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


AAbi­gail 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 pre­fish 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 South­ern Col­lege of Art and De­sign in Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia.

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

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.”

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.”

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 pond­hopped 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, pre­fish­ing 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.

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 col­lege­fish­ing 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 gar­den­va­ri­ety 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-yearold 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.

“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

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.”

kid on any other team.”

And col­lege fish­ing brings op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“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.

“We’d at­tend tour­na­ments, the Bass­mas­ter Clas­sic, fish­ing­tackle 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 ranger­cupuniver”

Ranger sup­ported them in a big way.

“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.”

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