HUNTINGDON, Tenn. – I’ve covered the Bassmaster Junior Championship for a few years now, and it without question is one of my favorites to both work and attend.
That’s noteworthy, I guess, because I’ve traveled quite a bit of the U.S. during the past 20-plus years to cover fishing tournaments of all kinds, most of them B.A.S.S. events.
I’ve followed the Elites on tour and in the Bassmaster Classic where they longed to cement their place atop the sport, and I’ve watched collegians and high schoolers and team anglers, many of whom want nothing more than their own chance to fish against those pros one day.
But what makes the junior championship special?
It’s a number of things, really.
I’m fascinated by kids like Bo Hollen and Ari Clark, a pair of 9-year olds from West Virginia who make up one of the 62 tandems competing in the two-day national championship this week on the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreation Lake. Neither of the boys can be seen over the podium on stage in downtown Huntingdon, because, well, because they’re 9. They’re little kids, but they have a focus that some adults struggle to find.
Don’t believe me? Consider that Bo began fishing with his dad Dustin at age 4, but he’s only entered two youth tournaments in his life. His debut came in the West Virginia Junior B.A.S.S. Nation Championship where he and Clark finished second. That qualified the boys for this week’s national event, which brings us to the grand total of two tournaments to their credit.
On Tuesday, though, Hollen and Clark looked much more experienced after they caught a five-bass limit that weighed 9 pounds 7 ounces. Compared to what even high schoolers catch, that’s not a whole lot of weight. But remember, these aren’t a whole lot of kids, physically at least.
But 9-7 was good enough for fourth place overall heading into the second and final day of the junior championship. They’re nearly five pounds behind 13-year old North Carolina juniors Hunter Alexander and Hayden Hammond, who lead with 14-4 caught on Tuesday.
Bo Hollen caught a 4-10 largemouth, also on Tuesday, which was one of the heaviest bass on Day 1. His dad beamed as brightly as his boy did when young Bo held his big bass aloft for the crowd in downtown Huntingdon to see.
Most adults are keenly aware of cameras and crowds, but some kids don’t let such things faze them. Hollen and Clark surely didn’t, and they also didn’t flinch when they saw their competition was overwhelmingly bigger and more mature. The B.A.S.S. Junior program is open to students through eighth grade, and there are many kids competing at nationals who are five or six years older than the runners-up from West Virginia.
Hollen (who only turned 9 last month) and Clark (who won’t be 10 until October) easily are the youngest duo in the tournament. There are a few competitors this week who are a couple feet taller than the kids from West Virginia’s Mon Valley Bassmasters.
“They see these older boys they’re up against, but they put their heads down and caught fish,” Dustin Hollen told me after Tuesday’s weigh-in.
We don’t think of age often when we talk about professional anglers. An 18-year old may not have the wisdom of a 50-year old, but all that matters at the end of the day is what’s on the end of the line. Catch the right fish and you have a chance to win.
The same holds true for junior anglers. Hollen and Clark might be the smallest guys at the tanks this week, but they’ve already have one of the biggest bags on the board.
And when dueling with giants, both on and off the water, that’s powerful stuff.