Some serious fishy business is going on in high schools across Texas. But make no mistake. There is nothing smelly about it. In fact, the fishy business in question is linked to an extra curricular activity that’s about as clean, wholesome and impartial to physical ability and gender as any you will find.
“Those are some of the neat things about high school bass fishing,” says Clint Fountain of Kirbyville. “You don’t have to be a stand out athlete, be the fastest kid, throw the hardest, jump the highest or be a boy or girl to do it. It allows you to be yourself. Sure, some kids are better at it than others. But anyone can come out it here and excel. With bass fishing, you get out it what you put into it.”
Take that as sound advice from someone who knows. Fountain is a veteran angler and president of the Southeast Texas High School Bass Fishing Association. This four-year-old non-profit organization was founded largely on the belief that competitive fishing at the high school level enables youths to become better students and anglers. It also builds character by exposing them to all the opportunities and challenges that competitive bass fishing offers.
As a volunteer advisor for the Kirbyville High School bass fishing team, Fountain has been affiliated with the SETX organization since its inaugural season in 2013. In the meantime, he and other volunteers have watched in awe as the grassroots program has grown into a virtual monster in a relatively short period of time.
“It’s been amazing to watch it happen,” Fountain said. “This thing has grown by leaps and bounds from the very start.”
The organization’s first official team tournament in December 2013 drew a whopping 263 teams from about two dozen high schools. At the time that was a national record for high school bass tournaments.
Amazingly, the record didn’t last for long. In fact, the SETX program has broken its own national record the last two consecutive years. Its 2015-16 season opener held on Sam Rayburn attracted 490 teams nearly 50 participating high schools.
“It’s grown bigger and faster than any of us ever dreamed it would,” says SETX tournament director Bryan Thomas of Lumberton. “I remember that first tournament when we drew 263 boats—we were like, holy cow, what is going on? Every year it gotten bigger and bigger. We’ve got 47 high schools affiliated with SETX now, but that what has been really impressive is the growth in the number of fishing teams within those individual schools. Right now we’ve got somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 kids involved, many of which might not have gotten involved in the outdoors otherwise. That’s a good thing.”
Tim Haugh of Bullard can certainly relate. Haugh is a Tyler banker who helped form the first bass fishing team at Bullard High School in 2012 at the request of his son, Kevin, who was a freshman at the time.
The following year, Haugh and several high school fishing team advisors from around northeast Texas got together and formed the Texas High School Bass Fishing Association. The THSBFA experienced meteoric growth seemingly overnight, drawing 61 teams to its inaugural event and more than doubling the attendance by the final event of the 2013 season.
“We learned pretty quick that this deal had the potential to get huge,” Haugh said. “We started out with a single division that encompassed Dallas/Ft. Worth and East Texas and we have added three more divisions since—West, Central and Houston.
We’ve also been hearing from quite a few schools down around the Austin/San Antonio area that want to get involved, so we’re looking at adding another division for them.”
Haugh said he agrees with the idea that introducing youngsters to the sport of bass fishing helps build individual character. This sport also allows everyone to compete on a level playing field regardless of gender or athletic ability.
Another huge benefit is it motivates students to take care of their work in the classroom. Both the SETX and THSBFA adhere to strict “No Pass, No Fish” guidelines. Anglers are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average in all of their classes. Otherwise, they will be left standing on shore when tournament time rolls around.
“All teams have to turn in an academic report before each tournament,” Haugh said. “If you aren’t passing your classes, you don’t fish—it’s as simple as that. I get a lot of feedback from teachers who tell me about kids who have worked especially hard to improve their grades in order to be eligible to fish.”
Like the SETX program, the THSBFA hosts five regular season events over the course of the year. Prizes and points are awarded to the top finishers toward qualification for regional and state championships. That’s where top qualifiers fish for valuable college scholarship dollars, which in some cases, have enabled young anglers to further their education when they otherwise might not have been able to do it.
Both Fountain and Haugh said their organizations awarded well over $100,000 scholarship money and prizes to competitors during the 2016 season—a high percentage of which wouldn’t be available without the valuable sponsorship support of fishing industry icons such as Bass Pro Shops, Costa, Toyota, Skeeter/Yamaha, Lews, Minn Kota, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Academy and a host of others.
“The sponsors have really embraced this concept,” Fountain said. “There is absolutely no way we could do this without them.”
Yet another key partner to both organizations is FLW’s Student Angler Federation (SAF). The SAF was created in 2010 through a partnership with The Bass Federation (TBF), one of America’s oldest grassroots freshwater fishing organizations, which focuses on junior anglers and conservation. The two organizations are currently affiliated with hundreds of high school bass fishing clubs around the country with a membership that numbers well into the thousands.
Bassmaster operates a similar program under its BASS Nation heading and has recognized a 12-member All American fishing team the last two years. The selections are based not only tournament performance, but on how the young anglers perform in the classroom and how they served their communities. New Caney High School’s Dillion Harrell was among 12 anglers selected to the inaugural All-American Team in 2015.
The TBF ran its first high school event in 2010, which drew 76 high school teams from 16 different states. This year, the organization will conduct state championship events in nearly four dozen different states. Also on the schedule are six open events, five regional conference championships, the High School National Championship and the High School World Finals, a non-qualifying event that was held on Alabama’s Lake Pickwick June 28 through July 2.
“High school fishing has gotten real big, real quick, and there is a lot room for it to grow even larger,” said Mark Gintert, national youth director for TBF. “In a little over five years of competition we have more than 20,000 high school anglers and more than 2,000 high schools and community clubs around the country, and it is growing at a rate of about 20 percent every year.”
To learn more about starting a team or getting your high school involved in one America’s greatest pastimes on a competitive level, check out highschoolfishing.org or call 580-765-9031.
—story by Matt Williams