Esko anglers prep for state
September 1, 2023
Formed in 2021, next weekend will mark the second year Esko has had anglers in the state championships. It's quite an accomplishment for the startup program.
"It all started a few years ago with my son Noah, who found out about this being a sport," said Esko coach Bill Wells. "He approached the school board and then he started out trying to find kids who wanted to do the same thing, and now we are a medium-sized team."
The sport is not sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League. It is run by Minnesota Junior BASS Nation. The Esko team is organized through Community Education.
"I see the excitement and what it has done for the kids," Wells said. "We are growing every year."
In order to qualify for the state tournament Sept. 9-10 in the Gull Lake area in central Minnesota, Esko anglers participate in three qualifying tournaments, held at Ely Lake on the Iron Range and Island Lake (north of Duluth) in June and at Lake Vermilion in July.
Teams consist of two anglers per boat. Esko is fortunate enough to have a team of five boats. Points are scored per boat while anglers keep the five heaviest fish they catch. Those fish have to be largemouth or smallmouth bass. As with other tournaments, the day begins early at around 7 a.m. and concludes with a weigh-in around 3 p.m. Points are awarded for the heaviest quantity of fish caught, from first place down to the final spot. Only the top five teams from the Northern Minnesota Region earn a spot at the state tournament, and considering there were 30 boats in this region, it's not easy.
There is also a chance for teams finishing in the top five to try to still make the tournament via a so-called play-in, where the teams that finish 6-10 in each of the 10 regions in the state come together and another 15 boats qualify to make it to state.
Qualifying for Esko is the team of Jack Hakala and John Pagelkopf, who were the top-seeded team. Izaaac Zimmer and Chase Walz also scored enough to make it to State, as well as Andrew Mattinen and Dylan Pracher. Bryce Hipp and Noah Krych qualified via the play-in tournament.
"This sport is taking off in Minnesota," said Wells, who coaches the team with his wife, Sarah. "Bass fishing is big in other states, but not so much in Minnesota."
The team is getting their advance work done. "Currently, our guys are pre-fishing the lake and getting a feel for what we might have to deal with," Wells said.
During the regular season, the team fishes on both Chub Lake and Island Lake as they take into account temperatures, wind conditions and other factors that determine where the fish will bite.
"There is a lot that goes into it," Wells said. "They have to learn how the fish will react to certain conditions and then come up with their plan."
With a roster that currently includes 14 anglers, the Esko fishing team is quickly growing in reputation in fishing circles. Other teams in the north region include Grand Rapids, Northwestern (Wisconsin), Wrenshall, North Woods, Rock Ridge, Duluth and Floodwood.
"We are not as big as Grand Rapids, which is a powerhouse," Wells said. "This is really a grassroots type of thing, but we are a team of up and comers and we're replenishing our ranks every year."