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High school bass fishing: Amid a season put on hold, a primer on starting a new team/club

Illinois’ groundbreaking high school bass fishing was canceled this spring by the IHSA; Jeff Wolfe captures the complex feelings for a new program and recaps the journey to starting a new program.

This will be the first year with no state championship for high school bass fishing since the IHSA recognized the activity in 2008-09; shown here are Dominic Domian (lleft) and All-American Tyler Lubbat lifting their clinching four keepers, which led Buffalo Grove in 2017 to the Chicago area’s only state championship. Credit: Dale Bowman
This will be the first year with no state championship for high school bass fishing since the IHSA recognized the activity in 2008-09; shown here are Dominic Domian (lleft) and All-American Tyler Lubbat lifting their clinching four keepers, which led Buffalo Grove in 2017 to the Chicago area’s only state championship.
Dale Bowman

High winds, tornadic thunderstorms and flooding couldn’t stop Illinois’ state championship for high school bass fishing.

But the battle against the coronavirus did.

On Tuesday, the Illinois High School Association’s board of directors announced it was canceling all tournaments for spring sports and activities, including for bass fishing. A few days earlier, Gov. J.B. Pritzker had mandated the school year would be finished from home, via e-learning.

‘‘I wish I had some profound thing to say, but I don’t; I completely understand,’’ Jeff Wolfe said Tuesday. ‘‘Fishing is one of those things you can absolutely do alone. But tournament bass fishing is not the same, especially at the high school level, where you have three households of people in a boat. You get in the heat of the moment, netting fish, and everybody is touching everything. There is cross-contamination.

‘‘Unfortunately, it is the right decision. It is really a bummer, especially for the seniors.’’

All-American Wyatt Pazdro, a senior at Minooka, echoed those feelings. He was trying to become one of a handful of kids to reach the state finals all four years.

‘‘That was one of my goals I’ve been telling myself ever since freshman year after sectionals,’’ he messaged. ‘‘It’s sad, but I’m just going to look forward and move on.’’

He signed a letter of intent for the bass-fishing team at McKendree University earlier this year.

Minooka senior Wyatt Pazdro, shown here with his family signing a letter of intent for McKendree University, will not have the chance to be the rare angler to make the state finals for bass fishing all four years because of the cancellation by the IHSA of all tournaments for spring sports and activities. Credit: Dale Bowman
Minooka senior Wyatt Pazdro, shown here with his family signing a letter of intent for McKendree University, will not have the chance to be the rare angler to make the state finals for bass fishing all four years because of the cancellation by the IHSA of all tournaments for spring sports and activities.
Dale Bowman

Wolfe, a network engineer, endeavored to bring bass fishing to Lincoln-Way Central so his son Zach, now a freshman, could compete on the team. It went quicker than Wolfe thought, and the Lincoln-Way Central Anglers Club was formed last school year.

Other parents can take encouragement from Wolfe’s journey to starting a bass-fishing team/club.

(In the small-world category, Wolfe drove Art Ferguson and me to Alsip for the practice launch when the 2000 BASS Master Classic was in Chicago.)

‘‘I started emailing the [athletic director] when our son was in seventh grade,’’ Wolfe said. ‘‘I figured with a two-year head start, I could get it done. The AD passed me to activities director Dustin Waddell.’’

Bass fishing is designated an activity, not a sport, by the IHSA.

They traded emails, and Waddell tried to reach out to teachers.

Just before Christmas in 2018, Wolfe got a meeting with Lincoln-Way (District 210) superintendent Scott Tingley. Wolfe came prepared with a three-page letter about how it would benefit the students academically and eight pages of bylaws.

‘‘He went to the bookshelf and came back with framed photographs of a giant catfish and a stringer of walleye,’’ Wolfe said. ‘‘Basically, he thought it was a great idea.’’

The next Tuesday was a board meeting.

‘‘He called me on Friday and said it was a go,’’ Wolfe said. ‘‘But [he asked], ‘One thing: Can you start it this year?’ ’’

Lincoln-Way Central Anglers Club coach Jeff Wolfe and his freshman son Zach fundraising in February at the Tinley Park Fishing Show. Credit: Dale Bowman
Lincoln-Way Central Anglers Club coach Jeff Wolfe and his freshman son Zach fundraising in February at the Tinley Park Fishing Show.
Dale Bowman

As a non-teacher, Wolfe was allowed to lead the fishing team/club, but he and anyone assisting had to go through fingerprinting and background checks.

‘‘All the paperwork a teacher fills out, we filled out,’’ Wolfe said.

He said 28 kids showed up for the first meeting, and ‘‘it has been snowballing since then.’’

It was a learning curve — for Wolfe and the students.

‘‘Very few had ever fished out of a boat before,’’ he said.

Non-anglers might wonder why that matters. Well, take throwing plastic baits. It is quite different being on shore and working a bait from deep water to shallow as compared to being on a boat and working it down from shallow to deep.

‘‘First time I got them on the water, it was a tournament, and I couldn’t touch the rods,’’ Wolfe said. ‘‘The next class was trying to illustrate fishing plastics off a boat. It was something I should have thought of before. Those of us who fished all our lives, we don’t even think of that.’’

At first, only Wolfe had a boat for the team.

Through a bunch of Facebook postings, Wolfe connected with Glenn Daugherity, a longtime angler who lived nearby. Daugherity would take a few kids fishing for big smallmouth bass in the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan in the summer.

This year, they have access to nine boats.

‘‘So this year, we were ready,’’ Wolfe said. ‘‘We had 12 tournaments we were going to fish this year. Then all this stuff took over. Hopefully, this is a one-time thing and not another recurrence of this event.’’

He had teacher Donna Cox volunteering this year and said he has high hopes for that.

‘‘I really want to see this sport branch off to have some girls involved,’’ Wolfe said.

And he dreams even bigger.

‘‘Hopefully, before my son leaves, I would love to have a Lincoln-Way tournament [among the three high schools],’’ he said.

Click here for more on the Lincoln-Way Central Anglers Club.

Fans, anglers and coaches lined up for takeoff in 2018 at the IHSA state finals for bass fishing on Carlyle Lake; there will be no state finals this spring. Credit: Dale Bowman
Fans, anglers and coaches lined up for takeoff in 2018 at the IHSA state finals for bass fishing on Carlyle Lake; there will be no state finals this spring.
Dale Bowman