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IHSA bass-fishing championship enters fifth year

Nichole Marcaught heaviest largemouth — 5 pounds 9 ounces — by girl IHSA bass-fishing tournament last year. | Dale Bowman~For

Nichole Mara caught the heaviest largemouth — 5 pounds, 9 ounces — by a girl in the IHSA bass-fishing tournament last year. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 15, 2013 6:39AM

A thunderstorm, complete with lightning and wind, rolled rapidly across Carlyle Lake on May 8, 2009. That was a fear — that weather or water
conditions would threaten young lives — when Illinois became the first state to hold a state championship for high school bass fishing.

But officials from the Illinois High School Association contacted all the boat drivers, who found safety (mostly in marinas) and waited it out.

They adjusted. Just as IHSA officials adjusted in 2011, when high water forced the state championship to be postponed until late June. Just as they adjusted when tornado warnings forced boats to stay off the water.

On Friday, the IHSA will hold bass-fishing sectionals for the fifth year. The two-day championship is scheduled for May 3-4 at Carlyle.

Sectionals have expanded to 22 sites. The Chicago area has eight: Braidwood Lake, Busse Lake, Chain O’Lakes 1 and 2, Des Plaines Conservation Area, Heidecke Lake, Skokie Lagoons and Wolf Lake.

Each school may enter up to two boats. Each boat has a captain (adult driver) and may have two fishermen. Each team may weigh up to their heaviest five black bass that meet the minimum length. Scoring is on total weight. Up to three teams advance from each sectional. There might be a record 66 boats at state.

There were good changes in sectional sites. LaSalle Lake, a wonderful fishery, was dropped because wind forced postponement every year. Among added sites were the first two rivers: Mississippi River Pool 13 and Des Plaines Conservation Area, where the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers form the Illinois River.

I hope the next adjustment is to drop Skokie Lagoons, the poorest remaining site, and to add sectionals on the Cal-Sag (Cal-Sag, Lake Calumet, Des Plaines), Chicago lakefront at 95th (Calumet Harbor, Cal-Sag, Lake Calumet, Des Plaines) and/or the Chicago River at Western Avenue (Chicago River, Sanitary Ship Canal).

While sectionals are growing, the number of schools entered is nearly stagnant. In 2009, 199 schools entered. That jumped to 225 the next year, dropped to 222 in 2011 and increased to 232 last year. This year, 237 schools signed up but only 229 are assigned to sectionals.

By the fifth year, I thought participation would be closer to half the IHSA schools (350 or more). A friend who coaches other high school sports said the extended recession is the main reason for the slow growth. That’s true of tournament fishing in general.

My other disappointment has to do with Chicago. The Public League is down only to Taft, which has reached state three of the four years. But participation among Catholic schools in Chicago is strong, with St. Patrick, Marist, Brother Rice, St. Laurence, Mount Carmel and St. Ignatius.

What gives me the most faith in Illinois high school bass fishing are people such as Jim O’Neil and Nichole Mara, both of whom are on paths to become fishing professionals. Mara set the standard for young women in Illinois bass fishing. As a senior last year Hinsdale Central, she caught a 5-pound, 9-ounce largemouth, the heaviest caught at state by a girl.

More important, both are helping to coach: O’Neil at Marist, his alma mater, and Mara at Hinsdale South.

‘‘I’m super-supportive of all the high schools fishing, but I would really love for Hinsdale South to be able to compete at the state tournament since they never have,’’ Mara messaged.

That’s the right spirit.

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