By John Neporadny Jr.
Special to BassFan
The bleacher seating for 1,000 spectators was filled to capacity. Tents full of fishing company vendors were spread throughout the weigh-in site. The competitors’ boats were loaded up on trailers and towed to the stage for a drive-through weigh-in.
While covering this spectacle for B.A.S.S. Times, it reminded me of a Bassmaster Elite Series weigh-in. However, it wasn’t Kevin VanDam or Aaron Martens weighing in fish this time.
Instead it was a bunch of high school anglers making history by bringing fish to the scales in the 2009 Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Bass Fishing State Finals, the first bass fishing championship in the country sanctioned by a state activities association.
The impressive showing of the Illinois championship launched me on a mission to see if we could get the same program started in my home state of Missouri. So when I got back home I contacted Jim Huson, a Republic High School teacher who had held a hunting and fishing summer school program for several years, and talked to him about how we could set up a bass fishing program through the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA).
When we met with MSHSAA officials they were receptive to our idea since they knew about the success of the Illinois program. They told us the process of how MSHSAA establishes a new high school activity such as bass fishing and allowed us to attend MSHSAA’s area meetings of school administrators to explain the details of the bass fishing program.
Get the Word Out
One key item we discovered during those meetings was that the school administrators were in favor of the bass fishing program as long as it would be administered by MSHSAA.
“Trying to work with MSHSAA just seemed the most likely approach to get ourselves involved into the high school activities association,” said Huson. “Being able to get to the schools and get the message out about this being a high school activity through our governing body has been a better approach as far as getting numbers.”
Establishing a bass fishing program through your state’s high school athletics or activities association has its advantages over starting clubs at individual schools.
“Once you get it in the high school association you give the program legitimacy,” said Dave Gannaway, a former IHSA director who was instrumental in starting Illinois’ bass fishing series.
“One of the advantages is that is where you have the high school kids.
“If you want to get high school kids involved then you have to go the organization that has control over all the high schools in the state, which would be the state associations. If you are looking at trying to fund just club activities and some state fishing tournaments, you are only going to get a handful of kids and you're not going to get to the mass of the kids.”
The process of setting up a bass fishing program through a high school governing body varies from state to state.
“Each state is completely different because some states only have (associations for) sports and some states have clubs and sports,” said Gannaway, who now serves as an advisor for The Bass Federation (TBF) high school program. “So you need to look at their bylaws and find out how each state operates. Then find out the process of how activities or sports are added in that state and then you have to go through that process.
"Many of them have emerging activities or emerging sports processes where they bring it up on their horizon and put it in their emerging policy to see if schools want to start working to bring that particular activity alive in their state. Then they would have to follow their emerging sport process.”
Less Complicated than Football
The next challenge in establishing a high school bass fishing program is to convince individual schools to start bass clubs. The Illinois and Missouri programs both ran into similar obstacles when school administrators mulled over whether or not to sign up their school for the new activity.
“Insurance, boats and coaches were concerns,” Gannaway recalled. “Once we got our principals convinced that if they could run football, there is no more liability in any sport or activity they run like there is in football. So if they can run football and have liability insurance coverage for kids in football, (fishing) should be a no–brainer. Then it comes down to whether the school really wants to do it or not.
A couple of Lebanon (Mo.) High School anglers and their volunteer boat captain get ready to take off for the first day of the Bass Pro Shops Open Championship of High School Fishing at Table Rock Lake.
“The coaches became a non-factor,” he continued. “The schools found out that they had more coaches in their building than they could shake a stick at. Boats became a non-issue because the coaches and parents had boats. So two areas that we thought would become difficult weren’t.”
Most of the Illinois high school bass fishing coaches started as volunteer mentors.
“Now the Illinois program has grown to where it has come to fruition and many of the contract negotiations are getting a stipend put in for bass fishing coaches,” Gannaway said. “Administrators were a little leery of that because of budgetary issues (back in 2008-09), but now they don’t have a problem with that now that they have seen how many kids really become involved in their schools through that program.”
Huson fielded the same questions when he was recruiting schools to sign up for the MSHSAA bass fishing program.
“The biggest obstacle is obviously it is outside-the-box thinking,” he said. “It is a new activity so there was the liability insurance issue and who was going to provide the boats. Those were the biggest obstacles that our schools ran into.”
The school administrators also had questions about kids winning money and prizes, background checks on volunteer boaters and the liability insurance policies of the boaters. MSHSAA limits prize money for high school students to less than $100, so the bass tournament winnings have been turned into scholarships for higher education.
When the boat captains for the Republic High School team needed to do their background checks, they went to a local UPS Store.
“They submitted their information online and got a number that they took down to UPS where the store did the background check and fingerprinted them,” Huson said.
> Guidelines for starting high school clubs are available on the IHSA and MSHSAA websites. If a state association bass fishing program is unavailable, high schools can still start bass clubs through the TBF's Student Angler Federation or the B.A.S.S. Nation high school programs. Both of these programs offer liability insurance for the high school clubs and opportunities for young anglers to compete in national high school championships.
Veteran outdoor writer John Neporadny Jr. is the author of "The Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide" and "101 Bass Fishing Tips: 21st-Century Bassing Tactics and Techniques from All the Top Pros." To visit his website, click here.