellow college anglers, is a quieter, purer dream. Even in January and February when most college students are bundling up to watch football games, the fishing fraternity is likely breaking ice on the lake, not for show or glory, but for the love of the game.
For more on the BoatUS Cabela's Collegiate Bass Fishing Series, see www.BoatUS.com/Angler/collegiate_tournament.asp
Landon Dixon, a junior at Oklahoma University majoring in marketing, is president of the fishing club there.
"I joined the club as a freshman and have loved every second of it. We have just 12 members, but we're pretty active. This year we've been very involved with getting a college tournament series started in Oklahoma, and so far it's been very successful. The number of tournaments we participate in has been increasing and we've also been recently blessed with several sponsors.
"An eight-hour tournament day usually feels like about four hours to me. It flies by and is full of decision-making that can make or break you. At the end of every tournament day, I try to think about everything that went right, what went wrong, and take something away from every single day on the water. I'm usually fishing two out of every three weekends, and I'd love to be on the water more, but apparently going to class and making good grades is important, too!"
Ricky Kassebaum is president of the Virginia Tech Bass Fishing Team (at press time in third place on the ACA national rankings).
"We have 36 members on our team and we're very active. We regularly attend events like children's fishing derbies to volunteer, or even to see if we can offer a fishing tip or two. One of our biggest goals as a team is to try and promote fishing and to get kids interested at an early age so they hopefully develop the passion for it we all have.
"Over the past few years, we've been consistently ranked as one of the top teams, and won the national championship in 2007. We're hoping to repeat that in the very near future. Our recognition on campus is steadily growing, and we've been striving to get our name out there. With the team's success, the university seems to have noticed as well. They even made a video about us this year!"
Jason Hawksford, president of the fishing club at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, tells how the Big Dawgs do it.
"Our club went from being a group of friends with a common interest to over 70 members. In three club tournaments this fall, we had 45 different guys fish. This past season we've had some great accomplishments that helped propel us toward the top of the ACA School of the Year race [at press time UWSP was in fourth place in the national rankings].
"Our club has devoted much of its time to trying to develop a system so we're top of the leader board at the end of May. We compete against each other for the sole purpose of qualifying for national collegiate tournaments. We have a points system, and at the end of the fall season the teams sitting in the top 10 qualify to choose a national collegiate tournament to attend, which is funded by the university through the Student Government Association.
"I get contacted by transfer and high-school students inquiring about our club and telling me they're interested in joining, before they've even applied to UWSP."