Junior Bassmasters making the grade

CELEBRATION, Fla. — Junior Bassmasters have come up through the ranks, and now these fishing machines are competing against adults — and winning!

In fact, three well-known youngsters — Joey Nania, Zack Shaff and Zach Alexander — will be competing as adults next year in the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Divisionals presented by Yamaha and Skeeter. Nania and Shaff won berths on the Washington state team, and Alexander made it onto the Utah team.

Alexander made the state team as a boater by finishing in fifth place in the state qualifier tournament July 31-Aug. 2 at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The 17-year-old angler, who has qualified for and competed in three Junior Bassmaster World Championship (JWC) events, lost the 2006 JWC by only 1 ounce. But that close call and his other experiences in the junior program have better prepared him for adult competition.

"The small scale tournaments we had [in juniors] prepared me to fish in a tournament format," said Alexander. "Competitive fishing is a lot different than just fishing because there are so many other factors you have to consider, such as time management and decision-making on the water, and that is all stuff you have to learn. So the juniors just shorten the learning curve."

Nania won both the 2005 and 2008 JWC, and he has won the Washington state junior competition five times. He has built a reputation as both a good angler and a generous young man, donating guided fishing trips to The Rypien Foundation to raise thousands of dollars for the cancer-fighting organization.

Nania's father, Joel, sees the Junior Bassmaster program participants' ascension into the adult ranks as proof that the program is producing top prospects for the Federation Nation.

"This is a statement that the Junior Bassmaster program works and moves these kids along," said Joel Nania. "We have had several experiences — and so have other states — where their kids are starting to be recognized as athletes. The more that we can fill in that gap so that they don't have to blaze a trail every time, the more kids will be able to get involved into different stages of fishing, whether it's Junior Bassmasters, college or the adult Federation Nation."

Stacy Twiggs, senior manager of B.A.S.S. Federation Nation youth, concurs. "They get over the intimidation factor at a young age and that puts them at another level when they are 18 or 19 years old," said Twiggs. "The fishing part they already know, but [in the Junior Bassmaster program] they learn the fundamentals of a tournament," he added, referring to launch and weigh-in procedures and briefings and pairing meetings.

Nania, Shaff and Alexander are not the first Junior Bassmasters to move up to the state teams. In fact, last year, Bradley Roy of Kentucky and Brandon Palaniuk of Idaho made it to the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship. But expect these three young men to be far from the last of Junior Bassmaster competitors to excel in adult tournament fishing.

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