Rhea County High School's bass fishing team is barely three months old but has to be among the favorites to win the inaugural Tennessee state championship on April 9.
The Evensville group will be packing numbers, for one thing - eight boats with two anglers each - and they'll have a home-water advantage. The tournament is being hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga bass club and is being held out of Dayton Boat Dock on Chickamauga Lake.
Beyond that, faculty sponsor Brian Derlak's bunch has been getting good fast, aided greatly by a knowledgeable, enthusiastic adult support group. Following national high school rules set up by The Bass Federation based in Ponca City, Okla., and adopted by the Tennessee Bass Federation, the high school anglers have an adult driving each boat. The adult also can provide suggestions and net the fish.
The casting and reeling is all done by the students, however, and Derlak has been proud of his Golden Eagles' progress. Many have been fishing for years, and they also gather with him for their one-hour lunch periods Monday through Thursday of each week.
They've also been on the water almost every Saturday despite having difficulty scheduling matches.
This Saturday morning, Clinton High School's second-year program will be fishing against Rhea out of Dayton Boat Dock. An earlier match against Clinton on Watts Bar Lake didn't work out.
"We just stayed home and fished, but it worked out well. A couple of the kids had 20-pound days," Derlak said. "It's awesome watching these kids, like seeing them casting around a brush pile and pitching jigs accurately into the crook of a tree. When you can put a bait into a small area, quietly, that's the element of surprise to a big bass."
Derlak, a 40-year-old Rhea County graduate, teaches world geography and is an assistant varsity baseball coach and the junior varsity head coach. He also coaches his son's 5-6-year-old baseball team, but he's in his "33rd year of fishing on the Tennessee River, and I love it."
He even has done some small-scale tournament fishing over the years, so when he was approached about coaching an archery team at the school, he said no but volunteered to coach a bass team if there was sufficient interest.
"All you need is six to start a team, and our six quickly evolved into 16 - 15 boys and a girl," Derlak said. "I got our team together over the Christmas break. Out first meeting was right after the first snowstorm, and our first match was on February the 19th.
"I spent the entire Christmas break looking at schedules of events on Chickamauga, to set up our schedule, and then pleasantly we found out this state tournament not only would take place on Chickamauga but out of Dayton. Some of these schools in other parts of the state have been doing this for two or three years, so we've been trying to catch up fast."
The Rhea anglers have done most of their intrasquad competition out of Blue Water campground.
"This whole experience has been awesome," Derlak said. "The neatest comment I've had so far was one boy told me, 'Mr. Derlak, I'm looking forward to coming to school now.' Not every kid likes to do one of the traditional sports.
"One of my kids got to go out on a practice day with [Dayton resident and national tour pro] Andy Morgan for job-shadowing day. He said, 'Coach, it was unbelievable what I learned.'"
Morgan is part of the Walmart FLW Tour, which partners with TBF in setting up high school competition.
The UTC club is using $2,000 of its first- and third-place winnings from a January FLW college tournament in Florida to give scholarships to Tennessee's winning duo next week. UTC chancellor Roger Brown will speak at the state tournament, Mocs club president Alex Craw said, and some of their sponsors will be helping as well.
Registration for the state tournament is still open at HighSchoolFishing.org or 580-765-9031.