The sort of guys drawn to bass fishing with all-consuming passion that eventually leads to a pro career aren’t always the sort who also spend a lot of time in, uh, college. This is not to impugn their creativity, dedication or organizational abilities — all of which are paramount in competitive fishing. Rather, most pro bass anglers tend to prefer spending their days out of doors, navigating rivers and lakes, exploring and divining the best combinations of bait, hook, line, presentation and approach to catch an animal they usually cannot see. They’re the guys who pay enough attention to nature that they’re more likely to learn outside a classroom than inside one. It’s not that anglers can’t handle school. School’s just not set up to handle people who want to get sunburned, cut up, wet, cold, dirty, sweaty and actually stimulated during the course of a given day.
But! In recent years, a few circuits have tried to legitimize collegiate bass fishing, and one inaugural title has just gone to the Arkansas Tech University bass fishing team, winners of the first Association of Collegiate Anglers title as School of the Year. This isn’t the first version of a national championship for collegiate bass fishing, but this one does look pretty solid. It clearly had gobs of buy-in, if this sprawling spreadsheet of the final standings is any indication. Teams from more than 150 universities participated throughout the year. It’s full of your Kennesaw States and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural Colleges and Tennessee Wesleyans of the world, along with the usual host of BCS schools (the University of Arkansas placed third). But, hell, Harvard launched a team, and got crushed in the standings by Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s own Northwest Shoals Community College.
This college thing is fairly recent, even if professional bass fishing as we know it in ‘muricuh goes back a couple of generations. BASS, the largest tournament and conservation organization, was founded by an old showman named Ray Scott, an Alabamian, in 1967. The first tournament was held in Northwest Arkansas, the first Bassmaster Classic winner was an Arkansan, and notwithstanding the occasionally brilliant West Coast or Midwestern angler (a Michigander named Kevin VanDam has positively owned BASS for a decade) the sport has remained firmly the domain of SEC states, if not always SEC schools.
I’ve covered about two dozen pro bass fishing tournaments, including four Classics, and feel qualified to guesstimate that few are far from a Waffle House or Cracker Barrel. They also tend to be held in states with low levels of educational attainment. By the fraction of adults who have graduated high school: Southern states are all in the bottom third of the union (unless you count Virginia, at 30th). By the fraction who have college degrees: all in the bottom half, except for Georgia, at 20th. By the fraction who have advanced degrees: Virginia and Georgia do well, while the rest are in the bottom half. Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee are in the bottom 13 in all three metrics. A Southern slam!
Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe it’s an intricate interplay of geography, socio-economics, history and culture that has no hope of being summarized in a 600-word blog post. Or maybe states cursed with excellent bass fishing can’t keep boys interested in school. There’s probably a Malcolm Gladwell book in there somewhere — “Glug: How Outdoor Recreation Explains Hooky, and Vice-Versa” — but suffice it that higher ed and the outdoors need stronger links. Likely every man worth his spinning rod had to ditch class at some point to fish this past year. Good on them (and on the colleges) for making it work. Not many will ever go pro, but many will wind up as fisheries biologists and wildlife managers. If they were sanctioned by the NCAA, there’d be a commercial for that. Instead, they’ll just be allowed to develop into well-rounded adults in peace.