College anglers have fished the Bassmaster Elite Series for several years now, but recent wins by graduates have made the B.A.S.S. folks who run the Carhartt College Series proud.
“Most definitely. We take a lot of personal satisfaction in their success,” said Hank Weldon, senior manager of college, high school and juniors. “There’s a lot of hard work from a lot of people to make things run.”
Weldon’s one of the driving forces. The son of long-time B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon, the chip off Trip takes on many roles – he’s the head of college recruitment, the registrar, dean of college and speaker (emcee) all rolled up into one.
“Hank puts his heart and soul into the college,” said B.A.S.S. Nation director Jon Stewart, to whom Weldon reports.
In explaining the significance of a college pedigree, Weldon recalled a talented group of anglers at one of his first college bracket events, which have sent collegians to the Classic since 2012. Matt and Jordan Lee of Auburn, Dustin Connell of Alabama and Zach Birge of Oklahoma State fished against one another, and all have since graduated to seek advanced degrees, with two recently recording major firsts.
Jordan Lee won the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods in March, and Connell just won the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Ross Barnett.
“I’m just super proud of both of them,” Weldon said. “Some serious talent rolled out that year of the bracket.”
There are around a dozen or so graduates of the college program who’ve made the grade and currently fish on the Elite Series. Weldon admits there’s a shared sense of achievement among B.A.S.S. workers, and even moreso when one of their former anglers excels.
The college events can be looked at like Bass Fishing 101. For many young anglers, the competitions were among their first lessons in tournament fishing. The more they answered roll call, the more they prepared to wear the cap and gown.
“I kind of look at it that we’ve helped trained these guys to compete in multiple-day events,” Weldon said. “We put them on diverse fisheries, they deal with sponsors, develop stage presence. College competition is about as close to the big time as they can get.”
The idea for college competitions started inauspiciously in 2006 with six teams and has grown to more than 230 schools, with the likes of Bethel University (the first) and others offering scholarships. Stewart said Weldon is one reason for the growth.
“Hank goes to schools and talks to all sorts of folks,” he said. “At the office, he’s always on the phone talking to advisors, faculty that are interesting in getting their club signed up. Half his days are just getting schools to join us. From the numbers, he’s doing a great job. That’s what’s impressive.”