From a very early age, Kenny Johnson dreamed of winning bass fishing championships. His grandfather worked as a guide on West Point Lake in the late 1970s and competed in some of the first tournaments held there. Kenny’s father followed in the same footsteps, fishing tournaments in the lakes of west Georgia and east Alabama.
Kenny was born in Newnan, but he was practically raised on West Point Lake.
“When I was younger, my mom and dad didn’t have a lot of money, so they always made it a point to take me out to have fun,” says Kenny. “I was fortunate to live a short distance from West Point, so we went out there and fished all the time.”
Other kids his age played sports, or sat in front of a television playing games, but Kenny always yearned to be on the water.
“I would go fishing every chance I got,” says Kenny. “I did play baseball for a while—and was pretty good at it—but I would usually be sitting at baseball practice wishing I was out on the lake fishing.”
Kenny would often pull his truck into the parking lot at Newnan High School with his father’s Ranger Cherokee in tow. After school, he would go to work at a nearby bait-and-tackle shop before getting in a few hours on the lake before dark.
Toward the end of his senior year at Newnan High, Kenny learned that some colleges had competitive bass fishing teams. Excited by the prospect of fishing at the collegiate level, he searched for a nearby institution that had a team and finally chose to enroll at the University of West Georgia.
“For some reason, I was under the impression that they had a bass fishing team at West Georgia,” says Kenny. “When I got there in the fall of 2012, I started asking around about how I could join the team, and I quickly learned that they didn’t have one.”
Kenny was determined to attend a college that had a fishing program. He decided that transferring to another university was not an option and soon came up with an idea that would resolve his dilemma.
He decided to start his own fishing team at the University of West Georgia.
Kenny began calling team presidents from bass fishing programs at other universities and asking what he needed to do to kickstart a program a UWG.
Through hard work and determination, Kenny founded the University of West Georgia Bass Club. The program grew much faster than he ever imagined, and it was soon in the national spotlight as one of the best up-and-coming programs in the country.
“Our first tournament was in January of 2013 of my freshman year,” says Kenny. “It was the Bassmasters Southern Regional at the Harris Lake Chain near Orlando.”
The UWG fishing team finished 10th out of more than 200 teams in the tournament. The performance was enough to qualify Kenny and his teammate to compete in the BASS college national championship.
“We had only fished one tournament, but I was shocked when the Bassmasters national rankings came out a week later, and we were ranked 12th in the nation with only two people on the whole team,” laughs Kenny.
Kenny lead the UWG team to win the Georgia State Championship that year.
“After that, everything took off,” says Kenny. “People started calling in from all over wanting to come join our team. We had people transferring from other schools to go fish with us.”
UWG’s fishing club is now a thriving program that has made a name for itself on the regional and national stage. Much of that success would have never happened without Kenny’s persistence in pursuing his dream of starting his own fishing team.
Since founding the program, Kenny has been instrumental in helping students at other colleges to do the same. He has also helped many high schools across the state of Georgia start bass fishing clubs.
The sport of collegiate and high school bass fishing is currently growing by leaps and bounds. Kenny offers some key points to other aspiring anglers that will help them carve a path to starting their own bass fishing team at the high school or college level.
Put Your Education First
“The first step is to have your grades up,” says Kenny. “You have to prove yourself to be able to maintain your academic studies before you start to add in extracurricular activities. You’ll need to show your high school or college that you’re able to handle the requirements of schoolwork and participating in a sport like fishing. Every sponsor wanted a quarterly report of my grades. When you get down to it, education is more important than any sport you’re taking part in.”
Get Your School On Board
Whether a student is in high school, or at a large four-year university, they won’t be able to start a fishing program without the authorization of the institution. High school students will need to begin by speaking with their school principal and athletic director.
Scott Beard is tournament director for Georgia High School Fishing, and head bass fishing coach for North Forsyth High School. His team has won multiple state championships and has also sent teams to compete in the national championship.
“The first step is to get on board with your school leadership, and see what they’re willing to put into it. Go talk to your principal and athletic director,” says Scott. “If they’re not on board with the idea, it’s going to be hard to start a team. If you aren’t able to start a team at your high school, you may be able to join some area community teams for high school competition.”
Each high school and college differs in what is required to begin a new program or club. Students will need to become familiar with their school’s guidelines for beginning a new program before they can develop a plan of action.
“When I decided I was going to start a team at UWG, I went to the Center for Student Involvement on campus and told them I was interested in starting a bass fishing team at West Georgia,” says Kenny. “They told me about their club sports program, and said that I would need to go through that route to start the team.”
Many college and universities have a club sports program, which differs from intramural sports as they allow students to compete with teams from other institutions.
“I met with the director of our club sports program,” says Kenny. “I had to meet with him and a few other people and learn the steps I had to take to start the team. It was a lot of hoops to jump through, but if you really want to start a program, that’s a good way to do it.”
Building Through Recruitment
“Before your school will decide whether they are going to support a fishing team, they will want to see how much interest their students have in it,” says Kenny.
Some schools may require a certain number of students to participate before a fishing program will be supported.
Brett Phipps is athletic director of West Forsyth High School and a board member of the non-profit Georgia High School Fishing (georgiahighschoolfishing.blogspot.com). He says it’s important to recruit students who can fulfil specific roles to help the functionality of the team.
“You really want to go out there and get a core group of kids together who are interested,” says Brett. “If you work hard at getting the word out about starting a fishing team, you’ll find kids who are excited about it and who are eager to help get it off the ground. Be sure to look for kids who can fulfill leadership roles and other needs for the team.”
Kenny says the toughest part of recruiting team members is in the beginning phases of starting the team.
“Once we started doing well in tournaments, and moving up in the standings, we started to attract a good bit of attention from students who wanted to come fish at a competitive program,” says Kenny. “Starting out, you can use social media and word of mouth to help find people who are interested in fishing.”
Designate a Coach/Sponsor
Both high school and collegiate teams will need to designate a coach or sponsor who is affiliated with the institution.
“In high school tournaments, the kids are not allowed to run the outboard motor because of safety reasons,” says Brett. “Each boat has what’s called a boat captain, which is an adult who operates the outboard motor for them. The kids decide on where the boat will go, and which spots they want to fish. Once they get to the spot where they want to fish, the kids will operate the trolling motor.”
Brett says many teams partner with local bass fishing clubs to find sponsors and adults with boats that the kids can use.
“We have a lot of kids who are interested in fishing, but they don’t have access to a boat,” says Brett. “Some of our partners in the local bass fishing clubs are very generous to let these kids use their boats, and lots of the boat owners volunteer to be boat captains for us.”
While most high school programs will handle funding for their anglers, collegiate teams require the program’s leaders to be accountable for all sponsorship funds and how those funds are used.
“When I started the program, I had to find a bank that would let me start a non-profit checking account for all our sponsorships to be put into,” says Kenny. “There’s a lot more work to do on a college fishing program than just getting out on the water and catching fish. Students will be handling all the behind-the-scenes work. Those sponsorship funds are what your team will use to go fish different tournaments, purchase and design uniforms, and any other needs the team has.”
Kenny says he executed a business plan strategy he learned in some of his classes at UWG.
“I looked at other schools and studied what they did,” says Kenny. “When I got sponsors, I had to talk to them from a business or marketing standpoint in which I explained how many people were going to see their logo on our uniform or see the wrap on our boat. I had to convince them why they should sponsor us. It’s just like a job interview when you have to convince them why they should hire you over someone else. I had to convince them why they should sponsor us.”
Kenny says that once a team begins to prove itself to be successful, sponsorships will be easier to acquire.
Affiliate With An Organized Trail
Brett Beard says one of the most important steps for high school anglers is to become affiliated with one of the major national high school fishing organizations.
“Once you get your team together, you’ll need to get affiliated with either FLW or Bassmaster,” says Brett. “They both have some benefits and disadvantages to them. Each organization has their own set of rules you’ll need to follow.
Kenny says that for collegiate teams the more trails a program can be affiliated with, the better.
“There are lots of trails out there that a college team can become affiliated with,” says Kenny. “I would recommend getting involved with all of them you possibly can.”
Give Back To Your Community
According to Kenny, one of the most important things that can often be overlooked is giving back to a fishing program’s community.
“There are a lot of things you can do to be a positive force in your community,” says Kenny. “When I was president of the UWG team, we organized disaster relief fundraisers, river and lake cleanups, spoke to kids in schools or churches, organized benefit tournaments for charity. Your team should develop a good reputation in your community and should be a positive representation of your school or college.”
Kenny now fishes as a professional on the Bassmasters Open tour, which he considers to be just another stepping stone on his way to the Elite Series.
“If I had given up on the team when the going got tough, I would probably be working a dead-end job today, and I would be okay with quitting,” says Kenny. “But I wanted to be a pro angler, and I wanted to own my own business.”
Kenny says he is thankful that he followed through on founding the team, noting that the experience taught him much more than just how to be a better angler.
“If you want to be a pro fisherman, there is a big difference in being a good fisherman, and knowing how to get into the pro circuit and have the backing to fish on a professional level,” says Kenny.
“If someone starts out at the high school or college level—and wants it bad enough—they can become a pro.”