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High school fishing league making waves statewide

The Detroit Lakes high school fishing team photo will be much larger this year as the team doubled participation numbers after only one season on the water. Submitted photo

Non-traditional high school sports like trap shooting and archery have grown exponentially the past half-decade and the relatively new high school fishing league is making waves across the state and here locally.

The Detroit Lakes team begins its second season in late May and will do so with more than 40 anglers, up from 22 that participated last year, according to head coach Ryan Ziegler.

Ziegler started the team himself and after an initial parent meeting a board was formed. Ziegler had connections with the Brainerd team and received assistance on how to proceed through legalities and start-up issues.

“Brainerd was a big help in getting this going and they are willing to step up to help anybody get going across the state,” said Ziegler. “We’re just always trying to get more kids. If we double again next year it’s going to be amazing.”

William Knoop was awarded DL's Angler of the Year in 2018.

The growth potential exists. Brainerd has upwards of 150 kids on their team. With a smaller area here, that is an unlikely number to hit but matching the growth ratio each year is definitely possible.

The sport is not sanctioned through the Minnesota State High School League, but the trapshooting league started the same way and huge growth made it easy for the MSHSL to sponsor with over 14,000 kids participating last year.

The DL fishing team was formed mostly by word-of-mouth and team officials worked with the school to distribute information. Kids on the team are members of the Student Angler Federation which provides insurance at events.

There are 12 events in a season, usually one every week beginning the third week of May. Five events are in the Heart O’ Lakes (HOL) league and seven to eight with the Student Angler Tournament Trail (SATT).

Despite being an activity that is mostly held outside the school year, the coaches employ individual fishing contests for prizes and offer incentives based on grades.

“We still push our kids doing stuff throughout the year,” said Ziegler. “It’s not just about fishing and having fun. We’re also trying to work in something to get kids to do better in school.”

Kids who participate in the SATT events can get access to some of the biggest fishing lakes in the state from Lake Minnetonka to Mille Lacs and Gull Lake.

The HOL is a multi-species league. The SATT is bass fishing only. The league is more about introducing kids to fishing with competition. Kids that want more competition can elect to move up and fish the tournament trail.

Jack Hines, pictured, and his partner Beau Boehne fished the SATT and qualified for the Tournament of Champions in 2018.

The HOL added six teams for a total of 20 with other schools on the outside wanting in, according to HOL league board chair Phil Jensen.

Jensen also coaches the Hawley team and verifies similar growth rates in his area.

“Every team we’re talking to is growing,” he said.

Jensen estimates the league having more than 400 kids involved by the end of the summer.

“We’re in the best place in the country to do this, to be honest,” said Jensen. “Even then, we’ve got teams from Breckenridge, Herman-Norcross and West Central Area. We are getting some of those fringe schools that are interested and they’re willing to drive to fish.”

The first year saw two divisions in the league, north and south. With expansion, teams will now be grouped between three to four schools to equalize angler numbers. The teams will fish different lakes for four weeks. A number of anglers, like the top 10, will be selected from each group to fish for a league championship at the end of the season.

Kids fish for walleyes, northerns, crappie, sunfish and bass in a catch, record and release format. Fish are measured and the length is converted to a point system.

Anglers fish two to three per boat with an adult boat captain. Last year, a typical HOL event had around 60 boats on each lake.

“We look for lakes with good populations of all five species and is there enough accessibility to get that many boats in and out in a reasonable amount of time,” said Jensen.

Corporate sponsorship has aided with costs at all three levels, but what is at the heart of the success is the many volunteers to get events going.

“It’s amazing how many people have stepped up and volunteered to help,” Jensen said. “If a tournament has 120 kids participating, 40-60 boat captains are needed, along with people on shore to help with parking, scoring and preparing and serving food.”

The SATT started a year ago with six events and 1,200 students going through the program. SATT donated $23,000 in scholarships at the tournament of champions and gave $15,000 back to teams throughout the state by way of a raffle fundraiser.

This year the trail of tournaments is up to eight events, ranging from 100 to 150 teams with all of them expected to be filled.

SATT tourneys are catch, record, release also and the tournament uses the Classic Bass app to track live results. Students can leave from any access on a lake for safety reasons and also to take pressure off the accesses for the locals.

Fishing begins at 7 a.m. and goes until 2 p.m. and anglers can track their results all day long.

Registration is opened for each event on a first-come, first-served basis, no qualification is needed. Tournaments are held on bigger lakes due to the number of boats on the water to accommodate 150 anglers.

“One of the challenges we ran into last year was on Lake Minnetonka. We had 150 teams, so that’s 300 anglers plus 150 boat captains,” said Jimmy Bell, president for the Student Angler Organization and vice president and CEO of SATT.

Like the trap shooting league, officials have had to adapt on the fly with such fast growth. Finding space both on and off lakes has been an issue. At the first informational meeting of the SATT, over 600 people showed up, according to Bell.

SATT pays DNR permits for events voluntarily, despite it not being necessary with nearly all anglers under 18 years of age.

Waylon Lekatz

“We do it because we can impact if somebody else is going to hold a tournament on a lake,” said Bell. “We wanted the DNR to know where we’re going.”

SATT leadership has met twice with MSHSL officials also.

“We’ll continue to grow. We’re working very hard with the MSHSL right now,” said Bell.

The fishing league has a blueprint in how to successfully do that and is pursuing a state-sponsored agreement with MSHSL like trap shooting, rather than becoming a fully sanctioned sport.

State-sponsorship allows more flexibility.

“Say, for instance, if we want to have a morning prayer before everyone goes out, we can do that,” said Bell. “Another option is allowing kids to wear sponsors on their jerseys.”

Bell hopes by 2020 the MSHSL will be involved in a state championship.

“Once that happens, it will grow very rapidly,” he said.

MSHSL sponsorship will allow for conferences and regional divisions.

One main hurdle is at the base level of competition at fishing events. Where one person can assist around 10-20 shooters in trap, fishing requires a one to two ratio.

“The restrictor for us is boat captains. We need one adult for every two anglers,” said Bell.

A major factor in attracting volunteers for those duties has come from the kids and their relatives.

“It’s an amazing thing what we’ve seen kids from in these two sports,” said Bell. “All these kids grew up with technology. Outdoors is the new, cool thing to be doing and they’re 100 percent re-engaging their families.”

The fishing league began with less than 20 teams four years ago and is pushing 150 teams with at least 30 more anticipated to join this year.

“It grew a lot faster than we ever dreamed of,” said Jensen. “We love the sport and want more kids to be interested in it. We all had somebody that took us fishing and we feel it’s our way of giving back. Plus, some of these kids don’t have any other opportunity to go fish and we have those kids that have fishing in the family. We’ve covered both ends of the spectrum.”

Robert Williams

Sports Editor at the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Williams worked prior as the Sports Editor in Perham for the Focus, a Forum Communications newspaper, from 2010-14. 

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