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On the lake with the North Country bass fishing team

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by Luke Vidic

NEWPORT — For most people, fishing is a relaxing weekend pastime.  For the North Country Union High School bass fishing team, it can become a little more than that.

While boating on Lake Memphremagog last Thursday, coach Greg Ste. Marie gestured to his son Manny and said, “He’d wake up at 4 a.m. and fish before school. Then he’d go out again after work.”

The Chronicle had the opportunity to go out on Lake Memphremagog with the team for one of its practices.  Placid waters, cotton-ball clouds, and word of biting fish greeted the team as it left the dock.  The team split between two boats, with two team members and one coach on board each — the same as during competition.

Before setting off, Mr. Ste. Marie and coach Carl Roberts explained the basics of competitive bass fishing.

The team competes in a league run by the Vermont Principals Association (VPA), wherein each team attempts to reel in the six heaviest bass they can catch.  Each fish caught is stored in an onboard live well, and each must be alive when its weighed.

A dead bass results in a penalty and a loss of ounces.  Each team can take two boats, catching six fish each, and each boat can have two anglers and one coach.

The Falcons will attend three tournaments this year, with the first one coming up this Saturday.

The sport was recognized by the VPA four years ago, and North Country’s varsity team is just as old.

Competition, Manny said, adds excitement to an otherwise serene, and borderline boring, sport.

Success in the sport comes from a combination of factors.  Luck is certainly one, but calling fishing nothing but luck would be a mistake.

Out on the water, the skill involved became more evident.

“You see how he casts,” Noah Crogan said, speaking about teammate Max Roberts. “It’s like he’s aiming somewhere every time.”

Knowledge of a waterway, experience, technology, and money all play a part.

The North Country team knows Lake Memphremagog well.  Coach Carl Roberts has been fishing here for a while, and knows where to find structure (e.g. rocks and weeds), proper depth, and good temperatures, all of which are factors in when seeking bass.

Other factors, like the depth of the hook and type of lure, also play a part.  Temperature and sunlight often affect the depth at which bass swim.

And, sometimes, experience tells a fisherman to trust their gut.

“I got a wicked feeling about this,” Manny said while switching rods.

At one point, Mr. Ste. Marie decided to cast with his “lucky lizard,” a lime green rubber lizard.  The “lucky lizard,” he said, had a history of catching bass, although it’s atypical for such a lure.

In competitions, each angler can bring up to twelve rods with them, with each one set for a different situation.  Competitions usually last around six hours.  During such a long period, weather and conditions can change, prompting a change of lure and line.

In Vermont, all high school competitions so far have taken place on Lake Champlain.  With so much riding on a team’s knowledge of a lake, the location gives advantages to local teams that practice on Champlain.  While North Country’s team might have an encyclopedic knowledge of Lake Memphremagog and all its prime fishing spots, that knowledge is worthless on Lake Champlain.

To add insult to injury, the team literally loses sleep because of the location.

“We were up at four in the morning on those tournament days,” Mr. Roberts said.  “And those guys are still in bed when we’ve been on the road for an hour.”

Technology — like sonar and depth gauges — can help ease the knowledge gap between teams.  Sonar detects structures in which bass like to hide, including rocks and weeds, and depth gauges detect the water depth, which is useful information to an experienced angler.  Deeper water is colder, and affects bass movement and speed.

Mr. Roberts’ boat is equipped with both technologies, but even his boat pales in comparison to some other teams with more money and means.

Here’s the rub.

As Mr. Ste. Marie said, “There’s nothing cheap about bass fishing.”

Mr. Roberts said the team has come up against $70,000 boats in competition.  Those boats came with more tech and better motors.

The fastest boat has the best chance of reaching the best spots first.  And a better motor matters when your field of play is 20 miles long.  A boat traveling at 60 miles an hour takes twenty minutes to reach the other end of the area.  That matters a lot when teams reach the final minutes of competition.  A faster boat may mean there’s time still for one more cast, while a slower boat has to pack it in and head to the dock.

Any team not ashore when the timer runs out doesn’t get to weigh their catch.

The VPA does not regulate boats much.  A boat must only be longer than 16 feet, and have a live well to safely store fish, along with basic safety gear like life vests.

In addition to boats, anglers also must spend money on rods, which can cost up to $300.  Since competitors can have up to 12 rods, the total cost can amount to $3,600.

So teams with more money can buy an advantage.  The school supports its bass team by paying for gas, travel, and compensation for coaches.  The boats are owned by the team’s two coaches, and some of the team members.

The team was on the water practicing from 5 to 7 p.m.  Most of the time, “practice” looked more like an easy day on the lake.  Team members joked and chirped one another, and coaches fired back.

“Hey, Coach.” Mr. Ste. Marie said to Mr. Roberts. “Should we start practice by making them run laps?”

Answering his own question, he said, “Oh, they’re gonna swim back to get in shape.”

The mood was light-hearted from start to finish.  The only disheartening moment came when a pike ended the lucky lizard’s lucky streak, snapping the line and taking the lure with it.

And as the sun set behind the hills along the western shore, orange rays reflected off the rippling water.  It was tranquil — a feeling found at no other “practice.”

“It’s not always about the fishing,” Mr. Roberts said. “Just look around.”

more photos of this event and more in the full edition of this week’s paper. Subscribe now to access our e-version or to have it delivered to your home weekly by selecting a link below:

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