Much has been said over the years about playing for the love of the game, and nowhere may that be truer than high school bass fishing.
Decked out in school-colored jerseys, high school students across Texas take to the lakes to compete against many of the same rivals they have in football, basketball and baseball.
The difference, there are no coaches paid by the district, no buses to carry them to games or even school-issued equipment to compete. The fishermen are doing it for the love of the game.
Harmony’s Pake South is the perfect example. He had a big hit for the Eagles in a Texas High School Bass Association tournament on Lake Bob Sandlin in late February when he caught a 12.8-pound bass, for a personal best, a new lake junior record, the tournament’s big bass and a tournament victory.
Two hours into a tough fishing morning South had two in the boat, which as it turned out was better than what most of the field would have for the day.
“I had one just under 2 and one over 4,” the high school junior said.
Then he hooked the big one.
“I caught it on a red Rat-L-Trap on 15-pound line in about 8 or 9 feet of water,” South recalled. “The bait hung on a stump and when I went to pop it over she pulled it back. She never came up and jumped so I never got nervous.”
The fish beat a long-standing 11.45-pound association record. More importantly for South, he finished the day in first place with 22.27 pounds, qualifying him for the THSBA regional tournament on Lake O’the Pines in April. The win was important because in October his entire family contracted COVID-19, causing him to miss tournament time. Because of that, by rule he had to have a tournament win to advance.
The Texas High School Bass Association was formed in 2013 with teams from eight schools making up a single division. This year there are about 3,000 students representing 260 schools in nine divisions statewide.
“I had no clue. When we started this, I don’t think we knew what we were doing,” said Tim Haugh of Bullard, THSBA president since its inception.
Haugh got involved because his son was watching college bass tournaments and asked why the same could not be done for high schools. His son fished throughout high school. After he left, Haugh stayed around.
“It has been very, very, very satisfying. Not everyone plays baseball, football or softball. With this they get a chance to represent their school, but also can help themselves continue their education with scholarship money,” he said.
For the students, participation requires an interest in fishing, passing grades and an adult to volunteer as boat captain for each one- or two-man teams. In the majority of cases a parent serves as the captain, but Haugh said as many as a third are volunteers wanting to get the students on the water.
Individual school support also varies.
“It is different at every school. Some schools are very involved and some are not. Some have an involvement where they have a teacher advisor. Some is a parent advisor with no school participation,” Haugh said.
He added in most cases the students find their own sponsors for team funding.
Size or athletic skill do not play a role in bass fishing. For that reason teams from the smallest schools compete against those from largest. In South’s case he is Harmony’s lone participant. Others may field 10 teams or more.
South began fishing as a freshman with his father, Brian, as his captain. He qualified for last year’s regional tournament out of the Northeast division.
It is also something where girls can compete equally with the boys.
“I would say 15% is girls. What is cool is that two years ago the championship was on Cedar Creek. Bullard won, but there was a team of girls from Winnsboro that was winning. These girls can compete. They can give the boys a run for their money,” Haugh said.
Many of those participating are also involved in other sports. Haugh said it is not uncommon in the spring to have fishermen come from games in their uniforms to fish the afternoon.
South used to play football, but is concentrating solely on fishing now with an eye toward continuing in college. He said he enjoys representing his school, but his success often does not attract the attention of that in other sports. His 12.8 did. Still, he likes the personal feeling of winning.
The Texas format has drawn interest from a number of states trying to figure out how to duplicate its popularity.
The fishermen fish five single-day tournaments within their division for points toward angler of the year, along with team championships. With points earned 50% of the teams move on to regional events. Forty percent of teams competing in the regionals will qualify for the state championship in May. This year that two-day tournament will be held on Lake Texoma.
Haugh said the organizers quickly saw how the scholarship money that can be earned from the competition helped the students. He said there have been participants who have gone on to compete in college at fishing powerhouses like Stephen F. Austin, East Texas Baptist University, Dallas Baptist University, Texas A&M, Tarleton and others.
And now some of the colleges that offer scholarships for bass team members are also interested in partnering with the program.