By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
Hunter Spivey dropped three sports at Decatur High School, allowing him more time to reel in large lunkers lurking beneath the surface of Wheeler Lake.
The 16-year-old junior, however, can remain in his fishing boat and still earn a sports letter if a local and state effort can make bass fishing an official high school sport in Alabama.
If approved, the state would become the second in America to reach out to students who otherwise might not be involved in organized school athletics.
“I definitely think there would be a big turnout,” said Spivey, who used to play football, basketball and baseball for the Red Raiders. “I know a lot of people who don’t play those sports who definitely love to fish.”
Max Beasley, 16, said he knows of about 15 students in his junior class at Decatur High that fish weekly.
“There’d be a lot of people trying out for it,” he said. “It’s good for the people who aren’t very athletic or don’t enjoy football, baseball and soccer as much as being an outdoorsman. And it keeps them busy in positive activities.”
Involving students in school activities is one of several reasons cited by proponents for high school fishing teams. More organized fishing tournaments would give Decatur more chances to attract out-of-towners and fill local hotels and restaurants. Getting youths more prepared for tournament fishing also ensures a stable future for professional fishing circuits, such as FLW and Bassmaster.
“It’s the next great movement forward in our sport. I’m glad Alabama is considering it,” said Charlie Evans, FLW president and chief financial officer.
FLW helped Illinois, the first state to sanction fishing as a high school sport, organize its state championship, providing both equipment and personnel.
FLW, supported by Wal-Mart, would want to involve its resources with Alabama, too, he said.
Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, sent a letter to Steve Savarese, president of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, urging support of high school fishing and asked Decatur schools Superintendent Sam Houston to do the same.
“We’ve the facility (Ingalls Harbor) in place, and with its reputation among the pro circuits, I’m sure the high schools would want to come here to fish and pre-fish,” she said.
Dave Gannoway, assistant executive director for the Illinois High School Athletic Association, said bass fishing far exceeded expectations in the first season last year, doubling the 100 schools out of 785 the association hoped to see involved the first season.
“About 2,500 students were involved, both girls and boys,” he said. “We are now anticipating a huge increase this year because a lot of schools were taking a wait-and-see attitude. I’m anticipating more than 300 schools participating in our bass fishing this year.”
Ninety percent of the schools had faculty staff coach the teams, and the remaining schools got help from local fishing clubs, Gannoway said. The clubs also helped provide their local teams with boats and boat captains.
Illinois students cannot operate the outboard motor on the boat, but can operate the trolling motor, he said.
FLW’s Evans said further evidence bass fishing would be popular in high schools comes from watching the explosive growth of the sport in colleges the past few years. Last year, FLW partnered with the U.S. National Guard to start a collegiate series.
“When we started last year, nationwide there was 70 to 80 teams,” he said. “A year later we’re close to 400 active college teams.”
In April, Ingalls Harbor will be the host site of the Southern Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship. It will feature about 100 anglers from 20 schools such as Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss.
Tim Tidwell, president of Alabama Family Outdoors, began organizing a statewide, grassroots effort last spring to establish bass fishing as a sanctioned high school sport.
Among bass fishing’s benefits for high schools is it allows boys and girls to compete together; it also allows small rural schools to compete head-to-head with large city schools, he said.
“There’s going to be some little 1A schools that live near some of these little creeks that are going to kick some 4A or 6A schools’ tails in these tournaments,” Tidwell said. He noted the Illinois championship showcased some schools competing in state finals for the first time in any sport.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association has specific steps to help emerging sports become sanctioned, he said. The first is that 10 percent of the state’s 412 high schools agree to field a team. That would set bass fishing up as a “sport under jurisdiction.”
It’s a probationary period, Tidwell said, meaning the AHSAA would govern the sport, but there would be no official state championship the first year.
Tidwell’s plan this year is to get interested schools to form club teams and compete in three regional tournaments in the spring from which the top five will compete in an unofficial state championship.
How Illinois runs its fishing
The Illinois High School Association considers bass fishing an activity, not a sport, so fishing coaches do not need state approval, though they must have approval of the local school board.
Each school provides the boat and one adult driver or coach. Students cannot operate the outboard motor on the boat, but can operate the trolling motor.
Many bass clubs in Illinois offered their services to the schools, including adults to captain the boats.
Illinois high school rules stipulate a school may enter one or two boats per tournament. One boat can have as many as three students but only two can fish at any one time. Boats can exchange student anglers anytime during the tournament hours.
The season featured 18 sectional tournaments leading up to the state championship.