Tennessee Tech sophomore joins ranks of college-affiliated bass fishing teams

George Thwaites • Jul 3, 2011 at 9:20 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Someday, Joe Slagle may see if he can work his way into the ranks of professional bass fishing by way of the FLW EverStart Series.

For now, he’s simply giving it the old college try.

This past year, the 19-year-old Slagle was a freshman fisherman on Tennessee Tech’s bass fishing team.

“Just about every school in the South has a team right now,” said Slagle, who played soccer for four years at Tennessee High.

“Anybody can have one, not just the bigger schools. Tusculum or King could have one. I’m kind of surprised that ETSU doesn’t have a team.”

College bass fishing doesn’t fall under NCAA governance but exists as a school-sponsored club activity. Bethel University in Kentucky has begun offering scholarships for its bass fishing team, raising the prospect of recruiting wars between institutions just like other intercollegiate athletics.

For now, however, college bass fishing is almost entirely driven by the participants themselves. Slagle, like all of his Tennessee Tech teammates, is a walk-on.

“Their first organizational meeting was a standing-room-only crowd,” said Dr. Phil Bettoli, a fisheries biologist at Tennessee Tech who was the founding student-anglers’ apt choice for a club sponsor.

“My duties aren’t overwhelming. Mostly, I write e-mails to their professors telling them, no joke, their student really does have to miss a quiz to officially represent Tennessee Tech in a bass fishing tournament,” Bettoli said.

Some Golden Eagles anglers have actually been bringing back prize money that makes the club more self-sustaining, Bettoli said. This makes the bass fishing team pretty popular with the administration.

While the competitive framework isn’t completely anarchic, the road to an undisputed national championship is probably less well defined than most other intercollegiate sports — excluding, possibly, the BCS football title.

The Golden Eagles can send individual two-man, buddy-format teams to nationally sponsored payout tournaments, with the Boat U.S. and FLW college trails being the most well known. At present, Florida — a two-time FLW college national champion — is the No. 1 team in the FLW rankings, which compiles a national top-25 list.

Each school has a cap on the number of boats it can send to Boat U.S. and FLW events, Slagle said. It is up to each team to decide how to select its top two-angler teams to send to these higher-end events.

Conference affiliations are fairly informally defined by the regular-season trails that are open to all team members. At present, Tennessee Tech regularly competes in the Tennessee Collegiate Trail, which is sponsored by Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Most of these events are held on Tennessee River impoundments, which have been a big adjustment for Slagle. Even though he’s been fishing competitively since his teens, Northeast Tennessee reservoirs are completely unlike his new haunts.

He is adapting, learning and thriving. He still can’t flip worth a flip. But he’s learning to use shallow crankbaits in ways he never would around here.

“Middle Tennessee, UTC and Tennessee are the three biggest rivals we fish against,” Slagle noted. “But there are several different (trails) we also fish.”

Informal school rivalries are cropping up on these side trails. For instance, the Golden Eagles recently won back “The Flamingo Cup” from Georgia Southern at a tournament at Lake Guntersville in Alabama. The traveling trophy is a big, pink, plastic flamingo covered with signatures.

While team captains take leadership roles on the squad, there is no coach to crack the whip. Slagle, a business major, has to manage his own time wisely to keep fishing from encroaching on his academics — and vice versa.

“It didn’t hurt my studies much at all. I fun-fished some during the week, but we have only one or two tournaments a month and all of them are on the weekends,” Slagle said.

“I scheduled most of my classes in the morning, so if I had a test or something, I could get it done and leave on Friday afternoon or evening.”

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