UPDATE: Two of Moline High School's top anglers will compete in the IHSA bass fishing championship this spring.
Sophomores Phelps Bohlman and Cade Harris finished second in their sectional tournament on Friday, securing an automatic bid in the upcoming competition. The duo reeled in five bass, totaling 17 pounds, 1 ounce, in Pool 13 of the Mississippi River.
Two boats from Riverdale High School in Port Byron rounded out the top three at sectionals with hauls of 18 pounds, 12 ounces, and 15 pounds, 15 ounces. Both Riverdale teams will join Moline in the state finals, which is scheduled for May 19-20 at Carlyle Lake, about 50 miles east of St. Louis.
EARLIER STORY: With swift flicks of their wrists, two of the top high school anglers in the Quad-Cities repeatedly hit the base of a riprap wall with their lures — right on target.
“We go for the kids that can aim the best,” said Tim Himsl, one of four coaches of the Moline High School Bass Fishing team, during a practice this week on the LeClaire Canal. “There’s such a select group of kids that we can find who really have the potential to be a tournament fisherman. It’s a whole different breed.”
Junior Darin Arnold and sophomore Phelps Bohlman have fished five contests each throughout the past six weeks in preparation for Friday’s sectional, their biggest competition of the year so far.
The Maroons will look to return to the state championship for the seventh time since the Illinois High School Association sanctioned the tournament in 2009, the first of its kind in the country.
In preparation for the event, Himsl and Tim Albrecht, the team’s head coach, scouted the water in Pool 13 of the Mississippi River near Thomson, Illinois, the sectional site about an hour drive north of the Quad-Cities.
Several variables, including the clarity and temperature of the water, can play a factor in fishing, said Albrecht, who hates to use the word "luck" when it comes to the sport.
For instance, "You could be throwing the right bait, just the wrong color," said Phelps, who prefers using a jig to attract bass.
"There’s a degree of luck or bad luck that can go into it, but to be consistent over time, there’s a science to it," said Albrecht, whose teams won the state title in 2014 and finished as the state runner-up in 2010. “You’re not just throwing out a bobber and a worm and waiting for it to go down."
Competing with 50-plus boats at the state tournament, Moline has finished in the top 20 each time it has qualified.
Success also requires a certain amount of drive and stamina, Darin said, and the will to wake up around 3 a.m. to drive to competitions.
“And then you’ve got to have the motivation to stand up and fish all day, even if you’re not getting any bites,” he said.
During the offseason, Moline's anglers throw lures in the swimming pool and cast lines into buckets in the cafeteria to keep their skills in tune.
"They go through the rigor," said Himsl, a member of Moline's first team in the spring of 2009. "That's how we find the kids who have what it takes. We treat it like any other high school sport."
The bass fishing team is not fully funded by the school.
While the district supplies gas money for tournaments, the team relies heavily on donations and assistance from the community, Moline High School Athletic Director Todd Rosenthal said.
From time to time, for example, the team practices on the pond at TPC Deere Run, home to the annual John Deere Classic golf tournament.
Rosenthal credited Albrecht and other coaches, who all have boats, for developing the self-sustaining program.
In 2009, 199 high schools in Illinois supported bass fishing teams. This year, there are 271.
Meanwhile, Iowa does not recognize fishing as a designated high school activity, which has sparked a bit of jealousy from schools across the river in the Quad-Cities, said Albrecht, a LeClaire resident.
"It would just explode over here in Iowa, but the state hasn't done anything with it," he said.
At sectionals, two anglers are allowed to fish on a boat at a time; they can alternate with another pair if needed. Each school can enter two boats and the top three boats with the biggest haul (five-bass limit) will advance to the state finals on May 19-20.
During their final practice of the week on the backwaters of the Mississippi River, Phelps and Darin each caught two largemouth bass, giving them a boost of confidence before the big day.
Albrecht said his top core group of guys, who will return next season, will have to be on top of their game to make it to state.
"Hopefully, we get a little luck on our side at the right time."