The Trickle-Up Theory

College and high school bass fishing teams have a surprising benefit: young anglers bringing an older generation back into the sport
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Bass fishing has exploded among college and high-school students. Tournaments average about 150 boats.

Bass fishing has exploded among college and high-school students. Tournaments average about 150 boats.

Bassmaster magazine editor James Hall recalls two freshmen who wanted to join his son’s high school bass fishing team in Alabama but weren’t sure where they’d find a boat and a captain. “One of them had a granddad with a boat who hadn’t been fishing for years,” Hall says. “He dusted off the boat, and about three tournaments in, I was talking to the guy on the dock, and he said, ‘Man, I forgot how much I loved this; I’m actually fishing a tournament with my grandson this weekend.’ ”

It’s not a unique conversation, in Hall’s experience. The increasing popularity of high school fishing teams means new participants nudge parents and grandparents to captain for them, rekindling the fishing fire for older generations who had forgotten how much they loved the sport — and, it appears, boosting sales of fishing boats.

In 2017, 7.3 million kids ages 6 to 12, or 24.2 percent of the age group, went fishing, up from 6.8 million the year prior, according to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. Participation among teens ages 13 to 17 increased from 19.3 percent to 20.1 percent, or 4.1 million to 4.3 million. And the teens were more committed; children took an average of 11.2 fishing trips per participant, while teens averaged 14.8 outings per year.

At the same time, areas including the South Atlantic region have seen an increase in high school fishing teams. Florida, Georgia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia had the highest percentage of young participants, at 20.9 percent. “Something happened about 10 years ago where fishing got cool again,” says Frank Hyla, the youth fishing coordinator for Shimano American Corp., who says he’s surveyed about 6,000 youth anglers during the past few years. “Traditionally, people started fishing because their dad or grandpa took them. Now more than half these kids are coming from families where nobody else is fishing, and they’re being educated on YouTube.”

The sport is attracting female and male anglers. 

The sport is attracting female and male anglers. 

A Worldwide Trend

More than ever, young anglers are influencing older generations, says Hank Weldon, who runs the youth programs for B.A.S.S. And the younger generation is getting into fishing not through family but through school.

When collegiate tournament fishing began around 2009, he says, around 15 schools had teams. Now, Weldon says, there are about 250 active schools — and around 500, counting colleges, with lapsed or inactive teams.

The growth of school-based teams prompted B.A.S.S. to launch its high school platform in 2013, with about 1,000 members and 100 schools, Weldon says. This year, there are around 1,200 participating schools worldwide — including in Australia, Canada and Zimbabwe — with 12,000 to 14,000 student anglers on the B.A.S.S. circuit alone. Fishing League Worldwide also has a robust high school presence with its Student Angler Federation and its High School Fishing sponsored by Bass Pro Shops.

Weldon estimates the number of students who bass fish competitively and non-competitively at around 100,000. “It’s bringing people back to the sport and introducing people who never even thought they’d like the sport, who wind up taking it up and loving it,” Weldon says.

Now B.A.S.S. has launched Junior Bassmaster, which starts anglers at third grade. Hyla’s research shows that for every high school participant, five people come along: someone to drive the boat, younger siblings and extended family members.

“Parents want to know about scholarships because a lot of colleges are offering them now,” Hyla says. “It’s a phenomenon we’ve never seen before.”

Hall calls what’s going on the trickle-up theory, with longtime traditions reversing. “For so many years, the culture of fishing and boating, and fishing specifically, was always handed down from a father to his son.”

One reason B.A.S.S. rules require high school anglers to fish with a partner, and have an adult captain, is to give non-anglers opportunities. “That angler gets really into it, and maybe his or her father has never been around fishing, and then he gets into it,” Weldon says. “There are a lot of dads taking up the sport later in life because their kids have been introduced through high school teams.”

Youth teams are also seeing increased female participation. “There are more boys than girls, but you are seeing a good number of girls these days,” says John Mazurkiewicz with Catalyst Marketing, which has Shimano among its fishing clients.

Colleges such as Bethel even offer scholarships. 

Colleges such as Bethel even offer scholarships. 

Female participation is as high as 20 percent on some teams, though Weldon guesses the overall number is closer to 10 percent. There is more female participation at the high school level than any other, a trend that Hall hopes will lead to more female competitors at professional levels.

“The fish don’t care what sex you are, what color you are, whether you’re transgender,” Hall says. “It’s about talent and dedication to the craft. I think we’re going to see more and more women at the open levels, and hopefully someday at the elite level.”

Translating into Sales

In the 12 months after joining a fishing club, 23 percent of members spent more than $1,000 on tackle and equipment, and 7 percent spent between $700 and $1,000, according to a study on high school fishing clubs that Southwick Associates conducted for RBFF, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, Fishing League Worldwide and the Student Angler Federation. Fishing club members also spent almost double on gear ($658) per year compared with their non-club counterparts ($332).

“High school anglers are influencers, having significant sway on the fishing tackle brands chosen by others of their age,” the study states.

The financial barrier to entering the sport can be high, but isn’t always, and can be offset by companies looking to provide influencers with discounted gear. The average tournament has about 150 boats — though some have as many as 300 — “boats going from 1975 to kids whose parents have brand-new, $80,000 rigs,” Hall says. “There’s not a roadblock to what kind of boat you use, other than there’s a minimum of 70 hp and a minimum length of 16 feet.”

The Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Championship attracts teams from around the country.

The Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Championship attracts teams from around the country.

Skeeter Boats has noticed the trend correlating with boat sales, says marketing manager JoAnne OBryant. “We certainly feel that high school and college anglers are increasing boats sales, whether they are buying new or used,” OBryant says. “I feel the high school and college anglers are purchasing more used product. Yeah, some get new, but fishing is so hot right now that someone who wants to turn a boat every two or three years has more of an opportunity to do so because of these young anglers.”

Weldon says he hasn’t seen sales data to back up that thinking, but he does see manufacturers selling a lot of used boats and smaller boats that are new, including models that weren’t popular prior to high school fishing. “We’re starting to see an uptick in demand for those $30,000 models,” Weldon says, “and I think that’s going to grow in the near future.”

Reaching Younger Consumers

Young people do “buy a little differently,” Hyla says. “There are kids that buy reels and rods that match their shoes. Slick advertising and loud colors work on them, to be honest.”

And despite the growing interest of younger anglers, finding ways to get marketing messages to the demographic can be challenging for anyone used to targeting an older audience. “They’re not looking at the media I deal with,” Mazurkiewicz says. “Trying to get that message to them is a little bit difficult. It’s hard to identify what they are looking at.”

James Marko, who runs a southwest Florida charter business called Goliath Fishing that also serves as a marketing firm for boating and fishing brands, says that problem can be solved by hiring more young people. “There’s a lack of trust in the younger generation as far as being on the cutting edge,” Marko says. “I’m 31, and the guys who work on our social media platform are 18 and 17. They’re on it just because they’re so involved in social media.”

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Translating School into Careers

Most college and high school anglers initially say they want to compete at the elite level, but even with the three professional circuits, there aren’t a lot of slots, Weldon says. Having sponsors can help solve with that, he adds.

Gettys Brannon, who is 24 and does public relations for Bassmaster via McAlister Communications in South Carolina, has a life story that exemplifies the reality that anglers face after they leave school. He fished casually until his friend’s uncle tapped him to start fishing night tournaments during high school. That was before states began sanctioning high school clubs, but when he heard that the University of South Carolina had a collegiate fishing team, he wanted to attend.

Brannon became president of the team in 2012 during his freshman year. While earning a journalism degree with a focus on advertising and public relations, he grew the club from about 12 members to 30. He also learned how to get local sponsors for the team, and how to go on stage and speak after good and bad days.

Though Brannon won several championships and qualified for the FLW Cup, he wound up leveraging his experience somewhere other than the pro circuit — but still in the industry. “I knew I could take the things I learned fishing to the business side and start with a foot or two forward,” he says. “If it wasn’t for college fishing, I don’t know where I would’ve learned about the opportunities for the sport.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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