Give Tyler Essick and Braden Ray a warm afternoon, and they’ve got a line in the water somewhere, catching fish.
“I fish floating, I fish ponds. Me and him fish ponds a lot. Pretty much every day after school, once it got warm, I was fishing in a pond,” Essick said. “Lakes, camping, floating, ponds; we fish any time we get a chance.”
The Billings High School students will be fishing in a pretty big pond June 26-30. They’re one of four Christian County teams to qualify for The Bass Federation’s Student Angler Federation High School Fishing World Finals. The tournament will be held on Lake Pickwick, in Florence, Alabama.
Christian County could soon by home to some world champions.
Ozark High School’s teams of Ty Johns and Drew Morrison, and Sean McKiernan and Ryan Persson also qualified for the High School Fishing World Finals, as did Clever’s Brody Landreth and Austin Shears.
The teams qualified for the World Finals with strong finishes in the National Youth Fishing Association’s Tournament at Truman Lake April 14. Essick and Ray were 13th in that tourney. Johns and Morrison finished ninth at Truman, with McKiernan and Persson 14th. Landreth and Shears were 20th.
“I was a little worried going into that tournament because during practice we didn’t catch very many fish,” Morrison said. “But we ended up catching them when it mattered.”
Conditions weren’t favorable that day for the anglers, but they all had to battle through the same elements to reel in the bass.
“It was windy and cold,” Ray said. “We used spinnerbaits. That was the only thing we could get bites on.”
Morrison and Johns, meanwhile, went with a crankbait.
“We got a pattern together with the Rock Crawler and stuck with that all day,” Morrison said. “We ended up hitting one of our practice spots and got a keeper off of that. We moved on to another spot and caught close to a 5-pounder.”
Essick and Ray had a good reason to throw spinnerbaits. Their coach gave them a great scouting report.
“He said that before the storm front came in they were working on spinner baits, but he got a couple on a jig and a worm,” Essick said. “We tried both of those, but it wasn’t working. I tied on one of his spinner baits that he had working the first day and we went to the back of the coves. That was they only place we could get bites. It was at the very back, in the shallowest spot.”
That kind of help is crucial for the teen anglers. They rely not only on coaches, but also the volunteers who pilot their boats around the lakes.
“They boat us, they truck us to the tournaments, they provide us any tackle we don’t have,” Essick said. “And it’s all volunteer. They don’t want anything, they just want to take us out there and help us fish.”
It means a lot to not only the anglers, but also their parents.
“They’re pretty knowledgeable fishermen, too,” Essick’s dad, Kerry, said. “They’re actually teaching the boys what to look for. It’s a pretty good deal for them.”
That education is clearly paying off. The high-school anglers are embracing the scientific side of the sport.
“You’ve got to know how to fish. You can’t just toss a line out there and hope they’re going to bite,” Tyler Essick said. “You’ve got to get your lures in the right spot, work the pole, work the bait, know what kind of fish you fishing for, what kind of bait, and the transition in the fish. You’ve got to let the fish tell you how they want to bite.”
“Probably one of the most important things is patience. A lot of patience,” Ray added. “That’s what a lot of people don’t have.”
And don’t underestimate a little bit of horse sense.
“You just have to go with your gut, pretty much,” Morrison said.
The anglers will have just two days to pre-fish on Pickwick Lake before the High School Fishing World Finals, which will test their patience and their skills. There are some scouting reports and videos available on the internet, and it never hurts to consult with professionals.
“We’ve been talking to different pros about what to do and what lures might work.” Morrison said. “I think things are going to go pretty well for us. If we can find some good spots, we’ll be alright.”
Those scouting reports can only help so much, though, Essick said.
“We might have different weather than them, or it might rain and they might be pouring a bunch of water out of the lake. It makes the fish transition.”
The anglers know how these tournaments work. They might go down and haul in their limit quickly, or they might show up at the weigh-in empty handed.
No matter how the fish are biting, they’re going to enjoy the experience, thankful to be able to put a line in the water once again.
“It’s very exciting. We know it might be a once-in-a-life- time chance to go fishing in a national fishing tournament,” Essick said.