Friday, March 19, 2021

The Rewards of Real Risk in High School Fishing

It was exciting to get in our national championship rings this past week for our fishing team. I am still trying to wrap my head around what has happened in the 8 years since we started the program. 

We have had a state championship, three BASS national championships in a row (3 peat), we have had 8 anglers move on to fish in college, a two time All-American, and had the only two anglers in high school history to ever compete in the Bassmaster's Classic. Last weekend, we had a junior high team win a trophy for the 1st time in school history. 

The journey has extended beyond my imagination- we have produced a book, a tv series, I have had the honor of fishing with Brent Chapman, Jimmy Houston, and Hank Parker's TV shows. We have been honored guests twice at the BASS Night of Champions where I had the opportunity to meet Johnny Morris, CEO of Bass Pro Shops and have been the guest of vendors like Shimano and Hummingbird.

And I am thankful for the help of elite pros Aaron Martens and Randy Howell along the way along with a host of corporate sponsors and the mentorship/friendship of Doyle Powell, an industry known marketer and promoter of all things fishing!

I was in a conversation with a potential sponsor early this year and he mentioned that we had become the 'national brand of high school fishing' and the line just stopped me in my tracks. Then his next question is the one that I had to think about for almost two months now.

He asked me, 'What has been the biggest surprise and unexpected reward of starting the fishing program?"

I stumbled through it and gave some jumbled thoughts... to be honest, everything has been a surprise!

But the more I thought through it, the more I began to see the MOST surprising and rewarding aspect of high school fishing.

At first, I thought about the purity of the people... it is a grass roots God, country, fishing community- salt of the earth folks who put Bible verses on their jerseys right next to the flag.

I also thought about the healthiness of the competition. Though all of theses anglers want to beat one another, they also cheer and help one another. It has been refreshing to  see how much the college fishermen come back to help their old high school team mates.

And I considered the pleasant surprise of the quality and success of the female anglers and the immediate acceptance by the guys. We had two girls become the first female team to ever win a regional in the state of Alabama and no one cheered harder than our guys who the girls had just beaten!

But by far.... the BIGGEST surprise has been the benefits I have observed as young men and women assume real risk in their lives and what they learn by managing that risk.

We have had our hearts torn in two by tragedy on the water or in travel.... we personally know anglers who have been killed in boating accidents, truck accidents, as well as a host of extremely dangerous situations that quickly became life and death moments.

In every one of those instances, there was an incredible amount of evaluation and review of safety protocols, but not once does the community ask for the sport to be taken away. The fishing community understands that you can't risk proof life- and the assumption of that risk, has an unexpected fruit in the life of a young person.

here are a few thoughts:


Our two time All-American, Tucker Smith is now fishing for Auburn University. I remember a tournament at Lake Martin his junior year where he brought his boat to a lake house we were using the night before. 

We already had 4 boats in a circle and there was a small opening for Tucker to put his boat and trailer in the mix and still leave room for traffic. 

Tucker jumped in his truck, started it up, and slowly backed his boat into a spot that left no room for error. This wasn't the naive overconfidence of a 17 year old who didn't know any better, this was a young man who was skilled in handling this moment and his boat.

I have watched kids grow in their responsibility when exposed to risk. They take care, they wash and clean, they organize, they secure..... and they are aware of the potential harm and value of the equipment.


Launching or trailering a boat is not for the weak. It takes courage, calculating decisions, and effort to get it on and off the ramp, often in the presence of onlookers and others who need you to be skilled and efficient.

Fishing risk isn't just life threatening... it can be painful. Every time a treble hook is cast or removed from a fish means that the anglers themselves are vulnerable to being hooked as well! Over the years, we have had hooks in the hands, the feet, heads, and even an eye one time! Anglers often have calloused hands and wind burned faces.

They have bloody shins from truck hitches, and paper cuts from tight flouro fishing lines! A high school angler is proud of a sandpaper thumb.... it means they have had a great day!


When a young person deals with real risk, it also produces a readiness to face anxious situations. I was fishing with one of my anglers one day when a fierce storm developed right on top of us. The sky began to crack and the waves started rolling. In a calm sense of urgency, my teen partner pulled up the trolling motor,  cranked the big motor, attached the kill switch to his life jacket, and steered us quickly into an open boathouse.

When the home owner came out to check on who was in his boathouse, this young man was outstanding in apologizing, and asking if it was ok for us to hide out from the storm. It ended up being a great conversation between all of us.

For me, readiness is also a spiritual condition. I really haven't found an angler who doesn't tangibly know there is a Creator and most of them understand that every day is one that is on the precipice of eternity. It is easier to talk about Christ and salvation with fishermen.... and many, many of them readily embrace Jesus as their Savior and Lord.


Grayson Morris is another one of our highly decorated anglers. He is a two time National Champion and has had a terrific start to his college career, I listened to Grayson on a national podcast about fishing, and was so impressed by his reverence for the sport and the respect he commands now as a confident and accomplished young man.

He has always had that 'knack' or the 'it factor' to land a BIG fish - but he has also shown a great respect for the water. When our veteran young anglers take me out in a boat, I feel more safe with them than many adults I ride with. 

JT Russell is a three peat National Champion boat captain and a terrific tournament fisherman in his own right, and he would run his boat on plane in very shallow water without being reckless.

Yes, these anglers face REAL risk, it is a sport with great liability- but learning to live responsibly in the margins of that risk produces young men and women with confidence and reverence.

I worry that some young people today are never challenged like this... and fear/anxiety dominates their days. If we raise them in bubbles, we never get to walk with them through boo boos.

The risk is real, the pain is real, the tragedy is shocking.... but life was meant to be lived in the face of danger, not running from it at all times.

There is a balance here.... and much here can be misunderstood- but a risk free life, in my opinion, is not real living.

Catch our Fishing Team on the Web:


June harvest:

Carson Miller:

Tucker Smith:

Grayson Morris:

JT Russell/ David Scharf:

and many more at



Tucker and Grayson:



Jack Flemming:

Grayson Morris:

Aaron and Jordan Martens:

Coach Mathews:



with Coach Mathews


with Coach Mathews (coming soon) will debut on March 22, 2021

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