MANY, Louisiana – The typical high school experience often is populated by an interesting collection of individuals in varying stages of maturity; each person looking to make a mark and “fit in” in some particular way.
The 2018 Mossy Oak Bassmaster High School Central Open presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods was a lot like that too, except the nearly 500 teenagers that took part already have bass fishing as their common denominator.
Still, the high school anglers range widely in size and appearance. Some of the high school freshmen look like little jig-swimming cherubs; with arms too short for their winter jackets and stocking caps that seem ready to swallow their baby faces whole. Meanwhile, some of the oldest anglers look like they got lost on their way to a college tournament, with their five o’clock shadows for beards and their girlfriends’ pictures saving their cell phone screens.
The burgeoning youth movement in bass fishing has brought these two sometimes disparate age groups together, but it hasn’t particularly given the “seasoned veterans” a decided edge over the “rookies.” While the older competitors may have an edge in experience, their younger counterparts have proven they often already have the chops to compete when they reach the high school level.
“A lot of these kids started fishing competitively with us when they were 7 or 8 years of age,” said Jim Breaux, who along with his wife Cindy are directors of the Jr. Southwest Bassmasters of Denham Springs (LA.)
The Breauxs have 29 kids on their high school team that were eligible to fish the Central Open at Toledo Bend on January 28. They have another 95 on their junior squad who are champing at the bit awaiting their chance, as well.
“Our club has been in existence for eight years and these kids, once they’re in high school, they’ve already fished 40 tournaments,” Breaux said. “That experience has been an amazing help to them. To watch them grow and mature has been phenomenal. Their water sense is incredible at a young age.”
Dawson Andrews and Wyatt Ensminger are members of the Jr. Southwest Bassmasters of Denham Springs. They placed 16th of 242 duos in the Central Open with a five-bass limit that weighed 13 pounds, 1 ounce. That qualified them for the high school national championship this summer.
Andrews and Ensminger said their familiarity with one another and experience on the high school level (both are 17 years old and juniors at Central High School) are key to their success. They’ve fished three consecutive Central Opens on Toledo Bend.
“We’ve been fishing together since we were 7,” Andrews said. “When we first started, there was a learning curve. It was crankbaits and spinnerbaits all the time.”
Their skills have sharpened and the repertoire grown since then, Ensminger said.
“I wouldn’t say it gets easier, but you get more comfortable with the surroundings,” he said. “But it never gets old. You still get butterflies. And every tournament, you still learn something new, even if you don’t catch a fish.”
Connor Rushing and Cayden Reily are Jr. Southwest teammates and competed in the high school tournament for Central (LA) Private School. Both are 15-year old sophomores and they said it’s important to stay focused when competing against older or more-experienced anglers.
“I’m always getting butterflies,” said Rushing, who teamed with Reily to finish 48th overall at Toledo Bend. “It’s just a feeling you can’t get anywhere else. We were already qualified for nationals (through a state tournament,) so I think we may have been more relaxed here.”
“You get to work your nerves out in a place like Jr. Southwest Bassmasters,” he said. “You learn to fish with a partner. It gives you a head start.”
Scott Springer and Trust Say kept their heads about them even when BassTrakk showed they were trailing a few other teams on Jan. 28. The Chicago (Ill.) area duo kept plugging, however, and the diligence allowed Springer to hook into a 7-pounder that lifted him and Say to the Central Open title on Toledo Bend.
They’ve fished together for three years now, and are a study in the difference of personalities – Springer relishes and thrives in the spotlight, while Say “gets stagefright,” he said. Still, the combination worked for the 17-year old high schoolers who boated a 21-pound, 7-ounce limit and earned $40,000 in scholarship offers at Illinois’ McKendree University as a result of their victory.
“I normally don’t like the spotlight, but after all this attention and hearing the ‘Ooohs’ and “Aaahs’ today, I was stoked,” Say said.
Forrest Lagarde, a 14-year old freshman at Northlake Christian School in Covington, La. had a similar experience on Toledo Bend. Lagarde was fishing in only his second tournament and he didn’t catch a bass in three days of practice. He did catch a few bass on his fourth and final day of warm-up, but he struggled again through almost all of the one-day competition. Meanwhile, his teammate (17-year old junior Christopher Capdeboscq) had a limit of quality bass in the live well early on Toledo Bend.
“Christopher had done really well and they already were deciding which of the fish he was going to let Forrest hold on stage later that day,” said observer, coach and Christopher’s dad Richard Capdeboscq.
But that was before Lagarde caught the bass of his young life – an 8-pound, 4-ounce lunker that carried the Northlake Christian bag and vaulted the duo into second place with 19-4 overall.
“They both went Iaconelli-esque when Forrest caught that bass,” Richard Capdeboscq said. “They were hooting and hollering and going crazy. Forrest was on the floor of the boat. He was so excited…It was our last fish of the day and it made all the difference to him; to both of the boys, really.”
Lagarde said getting skunked for most of the competition had him dejected, but his one big catch imbued him with the desire to continue honing his bass-fishing skills.
“The Rat-L-Traps and Carolina rigs that were catching at Toledo Bend, it was in deeper water and that was all new to me,” he said. “I’m mostly a bank fisherman. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But that big fish boosted my confidence, for sure.”
Jim Breaux said that sort of altering experience is important for young anglers.
“The kids are gung-ho about this and they want to win,” he said. “Some of them don’t have the physical skills to play basketball or football, but they can hold a fishing rod. And that’s where it starts. That bass doesn’t care one bit who’s holding the other end of the rod.”