SUMMERVILLE -- Hooking a big bass during school used to be playing hookey. Now it might be a varsity letter.
A move is under way in South Carolina to establish bass fishing as a high school letter sport, following the lead of states like Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee. The sport is a growing collegiate club trend; a national championship this year will bring $50,000 in prize money for the club, $25,000 for the school and a bass boat.
Sure, that kind of payoff means the college clubs aren't NCAA eligible and can't win letters. But, as one observer noted, they'd rather have the boat.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources helps coordinate freshwater competition among more than a dozen high school clubs, with half as many more interested. When enough clubs get involved, and championships are held, they can petition the South Carolina High School League for varsity sport status.
For the kids, it's a way to turn a love for the outdoors into a competitive sport with street cred among other students. They want the letter "to show we can," said junior Cameron Bulla, president of the Ashley Ridge High School bass fishing club in Summerville.
The potential is out there for sponsorships, sponsors' college scholarships and six-figure pro tournament winnings.
The Ashley Ridge club formed this school year. In the Charleston area, there's at least one other club. Wando High School in Mount Pleasant has a saltwater club whose members have talked about taking part in freshwater tournaments, said co-sponsor Nancy Platt.
Bulla launched the club at Ashley Ridge. He's a die-hard angler who, when he can't get out on the water, casts the ponds at Legend Oaks subdivision where he lives.
Bulla heard about tournament fishing among other high school clubs, and he wanted in. He recruited baseball coach and angler Ron Brady as club sponsor. Within the school year, the club has expanded to more than two dozen members.
The competition waits. There are school clubs from Conway to Due West.
And these kids can fish. Nick Gainey of Charleston, a tournament bass fisherman, said young anglers turning up on the circuit now are more advanced than veterans like him, because they know how to use technology such as GPS.
The "cred" already is there. Around Ashley Ridge on a recent morning, everyone who heard about the possibility of a varsity letter for bass fishing had the same response: "So cool."
Across the state, some new club members grew up with rods in their hands; but some had never picked up one before joining, said Lorianne Riggin, DNR aquatic education coordinator.
"Not everybody is built to play football or basketball," she said, but anybody can learn the techniques to fish.
Too many of today's youth are losing interest in the outdoors in the middle and high school years, she said.
"Hopefully we will keep that love of fishing in them. If you teach them to use the resource, they'll take care of the resource."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.
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