LUFKIN, Texas — You heard it on the weigh-in stage … you heard it at takeoff … you heard it around the dinner table: “These kids are the future Elites.”
“These kids” were the 12 members of the 2017 Bassmaster All-American High School Fishing Team presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, and the ones singing their praises were current anglers in the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Editor’s note: See photos of the All-Americans’ day fishing.
The pros should know. A dozen of them spent the better part of a day fishing with the high school anglers in a special fun-fishing tournament on Lake Naconiche near here. They were impressed by the youngsters’ skills and knowledge about fishing.
Darrel Ocamica of Fruitland, Idaho, a rookie in the Elites by way of the B.A.S.S. Nation, may have said it best: “Some of these guys are going to take some checks away from some of the Elite pros in a few years.”
Another Idahoan, Brandon Palaniuk of Hayden, was just as complimentary of his high school partner, Oakley Connor of Travelers Rest, S.C. He should be — the two of them won the low-key competition with 12 pounds, 3 ounces of bass. Each angler was allowed to count his single heaviest bass.
“It was a team effort,” Palaniuk said. “I caught a 4 1/2-pounder on a 1-ounce jig and then told him to concentrate on the trees lying sideways. He tied that jig on, and then he started whipping me. He caught a 5 and then a few feet later, he caught that 6-5 we weighed in.”
Palaniuk’s big bass, a 4-14, gave the pair a 2-pound winning margin over the second team, Dalton Combs of Ozark, Mo., and Skylar Hamilton of Dandridge, Tenn., who had 10-3. Colby Miller of Elmer, La., and Shane Lineberger of Lincolnton, N.C., were third with 9-8.
“These kids get better and better every year,” added Palaniuk, who has volunteered to fish with an All-American high schooler all three years since the program’s inception. “They’ll be in the Elites soon. It amazes me how good they are, how focused they can be on the water at such an early age.”
The All-American tournament was held on Saturday, May 20, an off-day from fishing during the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Approaching the fourth and final round the following day, Palaniuk had a scant, 2-ounce lead over Brent Ehrler.
Although he had volunteered to help with the All-American event, he was offered the chance to back out. He didn’t hesitate. “I had somebody take me out when I was really young, not even in high school yet,” he explained. “Every chance I get to take some of these kids out, I try to do it. I wouldn’t be here today if that person hadn’t taken me out.”
“This,” he said, referring to the High School All-American program, “is making a positive impact on our sport.” His risk was rewarded. Palaniuk went on to win Texas Fest on Sam Rayburn Reservoir the next day.
Being named an All-American and especially having a chance to fish alongside an Elite pro were hugely important to the youngsters. For example, Reese Jones of Rogers, Ark., had to miss his high school graduation ceremonies, which were held the same weekend.
Although his mother, Cheri Jones, had misgivings about skipping graduation, Reese was adamant. “I wanted to be here,” he reported. “I said, ‘We’re going down to Texas and we’re fishing!’”
As a compromise, Cheri acquired a cap and gown for Reese to wear as he crossed the weigh-in stage at the George H. Henderson Jr. Expo Center Saturday. He would only wear the cap, though.
“There’s no way he would cover up his All-American jersey with a gown,” his mother said.
Through a random drawing, Jones was paired with Elite angler Brett Preuett. “He invited me up front with him,” Jones said. “I caught a 3-pounder on a jig I had tied, and he said, ‘Give me one of those!’ I did and he started catching fish.” For his part, Jones was grateful for lessons he received about frog fishing, and it was inspiring for him to fish with Preuett, a recent Bassmaster Classic qualifier from the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series ranks.
Tyler Lubbat of Wheeling, Ill., who fished with Ocamica, also had an obstacle to overcome to reach the All-American tournament. When he and his parents, Cris and Debi, walked out of their home to drive to the airport on Friday, they saw that a 60-foot fir tree had fallen overnight, crushing both their vehicles.
Without hesitating, they ordered an Uber ride and made it to the airport in time.
Veteran Elite Series angler Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas, also has volunteered for the event every year.
“My hat’s off to B.A.S.S. for doing this,” Klein said. “I know what it would have meant to me to have a program like this.
“Here we have 12 All-Americans, and most people don’t realize what they went through to get here, not only on the fishing side but on the educational side, too. This is very rewarding to me. It’s neat to see so many young anglers being introduced to a sport that I’m so passionate about.”
Klein, who burst onto the B.A.S.S. circuit at age 19, winning the Arizona Invitational on Lake Powell and nearly beating Roland Martin out of Angler of the Year the same season, has a high opinion of his partner, Jared Gobel of Lumberton, Texas. “This kid, with a flip stick and a 1/2-ounce jig in his hand, he’s pretty lethal,” Klein said. “He caught more fish and bigger fish than I did, and I was trying to keep up with him.” The pair had a respectable total of 7-13, including Klein’s 3-6 and Gobel’s 4-7.
Jesse Tacoronte of Orlando, Fla., and Bryer Pennington, a junior from Prescott, Ark., weren’t far behind with 3-4 for Tacoronte and 4-4 for Pennington. Through his tackle company, Enigma Fishing, Tacoronte sponsors the 162-member Osceola Anglers club.
“As soon as I heard about the High School All-American tournament, I said, ‘I’m in!’ If we don’t support them, we’re doing ourselves an injustice and we’re doing our youth an injustice,” he declared.
The fact that most of the high school students caught bigger bass than their partners is partly due to their fishing abilities, but it says even more about the Elite pros, most of whom invited their partners to fish up front with them and gave them at least an equal shot at the prime targets.
Presented with the opportunities, though, the youngsters had to execute. After following some of the pairs on Lake Naconiche along with photographer Seigo Saito, I can attest that those young men can hold their own in any competition.
I watched Perry Marvin of Peru, N.Y., paired with David Williams of Newton, N.C., fling long, underhand casts to shoreline grass, settling his bait into teacup-sized openings with barely a ripple. I saw Logan Parks of Auburn, Ala., fishing with Bradley Roy of Lancaster, Ky., pick apart a logpile with his flipping jig, hauling a keeper out of the mix after his partner had already fished through the spot.
“He kicked my butt all day,” Roy acknowledged on the weigh-in stage. The two each weighed in 3-pounders. “I’m a product of the program,” added Roy, who cut his competitive teeth in the B.A.S.S. Nation’s Junior Bassmaster program before going on to compete in high school and college events.
Hamilton is another young pro with a heart for high school fishing and high praise for the All-Americans. “I’m only five years older than he is,” he said, referring to Combs. “His skill levels are so far ahead of where mine were at his age.”
All the teams caught numerous bass during a storm-interrupted day, but no one was able to land one of the giant bass Lake Naconiche is noted for producing. It gave up a 13-plus pound Toyota ShareLunker bass in February, and the lake record is reported to be heavier than 16 pounds.
Other teams participating were Cade Fortenberry of Prairieville, La., and Koby Kreiger of Bokeelia, Fla.; Trace O’Dell of Buna, Texas, and James Niggemeyer of Van, Texas; Kyle Palmer of Estill Springs, Tenn., and Jared Lintner of Arroyo Grande, Calif.
The 12 student anglers were selected for All-American honors by judges who reviewed more than 380 nominations from 40 states. The program, now in its third year, recognizes outstanding young anglers in grades 10 through 12 for excellence in bass tournament competition, leadership, community service and academics.
Read more about the Bassmaster High School All-American anglers on Bassmaster.com and look for their profiles in the September/October issue of Bassmaster Magazine.