By Josh Boyd
In recent years, young anglers have been given the chance to fish competitively against their peers, at both the high school and collegiate levels. Young men and women are now presented with the very real possibility of going to college on a full-ride fishing scholarship, much the same as would be the case for a 5-star pitcher, or star quarterback in their own respective sports.
However, just like any athlete destined to compete at the collegiate level, high school bass angling prospects must immerse themselves in their craft, and forge a distinct path to success. This road is seldom one that is easily traveled, and success does not come without dedication and sacrifice.
Although this statement likely applies to virtually all young anglers who go on to compete at the next level, few exemplify this fact quite as clearly as McKendree University bass fishing team members Ethan Jones and Andrew Althoff.
Headline Worthy Success
McKendree University’s bass fishing team has garnered much attention in the past several years. A number of high-profile wins have plunged the team into the limelight, cementing their already growing legacy as one of the most storied programs in collegiate bass fishing.
The 2019 season saw McKendree take home Bass Pro Shop’s School of the Year honors, finishing at the top of the national points standings. Although this was the first time that McKendree took home top honors, the storied program has finished in the top 10 in points standings every year for the past half-decade.
This winning legacy was further cemented during the 2020 Bassmaster College Series, where McKendree co-anglers Ethan Jones and Andrew Althoff placed first overall, with a three-day total weight of 47-pound 4-ounces. This qualified the McKendree team to fish the Bassmaster College Classic on Lay Lake, where they ultimately placed 9th.
Despite rampant success, neither Jones nor Althoff was presented with an easy path to the top. On the contrary, both anglers faced significant hurdles that had to be overcome in their bid to even make it to fish on the collegiate level.
Long before Ethan Jones ever entered high school, he had been bitten by the fishing bug. From a young age, Jones found a natural and long-lasting love for all forms of fishing. However, after a conversation with a good friend, Jones knew instantly that he wanted to fish competitively, and needed to start by doing so at the high school level.
“One of our buddies from a local lake around me started a bass fishing team at another local school. He explained how he got started, and how he went to State a couple of times and was able to walk across FLW’s big, main tour stage,” said Jones.
However, Jones did not attend the same school as the friend from whom he had been inspired by, and his high school did not have a bass fishing team of its own.
“I thought, man that’s pretty cool, and I love fishing. But unfortunately, the school he went to was outside of my district,” said Jones. “The little private school that I attended had just opened up the year before, and I told them that I wanted to start a fishing team, and asked what I needed to do. They told me that whoever wanted to fish needed to sign up, and that I needed to let them know who, and how many, were fishing,” Jones continued.
With a plan to put into action, Jones set out to find a co-angler. However, he soon found this to be problematic, as finding additional interest for his endeavor proved far more difficult than initially thought. “I thought, okay this sounds pretty easy. I just couldn’t find anyone to fish with me,” Jones said. “There were only 46 kids in the school at that time. So they ended up letting me fish by myself.”
Although he was left to compete by himself, in a field of co-angler teams, Jones was undeterred. “My freshman year, I got fourth in my Sectional, out of twenty-eight teams. Then the next year, I got second at Sectionals and qualified for our state tournament in Illinois, which I went to and actually won. I am still the only person to have ever won State fishing by myself,” said Jones.
Jones’ McKendree co-angler, Andrew Althoff, had no easy road to collegiate success himself. Though many high school anglers begin competing during their freshman year and are allowed four years to hone their craft, Althoff did not begin fishing competitively until the latter half of his high school years. This presented a significant learning curve for Althoff, forcing him to learn on the fly.
Althoff proved to be a quick learner, as he took the challenge in stride, growing in his craft with every tournament. “I fished my first tournament at 16,” said Althoff. “My very next tournament was the IHSA Sectionals, and we ended up winning. So I qualified for the same State Championships that he did (referring to Jones),” Althoff said.
Althoff credits a willingness to learn from others and to be a sponge for the vast amounts of information available to anglers, as making all of the difference in his brief, yet successful, angling career.
“Don’t be afraid to adapt and be versatile. Always be open to learning new things,” said Althoff. “It’s never too late to get involved if you want to. Always be willing to ask questions and learn from people who have more experience than you, or may even be a better fisherman than you.”
Make No Excuses
Just as in any other collegiate sport, a bass fishing team’s success is often defined by the character of its recruits. With the persistence of anglers like Jones and Althoff, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the McKendree University bass fishing team is riding a wave of success like none other.