By Kristi Lynn
FRUITPORT–There are plenty of opportunities for students in school to enjoy the benefits and competition of being on a “team.”
The Fruitport Fishing Club has found a way to appeal to avid outdoor lovers and bass anglers alike. The all-inclusive team even has a few young ladies on the team.
There are no cleats, knee pads, a helmet or even a ball to participate in a team sport. And, if you enjoy the outdoors and fishing, you’ll be right at home with the Fruitport Fishing Club.
“You don’t have to compete in a league sport,” coach Brad Vallie said. “There are many opportunities outside of the MHSAA type of structured sports.” Many colleges even offer fishing scholarships, including Drury University (Missouri), Campbellsville University (Kentucky) and Bethel University (Tennessee). Michigan State University and Central Michigan University also have fishing clubs.
The Fruitport club was born in 2019. Vallie brought the idea of the club to the Fruitport Board of Education and it was enthusiastically received. It didn’t hurt when they learned that the new edition wasn’t going to cost the school a single cent to operate.
The team gets no funding from the school and it stays afloat with generous donations. The clubs’ three major sponsors are the Fruitport Conservation Club, The Storage Group of Fruitport and Westwind Construction. Although the club jerseys have many more sponsors such as Johnson’s Great Outdoors of Montague, VanDyk Mortgage and Dicks Sporting Goods.
The sponsors cover tournament fees, member fees and jerseys for the team anglers. Each student is responsible for their own equipment costs.
“A fishing team is like an equestrian team,” Vallie said. “A boat is equivalent to one of those horses.”
Each team consists of two anglers and a boat captain, which must be an adult. And obviously, they need a “horse.” A boat donated and operated by generous family members and friends is crucial for the program’s success.
The first year the club participated they had only three teams and competed in the high school division only. Today, the growing club sports 15 teams. There are four high school teams and 11 middle school teams.
“I’ve been fishing bass tournaments my whole life,” Vallie said. “But I was lucky. I had someone to teach me. My dad took me and taught me how to fish and hunt.”
Not every student has a person in their life that has the time, passion or equipment. The club plays a huge part in their lives when an angler wants to pursue their passion.
Most of the students that join the club have a “passion for the outdoors,” said Vallie. “Those are the ones that raise their hands to join.”
Fishing is all inclusive. The club has female anglers competing with and against the
male anglers. Two young ladies participated last year in the high school division – Mackenzie Taylor and Olivia Ward – and in the middle school division Claire Ludlow competed.
Fruitport isn’t exclusive to fielding a fishing club. There are several local schools in the area that offer this unique fishing experience. Whitehall, Spring Lake, Reeths-Puffer and Grand Haven all have fishing clubs. Fremont and North Muskegon are both working on starting clubs in the near future.
“It’s a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Vallie whose club has a 501C3 status.”It’s not really that much different than any travel sport.” Much time is spent traveling across the country and participating in a sport they love. Vallie says that 90 percent of the help the club receives is from family members.
There are no practices, only tournaments. Tournaments take place every Thursday evening as well as weekends. Thursday events are 3½ hours and weekends are 8 hours. Thursday nights are open to both middle and high school teams.
The bass fishing club can participate in any of the 24 tournaments held over the season, which runs from the end of May until Labor Day.
The tournaments are catch and immediate release. Fish are caught, weighed, measured and photographed. Points are assigned and tallied for tourney results
To qualify for the National Tournament, anglers need to qualify through Michigan Bass Nation or National Bass. They can qualify either by points or by winning a state championship, or through a national bass event. The Fruitport club uses Bass Nation as their platform to qualify.
Several tournaments are sponsored by Sports Persons Ministry International (SPI), which offers three tournaments per season.
Four Fruitport teams competed in the Nationals last year. Cade Calkins and Evan Ludlow qualified by winning the 2020 state championship. Jacob Policka and Collin Jolman qualified by being runners-up in the same tournament. Brayden Vallie qualified by taking sixth place at Saginaw Bay (national qualifier). Evan Simonis and Hunter Ross also qualified at Saginaw Bay.
There were 309 boats in the tournament. Policka and Jolman placed 93rd, Brayden Vallie was 131st, Calkins and Ludlow were 178th and Simonis and Ross finished 288th.
“There are so many life lessons to learn,” Vallie said. “You learn how to budget money for one because many students work and pay for their own equipment. You have to learn to get along as a team. You’re in a boat for eight hours at a time and it’s not a big area. On a soccer field you can get away from someone on that big field, but not in a bass boat. Life on the water develops life skills. It’s just a classroom without walls or windows.
“What I really want the students to learn is that there’s more to life than the everyday grind,” Vallie said.
As the saying goes, “a bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work.”