Hayden High School’s fishing team has won four state championships in five years and wants to sustain that level of excellence.
They are a dynasty, built to compete for titles year in and year out. And the championships have come — four in recent years.
They are the standard by which other programs judge themselves, and they have become the hunted. As the championships and the accolades pile up, so does the pressure to keep collecting titles.
Nick Saban’s University of Alabama football team? He can only wish to dominate his sport the way Hayden High School has dominated fishing. While the Crimson Tide has captured four titles in the past seven years, the
Wildcats’ fishing team has won the state championship four of the past five years, including four in a row from 2011-14. Hayden “slipped” to third place in 2015.
“We’re known across the country as being one of the powerhouses of fishing,” says coach Chris Kanute. “Anywhere you go that you mention high school fishing, people think of us.”
Kanute began the program with fishing buddy Scott Ashley when both of their sons were in eighth grade. What happened next is no fish tale.
They claimed the state championship in 2011 in their first year of competition.
Then came last year’s third-place finish. Kanute and fellow coach Casey Shelton, who replaced Ashley last summer, say championships have become harder to win.
“I’ll tell you, the competition has gotten so much tougher in the last couple of years,” Shelton says. “All these boys and girls who compete are great kids with a passion for the outdoors and they are spending time perfecting their skills.”
Kanute says the number of boats competing in tournaments has grown from 60 in Hayden’s first year to 250 this year. While last year’s third-place finish is a sign of the stiffer competition, Kanute says Hayden can still dominate the sport.
“We are a dynasty,” says Kanute, a contractor for Duke Energy. “As I told them all when I graduated those last seniors in that five-year run, ‘I don’t think anyone else will touch this again.’”
Yet, with Kanute’s younger son, Justin, and Shelton’s son, Tanner, both in the eighth grade, Kanute is ready for another run of titles.
“When they get a couple of years under them … we can do it again. We can do it again. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Kanute says.
Cody Armstrong, an 11th-grader, has been part of Hayden’s five-year run of domination. “I’ve got one more year to go,” he says. “I’m trying to make it last and teach everybody that I can. Really, I’m going to be a heartbroken person when I have to leave the fishing team.”
While the surge in high school fishing teams ultimately may mean fewer championships for Hayden, it has created more opportunities for students to attend college. College fishing also is growing like a bass fingerling, with programs offering scholarships to top high school anglers.
Kanute’s older son, Chase, received a fishing scholarship to Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, where he is a freshman and captain of the team.
“It has exploded by leaps and bounds,” Kanute says. “There are scholarship opportunities, there’s recruiting. There’s a national signing day. My son signed a letter of intent just like they do in football, basketball and baseball.”
Mention that Hayden’s fishing dominance is similar to the University of Alabama’s recent run in football, and Shelton laughs. He’s an Auburn fan. Ask Kanute, and it’s clear he reveres Saban and what the Alabama coach has accomplished “because of being able to sustain that level of excellence.”
“If I could spend a 24-hour period with one person, to learn what makes them tick, that’s the guy,” Kanute says of Saban. “I try to set the same example. He’s a great role model for student athletes. Do I say I want to be that same person? I do.”
What does it take to have Saban-like success coaching high school anglers?
A team with high expectations. A passion for fishing. The willingness to work hard on the water and off. The ability to handle the pressure of increased competition while being in the bull’s-eye of other programs.
Even though the Wildcats focus on winning championships, Shelton says there are other important rewards for coaches and team members.
“One of the things I like, my son and I can participate in it together,” says Shelton, System Council U-19 business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “I can drive the boat, and my son and his partner can fish all day. There’s nothing better than having two kids hemmed up in a 20-foot boat for eight hours. There’s no text messaging, no video games, it’s strictly fishing.”
That, and amazing conversations.
“We talk about everything from sports to the Bible,” Shelton says. “It’s unbelievable the conversations you will have out on the water investing time in these kids.”
Armstrong says getting “to spend time with my dad, my boat captains, with my friends … that’s the cool stuff.”
No bleacher bums
The coaches say they like being able to take part in the sport as boat captains rather than just sitting on bleachers like they would with football, basketball or baseball. They also appreciate the role they play in influencing not just their sons, but other boys and girls on the team.
“It’s an opportunity to be a positive influence in their lives,” Shelton says.
“We’re not only trying to build anglers, but young men and women,” Kanute says.
That means maintaining good grades to be eligible to fish, but also being involved in the community. Shelton says Wildcat anglers take part in service projects such as teaching kids at King’s Home in Chelsea how to fish as well as helping them fish, and volunteering at March of Dimes events and Alabama Power Renew Our Rivers cleanups and fish habitat projects.
“We do more than fish,” Shelton says. “We give back to the community.”
Kanute says he hopes that years down the road he’ll witness the impact Hayden’s coaches have had on their teams.
“All we ask is that when we’re old and in the retirement home, one of these kids comes and checks on us and takes us fishing. Pretty simple, isn’t it?”