by Eric Oslund
Everything really seemed to change for Colin James in the summer of 2015.
James, a resident of Otsego and member of a Minnesota B.A.S.S. club, received an email about the possibility of captaining a boat during a youth fishing tournament. He didn’t have anything planned that weekend, so decided he would offer up his services.
He went out and helped two boys fish during the tournament, and then decided it was something he wanted to do on a regular basis.
“I had a ton of fun with it,” he explained. “I brought it up at one of my club meetings that I thought my club should try and find a school to sponsor and help out if there were kids who wanted to do this, that we would boat captain for these kids so they could go out and fish these tournaments.”
There was plenty of support from his fellow members, but the problem was there didn’t appear to be any schools in the area they were able to sponsor, whether it be lack of interest or something else.
Then one day, while sitting around trying to find a school to sponsor, his roommate, and tournament partner, came in and said he had found some kids that would love to work with him. He had met Alex and Max Wiczek at the Elk River Sports Club when they were shooting their bow and arrows and they expressed their interest in forming a fishing team.
“They wanted to do it, so I became their boat captain, and they very quickly told me that they want to take it super serious and try to go on to fish collegiately and all that,” James recalled. “Instead of doing what a lot of clubs are doing, which was just having boat captains for the tournament, I fished with them twice a week, taught them pretty much everything I do, so on tournament day we could be competitive.”
So the Elk River Fishing Team was born in the summer of 2016, and even though it was small – consisting of James and the Wiczek brothers – it was competitive. They advanced to the state tournament and eventually to nationals, which was held June 22-24 of 2017 at Kentucky Lake in Tennessee – where they finished 78th out of 225 teams.
A great finish for the boys, who had grown up fishing almost primarily in Minnesota their entire lives.
“It was a totally different deal, and they kind of learned a lot about how (in Minnesota) it’s about trying to find the right clump of weeds, and down there you literally use your electronics to look for fish,” James explained. “You go driving around looking for them on your depth finders trying to find where these big groups are. The school of fish we found in practice that we ended up fishing both days of the tournament had well over 100 fish in it, and you could see them all right on your depth finder. Then, once we found them, it was a matter of throwing a bait in there and they’d eat it. It was kind of a cool thing. They’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Word quickly spread around during the 2016 youth tournament season, and in the offseason that followed, about this Elk River Fishing Team, and before James knew it he had more kids interested in joining than he knew what to do with.
He wanted to make sure that each and every kid that wanted to fish would get the opportunity, but only two kids could fish in a boat at a time and his was already filled. Also, being a part-owner in a business, his schedule was already maxed out.
So he reached back out to his friends at the B.A.S.S. club as well as some locals he knew of.
“I went out and conned a whole bunch of my friends and local guys to take on a team each,” he explained. “I roped seven more guys into doing it, so I have eight coaches including myself, and then 16 kids.
“That’s something that, I was blessed. Everyone was like, ‘I can’t believe you have eight guys that do this every week.’ I was like, ‘I know, trust me. It’s crazy to me too.’ I would love to see it to continue to grow next year.”
James charges a small fee for anyone joining the club, but it’s really the only type of revenue they have as they are not receiving much support other than that. And the money he receives from those fees goes straight to the other coaches in form of gas cards as they are working voluntarily to help out these kids.
It’s not easy to haul around a boat and truck a couple times a week to lakes for practice, or to tournaments, especially when the coaches have lives of their own, and James just wants to show them all his appreciation for helping out.
But with the recent growth of the program, the program’s founder knows he is about to reach a bit of an impasse.
“It’s a touchy field because I have, as far as the Minnesota stuff is concerned, as far as I’ve been told, and I have no data for this, but I’ve been told I have the most competitive bass fishing program in the state and that’s do to the fact that I actually have coaches and that we actually practice on a weekly basis,” he explained. “Where as every other guy I talk to, these other teams, they have boat captains – a lot of them are dads, uncles, and things like that – but those kids aren’t getting out and fishing with their coach on a weekly basis. So one of my struggles is I don’t know how many more coaches I’m going to be able to talk into doing this, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to grow the program. That’s something that has been kind of weighing on me a little bit. I don’t want to cap the program because I want every kid that wants to fish to get the chance to fish, but I want to be able to provide them with the same experience that my kids right now are getting.”
His hope is to find at least two more coaches so they have the ability to work with 20 kids. And he himself will open up and be able to work with a younger team after this season since it’s the final season the Wiczek brothers will be able to compete.
The other goal that James has set for his program is to have a team finish in the top 20 at nationals. It will be a big accomplishment for a team from Minnesota to do that, but one he believes they will be able to accomplish in the coming years.
“My biggest goal for the club is that at some point in the next couple years, I want to see a team go to nationals and get in the top 20,” he explained. “The past four years they have held the nationals at Kentucky Lake in Tennessee, and they will probably continue to do that because it’s such a great venue for tournaments. Unfortunately, that really sways the basket towards the teams from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and stuff where those guys get the opportunity to fish that resivour on a regular basis. Where up north they don’t even get a chance to fish lakes that don’t have weeds, let a lone that specific body of water.”
Before that happens, though, they will need teams to make it through the state tournament and then qualify for nationals, but they are on a good pace to once again have a team representing Elk River down in Tennessee.
There are two state qualifying tournaments and then the top-7 teams from each region – Elk River is in the northern region – will go to state. From there, the top-6 eligible teams will then earn a spot in nationals.
Elk River had three teams place in the top-20 at the first qualifying tournament – Dylan Hollom and Cody Eggers (11th), Max and Alex Wiczek (16th), Rylee and Jake Edwards (20th). Another showing like that could launch all three of them into state, depending on how the rest of their region performs as well.