GIBSON COUNTY LAKE, Tenn. — The college freshmen Jake Lawrence and Jacob Hardy have two priorities: getting good grades and catching big fish. Standing on the deck of a 20-foot-long bass boat on a 560-acre lake in west Tennessee, they almost look like two tanned brothers. They wear the same uniform of flip-flops, wraparound polarized sunglasses, frayed Bethel University ball caps, and fishing shirts plastered with sponsor logos.
They room together, go to school together and fish together. And Bethel University brought them together as the first students in America to receive an athletic scholarship for competitive bass fishing. This week, these boys of summer will make room on their boat for another team member, Lauren Stamps, the first woman in the United States to receive a scholarship for bass fishing and one of a handful of women to compete on the nearly all-male college circuit.
The growth of collegiate bass-fishing tournaments caught the eye of Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn. There are an estimated 220 college bass-fishing clubs throughout the United States and Canada, according to collegebass.com, an ESPN-partnered Web site. The Bethel administrators decided that a strong bass-fishing team could be a good recruiting tool, so they officially recognized it as a sport, included it in their athletic department’s budget, and hired Garry Mason, a professional hunting and fishing guide, to be their coach. Scholarships range from $1,000 to $4,000 a year.
“We’re looking for a mix of a background in fishing and good academics,” Mason said. “We’re not looking for the Michael Jordan of the fishing world.”
He believes bass fishing is something that can be mastered by spending a lot of time on the water and by learning from more experienced team members.