College: Inclusive bass fishing

CULLMAN, Ala. – There’s no doubt that Braden Ketchum has the best fishing name on Smith Lake this week at the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Tournament presented by Bass Pro Shops. 

His results on Day 1 of the event, however, were far from the best. The Texas-based angler caught three spotted bass on Thursday that totaled 5 pounds, 15 ounces which put him in a tie for 153rd of 250 teams competing in the three-day tournament.

But it’s no matter, Ketchum said, that he struggled to find keeper bites on Day 1. And he said it doesn’t matter that he’s fishing alone this week while almost every other angler entered in the tournament has a partner. Ketchum said all he can do is go back out on Smith Lake Friday hell bent on catching the biggest limit he can, and hope that it’s enough to get him into the cut to 12 at day’s end.

That’s a tall order for someone who trails the tournament leaders by nearly 13 pounds, but Ketchum is quite accustomed to overcoming obstacles, including one major hurdle he’s jumped every day of his life.

Ketchum was born completely deaf. He hasn’t heard a symphony, or the roar of a sports stadium crowd or, for that matter, the whine of outboard motors zipping across the slate-grey water at Smith Lake this week.

But in a world that favors those with five full senses, Ketchum, 18, has done remarkably well for himself. He graduated last year from the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, which is near his hometown of Buda, Texas, and he now is a freshman at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where he is majoring in biomedicine. There are more than 15,000 undergraduate students enrolled at RIT, 1,100 of whom are deaf or hearing impaired.

Ketchum is believed to be the first deaf angler to participate in a Bassmaster College Series event, but fishing is nothing new to him. His father Brett, who also is deaf, had Braden on the water when he was a grade-schooler, and he’s enjoyed the sport for as long as he can remember.

Braden also said being deaf is not a great disadvantage to him on the water.

“Fish don’t make noise when they’re swimming anyway, so it’s not really a challenge for me not being able to hear,” he signed to an interpreter.

“I’m pretty sure no one else can hear them either,” he continued, flashing a wide grin.

Braden flew from New York to Alabama to compete in the College Series event, while Brett trailered the bass boat from Texas to Smith Lake. Though he didn’t catch as many bass as he hoped on Thursday, Braden said he enjoyed spending the day competing.

He could have done without his line breaking more than once, which he indicated was an unwelcome outcome with wide eyes, a shake of his fist and by snapping imaginary fishing line in his hands. 

“It was frustrating,” he signed. “I hope to do better (Friday).” 

Hank Weldon, director for Bassmaster high school, college and junior series events, said having Ketchum in the field at Smith Lake indicates the inclusiveness of the sport.

“Whether you’re trying to compete at a high level or you’re just out having fun on a weekend, there’s something for everyone in bass fishing,” Weldon said.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or really where you live. And in Braden’s case, it doesn’t matter that you can’t hear. He’s out here competing and having fun, and that’s a fantastic thing.” 

Lucas Murphy and Mitchell Gunn of Grand Valley State University in Michigan lead the tournament after Day 1 with a five-bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 13 ounces. There’s a logjam atop the leaderboard, though, as 18 teams are within 5 pounds of first place.

In all, 74 schools from 28 different states are competing on Smith Lake, and 233 of 250 teams caught at least one bass on Thursday.

The full field took off from Smith Lake Park Friday starting at 7 a.m. The Day 2 weigh-in will begin at the park at 3 p.m. CT.

Make sure to follow for video from the weigh-in, photo galleries, stories and more. 

The tournament is hosted by the Greater Cullman (Ala.) Area Chamber of Commerce.

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