Staff Photo: John Bohn Christian Garner, of the Hebron Academy fishing team, places artificial bait on a hook while fishing on Lake Lanier in Flowery Branch with his teammates. The team fish on a boat that was donated to them.
DACULA -- When the weather's good on Friday afternoons, Westin, Ty, Christian and two boys named Tyler meet up with Taylor Davis at Van Pugh Park. It's a springtime tradition that goes something like this:
With Davis directing him, one of the Tylers backs an SUV down the ramp, easing a sleek bass boat into cool water.
Davis takes the helm, trolling over to a dock, where he picks up the rest. They pile in, taking seats, the boat rocking gently. When everybody's settled in, Davis cranks the 150-horsepower motor, pushes throttle control -- the smell of regular unleaded cuts the air -- and they skip across a reflective surface, tackle boxes rattling, fishing poles bouncing.
Contrary to how it looks, this is not your typical bass-fishing jaunt. This is school. This is Coach Taylor Davis and his award-winning angling institute.
The five young men are members of the coach's fishing club at Hebron Christian Academy, and on Friday afternoons during the school year Lake Sidney Lanier is their blackboard. The rod and reel: learning apparatus.
As a former college-level fisherman at the University of Georgia, the teacher and JV volleyball coach started the club this year, and has seen an enthusiastic reception from Tyler Brasfield, Christian Garner, Ty Johnston and Tyler Skidgel, all 18, and Westin Sachs, 15.
They've fared well in tournaments sponsored by the Bass Federation -- a grass roots fishing, youth and conservation organization. As the only school-sponsored team from Gwinnett County in the regional tournaments, the young men have done Gwinnettians proud.
Team members won a tournament with 26 boats participating at Lake Harding on May 4; chalked up a second place finish at Lake Lanier on April 6; and they have qualified for a state tournament on Lake Lanier at the end of October.
That's homefield advantage, said Ty Johnston, an angling aficionado intent on fishing at the college level for the University of North Georgia, where he plans to attend college this fall.
Out on Lake Lanier, Ty said he's often on the lookout for Spotted and Large Mouth bass. "Spotted put up more of a fight, and large mouth get a little bigger in size, but they're all fun to catch," he said.
Putting 'skills to action'
As the bass boat -- a donated 350-volt 1984 Ranger -- slows to a crawl near a rocky peninsula on the lake's southeastern fringes, the young men stand up, taking fishing gear in hand. Davis shuts off the engine, and Johnston puts the trolling motor back in the water.
They make last-minute adjustments: Egg-shaped sliding sinkers are tied to fishing line with elaborate knots; barbed hooks are threaded through soft-plastic multicolored worms -- all speckled and spotted.
The young men crowd the side of the boat closest to the shoreline. Their Kissel Kraft brand fishing rods slice the air. Reels buzz, releasing fishing line. The sound is followed by the pronounced plop of sinker-anchored lures 30 to 40 feet from the boat, where the artificial bait begins a slow and tremulous journey back to the tiny vessel.
They use Wackem Worms (a company that sponsors the Hebron team). Other sponsors include Kissel Kraft, Frogg Toggs apparel, rod wraps and Ego Nets. Davis is proud of the students for securing so many sponsorships in the club's inaugural year. He ranks the achievement right up there with their tournament victories, which are a big talking point for the young men.
Tyler Skidgel said being able to compete in tournaments this year has been "very exciting." He and the four other bass-masters-in-training attribute much of their continued success to practice.
When classes were in session, the team met after school every Wednesday to hone their skills of casting, flipping and pitching: techniques that enabled them to fish shallow water from short distances. They also looked at the lake map to see what spots they wanted to visit on the following Friday.
Davis said Wednesday afternoon practices were essential."You have to learn to accurately finesse a lure to a very specific target," Davis said. "A lot of fishing is casting. It takes practice to master those skills. And on Fridays, we go out on the lake and put the skills to action, and try to catch some fish."
'All in the wrist'
An hour-and-a-half into the lake voyage and no fish yet, but as most aquatic sportsmen will tell you: it's often feast or famine. When the fish aren't biting, that's when strategy, instinct, skill and knowledge all come in to play, Johnston says.
The young man shakes his head, sitting down to examine the plastic worm at the end of his fishing line. "This color's not working," Johnston says. Leaning down, he snaps open a tackle box and removes a package of plastic worms. A strong chemical fragrance wafts from the open zip-lock pouch as he examines a darker-colored lure.
He threads the hook through a new worm, fingers moving with almost-mechanical precision, and stands up. Johnston rejoins his team on the boat's right side, peering toward the tree-lined shore.
Casting between fellow fishermen -- a zig-zag web of often overlapping eight- and ten-pound-test-line -- Johnston uses a rhythmic pattern to pull the lure back toward the boat.
"All in the wrist," one of the Tylers says.
Then it's silent, save for the sound of lapping waves against the hull.
The lull doesn't last. In a matter of minutes, the fish start hitting, one after another. The mood switches from a Zen-like calm to a buzzing frenzy. The guys scramble around the boat. One of them grabs a net, inching toward the edge, peering into the water.
The Kissel Kraft rod bends with a violent intensity. A tell-tale metallic clicking sound rings out from the reel's drag system, which acts as a friction brake against the spool of fishing line. It's a frantic noise, which seems to match the moment.
All eyes watch the water.
A dark-striped apparition passes below once, then twice, disappearing. Without warning, the massive spotted bass explodes from still waters. In an action at once graceful and defiant, it dances across the surface before plunging below.
Successfully landing a big bass is the kind of moment that guys like Westin, Ty, Christian and the Tylers live for -- the moment of discovery and struggle between the terrestrial and aquatic.
Johnston in particular wouldn't mind making a career of it. He said he hopes to one day compete in the Bass Master Classic, which is considered by most to be the world championship of professional bass fisherman.
Coach Davis said first they've got a state championship to win, and he thinks the boys have got a shot.
The most exciting thing, Davis said, is that "you can take a group of guys who are passionate about something other than your traditional high school sports, and give them an outlet to show their talent, while still representing their school. It gives them a chance to shine."