We’re doing it for the kids.
Bill Siemantel had heard it all before. Fishing industry spokesmen put on the big smile when it came to youth-driven activities, but in the end, so much more was possible.
A veteran of the once-heralded Big Bass World Championship events popular in the late '90s , Siemantel recognized the format as a legitimate platform to grow national fishing efforts. But it wasn’t until 2018 that he dialed in his epiphany, revamping the concept into what has become one of the most successful youth fishing events in the world.
In 2019, Siemantel’s BBZ Junior Championship gave away over $370,000 in cash and prizes to 52 qualifying youth anglers from 49 states. This year, forecasts are for an even larger event, with prizes including a fully-rigged Bass Cat boat, trolling motors, high-end electronics, over $100,000 in college scholarships, even fishing trips to Lake El Salto and the Amazon jungle!
The secret lies in Siemantel’s alternative outlook on bass fishing competitions, combined with partners willing to gamble on that vision.
Here’s how it all works: Kids, ranging in age from 13 to 19, sign up and enter the event. The goal is to catch the largest bass in your state; cost is $25, or $50 if an angler would like to be eligible to compete in multiple states. A one-year subscription to Bassmaster Magazine is included with each entry.
From there, kids go out and fish ¬ wherever and however they want. Everything counts, from pond-hopping to kayaking, big-name tournaments to ice fishing. If a kid entered in the contest catches a big bass on any given day prior to Aug. 1, that fish can be entered in the contest. Fish are measured using a cloth tape (available for $4 through Amazon), and the angler catching the largest bass in each state wins a trip to the championship. From there, the sky’s the limit.
Immediately, Siemantel’s concept is justified, as it leaps over bass fishing’s biggest hurdle: expense.
A kid doesn’t need a $60,000 bass boat – or any boat, for that matter – to compete. In fact, successful championship qualifiers fished from the bank in 2018. In addition, this unique format allows anglers the chance to qualify any opportunity they get, regardless of fishing companions. Such is worth special note in today’s unique environment.
“This is the only tournament for youth in the U.S. that abides by social distancing,” Siemantel pointed out. And there’s more to it than that. “You know, there’s a lot going on, on the mental side, with all of this,” he continued. “There’s no more organized sports. This helps mental health by getting kids back outside.”
Current world events aside, the concept for the BBZ Junior Championship was immediately recognized by the industry as solid. A number of companies jumped on board to sponsor individual states, another unique concept. With these significant sponsorship dollars, the BBZ is able to pay the way of each qualified youth angler, along with their families, to travel to the championship in Idaho this fall. Sponsorships are tax deductible.
The championship itself is entirely unique as well, with all prizes from 2nd place on down being picked by the anglers themselves. As a result, last year’s 19th-place finisher received a $28,000 scholarship, for example.
Siemantel is quick to credit his supporters with much of the accolades. But it was his personal resistance to the accepted models of organized fishing that likely led to the event’s feel-good following. To sum up: no politics.
“We have competing sponsors that support us without any problem. St Croix gives a rod to every kid and Daiwa awards 10 high-end combos. Minn Kota awards trolling motors, and so does MotorGuide.”
They’re doing it for the kids.
Credit must also be given to Siemantel’s biggest partner, Billy Chapman, owner and operator of Anglers International, likely the largest fishing outfitter in the world. Anyone who knows Chapman immediately recognizes that he doesn’t do anything halfway, and his support of the BBZ Junior program is no exception. His newest lodge, the Willows Club in Idaho, hosts the championship event. Top prizes include destination trips to Chapman’s lodges all across the world, where personal bests are commonplace.
Another big supporter is the B.A.S.S. organization, with publicity through their various media networks, and even a real-time weigh-in on B.A.S.S. Live.
As we all face a difficult time ahead, the BBZ Junior Championship is plugging along. Soon enough, 52 anglers across 49 states will receive a knock on the door, reminiscent of a Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes, with a BBZ Junior supporter hand-delivering an expense check that will change a kid’s life forever. A dream trip is guaranteed, along with the chance at unheard-of prizes.
“This is the Bassmaster Classic for youth,” Siemantel professes. There’s plenty of boats and captains for the event, three crews of First Responders to serve on the BBZ Swift Water Rescue Team; even chase boats for onlooking parents. Supporters of the 2018 event spoke of it being one of the best organized events in bass fishing.
In the end, Siemantel plugs along in his office, searching for more help. To him, there’s no better outlet for fishing than the anglers who will one day replace us all.
Like many of us, I bet Bill remembers what it was like to be that kid, fascinated with fishing and the unique community surrounding it. Maybe it’s that memory that won’t take no for an answer. In any case, we all owe him thanks.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)