Local team finding success in little-known high school sport – bass fishing
March 30, 2022
Gabriel Thomas and Bode Nichols have the level gaze and physical stature of successful high school athletes. But their sport isn't played on a field, a course, a pitch, a track.
They compete on water – usually with a definite current, sometimes in the deep recesses of a lake.
They fish. For bass.
Thomas, 16, a sophomore at Sweet Home High School, and Nichols, 14, an eighth-grader at Sweet Home Junior High, are in their second season of high school team bass fishing competition – Nichols has a waiver to participate at the high school level.
And they've done well.
The boys last year finished in the top three of every tournament they fished, though they couldn't compete in the state championship tournament in 2021, which was won by a team from Thurston, due to COVID complications.
Fishing from a boat owned by Nichols' dad, Tristan Nichols, the pair won their first high school tournament earlier this month, in a field of about 10 teams from around the state.
An adult tournament was being held simultaneously on the upper Willamette River, north of Boones Ferry, where the high school event took place, and the boys would have placed second in that tournament with their catch of five fish totaling 10 pounds, eight ounces. Those five were the biggest of the 21 the pair caught that day.
"We were fishing new water we'd never been on," Thomas said. "We'd never been on that part of the river. We were able to adapt and catch fish."
They compete through the Student Angler Federation, under the auspices of the Bass Federation of Oregon, which sponsors the high school tournaments. This year's Oregon state championship will be held May 14 at Tenmile Lake in Lakeside. The SAF has specific rules for participation, including maintenance of a 2.00 GPA, which is similar to OSAA's requirements. Teams consist of two anglers and a boat captain/coach, who operates the bass boat.
The winner of Oregon's state tournament will go on to the 13th annual High School National championships scheduled for June 22-25 at Pickwick and Wilson Lakes in Florence, Ala.
"Most people don't realize that it's high school competition," said Tristan Nichols, adding that the sport is competed nationally for high-schoolers. "Oregon participates, but it's not as well known because bass fishing isn't as well known in Oregon."
The National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs most high school athletic competition in the United States, in 2019 listed eight states listing high school bass fishing programs: Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont. In others, such as Oregon, fishing is not recognized by the state high school federations, such as the Oregon Student Athletics Association, which governs most other sports competed at that level.
"It is offered in many other states, where it's a school-sanctioned sport," Nichols said. "You can go on to college – almost every major Division I school all the way down to NAIA have bass fishing teams.
"You can get scholarships," he added, noting that Oregon State University fields a fully sponsored bass fishing team in the collegiate ranks.
Nichols, who has been fishing for bass since he was a child, some 40 years ago in Oklahoma, where he was born, got his love for the sport there, and has been one of the family who have passed it on to his son and his nephew, Thomas, whose dad, Corey Thomas, has been a bass fisherman as well, for decades.
"There's just something about that tic on your line," said Thomas. "You get that excitement down in your gut and, just, there it is.
"We'd been fishing for a long time and we heard about this (high school competition) through a friend and found it online and just kind of showed up to all the tournaments and they let us in."
Both large- and smallmouth bass are found in Oregon, including many of the state's rivers. Foster and Green Peter have bass populations, as do the ponds at Sunnyside Park.
But most of the tournaments and much of the boys' fishing are in rivers, particularly the Willamette.
When competing, the boys deposit the bass they catch in a live well in the boat they are using, currently Tristan Nichols'. At the end of the day they select their five biggest fish, have them weighed, then return them, alive, to the water.
"We don't eat anything over a pound," Bode Nichols said. "And not every day. It's legal (to keep larger fish) but you want to put the big ones back, protect the future."
"And who wants to eat that fish when you might be able to go back later and catch that same fish?" Thomas added.
Tristan Nichols said they've experienced a number of occasions in which they've caught fish that were carrying bait from the previous day.
It's not a cheap sport, but Nichols says he wants local kids to get involved.
"I'd love to see Sweet Home offer something like this because, you know, there's kids that need that springtime activity, who aren't athletic or maybe they just don't have the opportunity to chase all the sports, to be at practice every day, and maybe they don't have rides.
"There's other kids who love bass fishing but they don't compete, at least not like these two.
"If somebody calls me and says 'I'd love for you to take my kid fishing,' I will take their kid fishing. . 100%, I'll take them."
Fishing, Thomas said, "is healing. There's something about being out there on a boat, standing there.
"And we have two decent bass lakes within 25 minutes from town."
So what's it take to be a top bass fisherman?
There are things to learn, Thomas said.
"You have to put in the hours. You can't go out here and be the next KVD (Keith Van Dam, the all-time top money winner in professional bass fishing). You've got to go out with somebody first. You've gotta learn."
Then it takes discipline and preparation, just like any other sport, Tristan Nichols said.
"You've got to be willing to get up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to be on the water at daylight," he said. "You have to spend nights in the shop, preparing your boat, your tackle. Preparation is, you know, a big key to your success or failure."
One downside, Thomas said, is that participating in tournaments is not particularly cheap.
"Big boats, big, expensive, new things. And that's not the way the sport should be. If you've got a boat, you should be able to fish and you can't.
"These people spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on high-tech equipment. You're at a disadvantage without it."
But, Tristan Nichols added, that provides incentive for a would-be fisherman to get busy and earn those dollars, "to work hard, because 'I'm going to be that guy. I want to be able to ride 70 mph in my own bass boat.'
"And you know, it'll make a person work hard. I know for me, bass fishing has been a major driver in how hard I've worked, so I could acquire a nice vehicle to pull a nice boat so we could stay on the water."
Thomas acknowledged that "the gear does make you more confident, but,:" he added, "we are not up to date with the most current stuff. Yeah, we don't have the $2,000 stuff and, heck, we just beat somebody with a $90,000 bass boat."
Then it comes down to knowing how to catch fish.
"Bass are a weird creature," Bode Nichols said.
"And that's what's fun about it," Thomas added. "You can fish them one day and say, 'OK, we've got a pattern here. They're on the lily pads.' Next day, you can't get a fish on the lily pads. They're way out deep or they can be anywhere.
"They're like gypsies. You never know where they're going to end up. You just have to try to find them."
The boys and their boat captain, usually Tristan Nichols or Corey Thomas, factor in the weather, water temperature, elevation, and use fish finders, but increasingly they rely on experience.
"There's a science to it. If it's warm water, and they're aggressive, you might throw, really, whatever you want," Nichols said.
"If it's cold water and they're just not biting at all, you might have to throw some sort of finesse bait, or go the exact opposite, which is what Gabe said about being a crypto weird creature. The exact opposite would be some sort of rattletrap or crankbaits to try to annoy them a little bit, you know, and get a reaction."
Both the boys have played football, Bode Nichols most recently for Sweet Home Junior High. Thomas said he's quit playing other sports "to focus on my stuff."
Both said competing as professionals is a possibility down the road.
"It's been my dream since I was little," Thomas said.
"We're at team now. I think when we're 18, 19, and we can go out on our own, I think our plan is to keep doing these."
Meanwhile, though, the boys plan to seek local sponsors who can help with purchasing tackle and the expenses of traveling to tournaments and, especially if they win a state title, a trip to Alabama this summer.
Tristan Nichols said they are getting competition jerseys made that will feature local sponsors' logos.
They'll be competing for years to come," he said. "So the sponsorships will continue to work."
He said he also would like to create an opportunity for local kids to learn the sport – possibly "having a place to invite parents to bring their kids and teach the basics of tying a knot, you know, even just how to use a nightcrawler to catch trout, just get kids into fishing.
"It's the future of our sport, and it's just like Gabe said, it's just healing. And there's that saying, 'If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; but if you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime.'
"That's a big deal."
He said he likes the responsibility and independency that the sport teaches.
"I think, as a parent, the most rewarding thing is just watching the kids succeed. The success is on them. That's what the draw to me is. It's not up to somebody else to decide how well they're going to do, how many casts they're going to get to throw. That's what's unique about this.
"This is on them and their success or failure can be based off the amount of work they want to put into it. It's not decided by anyone else – a coach, or teamwork."