By Cheryl Rogers
Many people enjoy fishing because it’s relaxing. But for Kyle Stafford and Evan Wieber — and others like them — fishing is a competitive sport.
Many people consider fishing a recreational past-time. When they fish, it’s a time to relax and commune with nature. Whether they catch any fish is immaterial. But for collegiate sportsmen Kyle Stafford and Evan Wieber, fishing is more of an art and science.
“I love to fish and I love to be competitive,” explains Stafford, a Polk State College sophomore studying Business Administration. “I’ve always done sports. I want to be the best. It gives me adrenaline to be out there and compete against these other guys.”
“I love the thrill of being out there and never knowing if you’re going to win.
One day you can win and another day you can be very humbled and not catch a fish,” says Evan Wieber, a Polk State College sophomore studying Business Management.
“I always like to do my research,” he adds. “I always want to prepare myself with the weather patterns that are coming up for the week.”
Stafford and Wieber fish competitively for Polk State College’s fishing team, known formally as the Bass Fishing Club. The pair was named Collegiate Team Champions in a Florida B.A.S.S. Nation competition, with a two-day total weight of 26.07 pounds, at Lake Okeechobee June 2-3.
Two teams from the college, one of them including Stafford, will be representing it in Fishing League Worldwide’s 2019 YETI College Fishing Championship in May.
When it comes to fishing competitively, practicing on the body of water where the competition will be held is part of the equation. Stafford usually sets aside a week beforehand to prepare.
“We practice that week. Everybody’s practice is different,” he says, explaining people use electronics to find schools of fish and test different baits to discover which ones work best. “There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Stafford, president of the Bass Fishing Club, also studies the map and watches Youtube videos.
Derek Boswell, coach for Bartow High School’s fishing team, agrees practicing is important if you want to fish better. “Go out there and cast and get a line wet and enjoy the experience,” he suggests, adding people should wear sunscreen and cover themselves to protect their skin from the sun.
Part of the preparation process is familiarizing yourself with the body of water, whether it’s a clear lake or muddy one, he says. It also involves picking the type of line.
If you want to learn how to fish, Boswell recommends starting in your own neighborhood lakes and ponds.
A mentor to youths from all over the county and beyond, Boswell involves students in fishing through a catch-and-release program. “I do adopt. I have adopted from all over Polk County,” he says, adding one travels from Lake Placid. “I’m always going to include them, plug them in somehow.”
One of the things he likes about fishing is that it is a sport that equalizes individuals: it doesn’t discriminate by weight or height like football or basketball. “The bass that we’re fishing doesn’t know if you weigh 90 pounds or if you weight 190 pounds,” he explains. “Anybody can be on the fishing team.”
That gives girls a fair chance. “What I love is, it isn’t just for boys,” he adds. “I’ve had some great girl anglers. I call them Lady Jackets.”
He also points out there are only about two sports you can play for most of your life: golf and fishing. “You can fish till you’re 90+ years old,” he adds.
Through the Bobby Lane Cup, a high school tournament, he and professional bass fisherman Bobby Lane are developing the love of fishing in youths and children as young as 2 and 3 years old. The youngest ones learn to cast from the bank.
With this year’s scholarship awards, they’ll total some $40,000. Among the recipients are Stafford, and Boswell’s children, Michael and Kaitlyn.
“I only chose to go to college for fishing,” Stafford says. “My parents are both entrepreneurs, so college was never talked about.”
Boswell remains committed to mentoring. “I’m a lifer. I’ll help these kids till I retire,” he says. “I want to continue to give back.”
The love of fishing may be instilled in youth. Stafford and Boswell both learned from their dads. Wieber learned from an uncle, the late Gregory Koch. “I really decided to take it to the next step in memory of him,” says Wieber, who was fishing in tournaments since he was 14.
For them, fishing has progressed beyond the rudimental grabbing a pole and some lures. “There are definitely some spots that are better than others,” Stafford explains. “You’ve got to find those spots.”
Wieber likes to drive around the water beforehand and scope out locations with grasses similar to where he’s used to fishing.
Because the fish tend to travel together by size, it’s important to find the schools with larger fish sizes. That’s because the tournaments typically let you keep the five fish that weigh the most, Stafford says.
Wieber usually takes around 14 rods, ranging in length from 6 feet, 6 inches to 8 feet. Some are extremely stiff, others extra heavy. Flimsy rods are more sensitive, enabling the angler to detect things like rocks on the lake floor. “The rod is a huge tool in your success,” he says.
In the competitions, they stick to artificial bait. “We are not allowed to use live bait,” he says. “I use anywhere from a rubber worm to what’s called a crank bait
Fish are attracted to the rattling noise.
Popular local fishing spots are the Chain of Lakes and Lake Kissimmee. “My favorite lake is Lake Kissimmee,” Stafford says. “It’s big has an variety to choose from as far as vegetation.”
Fish in the smaller lakes may all be feeding and resting at the same time; a bigger lake provides more opportunities. “It offers a little more variety for the angler,” he explains.
Teaching youths to enjoy the sport is pretty important to Boswell. “We want students out there enjoying the outdoors,” he says. “I just don’t like kids playing video games.”
He partners with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure the youths learn how to respect wildlife and follow the rules. “If you’re over 16, you need a fishing license. More importantly, the FWC gives out a regulation book for freshwater [fishing] each year,” he continues. “It’s important to read that book.”
Boswell doesn’t discount the value of “being outdoors and in God’s creation.” “It takes a man away form his troubles,” he says. “It’s a great therapy.”
While fishing is a recreational sport, it also can be business. “We put in as much time as a baseball player or any sport player. There’s a lot of work to be done while you’re out there,” Wieber points out. “It’s tough days. It’s bad weather. It’s waking up at 5 o’clock every morning.”
College athletes aren’t paid, but fishing at local tournaments can help support them. “Fishing will always be my hobby, no matter if I make money off it or not,”
he points out. “It’s what I love to do.”