Woodruff Student Anglers Reeling in Bass Fishing Accolades
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Competitive bass fishing has long been a hotly contested sport in the United States.
In 2015, following a watery trail being blazed by several public high schools across South Carolina, Woodruff High fielded its first-ever competitive fishing squad.
You could say these Wolverines have been hooked ever since.
High school competitive angling, which is not a sanctioned sport by the South Carolina High School League, has exploded in popularity. More than 130 South Carolina schools now field teams which compete year-round, with a recognized state champion being crowned at the conclusion of a championship tournament whose location changes from year to year.
The Woodruff squad, made up of student members from both the middle and high schools and coached by Ricky Edmonds, found success immediately, bringing home the angling state championship in 2019.
“This trail we fish started in 2015,” said Edmonds. “It was just a handful of boats and we went to the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and they blessed it. We started with five schools and 30 boats. Now, as of 2020, we’re up to 300 boats and averaging 1,400 kids fishing and that’s just in the Upstate.”
Edmonds added, “This Woodruff High School fishing team has excelled in the last three years. In 2019 we won the state championship and brought it back to Woodruff High School which hasn’t happened since 2001 [Wrestling]. We fished against 67 schools for this trophy.”
Woodruff, along with other schools who field a team, compete in trail classic competitions across the state of South Carolina, on bodies of water that include Upstate lakes Hartwell and Keowee, Lake Murray in the midlands, and the Santee Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie in the Low state.
Since competitive angling operates outside of high school league parameters, the season is virtually a year-long endeavor with July typically being the only month in which a break is taken from fishing.
As it is with sanctioned sports, there are no distinguished classifications in high school angling, meaning the Wolverines compete against schools both small and large, from 1A to 5A, and since its inception, the team has fared quite well against the field.
“We have won several trail classic championships and finished between sixth and eighth place a bunch of times, and that’s fishing against between 160 to 190 boats,” said Edmonds. “What this does, it’s an avenue. It’s for kids that don’t play football or baseball or other sports. It gives them an outlet.”
Edmonds added that he quickly found out there were already established athletes in the Woodruff school system that wanted to be a part of the fishing team and were willing to push themselves to the limit to do so.
“I found out that there are a lot of baseball who fish, football players who fish, and they love this so much that they may have a football game and get through at 11:30 at night and will be up at 3 a.m. the next morning for a fishing tournament,” he said. “It’s a dedication thing to these kids.”
As is the case with non-sanctioned sports, anglers are required to provide their own equipment, including transportation, gear and tackle, and even their own boats. Since not every member of the Woodruff team has a boat to compete in tournaments, Edmonds also helped to establish a bank division of the team whose members fish solely from land. Doing so, said Edmonds, creates yet another outlet for more kids to join the team.
“Our bank program beyond the boating division is something that no other school does,” Edmonds said. “I call it the bank division. I average 67 kids per year in this program and not all of them have boats available, so this is a way to keep those kids involved as well.”
In the boat division, each boat on the water consists of two anglers and a boat captain, who, by rule, can only drive the boat where he is directed by the students who have scouted each body of water for its prime fishing locations prior to each tournament. The boat captain is not allowed to assist in fishing or landing of fish in any way. Tournament victories and qualifications are determined by the cumulative weight of each boat’s largest landed fish of the day.
Woodruff, along with other fishing schools, also have the opportunity to travel as part of their participation on the team. Fishing not only in South Carolina, top qualifying anglers can earn their way into national tournaments to represent their schools in places including Alabama and, more recently, Wisconsin.
Typically, said Edmonds, anglers must finish in the top 10 individually in local and state tournaments to qualify for the national events.
“I have had some guys on our team who have qualified for three years,” Edmonds said. “That’s almost unheard of but they are that good. When you are fishing these state and national championships, these guys don’t always realize the gravity of what they are doing.”
What Edmonds means is, anglers can also earn college scholarship money through their fishing success, with many major universities even offering competitive angling scholarships to top-qualifying competitors.
“These national championships, that’s $50,000 to $60,000 each of scholarship money, and even if you are a tenth grader, it’s scholarship money that’s given to you,” said Edmonds. “This is what the whole thing is, is just getting these kids out there.”
While fishing has long been a sport of honor, Edmonds noted that he holds his anglers to high standards, requiring a minimum of a ‘C’ average and no disciplinary referrals to in-school suspension in order to compete.
Edmonds also added that the sport is not just for male competitors, with two female students from Abbeville High School being among the highest qualifying anglers in the state during this past school year, and that female participation is quickly on the rise.
Certainly, the sky is the limit for the Woodruff fishing program, and Edmonds made it clear to thank the district and school administrations which he said have been incredibly supportive of the program since it was founded five years ago.
“The school and the community, they have really embraced this,” he said. “The administration has really gotten behind us and supported us too and made sure we have what we need. It’s a small school, small community, but what Woodruff has done, it shows the will power and determination that we have at Woodruff High School. It just blows my mind because we’ve got such good guys on this team.”
Edmonds also believes that it will not be much longer before competitive angling will be recognized and sanctioned by the South Carolina High School League, given the rapidly rising popularity with the sport among young athletes.
“It’s coming because high school fishing has gotten so huge,” he said. In the meantime, the Wolverine anglers will look to continue reeling in the victories as they angle for continued success in the years to come.