With five minutes left in last year’s bass-fishing state tournament on Lake Mille Lacs, teammates Alex Timm and Easton Fothergill could have easily called it a day and waited for the weigh-in to begin at McQuoid’s Inn.
After all, the teenage tandem — members of the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks High School fishing team — already had their limit of five bass.
“We anticipated we’d need about 40 minutes to push through the waves and get back to the harbor … but we got there with about five minutes to spare and decided to keep fishing,” Timm said.
He made one last cast, catching a smallmouth. The two-person team then “upgraded” their limit by releasing a smaller bass from their live well.
“They won the state by 1 ounce, on the last cast,” said Gordon Fothergill, Thunderhawks coach, father of Easton and an avid angler himself. “It was pretty satisfying to see. The one thing we talk a lot about as a team is to keep on grinding. Never give up. Fish as hard as you can for as long you can. That’s why they won, but it’s also a mind-set everyone on the team can take with them as they grow up. It’s that important.”
In late June, Alex and Easton finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in the prestigious national-world high school bass-fishing championship on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Ala., considered by some the cradle of U.S. bass fishing. Gordon says his team’s “keep on grinding” philosophy helped catapult Alex and Easton into elite company — in a school sport that’s growing nationally and throughout Minnesota.
“We alluded to the fact that they’d have to overcome a lot because they had never fished Pickwick Lake before and that they were going up against the best high school bass anglers in the U.S.,” Gordon said. “Sure enough, they had quite a few obstacles to overcome. When one hole dried up, they had to switch gears — and sometimes tactics — and keep grinding to find fish. It was great to see their persistence pay off.”
Minnesota has roughly 100 schools that have teams and support tournament angling to some degree. Tournaments are sanctioned by a handful of different angling organizations. However, some coaches and others would like to see the Minnesota State High School League drop its current moratorium on adding new activities. Adding fishing, they say, would increase its exposure at a time when outdoors participation and fishing license sales have dropped statewide.
“Think about how many kids who do not participate in traditional sports would benefit from the moratorium being dropped,” said Jason Bahr, coach of the 125-member Brainerd Warriors fishing team. “I think fishing in the schools would explode. Fishing is a huge part of our culture and our economy. Why not do everything we can to increase numbers?”
The Grand Rapids team started two years ago with 13 members. Today, it has 22, and two, two-person teams qualified for nationals, as did a handful of other teams from Minnesota, including Brainerd. “I don’t know where it goes from here, but we’ve had nothing but great support from our community,” Coach Fothergill said.
Timm and Fothergill, both 16-year-old juniors, started fishing with their fathers and say being on a team is a merely an extension of what they love to do.
“I started fishing when I was really young and learned a lot from my dad,” Fothergill said. “He would take me with him, and I would just play in the boat. I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since. In the summer, I mow lawns and fish.”
The 1,100-mile drive to Alabama gave the Fothergill and Timm team plenty to think — specifically about the massive 47,500-acre reservoir that is Pickwick Lake. It runs 50 miles long, has 490 miles of shoreline, and has a maximum depth of 59 feet.
“Finding fish there at certain times of year and with a lot of the same structure can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” Coach Fothergill said. “We had the kids do plenty of research, but theory and practice are two different things. You just have to go live it. They did a good job.”
“Thank God for pre-fishing,” Easton Fothergill said. “By the third and last day, Alex and I figured a few things out and that helped us during the tournament.”
But it wasn’t easy, said the duo. Along with fishing eight hours a day during the tournament, weather conditions were tropical: sunny, hot, humid and nearly windless.
“The heat was insane — it felt like you were cooking in a sauna,” Fothergill said. “I don’t know much water we drank, but it was a lot. A few times I started to feel dizzy. I’ve never fished in conditions like that before. But it was all worth it. We just kept on grinding until we caught fish.”
In the end, it was an experience to savor. “I can’t wait to do it again,” Fothergill said.
“Next year,” Timm said.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.