By John Kainrad, Freelance Writing LLC
Three years ago, Justin Hevey was on the fast track to nowhere.
He had just completed what he referred to as a “pretty dismal freshman year” and he was about to enter his sophomore class at Okeechobee High School not far from the shores of the legendary Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Fortunately for Justin, the winds of change and a little well-timed fate intervened when a local law enforcement officer and a few like minded parents decided to start a fishing team at the school.
For Justin, it was a turning point in his young life. His ability to join the Okeechobee High School fishing team that year was truly the difference between quitting school and eventually graduating this spring with his senior class.
“I had pretty much checked out, and quitting school was without a doubt where I was heading” Justin said. “Then the opportunity to become part of the inaugural fishing team at our school happened and all of a sudden I had a reason to go to school.”
Justin’s story is not a new one; it is repeated hundreds of times across the country each year with the emergence of the wildly popular high school fishing.
The National High School Fishing movement continues to grow rapidly since it was founded by the Student Anglers Federation (SAF) more than a decade ago and it is filling the void for a lot of students. In Justin’s case, like many others, his situation at home was less than ideal and he found himself on his own more times than not. Fortunately, fishing is a family-oriented sport and his “fishing family” came to the rescue.
“I’m not really sure where I would be without our team,” Justin said. “Having to make eligibility each week gave me a reason to go to school and actually study. Now I’m just a couple of months short of graduating and I absolutely have to give the credit to our high school team.”
Team “mom” “Kimberly Wojcieszak also has seen the difference fishing has made at the school of 1,200 students in southern Florida.
“We started our first year with 14 students, and in just our third year we are at 36 team members and still growing,” she said. “And as you can see in Justin’s case, it has been the difference maker in his life.”
Principal Dylan Tedders is another big supporter of high-school fishing. He is impressed by the way the program has brought school pride to Okeechobee High School.
“The program has given many of our students a sense of purpose and a great deal of pride in representing not only the school but the OHS fishing team,” he said. “If this program helped just one student like Justin, then it is most certainly a win for us and we believe that our program will continually grow each year.
“It takes a little effort to get a club started but I think that every school in the country that has any access to water should consider adding a team to their program.”
Mark Gintert, the executive director of the Future Fisherman Foundation and the former Bass Federation national youth director, including SAF, has seen many more success stories in high school fishing.
When we first started our high school fishing program, we coined the phrase ‘Promoting Education through Fishing’ “he said. “Justin is a great example of the power of this program.”
“Some say it is just fishing or that the national high school program has no impact beyond those who already fish.” But that’s not the way Gintert sees it.
He points to the fact that it’s not unusual to see 100-plus boats—each with an adult volunteer and two high-school anglers—on lakes, rivers and reservoirs across the country on every weekend in the heart of the fishing season. Ten years ago those type of events never happened and if the program changes one students life for the better it is all well worth it.
So just how big is the high-school sport? Estimates have this program at around 45,000 active students participating in high school clubs, circuits and regional trails across the nation. That equates to approximately 2,500 high school teams or clubs. Add to that over 22,500 boat captains, 2,000+ team coaches and another 3,000 volunteers to those respective teams and you can add another 27,500 adults who serve this program. Add the students and adult volunteers together and it easily pushes over 72,000 people actively participating in this program annually.
That leads us to the economic impact. As far as individual expenditures, recent surveys tell us that the average high school angler has over $600 in tackle and equipment. That would put the tackle sales to this group at approximately $26 Million! Now that number may seem a little daunting but F3 Director Gintert claims that entry into the sport is relatively easy for students and as they progress their natural tendency is to acquire upgraded equipment. There are also programs like the Future Fisherman Foundation’s Tackle for Educators and Lew’s High School Grant Program that help clubs and organizations with equipment for students who can’t afford it” added Gintert
Add in the boats that are upgraded or purchased by adult coaches, gas for outboard motors and trip expenditures such as motels and meals, and you can see that high-school fishing has an impact on local economies and the fishing industry as a whole.
For Justin Hevey, just as his academic life has improved, so has his fishing ability. Recently Justin and his partner John Pearce won a Florida Southern District Regional event and have qualified for the High School National Championship and World Finals. He feels that he has become a very versatile angler with the ability to fish any type of water but admits that catching a nine-pound largemouth on a frog was one of the highlights of his young career.
As for life after the Okeechobee High School team, Justin is looking at both the college fishing opportunities or joining the Coast Guard when he graduates in May.
Regardless of his choice, high school fishing and this young man’s determination has paved the way to a better life.