- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama teen Zeke Gossett has witnessed firsthand the rise of competitive high school bass fishing over the past four years.

Now a high school junior, Gossett and partner Hayden Bartee will be among the competitors at the first B.A.S.S. High School Classic Exhibition on Saturday, the latest big event created for young anglers. They’ll weigh their catches before the pros competing in the Bassmaster Classic take the same Birmingham stage.

“The high school stuff really rolled around when I was in seventh grade,” said Gossett, 17, of Pell City, Ala. “I was the first boat out, my dad and I, in one of the first high school tournaments ever held in Alabama. The increase in tournaments in high school has just been unbelievable. There used to only be one or two trips max. Last year, we were holding 250-boat tournaments each time.”

The high school exhibition will feature 10 teams from five states - Alabama, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina and Indiana - at Lay Lake, while the pros compete at Lake Guntersville on the other side of Birmingham. Both will weigh their catches at the BJCC Arena.

This event is just the latest addition to the growing ranks of bass fishing tournaments for high school students. It’s no threat to replace football or basketball, but opportunities abound for fishing lovers and aspiring pros like Gossett and Bartee, also 17.

The high school associations in Illinois, Kentucky and New Hampshire sanction bass fishing as a sport or activity and hold state championships. Some 235 teams compete in Illinois, which became the first state to sanction high school bass fishing in 2008-09.

In Missouri, it’s recognized as an emerging activity with 30 schools participating, said Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association. He said the association requires two years with 50 schools registering to organize a season and championship competition.

Schools in other states, like Alabama, have club teams. They even crown state champions.

The Student Angler Federation, part of the Bass Federation, has held state championships in 45 states leading up to a high school national championship and high school world finals since 2010, said Mark Gintert, the organization’s national youth director. Gossett competed in one of the SAF events back in the seventh grade.

Gintert said those states have about 600 clubs and 8,000 anglers.

“It’s growing as fast as we can keep up with it,” he said. “We get 15-20 requests a day for information on high school fishing from our Web site.”

The 55-year-old grew up in Ohio when he had basically three sports to choose from: football, baseball and basketball. Those sports remain king but when Gintert saw that bowling was added to a now much longer list of varsity sports in his home state he wondered, “Why can’t we have fishing?”

“Certainly fishing is probably one of the oldest and most family-oriented traditional sports we’ve ever had,” Gintert said. “I think we tend to overlook it because for years, it was a method of survival rather than a method of sport and competition and activity, but certainly it creates a great, great competitive release for a lot of these kids.”

B.A.S.S. is modeling the high school competition off its college exhibition that debuted at the 2010 Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham featuring anglers from Auburn University and rival Alabama.

“We’re seeing a large movement in the high school realm of bass fishing, and we wanted to get involved in that,” said Hank Weldon, manager of college, high school and youth fishing for B.A.S.S.

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