POLK COUNTY – Bass fishing has long been a favorite past time for many.
And, for the past eight years, Florida students have been able to call bass fishing a sport.
The Florida Bass Nation Junior/High School Program’s is reeling in students every day, with more than 500 members from about 60 schools and 25 community clubs, statewide. Just last month, 12 more schools and six community clubs joined the program.
Already getting their lines wet are 15 teams that returned last month from the Bass Nation High School Nationals with lots of fish stories to tell.
The mornings of Aug. 9 and 10, those teams were part of more than 300 boats that launched in Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tennessee. Each state, as well as Japan and Canada, were represented in the tournament.
When the final fish was weighed, three Polk County high school teams finished in the top 100 and a local junior team placed third overall nationwide out of 62 teams.
The director of the rapidly increasing number of Florida junior and senior high bass fishermen is Glenn Cale, an Auburndale resident. For the past four years, Cale has been the State of Florida Youth Director for the program and before that was the tournament director.
The state is broken down into four regions and students compete in their own region depending on where their school is located.
The Florida fishermen are in a big pond with thousands of others nationally and many of them are looking to catch the big fish by earning a college scholarship. Currently, more than 100 colleges offer bass fishing scholarships.
“Every kid can’t be a football or baseball star, and this gives those who can’t or aren’t interested a chance to compete against their peers,” Cale said. “It’s an athletic sport of endurance. The kids spend eight hours on their feet sometimes fighting the elements.”
But, for Walker Weeks, 17, a senior at the Polk State College Collegiate High School, bass fishing is even more than that.
Walker said his grandmother first introduced him to bass fishing and then his two cousins encouraged him to continue. That reinforcement worked because he hasn’t rolled up his lines yet.
“He started competing at about age nine. We would take him to tournaments at five in the morning, go back to pick him up at two in the afternoon — and he’d still want to fish more,” said Ivory Weeks, Walker’s mother.
One requirement to be a member of the program is to own their own boats.
“I did some wheeling and dealing and just got a 21-foot boat,” Walker said, explaining he traded in his old boat and four-wheeler to upgrade to this one.
Students, ages 7- to-18, must also maintain a 2.0 grade point average and have no disciplinary issues to be in the program.
Walker graduates from high school in May with his high school diploma, as well as an associate degree. He plans to go on to complete his bachelors and make a career in the family business.
“If I ever got the opportunity to go pro (fisherman), I couldn’t turn it down,” he laughed.
Even with school and work, Walker said he tries to fish every day, if possible, and will compete in a tournament in Ocala later this month that is not affiliated with the school program.
“I left for work this morning at 5 and he was already gone fishing,” Ivory said.
That kind of dedication is what Cale likes to see in the students who participate in the program and in tournaments.
“I couldn’t be prouder of all of our teams that made the trip to Tennessee. It wasn’t easy to get there and not one of them were just satisfied making it to the Nationals,” Cale said. “They competed against the best in the country so a 22nd, 52nd, and 92nd finish out of 300-plus teams looks pretty good from where I stand.”
Members are free to choose their own fishing buddy and Walker and his partner, Hannah Adams, fish well together.
“We have a great program that anyone – boys and girls – can participate in and have fun,” Cale said.
For more information about the program, visit www.floridafederationnation.com.