Story by Mallory Tucker, Staff writer
It’s 6 a.m. It’s chilly, foggy and windy as hundreds of athletes surround the edge of a lake, preparing for the long day ahead of them. The sound of idling boat engines acts as white noise as each boat number is called, selected the night before by random draw.
One takes off, then another, each angler donning a lifejacket as they speed into miles and miles of lake water in search of the five biggest bass. For eight hours they navigate the depths of green water, scanning endlessly with sonar equipment that costs thousands of dollars on boats that cost triple that.
As Murray State’s anglers take off, they have more than that day’s tournament on their mind. They have a reputation to uphold. Boasting the largest team in the nation with around 65 members, Murray State’s Bass Angler’s club ranks 20th in the nation, according to BassRankings.com, and finished second in the Boat U.S. sanctioned Cabela’s Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship 2015.
Cast after cast, the anglers attempt to reel in the heaviest fish. Just a day before, each competitor scanned the lake, taking seasonal patterns into consideration as they attempted to find the sweet spot, the pot of gold where schools of pass had migrated. Whereas most people fish for recreation, these athletes are fishing with much more at stake. Investing as much money as they could win into lures, rods and other equipment, they have turned a hobby into a full-fledged competition.
“I usually don’t eat, drink, nothing,” said Evan Smith, senior angler from Louisville, Kentucky, and vice president of the Murray State Bass Anglers Club. “For eight hours. From six ‘til four, I won’t sit down, I won’t eat. I’m constantly moving.”
“It takes lots of casts,” chimed in Andrew Mohlenbrock, senior angler from Marion, Illinois “Doing that 1,000 times a day – or over 1,000 – It’s just constant. Our backs, our arms – most professional fishermen have a lot of back problems.”
For such a popular sport, awareness is still low. Fishing tournaments average hundreds of boats on the water, with prize money awarded depending on the tournament’s setup. Some events pay out a percentage of the top anglers, while others have monetary reward for the top five.
And for Murray State’s club team, these winnings are crucial. 20 percent of each winning is donated back to the club for funding, while 80 percent is kept by the individual, since the Murray State Bass Anglers are somewhat independent of the institution, going so far as to use their own logo on their jerseys.
They don’t receive any funding from the University, so these winnings, in addition to their independent fundraising efforts, pay for all travel and entry fees. Additionally, bass angling does not fall under any NCAA regulations, which allows them to collect sponsorships from businesses.
“We have a lot of sponsors,” Smith said. “We have these title sponsors and sometimes people will give us thousands of dollars just for putting logos on our jerseys.”
The Bass Anglers are, however, treated as student athletes in other ways. When a tournament requires competitors to miss classes, they are counted as excused absences. These absences are usually on Thursdays or Fridays, as tournaments are weekend affairs. In the fall, the anglers usually compete in around eight tournaments, while during the spring peak season the athletes compete in upward of 15. That, along with travel time and up to four days of practice on the lake at each anglers’ discretion, makes for a full schedule with a lot of wear-and-tear, despite no scheduled team conditioning.
“It’s super physical,” Smith said. “For somebody that’s never fished before, or if they just fish for fun or once in a while go out and fish, after eight-hour back-to-back days, they’ll be dead. They probably won’t make it through the second day. The best way to get in good fishing shape is to go fishing.”
But what exactly does a tournament on the lake consist of? The proximity of Kentucky Lake allows many people to take a rod and reel to the open water, but recreational fishermen don’t follow the rules created by governing bodies such as Fishing League Worldwide, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and the Collegiate Bass Anglers Association.
College competitors are penalized for even the smallest violations. Using a cell phone, being late for weigh in, having a dead bass in your well or having six fish rather than five are all punishable, and the penalty comes in the form of weight deductions from your final score. Anglers select their biggest five fish of the day, swapping out – otherwise known as “culling up” – their smaller catches after weighing them on a balancing scale.
“You’re not always looking to catch a lot of fish,” Smith said. “You’re looking to catch five big fish. So like, I can go out and catch 80 fish and it won’t do me no good. You’ll come back with five fish and they won’t weight but 10 pounds. You want to catch five fish that weigh 25 pounds. That would be a huge sack.”
At the end of the day, each fish is weighed and added to an angler’s total. Winning anglers are awarded points toward their team’s ranking, which affects who a team decides to get sent to championship tournaments at the end of a season.
In addition to fishing, the club has a few other requirements. Each member must do service hours and maintain a 2.0 GPA. While many anglers do have their own boats, those who don’t often act as co-anglers, a second fisherman that casts onto the opposite side of the water simultaneously.
“You don’t have to have a co-angler, but you almost always do,” Mohlenbrock said. “Fishing in different spots helps.”
And sometimes, fishing in those different spots is all they can do. While seasonal patterns change for bass, skill outweighs luck, Smith said.
“There’s a reason why the pros are the pros,” he said. “It’s all decisions, decisions, decisions. You’ve got to put your bait in front of as many big fish each day as possible. You’ve not only got to be able to find them, but you’ve got to be able to catch them. Because I’ve found them before and haven’t been able to catch them.
I study it. When I was really into it these past couple years, I would study it four or five hours a night – reading and watching videos.”
For both Smith and Mohlenbrock, joining the sport happened by chance. Mohlenbrock started competing in high school, while Smith attributes his start to meeting Mohlenbrock.
“I grew up with a pond at our house and I fished there with those bass,” Mohlenbrock said. “But none of my family fishes at all, so I’m not really sure why I like it so much. In high school, we had a fishing team and I did that freshman year through senior year. I got a scholarship my first year here to come to Murray to fish.”
With Murray’s success, finishing second this year and third the past two years in national championships in addition to graduating many now-professional anglers, it’s hard to imagine the sport as just a hobby. Smith calls it a passion, while Mohlenbrock calls it something more.
“It’s an addiction,” Mohlenbrock. “Everyone likes to win. It’s one of the best feelings to win a tournament. Right now, the average tournament is 180 boats. That’s a lot of boats, so it’s a really good feeling.”
The Murray State Bass Angling Club kicks off the fall with their first club tournament Sept. 13 out of Kenlake State Resort in Hardin, Kentucky. It is open to the public, where you can watch from the shore as the anglers take off in the morning and weigh in later in the afternoon.