A professional angler from Ham Lake and a youth fishing coach from Brainerd are attempting to greatly widen participation in high school bass fishing under a proposal to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL).
In two weeks, Jimmy Bell and Jason Bahr will make their second presentation to the high school league’s board of directors. They want the league to annually host a year-end tournament to recognize the state’s top high school fishing teams. Clay target shooters and robotics teams already enjoy that level of support from the MSHSL, which acts as a “presenting partner” of trophies and medals.
“The hope is that in 2019 we could move forward with it,’’ said Bell, the 1999 Angler of the Year on the Cabela’s North America Walleye Anglers circuit. “We’re making real good progress.’’
Bahr, head coach of the Brainerd High School fishing team, said he covets MSHSL support because it would sway more schools to establish fishing teams. While “presenting partner’’ status is less than full sanctioning by the MSHSL, it would provide some clout to their high school fishing circuit. As proposed, the nonprofit Student Angler Tournament Trail, headed by Bell and Bahr, would organize and run the high school regular season. That would include dividing teams into districts and scheduling the competition. MSHSL would only get involved at the end of each regular season to put its imprimatur on a year-end championship.
Dave Stead, MSHSL’s executive director, said he can’t predict whether the board will accept the plan. The Feb. 1 presentation by Bell and Bahr is meant to provide board members with more information than they received in an initial presentation late last year. The request could come to a vote this spring.
One area of interest is how industry sponsors will be allowed to intermingle with the sport. Last year, for example, with the high school circuit operating on its own, the top championship duo from Brainerd won a Lund fishing boat.
“Those are the questions that have to be asked and answered,’’ Stead said.
So far, Bell said, Illinois is the only state that fully sanctions bass fishing as a high school sport. But high school fishing organizers in Kentucky and Georgia won partial support from their high school sports authorities and the movement is growing.
Currently, about 100 Minnesota high schools support fishing to various degrees. At schools such as Brainerd, participants can earn varsity letters, see their trophies displayed in the school’s hallways and be involved in pep rallies. At other schools, fishing is a club activity.
Bell and Bahr foresee an explosion in high school fishing if the MSHSL gets behind it. The big limiting factor is boats. Every two high school anglers must be paired with an adult “boat captain’’ who runs the equipment and handles the official record-keeping.
“The hardest part is getting boat captains,’’ Bell said.
Moving the needle
On the flip side, the arrangement is coaxing more and more adults to get involved in fishing as supporters of youth teams. The activity comes at a time when outdoors participation and fishing license sales have been sagging statewide.
According to data from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), some 40 percent of Minnesotans age 16 and over had a fishing license in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, fishing licenses are held by about 27 percent of the population and the trend is downward.
“We’ve already lost a generation of anglers,’’ Bell said. “I have to push this as much as I can because I know we are losing anglers.’’
Jeff Ledermann, a DNR employee in charge of fish and wildlife outreach, said the agency is looking for ways to move the needle toward more fishing participation. But he said the DNR hasn’t taken an official position on the high school fishing proposal pending before MSHSL.
Bell said his own talks with Ledermann have been “very positive,’’ including a discussion of how every high school team would be required to receive an education about aquatic invasive species.
Still, he said, the agency has been “slow to give us an official letter of support.’’
Ledermann said MSHSL support for clay target shooting at the high school level “definitely has helped’’ lift participation in shooting sports. Last year alone, an estimated 14,000 students were on Minnesota high school trap teams.
Ledermann said the DNR realizes that the incentives inherent in high school competition in fishing and shooting can be a positive influence on new participation in the outdoors.
Growing school pride
Bahr said members of existing high school fishing teams have thrived on the recognition they have received from peers.
“It truly has given some kids who are not the athletes a chance to fit in,’’ Bahr said. “We’ve taken some kids who literally weren’t into anything and we’ve given them school pride.’’
Bell and Bahr have proposed an alliance with The Bass Federation (TBF), partly to make insurance more affordable for teams. TBF would follow a “catch, record, release’’ format under which each boat captain would operate an approved scale and enter fish weights electronically.
Parents and other followers on shore could follow the tournament action in real time on tablets and smartphones.
Bell said he would open the door to B.A.S.S., a rival in tournament fishing, if organizers shifted to a “catch, record, release’’ format. He said B.A.S.S. now requires anglers in its tournaments to bring fish in for weighing on the same scale.
“I’m not trying to exclude anyone,’’ he said.
Stead, who is retiring soon from the MSHSL, said he would continue to assist Bell and Bahr in their presentations to the board. The earliest the board would vote on the proposal would be at its regularly scheduled meeting April 5.