April 4, 2013

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The precision casts were effortless and the hooksets flawless. The tackle was selected with extreme care, and the knots in the fishing line were cinched with ease.

No, I’m not talking about the anglers at the latest professional bass fishing tournament that is so common in Alabama. The people performing these skillful tasks are barely old enough to have their driver’s licenses.

These are members of the Alabama Student Anglers Bass Fishing Association (ASABFA), which is raising the level of competition to unexpected heights.

In fact, one proud father said the young professional anglers better look out. I got a chance to fish with three of the kids last week on the Tennessee River, and I can’t argue with his assessment.

“I feel sorry for the pros who have just started or have been at the professional level for less than five years, because when this generation gets up there, they’re going to be looking at a whole new level of competition,” said Scott Ashley, whose 16-year-old son, Taylor, is a member of the Hayden High School team, the two-time defending state champion. “These kids have been fishing the three years that we’ve had the ASABFA. The level of competition has risen so much since we’ve started doing it. These kids are serious about the high school competition. I think it’s going to create a whole new level of competition in the professional circuits.

“It really is amazing what good fishermen some of these kids are. There are some, quite honestly, that I’d be scared to go up against. And I’ve been fishing tournaments for 20 years.”

Ashley admitted the ASABFA, as a whole, got off to a slow start in 2010.

“When it first started, it was amazing to see what was happening,” said Ashley, who spends his time driving the boat and watching the teenagers fish. “Kids would get grandpa to pull their dusty, old crappie boat out of the shed and come out with a Zebco. That’s part of why Hayden has had so much success. We had kids like my son and Chase Kanute that had been doing it all their lives. They’ve been fishing with us since they were 7 years old.”

The ASABFA teams pick their top 10 anglers to compete in each of the four regular-season tournaments and the state championship.

Hayden has a particularly rigorous competition to see who is included in the five-boat team maximum per tournament.

“We have four qualifier tournaments for Hayden, but we invite other schools, too, for the competition,” said the elder Ashley. “We keep those points, and we keep points for participation. We also do work events, like working the Bassmaster Weekend Series event. We helped (pro angler) Randy Howell put on his fishing rodeo for his King’s Home fundraiser that he does every year. We sack groceries at Piggly Wiggly, and we help with the band’s fundraiser. We try to teach work ethic to the kids, too. We use all that to determine who makes the top 10. Theoretically, the best fisherman might not make the Top 10 if he isn’t willing to do the work.”

This is the fourth year for the ASABFA competition and Ashley said the growth has been phenomenal.

“The first year (2010), they had 15 to 18 boats a tournament,” he said. “The second year, the first year Hayden was involved, there were about 75 boats a tournament. Last year, there were about 130-135 boats a tournament. This year, after two tournaments, we’re averaging more than 200 boats, 197 at the first tournament and 216 at the second. It’s really taken off.”

Count 17-year-old Tyler Moody and his uncle, Vern Moody, in the enthusiastic camp when it comes to the high school competition.

Tyler said the bass fishing team at Hoover High School is the best way for him to compete in any endeavor in high school.

“I found out early that I wasn’t good at other sports, so I started hunting and fishing,” Moody said. “I haven’t missed a tournament in two years. I love it. I got my friend into it. He was hanging out with some of the wrong people and I got him into fishing. It’s changed my life.”

Moody said he hopes to continue his competitive fishing career after he graduates from Hoover High, and his college choice will likely depend on whether there is a bass fishing team at the school.

“I’m looking at the big schools with Alabama and Auburn because they have bass fishing teams,” said Tyler, who credits his uncle for teaching him how to bass fish. “Some schools are offering scholarships for bass fishing. I never dreamed that would happen. I thought fishing was a hobby. But if they’re paying for college and I get to fish, I’m all for it.”

The teams have two regular season tournaments remaining, April 6 at Smith Lake and April 27 at Lake Tuscaloosa. The state championship will be May 10-11 at Lay Lake.

Moody considers Lay his home lake, where he likes to swim a jig or throw a spinnerbait. He practices as much as he can, but he understands his priorities.

“School comes first,” he said. “I’ve got a 4.0 GPA. My mom would kill me if I didn’t maintain that. But I wet a hook every chance I get.”

Vern Moody said the high school fishing competition has really caused many of the kids to reach new heights, including his nephew.

“This is something we’ve always needed in this state,” Vern said. “This has brought out in a lot of kids what they didn’t know they had in them. It’s good, honest fun. The kids are really focused. Tyler is really a together kid, but this has enhanced that even more.”

For the boys from Hayden, Taylor and fishing partner Austin Mize, the outdoors sports are now considered “cool” by their schoolmates.

“I’ve made some really good friends,” said the younger Ashley. “It’s really fun because you’re competing against people at your own level. And it’s fun to beat them.”

Mize added: “I started fishing with my granddad. We were catfishing one day and I caught a bass, and I’ve been hooked on bass fishing ever since.”

Although Hayden is two-time defending champ, its performance in the first two events this year – Weiss and Guntersville – was not up to par. Therefore, the tournament at Smith Lake could determine if they remain in contention for a third straight title.

“If we catch them at Smith, I think we can still win,” Taylor said. “I think Hayden should do well at Smith Lake. It’s basically our home lake. We’ve got people on the team who know the lake very well.”

When asked if their conversations at schools included anything other than fishing, like girls, Taylor hesitated, but Austin was quick to respond.

“All I talk about is bass fishing,” Mize said. “It’s something I love and want to do for the rest of my life, as a profession. I just have a passion about it.”

It’s apparent Mize is not alone.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Taylor Ashley, left, and Austin Mize, members of the defending state champion Hayden High School bass fishing team, show off a pair of chunky Tennessee River bass taken on a brisk day at Wheeler Lake recently. Tyler Moody of the Hoover High bass team took this largemouth on a swim bait in Pickwick Lake. The high school teams will compete on Smith Lake this weekend in one of four regular season tournaments. The abundance of shad on the Tennessee River gives the predator species plenty to eat as evidenced by the tail of the shad sticking out of this largemouth’s throat.