STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
TYLER — After not catching any fish for almost three hours during the Student Angler Federation Texas high school state tournament March 10, Marble Falls High School seniors Kaleb Smith and Craig Dodson changed their strategy.
That fateful decision netted the two second place in the tournament and earned them a spot in the federation’s high school national championship on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Alabama, on June 26-30. The national tournament is held in conjunction with the high school fishing world finals.
“It was a huge surprise for us when we found out we’d go to nationals and worlds,” Smith said. “We were so happy, we were ecstatic.”
The five fish the duo caught on Lake Palestine in Northeast Texas totaled 12 pounds and 12 ounces, 3 ounces less than the winning team’s catch. The third-place finishers’ total was 11 pounds and 3 ounces. The top three teams advance. About 30 teams participated in the state tournament.
“It was kind of a struggle at the beginning,” Smith said. “We put our heads together, hunkered down, and grinded it out.”
Part of their strategy was arriving the morning of March 8 to get in a practice round that afternoon and a second practice the next day. Dodson said that decision proved to be invaluable because they were able to get an idea of where the fish might be hiding.
“We found fish spawning and laying eggs, and that’s how we found the majority of our fish,” Dodson said. “We decided to go north when everyone else went south.”
Once they caught one fish, their determination grew.
“When you catch one, your confidence level goes straight up,” Smith said. “It makes you want to get back on the water.”
In all, they caught about 13 fish but only kept the five biggest because of the tournament’s bag limit.
The two almost weren’t able to compete because they arrived at the tournament without a boat captain, not realizing that was a tournament rule. Organizers reached out to a retired Austin police officer who lived nearby in Jacksonville to serve as their captain.
The students’ angling partnership began when Dodson invited Smith to fish with him a few months ago. Dodson, who has been a member of the Marble Falls High School fishing club since he was a freshman, found himself without a partner as the school year began last August.
He doesn’t have that issue anymore.
“We fish well together,” Dodson said.
Dodson said Smith’s hand-eye coordination is a plus: He’s able to quickly tie a knot and drop a line with little to no splash. That’s important because it doesn’t scare the fish.
“You got to be able to get things in the water when you need to,” Dodson said. “Having patience means a lot. You can go all day without a bite, and you still have to get up the next morning and go find fish.”
For more information on the Student Angler Federation tournaments, go to highschoolfishing.org.