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School fishing teams gear up for debut

SoVaNow.com / September 05, 2018
As home to one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in the country, Mecklenburg County is poised to offer local students the chance to take part in angling competitions at the state and possibly national levels.

This year, for the first time, two groups are offering a chance for students in grades six-12 to join the Junior B.A.S.S. Nation (for grades six-eight) or B.A.S.S. High School Nation (for grades nine-12) program where they will compete for prizes and scholarships. The Mecklenburg County Youth Bassmasters is a club organized by Mecklenburg County Public Schools and led by Aleko Mangum. The Mecklenburg High School Anglers is a community club recognized by the school division but operated by a non-profit board led by Jeff Edwards. Both organizations are open to students in Mecklenburg County.

The popularity of competitive fishing has exploded in the past decade. There are hundreds of high school bass fishing teams across the country and almost as many colleges that offer scholarships or have fishing teams. B.A.S.S. Nation says these junior, high school and college programs are shaping the future of sport fishing while promoting camaraderie, competition, education and conservation.

Competitive fishing, which Edwards says has become a major high school sporting event, has a national annual economic impact of $115 billion, including $35 billion in wages and $15 billion in federal and state taxes. More important, it offers kids an alternative to the traditional sports of football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball or cheerleading.

It is a sport that Mecklenburg County schools for too long has ignored, despite the county’s connection to Buggs Island Lake.

Both Mangum and Edwards acknowledge that participation by students does not come without cost. Each student must have a fishing rod, reel and tackle and to fish competitively they must join both Bassmaster and a local B.A.S.S. organization. Dues for each organization are $10 per student per year.

Then there is the expense of life jackets and team jerseys. There is also the cost associated with tournaments — meals, lodging, boat fuel and tournament entrance fees.

One of the most significant hurdles for the school teams is a lack of boats and boat captains. Because only two anglers can fish from a single boat during a tournament, it takes a large fleet for all the student anglers to be able to fish a tournament.

Schools around Virginia with sports fishing teams look to outside groups to underwrite most or all of these costs, through outside fund raising and sponsorships and recruit volunteers to provide the bass boats and serve as captains.

Mangum’s Mecklenburg County Youth Bassmasters is still in the formative stages. Last week, during the club’s initial meeting, 15 or so middle and high school students gathered for an informational session. Most already had registered with Bassmasters – the first step to becoming an official club. Mangum said his current focus is on finding boats, so these kids can compete in the Sept. 16 tournament on the James River, but he is also mindful of the need to raise money to cover club expenses.

His deadline for registering his team is Sept. 11. For that, he’ll need money for entrance fees, and for fuel, food and lodging, as well as boats for team members.

Mangum said he does not want to discourage kids from joining the fishing club simply because they don’t have the best equipment, or they may not immediately fish in tournaments, because this club is about more than just fishing.

Under B.A.S.S. rules, each club member must spend at least eight hours per year working on a conservation project such as the one adopted by schools in Virginia to restore native grasses by gathering and planting native eel grass seeds. A Texas program teaches students about fish handling, fish-friendly weigh-in methods and how to treat fish experiencing barotrauma — a condition that occurs when fish are brought to the surface quickly from deeper waters.

Mangum said his students will pick their project, but he suggested possibly cleaning trash from the Buggs Island Lake shoreline or removing floating trash from the water “to improve the environment and the community we live in and around.”

Done well, these conservation projects could earn the students digital badges and credits toward graduation for civic involvement.

For students who are ready to jump into competitive fishing, there is the Mecklenburg High School Anglers. This community club is focused on competition at the high school level. The six students on this team are already working with their boat captains preparing for their first competition on the James River later this month. Their second competition takes place at home on Buggs Island Lake, Nov. 4.

The team’s mission, says Angler board vice president Brandon Slaughter, is to provide the ultimate bass tournament experience for young anglers by enabling them to compete against the best high school anglers at local, state, and national levels as members of B.A.S.S. Nation of Virginia. Even though he does not have children of his own, fishing is a passion for him and one he hopes to pass on to the next generation.

“We’d like to have at least six teams this first year,” said Edwards. He currently has three boats and six team members lined up, but is looking for three more boats and six more team members.

Each of the current competition teams have two student anglers. They are all boys but boat teams can be all girls or a combination. Like the school club, when these kids when not competing they must also participate in a conservation project of their choosing.

Mecklenburg County students can be members of both clubs but can only fish for one during competitions.

Funding and administrative responsibilities for the Anglers are being handled by a nonprofit community board. “We’ve already raised $12,000 to cover some of the expenses associated with competitive fishing and secured a sponsorship commitment from Cashion fishing rods,” said Edwards.

However, each member is being asked to pay $200 per year to cover the cost of travel, lodging and boat fuel and tournament entrance fees.

Edwards acknowledges this is a significant commitment and one which some kids cannot afford. Therefore, his board is offering scholarships for those who cannot afford the $200 fee. Team members will also help to raise money, and Edwards already signed them up to sell hotdogs in front of two Bass Pro Shops, one in Richmond and one in Charlotte.

While for most people fishing is an enjoyable activity that requires very little in the way of set time or commitment, the two clubs now forming in Mecklenburg are preparing the next generation of bass fishers for the big leagues that can bring them recognition — and potentially, college scholarships and opportunities to fish at the next level.

For Mangum, fishing helped change his life for the better. Now he hopes the sport can change the lives of boys and girls living in Mecklenburg County.

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