Some high school athletes practice shooting free throws in a basketball gym. Others take batting practice on a baseball or softball field.
On a cool, overcast March evening, 14 Muhlenberg County High School students practiced jerkbait fishing at Lake Malone State Park.
“We don’t have the ease of being able to go to a basketball court right there at school or the football field,” Muhlenberg County’s bass fishing coach Cody Napier said. “We have to go a pretty good ways to get to a lake. Luckily, we have Lake Malone in our county.”
Bass fishing is one of four sports activities sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in the past five years. The KHSAA sanctioned bowling starting in the 2011-12 school year and it added bass fishing, archery and competitive cheer a year later.
“It’s so important because 90 percent or 95 percent of these boys don’t have any other sport,” Napier said. “This is a sport that has dedication. You have to wake up at 3 o’clock or 3:30 in the morning and stay up late at night and spend eight hours or plus on the water, practicing every chance you get.”
Muhlenberg County senior Billy Hardison grew up fishing with his dad. He said he never thought his school would have a fishing team. His teammate, Nathan Flener, hasn’t been fishing as long. Flener raced dirt bikes before an injury pushed him to find another outlet for his competitiveness.
Muhlenberg County bass fishing team members Nathan
Flener, left, and Billy Hardison practice on Lake Malone.
The duo won the state high school bass fishing championship last spring, giving Muhlenberg County back-to-back titles.
“It means the world to me. It’s something I could’ve only dreamed of,” Hardison said of being a state champion in bass fishing. “You talk to older guys who love to fish and they just wish they had the sport when they were growing up.”
“We think of this just as any other sports team,” added Flener. “We come out here, we’re here to win. We have a little more diversity with the weather and stuff like that but at the end of the day we’re all proud just like any other team would be to win something like this.”
The biggest obstacle for schools wanting to start a bass fishing team is finding boats to use. During a competition, schools can have up to six teams of two compete, but each pair must be on a separate boat with an adult as the boat captain.
“We talked about it the last two years,” said Mike Marcum, who is coaching Sheldon Clark High School’s first fishing team this spring. “Just the logistics of it, trying to get enough boaters to volunteer because it takes a lot of their time and effort and money and everything to make it happen.
“I went to the (Martin County school) board and asked them about trying to start it. (I) went around to some of our local bass clubs, people that I fish with and got enough volunteers to get to help me,” added Marcum, who is principal at Martin County Schools’ Inez Elementary. “Once I had those people in place and they were willing to do it, then we kind of got the ball rolling with it.”
All the boat volunteers have to go through coaches training and be CPR certified. And each student on the team pays $25 into the Fishing League Worldwide’s student angler federation.
Tackett says with the fee, the student and school are insured. The student also receives training materials about fishing and information about conservation.
“KHSAA does a great job as far as regulating and making sure that you meet the stipulations, requirements that’s necessary,” said Martin County school board member Roger Harless.
Harless said he was concerned about safety with students being on the water “but if you have proper supervision and you don’t take the risks. Any sport you play you don’t want to put your kids at risk. ... I’ve got confidence in (Marcum) to make sure their safety comes first.”
Marcum talked with coaches at neighboring districts to get the “ins and outs” of what they had learned during the first three years of the sport.
“How they handle transportation to and from practice, that was an issue I hadn’t really thought of,” he said. “When you’re bass fishing you go to a lake and we don’t have a local lake. Our closest lake is 30-40 minutes so that’s another obstacle in itself. Trying to leave school in the afternoon, by the time you meet with your boaters, you have a good two to three hours at best on the water and then you have to travel back and they’re a little later getting back home, so those are some obstacles, too.”
Napier said he also receives calls from schools wanting information about how to start their fishing programs. “I see it growing and continuing to grow every year,” he said.
“Our tournament sizes have increased dramatically since my freshman year,” Hardison said. “Many more schools joining every single year and we love to see the sport grow, get more competition and more people for us to go up against.”