Nov 10, 2015

Neenah Fishing Team

By: Chris Jones

When I tell people that Neenah High School (NHS) has a fishing team, one of the most common responses I hear is, “I wish they had that when I was in school.” My response is always the same... “Me too.”

As a child I was obsessed with fishing. In elementary school I read every fishing magazine I could get my hands on, then rode my Huffy Bandit bicycle to the local pond to test those techniques on the water. In middle school I was known as the kid who in the 8th grade yearbook listed his future career as a professional fisherman. In high school I spent more time on the golf course than the golf team because the ponds were loaded with largemouth bass. In college I worked two jobs to help buy fishing baits rather than using the money to go on dates. This love of fishing led to a degree in Biology and eventually a career as a 7th grade science teacher for the Neenah Joint School District. In the summers I taught elementary school enrichment fishing classes and started competing in bass fishing tournaments.

Then something unexpected happened… I met a 7th grader named Bradley. I didn’t have him as a student, and had never met him before he showed up in my classroom one morning before school. He asked me “Are you Mr. Jones? My math teacher tells me you’re really into fishing. Would you be willing to start a fishing club at our school for kids like me who love to fish?” At that moment, when I looked into the eyes of a gangly young kid with a big smile and a Berkley Trilene T-shirt, I saw a reflection of myself.

With the support an amazing administrator who understood the importance of connecting kids to school in creative ways and the help of a trusty colleague, who like me was a “fan of the fin,” a new fishing club, appropriately named The Finatics, was formed. The club averaged 50 plus students that year, held monthly meetings, had guest speakers, hosted field trips and did a lot of fishing! Bradley attended every one of those meetings, and each week it seemed as if he showed up in my room with several new fishing buddies. Like salmon returning to their native stream The Finatics crew migrated to my science classroom every morning before school. Before long Alec, Tristen, Ryan and Andrew joined Bradley in the 'daily migration'. They watched fishing videos, rigged tip-up’s, shared fishing stories, helped plan events and even set up a fish aquarium in my classroom. Two years later, the crew moved on to Neenah High School, and a part of me genuinely missed seeing them in my room each day. I impacted them and clearly they impacted me.

Then it happened again. A now 6’1 Bradley still sporting that big smile, but now with a driver's license, showed up at my door again. “Hey Mr. Jones, Can you start a fishing team for us at the high school? We found a website called studentfishing.com that says they have ice fishing competitions in Wisconsin. We need a coach.”  Over the course of the next few months a loosely organized group of high school kids aided by several willing parent volunteers and unofficial Coach Jones, competed at ice fishing events in Ashland, Chetek, Wisconsin Rapids, Fremont and Fond du Lac. Team members reported back to the school administrators about the exciting activities they were involved in and showed pictures of their success.  The team received shout-outs from the principal in the weekly announcements and was featured in the district newsletter.  The NHS Fishing Team was gaining exposure and building momentum. 

In May of 2014 the Neenah Joint School District adopted The Finatics program and the newly formed high school fishing team as officially recognized clubs! Not surprisingly, 85% of the current Neenah High School Fishing Team is comprised of those first Finatics! Last season Bradley added a new title to his name as one of the captains of the Neenah High School Fishing Team!

The NHS Fishing Team is more than a competitive team.  Although competing in ice fishing tournaments is a major focus during the winter months, team members also participate in environmental projects, kids fishing outings and this year started a new activity called the tank team where a teacher can request a classroom aquarium and the fishing team rigs it for them. The students are also actively participating in a national program through Berkley High School Fishing called the Berkley Challenge.  “We do all kinds of activities with the challenge,” replied Bradley. “We do elementary fishing outings, participate in tournaments and do environmental projects in our community.” Neenah finished fourth in the nation last year out of 175 schools.

Fishing teams have exploded into the culture and landscape of high schools throughout Wisconsin over the past few years. In 2014, 44 teams participated in the state ice fishing championship on the Chetek Chain. That spring several coaches of these teams collectively formed the Wisconsin Interscholastic Fishing Association (WIFA). This newly minted organization, led by Wendy Dallman, of Prairie Farm High School, and Ted Bonde, of Kiel High School, has high school fishing in Wisconsin off to a great start.

“I envision WIFA teams in every county in the state within the next year or two offering free fishing opportunities to students.  Our organization reflects a love for fishing and its strong heritage here in Wisconsin,” says Bonde.

Other schools are seeing growth in their programs as well. The 2015 WIFA website lists 57 schools in Wisconsin with fishing teams. With a user friendly website, an active Facebook page, the backing of multiple sponsors within the industry and a full calendar of events for this year, these numbers will continue to grow.

‘Bradley and the boys’ now have a mission of their own, and that is to promote and foster a love of fishing with others. When they graduate from Neenah High School their legacy will be the fishing team they helped to start at their school. There are students all over the state who are similar to Bradley. They are passionate about school sports and activities, and equally excited about fishing. Many of them are just waiting for an opportunity to join a fishing team and perhaps leave a legacy of their own.