A full-circle experience

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — B.A.S.S. veteran pro Randy Howell’s off-season is devoted to making informal appearances before high school bass clubs throughout his home state of Alabama. 

What happened today at the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open #2 is best described as a full circle experience for Howell and his co-angler. 

On a winter evening in 2011 Howell spoke to the bass club at Hayden High School. Seated in the audience was junior Darien Craig. The meeting adjourned and the crowd followed Howell out the door as questions flowed and answers followed. Leading that enamored and eager group was Craig, founder and president of the newly organized club. 

Fast-forward in time by two years to today’s second round of competition on Douglas Lake. Darien Craig, now 19, had the shakes. And they lasted all day long. That’s because the young co-angler was paired with Howell, his mentor in the sport of pro bass fishing. 

“I remembered him when he called me last night about meeting up for today,” said Howell. “I’ve had some memorable days in my career, some wins and great catches, but this one I’ll always remember.”

“I had a decent day yesterday and ended up in fourth place,” added Craig. “But I was worried I’d get paired with somebody today that didn’t really know what they were doing.”

That doubt was erased when Craig learned his partner was Howell. Now, the shakes might continue tomorrow and for a different reason. Craig is in contention to win after moving into second place in the co-angler division. His two-day total stands at 19 pounds, 3 ounces, or just barely 3 pounds from the lead. 

Starting the Hayden High School bass club was a tough sell with the principle. He finally gave in and Craig organized the club from the ground up. Call him the Ray Scott of his school. Craig did all the paperwork and fulfilled all the necessary administrative duties required by the school. Recruiting members wasn’t such a challenge. Bass fishing has a strong past at this central Alabama high school. B.A.S.S. pro Gerald Swindle is a graduate and still lives in his hometown. 

The team came out strong from the start. It won the Alabama high school state championship under the leadership of Craig in both his junior and senior years. Hayden is recognized as a threat to win any tournament, including the state championship. 

That accolade isn’t an easy one to achieve two years in a row. Bass fishing is an extremely organized and competitive sport, thanks to the Alabama Student Angler Bass Fishing Association. It’s also recognized as the official organization for student anglers in the state of Alabama for grades 7-12. Governor Robert Bentley Jr. made it official by signing a bill approved by the state Legislature. 

There are some 50 high schools with clubs throughout the state. A preliminary round of four tournaments is held leading up to the state championship. Five boats with two anglers each are allowed from each competing school Competition is fierce. A recent Lake Guntersville competition attracted 210 boats. 

Craig now attends Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham. There’s a very intentional reason for his planned course of study. 

“My plan is to graduate with a marketing degree,” said Craig. “It’ll help me as I work toward becoming a full-time professional bass angler.”

Craig is fishing in his first Open event. If the scoreboard is any indication of his future he’s already well on his way to his goal. 

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