Bass Ducks Cast for Big Bucks

Upon reading the words “Oregon Bass Team,” one person might envision a fleet of sporty yellow-and-green hatchbacks equipped with dishwasher-sized subwoofers ready to WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP challengers into submission or a tuxedo-clad ensemble striking up a deep-toned “Mighty Oregon” on towering stringed instruments.

Wrong bass.

Think freshwater fish [rhymes with “mass”].

“Some people think we’re the bass [“base”] team. I get that on campus,” says member Ross Richards, a senior business administration major, describing a common reaction to the Oregon Bass Team T-shirts. “Even when you tell them, ‘No, fishing,’ you get responses like, ‘We have a bass club? What?!!’”

When asked to explain themselves, the twenty-some members of the UO Club Sports bass team can rattle off some hefty bragging points reeled in during the 2009–10 season. No other UO team—varsity, club, or otherwise—can boast that it competed this year for a national title; snagged television exposure on Fox Sports Net, Versus, and the Outdoor Channel; and actually earned money. What’s more, the UO bass club, formed in 2006, is helping to drive a surge of interest in this new collegiate-level sport.

“Some people are surprised that we even have a bass club and may not see it fitting into a traditional sports program,” says Sandy Vaughn, who recently retired after thirty-six years as director of UO Club Sports. “But bass fishing has quickly become a successful part of our program, in terms of the success they’ve had in competition, the excitement and commitment of the members, and the positive attention they’ve brought to the University.”

College bass fishing is managed at the club level, although in 2010 one school—Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee—became the nation’s first to establish a coached, scholarship-supported team. The sport is not governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, so independent competitive circuits and national titles have emerged; the primary programs are FLW College Fishing and the Boat U.S. Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship Series, both of which offer prize money and scholarships to competitors.

UO anglers have hooked a share of the fat purses available on the circuit conducted by FLW Outdoors. At the catch-and-release tournaments, success is measured by the combined weight of fish caught. With several top-five finishes in 2009 FLW Western regional qualifying events, UO participants earned $18,000 to defray the cost of team trips to competitions in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Along the way, Richards and fishing partner Reed Frazier, a senior Spanish major, qualified for the first-ever FLW College Fishing National Championship in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Oregon pair finished sixteenth in the April 2010 title round featuring the nation’s top twenty-five two-angler teams. The winning team from the University of Florida netted a prize package worth more than $100,000, including $50,000 for their school’s scholarship fund, $25,000 for their bass club, and a new boat and SUV trimmed in school colors.

In Florida and other parts of the South and Southeast, warm-water pro bass fishing is a big-money sport where top anglers earn sponsorships in the NASCAR mold from companies like Yamaha, Cabela’s, Chevrolet, and Wal-Mart.

Collegiate teams in those areas may benefit from proximity to big bass culture. “The powerhouse programs get a little bit more support from their school,” says UO fisherman Cody Herman ’04, who is studying sports business at the graduate level. “The team from Florida got permission to take time off from school, stayed in Tennessee in a hotel for three weeks, prefished the water so they knew it well, and guess what . . . they won the national championship.”

Still, the fact that states known for cold-water fisheries, like salmon, are producing collegiate bass fishing teams—including the UO, Oregon State University, and the University of Washington—hints that the sport is gaining a wider foothold.

“The sport is really taking off at the college level,” says Julie Huber, a spokeswoman for FLW Outdoors, which established its nationwide collegiate program in 2008 with ninety-one registered bass clubs. As of April 2010, the number had grown to 380 clubs with 2,260 members.

“We know that they are the future of bass fishing,” Huber says of the college casters. “For those who make it to the national championship, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

FLW Outdoors also conducts professional bass and walleye fishing tournaments that illustrate what big business the sport has become. Its 231 pro tournaments in 2009 distributed total purses of $33 million—in 2007, the winner of one tournament took home a $1 million prize.

Money isn’t the only motivator, however. Some students, many who grew up catching bass in home states from Washington to Arkansas, say they have latched onto competitive fishing as a life-enriching adventure.

“Fishing is a passion for all of us and it’s really fortunate to experience it as a collegiate sport,” says Carter Troughton ’10, club coordinator during the 2009–10 academic year.

Troughton, who has a business administration degree with a marketing concentration, says he hopes for a career that involves sports marketing or, ideally, fishing—which accounts for $45.3 billion in retail sales, one million jobs, and a $125 billion annual impact on the U.S. economy, according to a 2008 American Sportfishing Association report.

Whether or not they pursue fishing-oriented careers, the UO anglers have honed valuable networking, marketing, and other skills, says Troughton. They forged an essential partnership with the Emerald Bass Club, a fishing group that provides boats and drivers for the UO team during local tournaments. They also secured team sponsorships and gear donations from Snag Proof, Wave Fishing, 2 Brothers Tackle, and other supporters.

Additionally, members maintain a website, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel and cultivate relationships with potential UO students. Troughton says several high-schoolers have contacted him by e-mail for information about the bass team; he even shipped a T-shirt to a twelve-year-old in Brazil who saw the Ducks in a televised tournament.

Troughton reassures prospective members that the bass team is open to any full-time student, regardless of experience, without demanding time commitments. Members practice by fishing local lakes and rivers when they can, between classes and jobs.

Yet being a member of this club is not exactly all fun and games.

“Fishing, in general, you can just kick back with a six-pack and throw a worm on the bottom and call it a day,” says Herman, who is currently the only graduate student on the roster. “But competitive fishing is nine hours of hardcore fishing where every cast counts.”

The competitive and playful sides of the sport both are on display one day in May, as the Ducks splash down at Fern Ridge Lake for the third bass-fishing Civil War. Seven anglers each from the UO and OSU set out from the boat ramp at 6:00 a.m., fish through the bright and breezy day without a break, and reconvene for a 3:00 p.m. weigh-in. One by one, team members tote fish in plastic bags from their boats and place them on a digital scale. The glistening green largemouth bass range from about 3 pounds to a tournament-best 6.35 pounds. Final tally: 46.20 pounds for the UO; 31.45 pounds for OSU.

“Ducks win! Ducks win! Ducks win!” shouts Troughton.

“Thanks for kicking our asses,” jokes OSU club president Justin Blackmore as he hands over the Civil War trophy. “We’ll get you,” Blackmore promises as the Beavers walk toward their cars.

With a 2–1 Civil War record in hand, the fishing Ducks make plans for a celebration at one member’s apartment—a place where, at least, everyone will know the difference between “base” and “bas.”

—By Joel Gorthy '96