ON ISLAND LAKE RESERVOIR — Jason Herstad casts left, Zach Carson casts right and they started working a line of old, underwater tree stumps along a mid-lake island, twitching their soft plastic bass baits back to the boat.
It didn’t take long for Carson, standing in the bow and running the electric trolling motor, to tag into the first smallmouth.
Herstad quickly reeled in his line, grabbed the net and landed Carson’s fish, about 13-inches long, just big enough to weigh in the high school team fishing tournament the Hermantown High School seniors were competing in.
They plopped the bass in the livewell and started casting again with little lost time. There were many more fish to be caught.
“Watch the trolling motor… Start thinking ahead where you want to be next,’’ said Ouitdee Carson, Zach’s father and team captain. The captain is the mandatory adult on board who operates the boat at high speeds and offers advice, but who otherwise must not help the student anglers.
“He gets lost in the fishing part sometimes and forgets to watch the trolling motor,” Ouitdee Carson said of his son’s intensity.
Carson and Herstad are members of the Hermantown high school fishing club, there are two other Hermantown teams in the club, part of a growing navy of high school bass anglers competing in tournaments across Minnesota. There are now high school bass fishing clubs from International Falls to Rochester, representing an estimated 150 schools with more than 2,000 students involved and more are coming each summer. Dozens of those schools send teams to competitive tournaments. Boys and girls compete in the same events.
“It’s fun because you get to compete, but you can still enjoy the fishing,’’ Carson said.
“And bass are way more fun than walleye,’’ Herstad chimed in.
In addition to Hermantown’s three teams, there were 20 other tournament boats on Island Lake north of Duluth that day, with student anglers from Duluth’s combined team, Wrenshall, Eveleth-Gilbert, Grand Rapids, Northwestern (Maple, Wis.) and Lakeville, Minn.
The seven, two-student teams from Northwestern’s club were competing in their first-ever tournament ever as an organized club. (Northwestern’s club is recognized by the school, Hermantown’s is not yet.)
“This is all new to us, but it’s great… We’d have to go down to Madison or LaCrosse or something to find a Wisconsin tournament, so it’s nice we can get in on this,’’ said Greg Nelson, a Northwestern teacher and the fishing club’s adviser.
Nelson signed on to lead the effort when his two sons wanted to try competitive fishing. In the first year at Northwestern there are 14 active members willing to pay the $50 membership fee that gets them into regional tournaments, a Bass Angler Sportsman Society membership and liability insurance.
Evan Harris and Dylan Niemi left no question as to their high school — they had bold printed fishing team jerseys in the Eveleth-Gilbert school colors of gold and black, with a Golden Bear logo on the front and their names emblazoned on the back. (Like professional tournament anglers, and unlike any other high school sport, the fishing jerseys of high school anglers are festooned with various sponsors, businesses willing to donate to the clubs to defray the costs.)
It was their first tournament of the season.
“It’s great to have something fun to do in the summer and still be with guys from school,’’ Harris said.
Isaac Honkola of Hermantown agreed.
“It’s something new,” he said of high school fishing teams, noting fishing is good by itself but adding the competition of a tournament elevates the challenge. “You have a goal while you’re out there.”
The Duluth combined team had two boats at Island Lake, both representing students from the Marshall School. But team captain Doug Pirila said students from any local school can join the club.
“Any high school student is welcome to join us. We can get them into one of our clubs or help them start their own,’’ Pirila said.
A summer packed with fishing
The Island Lake event was just one of dozens of high school bass tournaments across Minnesota this summer, some of which will draw hundreds of student anglers in what’s become one of the fastest growing competitive youth sports in the Northland.
Grand Rapids, which started in 2017, is up to 28 club members in its third season, with the Thunderhawks club officially recognized by the school and several of its anglers winning top tournaments statewide. Some even go on to national competition.
Brainerd is now in its fifth year as an official school-sanctioned club with 150 members, including 20 girls, said Jason Bahr, head coach of the Brainerd Warriors team.
“At some events we’ll have 50 boats entered just from Brainerd,’’ Bahr said.
Bahr also is a founder and executive director of the statewide Student Angler Tournament Trail, associated with the national Student Angler Federation and The Bass Federation. The Student Angler Tournament Trail is one of two major associations for high school bass in Minnesota. The other is Minnesota Junior BASS Nation, affiliated with the national Bass Angler Sportsman Society, which sponsored the Island Lake event. School clubs and individual teams can compete in both over the same summer.
While other schools may have had casual fishing clubs before Brainerd, the Warriors are considered the leading school in the fast formation of competitive high school fishing across the state. About 100 of the club’s members actively fish in tournaments. The others may just take part in weekly “practice” fishing rounds on local lakes. The school even has a Monday summer multi-species league for junior-high age anglers.
Bahr’s sons, Kyle and Tyler, have won multiple tournaments in Minnesota. Last week they competed in Alabama against high school teams from other states, with more than $2 million in total college scholarships on the line, at the national high school bass championship. They were among 21 Minnesota teams from various schools competing for the national championship.
How popular is the new high school bass scene in Minnesota? When online entries opened for a July 14 event on Mille Lacs Lake, a smallmouth hotspot, registration for 150 boats filed in less than 10 minutes. When they opened up room for another 50 boats, those filed, too.
“There will be 400 student-athletes from across Minnesota on the water at a single event,’’ Bahr noted.
And that’s the point of competitive team high school fishing: Getting more kids to do more outdoors, getting them involved, getting them to experience teamwork and team bonding.
“Not every kid can run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, Bahr noted of the gold standard for football player speed. “We get kids who have never competed in any sport, or been involved in any school activity. But they like to fish. They get to be on a team and experience that feeling. And they get to compete.”
Best of all, it’s fishing.
“We have kids getting so into it that they are bringing their parents back into fishing. Maybe they go out and buy a boat… It’s getting families back outdoors,’’ Bahr added.
Gordon Fothergill, a founder and president of the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks club (and a parent of one of the competitors, son Easton) echoed others in predicting high school bass fishing could become as popular as high school trapshooting. The success of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League has been nothing short of astounding. The effort started in 2008 with three teams and 30 students. Now there are some 12,000 students form 350 high school teams participating in Minnesota alone, and the sport is officially partnered with the Minnesota State High School League and sanctioned as a varsity sport at participating schools. The state championship held each summer, with some 8,000 participants, is the world’s largest shooting event.
Volunteer captains with boats needed
But there’s a limiting factor that will likely restrain high school fishing. Every team of two anglers must not only have their own boat for each event, but must also have an adult team captain to accompany them on the water. That’s usually a parent, but it can be anyone age 18 or over.
Some families simply don’t have or can’t afford a boat, and some parents don’t fish. Efforts are underway on every team to recruit volunteer team captains, adults who own a boat and are willing to spend several days each summer mentoring and motoring students around during tournaments and, hopefully, some practice sessions.
“That’s really the catch. It’s a lot to ask for someone to give up a summer day, or a weekend, or several weekends, and travel, and probably gas and expenses, to spend time with kids they may not know,’’ Fothergill said. “I think high school fishing could be as big or bigger than trapshooting. But boats and captains are our limiting factor.”
That problem surfaced during the Island Lake tournament earlier this month when a volunteer team captain/boat owner had to back out at the last minute. That left one team from Northwestern High School high and dry on shore and out of the event.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers,’’ said Fothergill, who was captaining his son Easton and teammate Josh Dumke at the Island Lake event.
Bahr said Brainerd has had some success with former team members who have graduated who have purchased boats and come back to volunteer and captain teams.
“That’s great to see, passing on what they have learned, paying it forward,” Bahr said.
Bahr and another Student Angler Tournament Trail founder, Jimmy Bell, have met with Minnesota State High School League officials in recent years on a possible alliance to formalize high school fishing as a varsity sport, much as trapshooting is recognized. So far they haven’t reached an agreement. It’s possible some sort of hybrid alliance could be formed, Bahr noted.
One hangup might be that high school bass fishing — clubs, individual teams, leagues and events — are partially funded by corporate sponsors (the Student Angler Tournament Trail is sponsored by Rapala and Lund, who Bell works for) which the high school league generally frowns on. Most of the team jerseys are festooned with sponsors.
“We’re working on it. We’re going to come up with something to get it formally recognized,’’ Bahr said. “I think someday you’ll see (fishing teams) in every school in Minnesota.”
And the winners were…
Hertsand and Carson of the Hermantown club caught some two dozen bass that day on Island Lake. Back at the landing they weighed in five bass totaling 12.03 pounds, including a chunky, 18-inch smallie. That total was good enough for seventh place.
Easton Fothergill and Josh Dumke of the Grand Rapids club landed a 20-inch smallie, the biggest measured at the event, and finished in second place with five fish that weighed 15.96 pounds.
Eveleth’s Niemi and Harris didn’t weigh any fish, but said they had fun. Isaac Honkola of Hermantown and his partner, Sebastian Peterson, finished in 12th place with 10.38 pounds of bass.
The winners at Island Lake were 10th graders Benjamin Benes and Bennett Nelson of the Northwestern club who tallied five fish that weighed 16.25 pounds — a hefty 3.25-pound average. They were captained by Benjamin’s dad, Brook Benes.
Minnesota’s two major high school bass fishing associations:
Minnesota Junior BASS Nation: minnesotajuniorbassnation.com
Minnesota Student Angler Tournament Trail: mnsatt.org
The two associations are affiliated with different national bass fishing groups. They don’t necessarily compete, and high school teams can and do participate in individual tournaments under either association, or both, throughout the summer. But each association holds its own state championship and sends student anglers on to different regional and national championship events.
For more information on high school bass fishing in the Duluth area contact Doug Pirila of the Duluth Bass Club at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Minnesota Junior Bass Nation measures bass by the pound and ounces. Fish are kept in each boat’s livewells during the event then transferred in special, water-filled bags to a central weigh-in station on shore at the boat landing. Fish are then released back into the lake.
The Student Angler Tournament Trail also measures by weight but uses a novel catch, weigh, photograph and release method. Each boat has a scale and when a team decides to enter a fish it snaps a photo of the fish on the scale then uploads the photo to an App. Anyone in the event, or even parents back on shore or at home, can follow the tournament in live time as weights are uploaded by each team. Fish are immediately released where they are caught and never spend time in the livewell.
2019 Minnesota State championships
The Student Angler Tournament Trail is holding its Tournament of Champions Aug. 25-26 on Lake Vermilion and its state team championship Sept. 14-15 on Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids.
Minnesota Junior Bass Nation will hold its high school Tournament of Champions Aug. 24-15 on Lake Le Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn.