DECATUR, Ala. – Talented high school anglers from across the U.S. gathered for the third Bassmaster High School Combine on Wheeler Lake for a weekend combining skills challenges and recruiting visits in hopes of reeling in college fishing offers. After three challenges – Long-Distance Casting, Technical and Casting Accuracy – the Combine’s overall points winner was Joe McNamara of Rockford, Ill.
With a three-event total of 368 points, the junior at Boylan Catholic High School took home the Overall Skills Competition trophy. In addition, McNamara also tied for the win in the Technical Challenge with fellow competitor Eli French of Lucedale, Miss.
When McNamara heard about the Bassmaster High School Combine early last year, he knew he wanted to be a part of the event to help put his fishing career on the fast track to success.
“There’s really no other event like this,” McNamara said. “We signed up the day that registration opened just to make sure we could be here.”
McNamara took full advantage of being exposed to the top college fishing programs in the country by finishing inside the Top 10 in all three skills challenges and winning the Overall Skills Challenge by a convincing margin of 21 points.
“I just wanted to go out and do my best,” he said. “I knew that I had a chance to do pretty well, but I really didn’t expect to win.”
Despite his impressive numbers overall, McNamara didn’t get off to a great start with the three bonus-points challenges, which tested one-cast accuracy, knot tying and boater safety, but picked up momentum in a big way once he went to the Casting Accuracy Challenge.
“I missed my first flip and then made every single flip after that one to finish in under 50 seconds,” he said in regard to getting the momentum back in his favor. “Then I got to the Long-Distance Casting (Challenge) and got off three casts before the time expired, with the longest cast being almost 68 yards, which I was happy about.”
McNamara ended his day on a high note by tying for the fastest score in the Technical Challenge, where he maneuvered the provided Skeeter FX20 to knock down the casting targets in just 13 seconds.
“I knew that I was doing pretty good before I got to the Technical Challenge, but didn’t realize how good,” he said. “I put the trolling motor on 100 and hit the targets pretty fast. I knew that if I was casting at the targets before I got up super-close to them then I would have a chance to be quicker than everyone else.
“I grew up fishing docks and shallow cover, so I consider my ability to fish shallow to be a big reason that I was able to have success in the casting challenges.”
Taking home hardware is certainly an accomplishment at the High School Combine, but McNamara feels that what he gained through interaction with coaches from the top college fishing teams across the country is what will help to continue his fishing journey.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from interacting with the colleges, but it really opened my eyes to what the colleges look for in high schoolers,” he said. “I think the biggest takeaway from the Combine is that I’m looking at schools that I may not have considered otherwise.”
French was the co-champion of the Technical Challenge, tying McNamara’s time of 13 seconds. The 11th grader used his fishing strengths to his advantage to take home the trophy.
“The way we fish rivers back home is to put the trolling motor on high and cover as much water as possible,” said French. “We usually have to keep the trolling motor on 7 to 10 and make precise casts and flips to individual targets, so I felt right at home with the Technical Challenge.”
Much like McNamara, French put the trolling motor on 10 and focused on making pinpoint casts to knock down the targets quickly.
“I made three total flips to the targets,” he said. “I was more worried about making precise casts to the targets rather than rushing up to the targets and making short flips.”
With a cast measuring 72 yards, Tanner Hamilton of Winter Park, Fla., took home first place in the Long-Distance Casting challenge. Third cast was the charm for Hamilton, as he used his ProFISHiency rod and reel to air out his longest cast of the competition on his final attempt.
Hamilton loves to fish offshore, so casting long distances is a big part of his game.
“I pretty much strictly fish offshore,” said the junior at Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School. “I live on the Harris Chain, so I’m pretty much always making long casts at shellbars, brushpiles and other offshore cover.”
Hamilton paid close attention to his competitors in hopes of figuring out the key to making the longest cast possible.
“I was constantly taking notes on how the wind was working,” he said. “My first two casts were pretty bad, but I opened the reel up and let it fly on the last cast.”
With a blazing speed of 32 seconds, Dylan Sorrells of Dallas, Texas, took home the top spot in the Casting Accuracy Challenge. As a shallow-water power fisherman, Sorrells felt right at home making accurate casts when the challenge came around.
“I love flipping docks and laydowns, so that’s why I was able to have success flipping and pitching to the buckets,” said Sorrells, a junior at Highland Park High School who just notched a Top 20 finish at the Bassmaster High School Championship. “I was able to practice a little bit before, but I was honestly shocked that I was able to make it in each bucket as quickly as I did. It just seemed surreal.”
At the end of the weekend, seven anglers signed with three different schools – Faulkner University, Murray State College and Troy University. In the first two years of the Combine, more than $4.5 million in scholarships have been awarded to participating anglers.