College Bass Fishing Boom

How an unlikely collegiate sport may be saving professional and recreational fishing.

College Bass Fishing Boom
Young men and women are turning their passion for fishing and the water into a means of paying for a college education.Courtesy Association of Collegiate Bass Anglers

Abigail Askew isn’t your typical fishing fanatic. She didn’t grow up with it in her early years in South Florida, and actually didn’t take it up until she was in college. Yet she ended up on the ­University of Florida’s collegiate fishing team. It was her teammate Colby Eldridge, a lifelong angler from ­Panama City, Florida, who introduced her to me.

“I’ve got pictures of me in diapers with a cane pole,” Eldridge says. “I was raised by a single dad and my grandparents, and they had a creek in the backyard, and I pretty much spent all my time there.”

So, when he got to the University of ­Florida and found a bass fishing club, he joined up.

“It’s more a club than a collegiate sport,” Eldridge says. “Some schools support the team with expense money, boats and transportation. We have a professor who sponsors our club. We get excused absences for tournament days and a couple of days to pre-fish a tournament lake, but that’s about it.”

Still, Eldridge was enthusiastic about it and, though a collegiate angler, is also a professional angler. “We fish for the school, and if we win, our winnings go to support the team. We pay our own way.”

Scholarships?

“One of my best fishing partners just took a full-ride scholarship to fish on SCAD’s team.” You could hear the wistful envy when he spoke of Abigail Askew moving to Savannah College of Art and Design in ­Savannah, Georgia.

College Bass Fishing Boom
Abigail Askew fishes for the Savannah College of Art and Design's team.Randy Vance

Askew was in her third year of nuclear engineering at UF, making great grades and cranking along on a path to a lucrative career. And she was miserable, locked into the degree program, and even though she was rocking along, she was just not having any fun — unless she was fishing.

Nobody would’ve pegged the young South Florida woman as the fishing type. She wasn’t until recently.

"My stepdad is really into fishing. We moved to Jacksonville when I was 18, and we have a little lake in the backyard. I grabbed one of his baitcasters, and when I started catching bass, it was like wow this is fun. It's really, really late to learn, but I've had to do a lot of research to catch up to most of the other anglers," she laments. "Most people learned how to fish on a spinning reel, but to me a baitcaster wasn't that difficult. My dad showed me hand placement, then playing with it, how to manipulate the bait, how fast and how slow to make it go. I just fished that one bait for a long time."

“That one bait” was a Texas-rigged Trick Worm by Zoom.

“The Trick Worm will never fail you,” she says. “Like today, before dawn, it was a tough bite, and I went to the Trick and caught a 3-pounder — it was a pretty nice fish.”

She broadened her arsenal to include Strike King’s Rage Blade chatterbait vibrating jig (it puts vibrations in the water in low visibility) and Big Bite Baits’ Kicker Paddle Tail swimbait.

“One of my teammates’ dad makes them, and it’s really amazing when we see them in Academy Sports.”

College Bass Fishing Boom
Askew's 1996 Nitro 180 bass boat is powered by a Mercury outboard and outfitted with a Raymarine Dragonfly.Randy Vance

Askew may have hated engineering, but her engineering mind kicked in to study this new problem of how to fish, how to scout lakes, and how to succeed in tournaments. To help her practice, her parents, Rebecca and Doug, bought her a 1996 Nitro 180 bass boat powered by a Mercury outboard. Her sonar? A Raymarine Dragonfly.

“I needed to catch up,” she freely admits. “I had to set my mind to it and research it. Before, I just fished the Trick Worm and pond-hopped all the time. Until I got to UF, I didn’t fish in lakes and rivers. I had only a semester on the water to learn how it works, how tournaments worked.

“I was a third-year engineering student. I wasn’t passionate about it. I was making good grades. Calculus one, two, three, physics. I was still miserable. I dreaded class and homework.”

When Askew joined the UF club, she fell in love with bass fishing. But it was odd too.

“There were a lot of boys and only a handful of girls. At my first tournament, I was there with seven guys, pre-fishing all week, and not a single girl. Then, finally, when I saw the SCAD team, one boat had two girls,” she says. “I met the coach at Lake Seminole at the FLW, and I went online and filled out their interest form. They called me up and offered me a full scholarship.”

Askew’s college career got a little longer, but now she’s aiming at a degree in advertising.

“I want to work in the fishing industry. I want to do something in the outdoors. There is a huge outdoor industry,” she explains.

College Bass Fishing Boom
Askew broadened her arsenal beyond the Texas-rigged Trick Worm by Zoom.Randy Vance

That’s not a bad career path, and it’s not an uncommon path for college anglers either.

Matt Raynor is the marketing director of Ranger Boats in ­Flippin, Arkansas. College bass fishing got him there.

“I was in the college-fishing hotbed of the USA,” he says. “Indiana University, Purdue, ­Illinois, the Big Ten colleges were the first to start doing it.”

Raynor, always earnestly purposeful in conversation, was now talking at a surprising rapid-fire pace recalling the birth of collegiate fishing. “I went to Ball State and I knew all the guys who fished clubs. This was pre-FLW and BASS college programs, but I knew the guys running those clubs, and we would organize our own tournaments. Then we’d partner with local bass clubs, and we paired a college fisherman with a boat, and the college guy would fish for points while the other guy fished for money. It was archaic, but we did it.”

Maybe it was garden-variety amateur, but it got ESPN’s attention, which covered the Big Ten Classic.

And the anglers made some historic traditions too. Like the Minnow Bucket. ­Indiana University and Purdue have a 100-year-old rivalry in football. It’s an annual contest of the teams, and the winner takes home the Old Oak Bucket with a chain made of links that are shaped like either “IU” or “P.” Each year, a new link was added bearing the initial of the winning school. So, it was natural the ­universities’ anglers started the ­Minnow Bucket.

College Bass Fishing Boom
College fishing has made many careers.Courtesy Association of Collegiate Bass Anglers

“I graduated in 2005, the first year of the FLW Cup collegiate series. I was jealous,” Raynor says. “Collegiate fishing was just starting to come of age, and I was graduating.”

Ultimately, Raynor had no complaints. His collegiate fishing got him first an internship at Ranger, then a post at the FLW Cup for college anglers. He wasn’t competing, but he was on the cutting edge of this new sport. He eventually moved back to Flippin, Arkansas, where he is now marketing director of ­Ranger Boats, a subsidiary of the White River Marine Group, a Johnny Morris company that holds the Ranger, Tahoe, Tracker, Nitro and Suntracker boat brands.

College fishing has made many careers. Ask Seth Borton, the head fishing coach at ­Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. Borton and the president of the college began their collegiate fishing program in 2013. They were trying to recruit students of a different feather.

“When we proposed bass fishing, the reaction we got was, ‘Bass fishing? Are you serious?’ But it turned out to be the most successful program we have,” Borton says. “Kids tow the line academically. In order to be successful, you’ve got to be good with your time and boat mechanics, and these kids have a more advanced sense of responsibility than any other kid on any other team.”

And college fishing brings opportunities.

College Bass Fishing Boom
As a recruiting tool, college fishing worked well for the universities.Courtesy Association of Collegiate Bass Anglers

“Because of sponsor partnerships, you’re always in front of cameras and you have to develop those skills. They have to be super-rounded,” he explains. “In the end, some become fishing pros, some work in the outdoor industry, and some go on to regular careers and fish club tournaments for fun.”

As a recruiting tool, college fishing worked well for the universities. As a career builder, it works for the students.

Then there’s Wade Middleton of Careco TV. Raynor describes him as the Godfather of college fishing. ­Middleton didn’t know if a fishing show based on college fishing would play well on TV, but he made one anyway, covering the FLW Collegiate League.

And for the fishing industry, it solved a big problem.

College Bass Fishing Boom
As a career builder, college fishing works for the students.Courtesy Association of Collegiate Bass Anglers

“We’d attend tournaments, the Bassmaster Classic, fishing-tackle trade shows, and the people there were all 45 to 55 or older,” Middleton says. “Everybody is asking, how are we going to recruit new young anglers to keep the sport from dying?”

Turns out, college bass fishing was a good answer.

“If you build them a playground, they’ll come and play,” Middleton says.

Borton agrees. “This just went out of control in a great way.”

“As a brand, FLW continued to grow,” Raynor says. These guys all know each other like brothers. “It was like high school is now. Brands are trying to figure out how to reach these kids. We spun off the Ranger Cup and we did rangercupuniversity.com.”

Ranger supported them in a big way.

College Bass Fishing Boom
College bass fishing has helped recruit new young anglers.Courtesy Association of Collegiate Bass Anglers

“These aren’t popcorn events where you’re fishing for hot dogs. You have the ability to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic through that. A lot of 200-boat tournaments don’t offer this level of winnings either,” Raynor says.

Ask any tournament pro and he’ll tell you contingency money is a big part of his bread and butter. Ranger made its plan easy for college kids to join. You didn’t have to own or even fish a Ranger. Just wear a logo, ride for the brand, and sign up for free.

“I’ve been so involved with our outreach and continue to travel with them and support the ­championships,” Raynor says. “We send a service trailer to the BoatU.S. tournament at ­Chickamauga [Lake in Tennessee]. And we help everybody just to keep the kids fishing. They can bring us a ­broken-down ­Astro [bass boat] and we patch ’em up and put ’em back on the water. We want to provide that level of support — it’s not cheap, but we support those organizations in a ­major way.”