The Illinois High School Association voted unanimously to sanction a state bass fishing championship in the spring of 2009. Efforts have been launched to secure sponsors, said Terry Brown of the Bloomington-based , a main advocate of the move.
Brown, a successful regional tournament angler and bass educator, hopes to make the program self-supporting. The fishing industry, realizing action is needed to offset declining participation in the sport, is willing to ante up, he said. At the same time, nonfishing-related companies realize that angling remains one of the most popular outdoor activities, and anglers comprise a major segment of the population, he said.
Dave Gannaway, IHSA's assistant executive director, said the seed of the program came about seven years ago as IHSA staff members kicked around ideas to reach kids not involved in school-based sports programs. The plan took shape during an afternoon fishing trip Brown and Gannaway took a few years ago.
They approached the IHSA board and received a go-ahead to test the waters starting in mid-2007. He and Gannaway were astounded by the positive response when they floated the concept to high school athletic directors. About half of the more than 700 high schools statewide have asked for more information.
"We've had quite a bit of interest up and down the state -- e-mails from students, faculty members, bass clubs wanting to know how to get involved. It's really blossomed quite a bit since the board started looking at this concept seven months ago," Gannaway said.
"The level of support for a bass fishing tournament, from both our membership and from other non-school groups, has demonstrated clearly to our board that this event is one with potential tremendous value to our schools," IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. "Implementing such an activity will enable our schools to provide another opportunity for students that will enrich their educational experience and keep with the Association's mission."
Brown envisions eight sectional tournaments around the state sending one or two anglers to the championship, which likely will be held on a public lake in Central Illinois, perhaps Lake Shelbyville. Schools could hold their own local tournaments or arrange matches with other schools to hone their fishing skills.
Expert advice and boats will be provided by adult mentors from area fishing clubs who can offer suggestions and run the boats, but they cannot fish.
Brown and Gannaway noted several reasons school-sanctioned fishing tournaments are a good idea:
-- Not everyone can play physical mainstream sports like football or basketball. Fishing is low impact and levels the playing field.
Both boys and girls would be encouraged to take part, he said. Many physically disabled youngsters also can fish very successfully, he added.
-- Unlike other sports, fishing can be linked to classroom studies. A curriculum could include natural resource conservation, fish behavior and other related science topics.
"Kids have to understand our natural resources are not forever," Brown said. "We have to figure out ways to get people interested in them."
Gannaway added nonscience studies also can be included, such as English and poetry when students express their experiences on the water in words.
-- At a time when obesity is rampant among kids, getting children away from video games and taking part in activities they can enjoy their entire lives is a must.
"I think it is, number one, a great way to get people away from the television set. It makes them more rounded. That's what I live for, the passion for the outdoors."
"I'm not into (angling) competition," added Gannaway, who has fished since he was a boy. "I do enjoy it, and I do enjoy the outdoors. The biggest part is the peace and serenity of the outdoors. I hope that's the love that transfers on from a project like this."
-- Finally, competitive fishing offers a thrill that round ball just can't.
"It's the challenge to catch things you can't see," Brown said.
Scott Richardson is Pantagraph outdoor editor. Contact him at (309) 820-3227 or e-mail . Share stories and read past outdoor and fishing columns at .
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