High school fishing: Minnesota’s next big thing?

 

Among fishermen of a certain age in Minnesota, there’s a common refrain when the conversation turns to the organized fishing opportunities today’s youths enjoy: It sure would have been nice if that were an option when we were in middle school or high school.

“We all say that over and over,” said Jeff Gilmer, president of Minnesota Junior BASS Nation.

But the advent of youth fishing leagues and tournaments that mirror the big-time trails and offer kids the opportunity to participate in the sport with their friends and peers is a relatively new phenomenon. And it’s growing. Some teams are affiliated with high schools, while others are more community-based and include anglers all the way down to second grade. There’s not one single governing body – the Minnesota State High School League, for example – that oversees high school fishing, leaving it up to coaches to seek out opportunities for their teams.

In Minnesota, the four primary umbrellas that offer tournaments are the Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society, The Bass Federation – Student Angler Federation, Fishing League Worldwide, and Muskies, Inc. The Brainerd Warrior Fishing Team also has developed its own tournament trail, in which other schools can compete.

In 2015, 56 kids competed as part of organized teams. According to Gilmer, that number grew to 360 in 2016, and just fewer than 600 this year.

“Students are looking for other activities besides the traditional ones,” said Dave Schueck, who coaches the Lakeville Fishing Team, which this year includes 56 students from both Lakeville North and Lakeville South high schools. “Not everyone is going to be great at basketball, baseball, or football. There are plenty of students looking for alternative activities that are fun. The key is to try to keep it fun.”

Schueck has high hopes for high school fishing in Minnesota. One of the reasons? The rapid growth of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, which this year included more than 11,000 kids. League officials say it’s the fastest-growing activity in Minnesota schools.

“I think we’re riding a tail of that growth,” said Schueck, an assistant coach with the Lakeville South Clay Target Team. “There’s a fair amount of crossover between the clay target students and the fishing students.”

And yet, just has space at shooting ranges has limited the growth of the clay target league, finding boat captains “is the absolute biggest obstacle we will face (in terms of) growing in Minnesota and nationwide with high school fishing,” which requires one adult captain per two students in the boat, he said.

Some students have access to boats and need an adult captain, while other kids needs both a boat and a captain. Captains, for their part, might have to take off a day of work since many tournaments are held on Fridays, and otherwise plan to spend six or eight hours in a boat on competition days.

Some boat captains have little experience fishing, while others – depending on the tournament – can offer advice to students, though the youngsters are responsible for things like reading electronics and choosing locations and techniques. Schueck thinks of them as on-the-field coaches.

“I try to look for boat captains who have experience, and who maybe have fished tournaments themselves so they know the mental side of the game as well,” he said. “Some of these students are really good anglers, but if they get in a pinch and don’t catch a fish in the first two hours – or it’s a six-hour tournament and they don’t have anything in the livewell after three hours – that boat captain needs to pick them up.”

Upcoming events

The Minnesota Junior BASS Nation (on Facebook @MNJuniorBASSNation) has a number of upcoming tournaments for students in both its junior (kids in second through seventh grade) and high school divisions (kids eighth grade and above). The Minnesota Junior BASS Nation Junior State Championship is slated for Aug. 2 at Gull Lake near Brainerd. The Minnesota Junior BASS Nation High School State Championship is set for Sept. 10 on Lake Washington near Dassel.

The Minnesota Bass Federation – Student Angler Federation (www.highschoolfishing.org) is holding its state championship on Aug. 20 on Lake Mille Lacs. The Minnesota Bass Federation’s junior state championship, open to kids between 10 and 14 years of age, is scheduled for July 20 on Trout Lake near Grand Rapids.

The Brainerd Warrior trail also has several upcoming events, capped by a tournament of champions in September, at which anglers will compete for a new boat.

FLW held Mississippi River events earlier this year in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On Aug. 10-12, the Bassmaster College Series National Championship will be held on Lake Bemidji.

Gilmer believes the advent of college fishing teams also has played a role in the increased participation at the high school level. Schueck thinks that’s likely, too, noting the winner of this year’s Bassmaster Classic – 26-year-old Jordan Lee (he was 25 when he won the tournament) – came up through the college bass-fishing ranks.

“As kids get involved with fishing, and they see that college-level fishing is taking off, and they see that Jordan Lee won the Bassmaster Classic this year and that he’s a graduate of the college fishing ranks – they see that success and they’re like, ‘Hey, this could be me,’ ” Schueck said.

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