Hooked by a neighboring state's success, Kentucky is gearing up for its inaugural season of high school bass fishing.
Come next spring, a skillful flick of the wrist for casting a line or reeling in a big one could land students on school teams competing for the state championship. It won't generate the hoopla of football or basketball, but Kentucky High School Athletic Association officials think they've got a keeper with bass fishing as a sanctioned sport.
Adding bass fishing will give students a chance to turn a popular pastime into a school activity. And luring more students toward extracurricular activities is a recipe for classroom success, KHSAA officials said. Plans for the program were first reported in The Courier-Journal this past February.
"We know that athletics ... certainly are the best dropout prevention that we can put out there," said KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett. "It makes kids come to school regularly. It makes kids get good grades."
Kentucky becomes the second state to add bass fishing as a high school sport, following in the wake of Illinois.
Now that KHSAA has offered the bait, the question is how many schools will bite -- and form teams.
In Illinois, 232 schools fielded bass fishing teams this spring, up from 199 schools when the sport debuted in 2009, said Kurt Gibson, associate executive director of the Illinois High School Association.
Teams compete in sectional tournaments across Illinois, with three boats advancing from each sectional to the state tournament. The sport has become such a success that officials are weighing whether to allow schools to enter more boats.
"It's brought diverse groups of kids together," Gibson said. "Students that may not normally hang out together during the school day now have come together because of their common enjoyment of bass fishing."
Kentucky officials hope to snare the same success in a state filled with lakes stocked with bass.
Regional tournaments will be held next spring at designated lakes across Kentucky. That will winnow the number of teams competing in the state high school fishing champion set for the Land Between the Lakes area, a recreational haven in far western Kentucky.
Under rules being drafted by the KHSAA, schools can enter up to two boats for the state-sponsored bass fishing tournament. Only two students will be allowed in a boat at any one time to fish. Each student must be a member of a national organization for high school-aged anglers, and each membership must include liability insurance.
An adult will be in each competing boat. Students won't be allowed to operate the boat's outboard motor. Schools will be responsible for providing boats, along with adult drivers. Either a student or the coach/adult onboard may operate the trolling motor.
If a student's line gets snagged, don't expect hands-on help from the coach. Students will have to resolve the hang up, though coaches can talk them through the situation.
The winning team will be determined by the total weight of the five best fish caught. The fish will be released after they're weighed.
The KHSAA isn't sure yet how many schools will compete in the first season. In a survey last year, 84 high schools statewide indicated they would sponsor bass fishing teams within the next five years if the sport was offered.
Murray State University has hosted fishing tournaments for high school students at nearby KenLake. The events enticed lots of participants, and the school sees them as a recruiting lure, said Jim Carter, vice president for Institutional Advancement at Murray.
"We hope that these students that come down and want to fish in the afternoons will also manage to find their way to classrooms sometime in the daytime so we can give them a fine degree from Murray State University," Carter said.
Officials at Spencer County High School would like to add the sport right away but there's one big catch -- the lack of boats. The school doesn't have money in its athletics budget to purchase a bass boat. So the school will have to rely on someone volunteering a boat.
"You can't bass fish from the shore," said the school's principal, Curt Haun. "It takes boats, it takes volunteers who have boats who are going to come in and commit their time to take team members out on the lake. And we don't have that."
With a large lake just a few miles away, Haun hopes to someday get a team organized.
KHSAA officials are confident that schools will find ways to form teams that will give young anglers a chance to show off their skills.
At the top tournaments, the best bass fishing teams will compete to take home some hardware for their schools.
"They will get a trophy and it will go in their school trophy case just like you would for basketball and football," said Elden May, sports information director for the KHSAA.