On natural lakes and reservoirs across the country, fishing is not only a form of casual recreation and weekend or vacation pursuit. It is also a competitive sport that brings in anglers from high school age on up into the adult ranks of professional bass fishing. Hot Springs High’s own Nick McIlrath joined those ranks three years ago, when he was 15 years old. Now, as a high school senior, McIlrath is a rising star in the world of bass fishing competition, having won locally, and now, taking a first-place trophy away from the regional competition at Lake Havasu, Arizona earlier this month.
Next stop for McIlrath on the competitive fishing circuit he’s on is the 2019 Bassmaster Team Championship, December 11-14 at Lake Hartwell, South Carolina. This is the nationals, the bass angler playoffs, so to speak, in the competitive fishing world. At Lake Hartwell, McIlrath will be casting off against the big dogs of the fishing world.
The four day event at Lake Hartwell carries only two days of guaranteed fishing for those entered. The first two days, team fishing, determine who makes it to the next level, a day spent solo fishing on the lake. There is a minimum length, but points are given by the weight of the catch. Only five fish count toward your weight total, the best five you pull in each day. If you are in the top tier on day three, you go into the finals, the Bassmaster Classic. That is where an angler earns their title, trophies, their share of the championship purse, and the bragging rights that go with it.
In his three years on the circuit, Nick has taken his share of trophies and plaques away from events. At lake Hartwell next month, he hopes to add one more to his growing collection. It isn’t just trophies, and a name in the world of anglers, however. In talking with Nick, we learned that some colleges recruit students based on their standings, and even for those who don’t have a competitive program, it is one more arrow in the quiver of their portfolio and resume for colleges to consider.
Team McIlrath has been busy raising the finding needed for the upcoming trip to South Carolina. Entry fees to these competitions are stiff, and on top of those, travel, housing and equipment add to the financial burden. They have reached out for sponsors and local businesses and individuals have responded. Among those supporting McIlrath’s championship pursuit are Whitehead Chevrolet, Desert Graphics Inc., Zia Kayak, Mike Potia State Farm Insurance, Xacta Printing, Black Canyon Construction and Hill Farms. McIlrath is still in the midst of his fundraising effort.
We asked Nick the question he tells us he gets most often, do you eat what you catch. “No, not so much,” he told us. “The bass we catch are good sport fishing, but not that good eating. Oh, I think all of us have tried them once or twice.” Instead, he told us, the fish are generally released after their weight is recorded. They go back to the lake to put on more weight, worth more points the next time they’re hooked.