La Roche College fishing team members, Rich Smith of West Deer and Jonathan Coholich of Shaler, pose for a photo with the boat they use at tournaments. A college league created by the organization FLW has grown to 610 teams.
By Kaitlynn Riely Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Fishing, especially the sitting-on-a-boat-in-nature version, can be a relaxing pastime. However, that's not the way the fishing team at La Roche College does it.
"Tournament fishing is much, much different," Rich Smith said. "It's stressful. Six hours goes very quickly."
His teammate, Jonathan Coholich, agreed. "It's a mind game," he said.
Welcome to competitive bass fishing at the college level.
FLW, the tournament fishing organization created in the mid-1990s, announced in 2008 that it was starting a college tour. The league has grown to 610 teams divided into five divisions, with most of them at colleges in the eastern United States.
"It just keeps growing. It has seriously taken off like wildfire," said FLW spokesman Chad Gay. So much so, in fact, that FLW recently added a high school league.
Although the sport is spreading to more schools and the tournaments are appearing on NBC Sports, it's unlikely that fishing will become an NCAA sport anytime soon.
"We kind of like being able to give these kids prize money and regulate it ourselves," Mr. Gay said.
To start with, bass fishing can be a fairly low-cost sport, organizers and participants said.
There is a $35 annual FLW membership fee, but for college students, the FLW waives tournament entry fees, which can run $300 or more for a single tournament. The FLW supplies a boat for teams that request it and provides a travel allowance.
And unlike NCAA sports, in which athletes are not paid, there is a lot of prize money to be had in collegiate fishing.
Earlier this year, two teammates from University of Louisiana at Monroe who won the 2013 FLW College Fishing National Championship on Beaver Lake in Arkansas walked away with $30,000 plus a chance to compete in the professional Forrest Wood Cup competition, where the top award is $500,000.
The team at La Roche hasn't caught the big money yet. But members have high expectations for what they can accomplish next month, when they compete in the regional championships with the goal of cracking the top 10 to make it to the national championships.
"I think they have as good a shot as anybody to get to nationals, really," said Howard Ishiyama, La Roche's vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer and the club's adviser. "I feel like they're about to break out and they just need one or two big fish, and that's it, you know."
La Roche's team, like the FLW college tournament itself, is young.
It started because Mr. Coholich, a Shaler native who has been fishing nearly as long as he has been walking, wanted to fish competitively in college. Now a 21-year-old senior, he started talking to administrators at the approximately 1,500-student McCandless college about starting a fishing team before he even started classes. Mr. Ishiyama was all for it.
"Fishing happens to be one of my passions," he said. "There isn't anything more I enjoy than having a big bass on the end of the line. There's just something special about that."
Once Mr. Ishiyama gave him the go-ahead, Mr. Coholich started building his team.
That meant recruiting teammates at La Roche (Mr. Smith of West Deer, another lifelong fisher, signed up) and collecting sponsors, or companies that will pay for necessities such as lures in exchange for the La Roche team placing the company's logo on its team jersey.
And then, they started fishing -- traveling to places such as Lake Erie and Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where in 2012 they placed third in a tournament, winning $1,000 for their team.
For about a year, they've been using Mr. Coholich's tournament bass boat, a 17-foot Nitro Z-6. They practice when they can, on Pittsburgh's three rivers and some area lakes.
For the competitions, the aim is simple: The team with the heaviest haul of up to five bass within six hours wins.
But it's not so simple as just dropping a fishing line. Mr. Coholich and Mr. Smith do their homework. That means analyzing depth and currents, then finding local fishermen and calling them to get a sense of where the fish are biting. They often visit the competition site in advance to practice fishing and to plan strategies. On the day of the tournament, they are usually on the water at 6:30 a.m.
"Not your typical college-student sport," Mr. Ishiyama said.
But, in recent years, it's starting to become more typical. Slippery Rock University, for example, has a fishing team. So does Carnegie Mellon University.
Founded in 2009, the Carnegie Mellon fishing team has three members who compete in tournaments, and about 10 active members who fish occasionally, mostly on Pittsburgh's three rivers, said Eric Bykowsky, a sophomore from Columbia, S.C. and the team's president. They use a canoe to practice and borrow FLW boats to compete.
Joining La Roche, CMU's team will be one of 45 competing in the regional championships Sept. 14-15 in North East, Md., on Chesapeake Bay. Top prize for the first-place team is $4,000, but the teams also will be angling to make it to the top 10 so they can advance to the national championships.
Mr. Coholich and Mr. Smith at La Roche feel confident about their chances. They've studied the water, and the depths are similar to what they are used to on Pittsburgh's rivers.
For Mr. Smith, who is 24 and who graduated from La Roche in the spring, the Chesapeake Bay competition could be his final college tournament, since this is his final season of eligibility in the sport.
Mr. Coholich will be looking for a new teammate for his final season next year.
The two men are confident about their final attempt as teammates, but also about the sport's future. There are more tournaments, they said, more sponsors, and on television, the sport is gaining popularity as well.
"I think you're going to see a lot more schools get teams," Mr. Coholich said.