College students are choosing schools based on their ability to fish for bass. And others are choosing to skip college and start at the pro level.
Jack Alexander fell in love with fishing when he was just four years old. On a family trip to Naples, Florida, where his grandmother lived, Alexander went on his first real fishing trip. “I caught a mangrove snapper—and I was hooked from then on,” Alexander recalls.
For years, Alexander looked forward to family beach trips so he could pursue his favorite pastime, but during junior high, he started to take fishing more seriously and realized occasional fishing trips weren’t enough. “I knew I needed to start fishing close to home (Birmingham, Alabama) if I wanted to get better,” he says. So Alexander and his dad Chris started waking up early on Saturday mornings and driving to lakes within an hour and a half of their house. Chris would drop Jack off at the lake and return to pick him up in the evening so Jack could fish all day.
Lucky for Alexander, his high school had a fishing team, and in his freshman year, he joined. “I loved the competition and the tournaments,” he says. Alexander won Angler of the Year during his junior year of high school and won his first tournament during his senior year at Lake Jordan, 25 miles north of Montgomery. “During my sophomore year of high school, I realized I wanted to fish in college,” Alexander says. “It was something kind of new at that point, but Alabama had a good amount of teams, so I was working toward that.”
An Angler Chooses Bass Fishing, At The Collegiate Level
After considering different programs, Alexander decided to attend the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama. The program is a perennial entry at the top of best-of lists (see sidebar). “I was dead set on NOT going to Montevallo,” Alexander says. “But Coach Crawford called me, and I went for a tour and just really liked it.”
Alexander is a member of the team that now has two national college bass fishing championships to its name.
“We have been very blessed to win both the Bass Pro ShopsSchool of the Year title and Major League Fishing (MLF) National School of the Year titles in back to back years (2020 and 2022),” says University of Montevallo Bass Fishing Coach William Crawford. “This is basically a National Championship. We have some very talented anglers from all across the country, and this allows us to be very versatile. No matter where we fish, we feel confident going into every tournament.”
College Bass Fishing, Newer Than Most Collegiate Sports
College bass fishing is fairly new as a college sport. The oldest teams in the country—among them the University of Wisconsin at Madison—started in the late ‘90s. Bethel University in Tennessee was the first college in the United States to offer scholarships to its college anglers. In 2019-2020, 17 schools across the country offered varsity bass fishing teams as a scholarship sport. Many more offer competitive club teams but don’t provide scholarships—for example Auburn University, whose club competes in the Southern Collegiate Bass Fishing Series.
“It’s amazing to see how far college fishing has come in the last eight years,” Crawford says. “That’s how long I have been the head fishing coach at Montevallo. When I started, there were only five other programs offering scholarships to fish. Now scholarships are offered in universities all across the country.”
But It’s Not NCAA Official Yet
Though not an official NCAA sport, college fishing is overseen by The Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA) who tallies the points that determine school of the year honors. MLF, B.A.S.S., and BassPro Collegiate sponsor tournaments, and points are tallied to determine the best fishing school. Since the NCAA doesn’t govern bass fishing, school teams can have sponsors to help pay for equipment and gear, and anglers can keep prize money won at tournaments.
In 2021, Logan Parks and Tucker Smith, members of the Auburn fishing team, won the $1-million prize in the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open National Bass Fishing Amateur Team Championship on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. The teammates also won Toyota Tundra pickup trucks and Nitro bass boats with trailers. Parks, who graduated from Auburn in December, used part of his winnings to establish the Logan Parks Bass Fishing Endowed Scholarship to attract college anglers to Auburn University.
A Year Round Commitment for Young Anglers
Unlike other collegiate sports, college bass fishing’s season is essentially year round, with some competitive teams participating in more than 15 tournaments each year. This leads to a lot of time away from the classroom. “I think the biggest misconception is that college bass fishing is easy,” Alexander says.
“It’s actually a ton of work balancing school and fishing. In the fall and spring, tournaments are all over the place, so I spend a lot of time in hotels trying to catch up on homework and school assignments. Alexander, who majors in business management, loves to fish competitively but has decided that professional fishing isn’t in his future. “I would love to get a job in the outdoor industry and continue to fish competitively,” he says.
Sean Borton, the head bass fishing coach at Adrian College in Michigan, started the school’s successful program in 2013 after fishing semi-professionally for a while. “We’re at a crossroads with the sport right now,” Borton says. “I think we’re at the pinnacle of participation, but in some sense, the sport has grown faster than the organizations that govern it. And while there are more opportunities and resources now than ever before, the processes need to continue to improve.”
Hard Word Based in Passion
Agreeing with Alexander, Borton continues, “College bass fishing is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work. It’s a grind. Tournaments start at the end of January and go through the third week of October, so it’s a lot. I have to choose kids who can multitask—they have to fish well and be able to maintain their academics.” Adrian’s team has sponsors that have paid for three tournament-ready boats, three wrap trucks for hauling gear, and other equipment. “The sponsors help me bridge the gap between my budget and the uncovered expenses,” Borton says.
“So many kids are so passionate about this sport. They are truly students of the game. These kids can put a cast on a paper plate from 30 yards. They are always working to improve their skills and techniques.”
For Some, The Pro Tour Is Too Tempting
But while many young elite anglers take the college fishing route, others choose a different path. Kyle Hall, a 25-year-old professional fisherman from Granbury, Texas, started fishing with his grandfather when he was just four years old and fished his first tournament when he was seven.
“My grandpa and I went to the lake every weekend to fish,” Hall recalls. But during Hall’s sophomore year of high school, he got burned out on fishing and wanted to try different sports, and then his grandfather died. “After he passed, I didn’t fish for months. I couldn’t get into a boat without thinking about him.” Finally at the beginning of his senior year of high school, Hall returned to the sport he loved with a renewed passion.
Hall considered fishing in college and took a visit to Dallas Baptist University. “But school was not my thing, so I told my dad instead of paying for four years of college, he could pay my entrance fees to the qualifying tournaments for MLF,” Hall says. In his second year, he won a qualifying tournament and never looked back. Hall went pro in 2020 and won the MLF Rookie of the Year. So far he’s won six tournaments and a championship and racked up over $620,000 in winnings. Hall sees many former college anglers on tour with him. “It’s a great path,” Hall say, “but it wasn’t for me.”
There’s Always Guiding
After struggling the past year, Hall is ready for a resurgence. “I’m a fisherman who needs to fish what I fish and not listen to anyone else,” he says. “I can’t catch anyone else’s fish.” In August, Hall won a tournament on Lake Champlain, and in November he notched a win on Lake Guntersville in Alabama. When not on tour, Hall also fish guides on OH Ivie Lake, near his hometown in Texas, and in February 2021, he and his father opened Tri-Lakes Tackle Town, a bait shop in Granbury, that his father runs when he’s gone.
Of bass fishing, Hall says, “My favorite thing is all the people I’ve met through fishing who have become great friends. It’s opened so many doors for me—getting to fish all over the country.”