Age, agility and experience was all that separated the anglers casting in the inaugural Junior Bassmaster World Championship from a similar competition universally accepted as the sport's most prestigious event. Otherwise, the gung-ho drive to win and the high stakes atmosphere mirrored the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.
And that ambiance was part of a plan that succeeded in raising the bar on youth involvement in bass fishing through the same fundamental principle on which BASS was founded long ago.
The junior pros, wearing neatly pressed and logo emblazoned tournament jerseys, followed the same stringent rules as the Classic pros. They got a taste of what it's like to fish under the limitation of time. They crossed the same weigh-in stage used by the pros to weigh their catches. They were interviewed by the media about their strategies. Some even signed autographs for fans. And they also faced the stark reality that comes with a professional bass fishing career - sometimes fishing is just plain tough.
The one day event was held in July on North Carolina's Lake Norman, just days before the Classic. The format divided 66 youths into two age divisions: 11 to 14, and 15 to 17. The contestants qualified from state, local or regional tournaments. Two youths from each age group were paired with one of 33 Classic pros who volunteered as mentors and boat captains to the youths. The pros piloted official Triton X-Series Limited Edition Classic boats to fishing spots and then took the backseat as the youths fished.
The two emerging winners were Sean Alarid, 15, of Oakley, Calif., and Bradley Roy, 13, of Lancaster, Ky. Each angler collected $5,000 in college scholarships from a total prize purse of $27,000. Alarid, of the Delta Teen Team, landed three 14-inch keepers for a weight of 6 pounds, 3 ounces. Roy, from the Junior Kentucky River Bassmasters, managed two fish weighing 3-15. Alarid's catch also included a 3-15 largemouth, earning him the $1,000 Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament award.
Alarid, who learned to drop shot at age 11, wisely applied the West Coast technique made for tough fishing on the stingy waters of Lake Norman, a highly pressured and popular fishery located in suburban Charlotte. His strategy was targeting fish holding near docks positioned near the deeper water of main lake points.
"I planned on drop shotting because probably not a lot of people do it out here," said Alarid, who articulated his words like a seasoned pro. "I want to someday fish in the Classic and in a way, now I've done it."
Roy chose a more textbook approach by casting a crankbait and plastic worm around riprap shorelines.
"Being around the pros, meeting them and learning from them was just awesome," said Roy, who'd already gained seven sponsors before the event. "I just came here to learn. I did that while having fun, and meeting new friends."
The pros freely admitted they were impressed by their understudies, among those Alarid's boat captain and mentor, Arkansan Mike McClelland.
"I had a preset idea of what I wanted to do on Lake Wylie for the Classic, and it didn't include drop shotting," he said. "But it made sense, obviously, even though he didn't catch a lot of fish with it."
McClelland was not alone in his praise for the skill and determination of the youths. "There is so much more information out there available to those kids than when I was their age," said veteran Gary Klein. "I wasn't even close to some of them in skill and knowledge at that age. It was an eye opener. They are very competitive and are interested in acquiring more knowledge about the sport. It's really impressive."
No stronger statement could have come from one 32-year-old pro who, as the son of Denny Brauer, was mentored by BASS fishing's all-time money winner.
"I wish this event had been around when I was their age," praised Missouri's Chad Brauer, the boat captain for Roy. "I guess it tells you about where the (BASS Chapter) Federation is headed with this program and how committed BASS is to the youth movement."
Neither Roy nor Alarid are tournament rookies. Both have competed since the age of seven in tournaments with their fathers, Steve Alarid and Anthony Roy.
"This is a great opportunity for getting youths into fishing," said Steve Alarid. "Teen-agers are easy to influence, but they also have a lot of distractions as they reach that age that opens the world up to them.
"What this does is give them a chance to pursue a goal, travel and be exposed to mature situations that will benefit them later in life."
And if they try hard enough, hoist a trophy years before they might again as adults in another world championship.
All it takes to join them now is membership in a BASS Federation Junior Chapter. For information on how to join, visit www.bassmaster.com or call BASS at 334-272-9530.