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Illinois Country Living

Fish Tales
High schools hooked on new IHSA events

By Les O’Dell

When Teutopolis High School senior Josh Koester first heard about a new opportunity to represent his school in competition, he went for it, hook, line and sinker. Literally.

Koester is among the thousands of Illinois high school students who have taken the bait and taken to the state’s lakes over the past three years to compete in bass fishing events organized by the Illinois High School Association.

Just like student-athletes on the football field or basketball court and scholars who compete in music or debate, these students represent their schools and communities with an opportunity to be state champions.

“It means I can do something with the same meaning and the same trophy as other students,” Koester says. “It’s getting to do something for school that I never thought I would be able to do, and now I am doing it.”

Representatives of the IHSA say one of the benefits of high school bass fishing is that it involves students who often shy away from competitions.

“The thing we found about bass fishing is that it appeals to an entirely different part of our school’s population than our other activities and athletic events, and that’s been very exciting,” explains Kurt Gibson, Associate Executive Director of the IHSA. “There are students all around the state who want to be involved in outdoor activities, and this has really struck a positive chord with them.”

The idea for fishing as an IHSA activity was championed by Dave Gannaway of the IHSA and Terry Brown of the Normal-based, a national media company that focuses on fishing. It’s only appropriate that the two floated ideas during a daylong fishing outing.

“We talked about how IHSA activities were missing a lot of kids, including my own sons and daughters,” Brown recalls. “They love the outdoors, but aren’t ‘stick-and-ball’ kids.”

After a series of proposals and discussions within the IHSA board and member schools Illinois became the first state to offer bass fishing as a sanctioned activity for the 2008 – 2009 school year. “A lot of athletic directors thought we were nuts,” he says. The plan was to hold 18 sectional tournaments, with top finishers advancing to a state championship at Carlyle Lake. Gibson says the association hoped to attract 100 teams. Twice that number entered.

“It exceeded our expectations by far. We didn’t know what we’d get into, but we had schools from downtown Chicago all the way to the farthest tips of Illinois. We even have had an all-girls team participate in the state tournament.”

This year, close to 225 schools and more than 3,000 students are expected to fish in 19 sectional tournaments throughout the state. Fifteen of those students will be from Illini West High School in Carthage. The school won the 2010 state championship.

“This is something that gives opportunities to kids that don’t want to go out for typical sports, yet who want to be ‘Illini West’ and be part of a team,” Harold Northup says. He teaches industrial technology at the school and serves as the volunteer fishing coach. He says as a new school – the result of consolidation in 2008 – bass fishing has helped build community.

“It’s been good for our school. At this point, we’re very proud that we have three state championships: two in football and this one in bass fishing.”

Northup adds that being competitive in what many see as a leisurely pastime takes a great deal of effort. That means yes, his team practices.

“We’ll start with working on casting indoors and go from there,” he says. “We work on casting techniques with different types of rods and reels or spinning outfits. Some of our practices include ‘game films’ of actual tournaments to give the students an idea of what to expect. Plus we talk about baits and lake structure and how to fish in different types of conditions.”

He says once the weather turns nice, his squad takes to the boats and compete among themselves.

“People don’t realize that there is so much to it, but there’s a lot of technique behind it because there are so many variables. It’s not just going out on a boat, taking out a rod and catching fish. It can be very difficult.”

Koester says he and his fellow anglers even like to try out the sectional-site lakes in advance. He calls it “pre-fishing” a tournament lake.

Many of the high schools are getting help from local fishing clubs, Brown explains. He says area anglers share tips and techniques with the students. Some even serve as volunteer boat captains for competitions.

The tournaments use a format similar to professional fishing competitions. Two students from a school take to the lake along with an adult captain, who drives the boat and can offer advice, but cannot assist the anglers in any way. Schools can enter up to two pairs each, in boats that are often on loan from parents or fishing clubs. Each team can present up to five fish at the end-of-the-day weigh-in, with the largest combined catch winning. Awards also are given for the largest single fish caught and there is a separate casting competition.

Even when the fish are not biting, the students are benefiting.

“Getting kids in boats changes them,” Brown adds. “The have better attitudes and they begin to get better grades – they have to in order to fish. That’s a side benefit of all of this.”

Students aren’t the only winners when it comes to bass fishing. Brown says that the state tournament brings a boost to the economy of Carlyle and other communities are jumping on board to host high school fishing events.

After seeing the success of the Illinois program, other states have started high school fishing programs, too. Some universities have started teams, complete with scholarships for participants.

Professional angler Chad Morgenthaler of Coulterville, who competes on the national FLW Outdoors tour, says the IHSA program is also helping Illinois gain a reputation for fishing.

“Illinois is not necessarily known for its fisheries, but we’ve got some great fishing here and this program is helping create awareness. In fact, we have more professionals on the FLW tour from Illinois than ever before.”

He says there are other benefits to high school fishing.

“I can tell in my day-to-day interactions that the program is educating young people to become better anglers and promoting the family activities of the outdoors,” he explains. “This certainly guarantees the future of our sport. It works to grow the awareness of all aspects of fishing. They are learning how to become better anglers, and in conservation – how to protect our fisheries and waters; there are lots of great things being taught.”

Brown says he’s very proud of what’s grown from a fishing boat conversation a few years ago.

“We’ve set a precedent that high school fishing could be viable and we broke new ground. If I have a legacy, this is it: to know that these kids maybe never would have been involved in anything else in high school and to now see them compete at the highest level. How do you come up with a better story than that?”

The answer is, you can’t.

And that’s no fish story.


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