---- — The Bassmasters Classic is to sport fishing what the World Series is to baseball and the Super Bowl is to football. Roughly four years ago, the elite bass fishing tournament series expanded to include a division aimed at colleges. Now for the first time, this year also included high school teams.
While our nation’s top professional anglers competed on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, 10 high school teams from across the United States took part in the youth event held on neighboring Lay Lake.
Pros and youth alike qualify for the pinnacle of bass fishing by winning a series of qualifying tournaments in their region. For the most part, southern anglers predominately dominate these events. With good reason. The southern states have more lakes, longer fishing seasons and bass fishing is a way of life. But this year, Indiana had a strong showing in the youth event, both on the water and behind the scenes.
Lafayette’s Beau Ashcraft is a three-sport athlete at McCutcheon High School. The 15-year-old competes in tennis, wrestling and golf. But his biggest thrill did not take place in the gym or court, but on the stage of Alabama’s Birmingham Convention Center.
Nearly 20,000 fans of professional bass fishing came together to watch as Ashcraft and teammate Shawn Zellers of Winamac carried their fish to the scales in the inaugural Bassmaster High School Classic. Their catch of four spotted bass totaling just under 12 pounds was good enough to earn them a fourth-place finish.
The pair qualified for the event by placing fourth in the BASS High School Invitational last year at Lake Wheeler in Alabama, where they competed against 64 other high school teams from across the United States. From there, only 10 teams earned the opportunity to take part in the Classic contest. The boys are teammates in the Wabash Valley Bassmasters, a high school fishing club made up of youth from the Lafayette and Winamac areas.
Beau’s grandparents Boyd and Beverly Ashcraft of Kokomo also played a part in the national contest. Being in school didn’t leave much time for the many hours spent travelling. So Beau, his father and coach Darin Ashcraft, along with Zellers boarded a flight for Birmingham several days before the tournament. This would allow them time to practice. Darrin, who operated the boat during the tournament, had scouted Lay Lake about a month earlier.
The day before, a heavy rainstorm pounded the lake muddying the waters. This forced teams to adjust their strategies. Their advance practice paid off as they knew of a small tributary where the water remained clear. This is where they caught their fish earning them a fourth-place finish.
The extra day proved invaluable and was only made possible by Boyd and Beverly.
“Several weeks before, Darin called and asked if I could pull his boat so they could fly down giving them time to practice,” Boyd explained. “Being retired gave me the time to do it.”
So several days before the big show, Boyd latched on to his son’s Ranger bass boat for the long drive south. He picked up his son, grandson and Zellers from the airport and drove them straight to the lake.
“If Dad wouldn’t have been able to do that for us, the boys wouldn’t have had any practice time,” Darin said thankfully.
The entire event was unlike anything the eldest Ashcraft had ever seen. He became the team’s official “truck captain” launching the boat in the morning then driving them straight to the huge arena for the weigh in.
“The whole event was incredible,” said Boyd. “There were thousands of people there.”
The only Hoosier team in the event was quickly recognized and referred to as “the boys from up north.” While the pro who wins the nation’s greatest bass tourney takes home more than $300,000 in cash and sponsorships totaling well over $1 million, the boys took home a plaque and recognition. Federal law prohibits high schoolers from receiving monetary rewards. But that sits just fine for Ashcraft and Zellers.
“We plan on making it back to the Classic as adults,” Beau said confidently.
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.