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On February 28th, 2020, after three days of intense and competitive fishing on Florida’s Harris Chain, two anglers from a mid-sized university in Nacogdoches, Texas, emerged victorious as FLW’s College National Champions. This victory — arguably a seminal triumph in both a young angler’s life and fishing career — should have been the catalyst that led to an exciting 2020 fishing campaign.
Just one month later, in light of ongoing concerns about the global pandemic, FLW took measures to postpone major high school, college, and pro tournaments. In an instant, months of planning and years of practice were brought to a sudden hault.
For one newly-minted national champion, however, amidst controversy and uncertainty, the future remains bright and promising.
In this edition of Premier Angler’s College Fishing Talk, we are speaking with Stephen F. Austin University’s Hank Harrison.
Talking College Fishing with FLW 2020 National Champion Hank Harrison[better-ads type=’banner’ banner=’1521′ ]
High School: From the Diamond to the Water
Like many college anglers, Hank Harrison’s competitive fishing journey began in the high school ranks. Joining the team during his sophomore year, Harrison’s club managed to capture a Texas state fishing championship during his tenure.
In terms of competitive sports, however, fishing was not always the future college national champion’s top priority.
“Throughout middle school and my sophomore year of high school, I played baseball,” Harrison said. “The goal was to play in college. That was my job.”
For a while, Harrison attempted to manage both passions. After suffering a lower back injury — the type of injury that may leave many college baseball programs wary of committing to an otherwise promising prospect — the decision to dedicate himself to competitive fishing became much easier.
Stephen F. Austin University Fishing: A History of Challenges and Successes, and a Bright Future
Residing in South Padre Island, Texas — a considerable-yet-comfortable 500 miles south of Nacogdoches — Harrison had plenty of reasons for choosing to continue his career at Stephen F. Austin University.
Prior to Harrison and his partner Ethan LeGare capturing the FLW Championship, SFA’s fishing club had not tasted a national championship since 2006. During that fourteen year gap, Harrison explains that the program saw fluctuations in both success and roster numbers.
“From ’07 until around 2016, the intensity was always there,” Harrison explains, “but statistically speaking, college fishing is always going to be competitive.” The positive trend in recent years, he posits, aligns with the increase in both popularity and awareness of high school and college fishing programs across the nation.
As a junior, Harrison has had ample time to get acclimated with and established within the program. During this career, he has seen considerable growth from within the team’s ranks.
“We have an outstanding group of anglers,” Harrison said. “It looks just like my high school — such a stacked team. The freshmen and sophomores are just as devoted and just as dedicated to this as I am. It makes me very excited for the future. We are always trying to make this a better club. I hope that mentality is what gets passed down.”
While Harrison credits his teammates for their drive, he is also quick to acknowledge the support his club receives from the institution — a rarity of sorts within the realm of college fishing.
“We receive incredible backing from the school,” Harrison said. “They even named us Club of the Year.”
Over the past two years, Harrison and his teammates have continuously worked with the school to navigate the logistics of securing outside funding, reimbursements, etc. Prior to the suspension of the academic year due to concerns over COVID-19, the team had set up a series of meetings with school administrators to explore ways to continue building upon the team’s growing momentum and reputation.
Stephen F. Austin’s fishing team isn’t the only school club to bring home a national championship over the past few years, however. Interestingly enough, the spotlight is shared with the Ladyjacks bowling team, who have captured a pair of NCAA championships since 2016.
“The school wants us to have the same reputation,” Harrison said.
A Big Win on the Harris Chain, and a Testament to Sport and Sportsmanship
Every college sport, regardless of its history, funding, embedded rivalries or audience, will carry with it a certain degree of competitiveness. Speak with Hank Harrison for five minutes, and his competitive drive will be evident.[better-ads type=’banner’ banner=’1521′ ]
Before he and partner Ethan LeGare hit the Harris Chain in late February, Harrison had secured numerous Top 5 and Top 10 finishes across FLW, Bass, and Outlaw Outdoors tournaments. While certainly impressive, Harrison’s aspirations of eventually turning professional were starting to fall to the wayside.
“During this time, I’m a college student. I’m broke,” said Harrison.
Facing a harsh reality that burdens many-a-student, even the trip to the Harris Chain of Lakes in February — a 14-hour drive from campus — could have brought forth its share of financial hardships for the young angler.
“I left for Florida with $300 in my account,” Harrison said. “If I didn’t cut a check while I was there, there was no guarantee I was even getting home.”
As the older adage states, though, fortune favors the bold.
After a controversial rule violation disqualified the Day Three catch of Nathan Doty and Jacob Louis from McEndree University. the top spot opened up for SFA’s duo of Harrison and LeGare. With the victory came both recognition and the security to move forward with the dream.
“As many times as you hear that winning a national championship is a life-changing experience, it’s hard to imagine until it actually happens,” said Harrison. “It absolutely changes the whole direction of your life.”
For their efforts, the duo took home a Phoenix 518 Pro bass boat with a 115-horsepower Suzuki outboard — part of a prize package worth over $33,000. Even more, they also qualified for the 2020 Toyota Series Championship in November on Lake Cumberland. The winners on Cumberland will take home a grand prize worth $235,000.
While the stakes (and the competition) were especially high in Florida, Harrison also heralds the bonds and connections formed with anglers from other schools. many of whom he has competed against at tournaments across the country.
“It was such an awesome and incredible experience,” he said. “It’s really a testament to all the guys I met there, especially the guys in the Top 10. Every angler was so jovial and excited to be there — they were so nice, so amped, so excited for everyone else.”
A Sudden Stop…
Only a few weeks removed from the biggest competitive achievement of Hank Harrison’s fishing career, schools across the United States began to close indefinitely. Production on motion pictures and television shows came to a halt. Major sporting leagues, including the NBA and NHL, suspended their seasons. In the coming weeks, the top fishing organizations followed suit, ultimately leavings thousands of college anglers with no clear direction moving forward.
“It’s an utter disappointment, ” Harrison said. “It ruined the season.”
The immediate trajectory for members of the Stephen F. Austin fishing club remains uncertain. Harrison expressed disappointment for the seniors who may be unable to finish their final seasonal campaign. Harrison’s brother and teammate, who fishes the BASS circuit, has been left in a similar situation. Combined with the hours of prep-work that went into laying out the team’s travel and financial planning, it’s easy to see why this unexpected situation has been so frustrating.
“We had Air B&Bs set up, fundraising set up, and basically the entire season planned,” said Harrison. “I’m excited for Corona to be done and for tournament season to resume.”
Despite the frustrations, Harrison has met this period of trial with poise, patience, and optimism.
“Everyone is trying to get back to how life was. We just have to push the timeline back a bit.”
Advice for Aspiring College Anglers
Winning a national championship in any endeavor at any level sets you apart from your peers. Understandably, it will also afford the opportunity to be a guiding voice for those who are looking to follow in your footsteps.
For young anglers aspiring to continue their fishing careers at the college level, Hank Harrison has some clear and pointed advice: “save your damn money!”
“If you want to do this, find a school that’s in your budget. Don’t choose a school that will financially cripple you for the rest of your life,” he said.
Just as important, Harrison believes, is finding a college fishing program that will support its anglers.
“You have to work with your club. If you actually want to do this — living on the road, going professional someday — don’t go to a school that isn’t going to help you.”
Harrison also admits to having geography on his side. SFA anglers benefit from having both Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend — two of the top fishing spots in the country — in close proximity.
When it comes to obtaining sponsors, Harrison also encourages young anglers to prioritize improving their abilities. While he accepts that the majority of college and professional anglers are online, and that a vast library of information exists on the web, Harrison suggests that aspiring anglers simply focus on fishing.
“The reality is that no one will sponsor you unless you can fish.”