The timing seemed right when the Illinois High School Association unveiled its bass fishing tournament a dozen years ago.
The organization spent two years studying the idea. Former associate executive director Dave Gannaway and Springfield-area fishing enthusiast Terry Brown did much of the leg work, preparing for the state’s initial tournament in spring 2009.
“It was about a two-year process from the time they broached the idea to our board of directors,” said Kurt Gibson, the IHSA associate executive director overseeing fishing. “We had to do some surveying of the schools, when the feedback came back to us that said we’d have about 100 schools, the board of directors took that leap of faith.”
Yet, no one knew exactly what to expect, either in the sectionals of the first state tournament held at Carlyle Lake. It turns out those early concerns were unwarranted.
“It’s been a wonderful surprise,” said Gibson. “When we started, we hoped the first year we’d have 100 schools. We doubled that. We’ve been averaging every year since that, 6-10 (new) schools every year. I think we exceeded the 300-school threshold last year.
“With that kind of growth, we’re getting to a spot, how are we going to manage this growth? When we started, the goal and vision was to try and maintain an appropriate number of schools in each sectional. When we started there were 10-11 schools in each sectional, now, we’re up to 15-16.”
The size of the sectional fields is becoming problematic, but it’s a good problem to have.
“Some of the questions we are starting to wrestle with is, do we keep adding sectionals?” Gibson asked. “If we do that, what impact does it have on the state finals? Then, do we have a regional round of qualifying? It’s exciting, but also at times a little too exciting.
“We don’t have anything else quite like this to give us some guidance. We’re sort of out here on our own.”
Illinois was the first state to offer bass fishing as a sanctioned activity. Other states have since followed suit and more are looking at the possibility.
“It has been good to see the rise of activity in other states,” Gibson said. “There are now a handful of states, Georgia is going to get a program started. Other people who maybe thought we were off our rockers, have seen we’ve been able to bring this along.”
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The Illinois tournament has progressed since that first year when teams showed up at Carlyle Lake in john boats too small for the lake’s unpredictable waters. Now, most competitors show up in custom-designed jerseys, riding in boats plastered with decals of bait, motor and rod manufacturers.
The weigh-in, held each year in the Dam West parking lot at Carlyle Lake, has a big-time feel to it.
As far as the format and rules, little has changed since that first year.
“The changes that have occurred are the kinds of things people wouldn’t see,” Gibson said. “There have been some changes in the rules and conditions. The growth has been great to see, it’s gone from a little fishing tournament to a highly competitive event.
“We had to amend some rules. We had to make it as clear as we could that coaches couldn’t be involved in touching the equipment. In terms of what someone would see, no, they’re not going to change.”
Gibson believes the bass fishing tournament has accomplished its primary goal, to open up avenues of participation to students who may not compete in the more traditional ball sports.
“It’s done that,” he said. “There are certainly other students that bass fish and play baseball, football and volleyball, but it has reached students that haven’t been participants in other sports.”
Fishing allows boys and girls to compete side-by-side. And, the size of a school means nothing on the lake. Elverado High School, which has an enrollment of 119 this school term, won the state title in 2016 and placed second in 2012.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gibson said. “As long as you have someone that can put a pole in the water. Everybody has a chance. The fish don’t know who is on the other end of the line.”
Teams will fish tournaments this fall and spring. Next year’s state championship is scheduled for May 15-16 at Carlyle Lake.