Between them they were responsible for more hook-ups at the Bassmaster Classic than any other angler, and next weekend they travel to two states to hook twice as many as they hit events at two locations at once.
Most weekends cabinet-maker Jeff Collins, 57, works with his childhood friend, Rex Hammons, 58, to help get kids hooked on fishing. The impact of what they’ve been doing nearly every weekend since Hammons launched his Outdoors Sports International 18 years ago is hard to fathom.
“It slows down a little in the middle of winter, sure, but it’s pretty much every weekend, sometimes two places at once,” Collins said. “There are an awful lot of kids out there who caught their first fish in the middle of a parking lot.”
Hammon’s 20- by 30-foot “pond,” which held 6,000 gallons of water and 350 pounds of hungry catfish, was a central feature of the Shell Bassmaster Get Hooked on Fishing event presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
Outside the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, site of the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo, kids lined up to fish the pond 10 at a time for five minutes at a time. Collins sometimes “assisted” one of the littlest anglers so a 5-minute period never passed without at least one catch. Often there were two or three or more.
The secret, he said, is holding the bait – typically a piece of deep red Berkeley Power Worm on a barbless hook, sometimes tipped with a bit of real earthworm – absolutely still.
“You get a lot of Dad’s that want to help and they’ll want them to wiggle it,” he said. “A catfish is a bottom feeder, it’s lazy, it doesn’t want to work for its food.”
The biggest fish, catfish in the 17- to 18-inch range, went on a measuring board and each hour Collins presented trophies that were Academy blue with a frosted plastic bass on top with the engraving, “FUTURE BASSMASTER, Houston, Texas 2017.”
The pond opened 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily through the Classic. On Friday the pond saw the efforts of 850 Houston Independent School District elementary school students. Because so many had to move through in the space of 4 hours, they only were able to fish for about 2 minutes each – still, several caught fish.
Collins said they’ve been to full-day events at schools where they’ve had 1,000 to 1,200 a day at the pond as part of community educational efforts.
During open events like Saturday and Sunday at the Classic, some kids will make a day of it at the pond.
“I’ve seen kids, a lot of times at events, they finish and get right back in line and go through again and again all day long,” Collins said. “I’ve got absolutely no problem with that.”
Hammons has four enclosed travel trailers with complete setups ready to roll at all times under the business name Outdoor Sports International. The pond doubles as an opportunity for kids and, because it is such a draw, is a promotional feature at events as well.
“Today I’m on the microphone and telling people about the whole event, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Academy, Shell Rotella, the Wildlife Center, the Super Retriever Series everything,” Collins said.
They travel mostly to Academy Sports + Outdoors openings and events. The weekend after the Classic, Collins would take a unit to North Carolina while Hammons traveled to Missouri.
Hammons said it started as an idea to help introduce kids to fishing. He never expected it to take off so fast. “It became a full-time job pretty quickly,” he said.
The genesis of these ponds – and the men are the first to point out they’re not the only ones who do it – goes back many years.
“We all went to the same church as kids and we fished together,” Hammons said.
“We were the ones with the five-gallon buckets and fishing poles headed to the creek,” Collins said.
It was Hammons, Collins and Barry Stokes of Fox Sports Southwest Outdoors. For years Hammons and Stokes teamed up to do a show called Outdoors Trails.
“What we noticed everywhere we went was all the fishermen were older guys like us,” Hammons said. “We needed to come up with a way to get more kids introduced to fishing.”
He designed the large tanks with enough water to circulate to keep fish healthy for a few days, but with low enough walls to accommodate young anglers. He learned to work with fish farms and local communities well in advance of events to make sure good quality farm-raised fish were delivered at each site and that they had a place to go afterwards. Usually the fish are donated to a food bank or local fire department or church, Collins said.
Eighteen years and counting, and there really is no stopping.
“How can you stop?” Hammons said.
His son-in-law, Jordan Godby, has been helping the past eight years and is in position to keep the ponds going.
“It’s fun for us, too. Yesterday I helped a kid, he was 7 or 8 years old, and he was so excited, he said it was the first fish he ever caught. That’s what it’s all about,” Godby said.