Illinois tests the water on high school fishing

Illinois has set the precedent

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Illinois has set the precedent. Now other states are waiting to see how high school bass fishing will play out.

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Bass Fishing State Series is slated to begin this spring, and so far, preliminary numbers appear promising. Of the state's 775 schools, more than 25 percent (214) have registered to field fishing teams.

"We were uncertain what to expect, but we are certainly pleased with 214, and we think by the time we actually get around to the events that we will have a few more schools," continued Marty Hickman, IHSA executive director.

Schools can still register for the series, which opens with sectional tournaments April 24 on designated lakes throughout the state. The state finals will be May 8-9 at Carlyle Lake.

Some schools have already held informal tournaments. An eight-school contest was staged at Shabonna Lake in October. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, that event drew 15 boats from Amboy, Batavia, East Peoria, Marengo, Marmion, Morris, Peoria Christian and Taft high schools.

Adam Galardini of the Batavia team caught the only keeper of the tournament, a 3.1-pound largemouth.

A wide range of high schools will be competing in the state's first full season later this year. Hickman said the new program "has really attracted a diverse group of schools and students. We have everything from very urban schools to very rural schools. We also have an all-girls private school."

Nineteen young girls from Regina Dominican High School, a women's college preparatory Catholic school in Wilmette, signed up for the chance to compete in the bass fishing series.

"The interest level is really high because it is the first time the activity has been offered," said Casey Kelly, the school's new bass fishing coach. "A lot of the girls have fishing experience, but they don't have per se bass fishing experience.

"We meet twice a week for two hours after school," said Kelly, a member of the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation's North Shore Bass Anglers. "We go over different skills such as rigging and knots and casting practice. We will be doing that from now until it gets warmer and we can get out on the water."

Because many of the girls lack bass fishing experience, Kelly consulted with Fred Iantorno, Illinois B.A.S.S. Federation Nation president, who encouraged Kelly to hold multispecies outings and gradually make the transition to bass. "We are going to focus exclusively on bass when it comes to the regional events," said Kelly, who also plans on waiting for warm weather before holding any events.

"The whole idea now is to get the girls encouraged by giving them a great experience the first time out."

Adult volunteers across the state are helping spur interest in the new program. "The bass clubs have been wonderful," said Hickman. "Clubs are out there offering boats, coaches, lessons and all kinds of things."

Corporate sponsorship has been lacking, though, as only Country Financial, a longtime backer of IHSA activities, and Plano Molding Co. have offered support for the program. "A lot of people are interested and talk to us about it. But not many folks have come on board to actually provide some sponsorship opportunities," said Hickman.

While meeting with eight other high school association directors from the Midwest last December, Hickman noticed their interest in the sanctioned bass fishing concept.

"I think we will have some of those states represented at our tournament just to see how it plays out. I wouldn't be surprised to see a few states from the central part of the country move forward with it, and I think over a period of time we will see several more states probably get involved in something like this."