Last winter, Chad Rolandson was driving back from his cabin in Brainerd with his brother-in-law when an idea popped into his head.
"We were listening to Jason Bahr, who is the coach of the Brainerd fishing team," Rolandson said. "I just thought, 'How cool would that be?'"
Rolandson now knows exactly how "cool" it is, because he's the coach of the Byron Bears Fishing Team. Just months after the team's inception, it boasts some impressive numbers, thanks in large part to Rolandson's astute use of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to announce and promote the team.
"We have 45 kids, and we are one of the few teams in the state that goes from grades one through 12," he said. "We have a junior team that's grades 1-6, and the kids in grades 7-12 can be part of the Student Angler Tournament Trail."
That "trail" is basically the state's high school bass fishing league, and 10 members of the Byron team have traveled north to fish in one-day bass tournaments that include up to 200 boats and 400 youth anglers.
The Byron team hasn't brought home any hardware yet, but Rolandson said the team has represented southeastern Minnesota quite nicely.
"I think we've fared pretty well, given that we're a new team and really, we're still learning," Rolandson said. "We've had at least one boat in every tournament, and we've always been in the top 100. One of our boats finished 21st, which is our best finish. What our kids are realizing is that the kids who are in the top 20, they're on the lake a lot and their boat captains are very knowledgeable and find fish."
Indeed, the "boat captains" play a huge role in a fishing team's success. Each two-angler youth team is accompanied by an adult — often a parent or other relative — who drives the boat. The adults don't fish, but their knowledge and ability to read the water and use electronics is invaluable, especially when the tournament is several hundred miles from Byron.
"We're in southeastern Minnesota, and these huge lakes up north aren't ones we're accustomed to fishing," Rolandson said. "Some of the metro schools or the Brainerd kids have been fishing these lakes their whole life."
CATCH, CLICK, RELEASE
The format of the tournaments is fairly straightforward. Anglers are encouraged to "pre-fish" the lake before the tournament day, and the night before there's a meeting to go over rules and procedures.
The next morning, anglers can get out early to find their spots, but no lines can be in the water until 7 a.m. Once the tournament begins, fish over one pound are weighed on digital scales, and a photo is taken of the fish on the scale. Teams can count up to seven bass, and all fish are released.
"Ultimately, the tournaments rely heavily on the honor system," Rolandson said.
Dylan Rolandson, Chad's 15-year-old son, has fished in two SATT events this summer, and he's even more hooked on fishing now than he was before.
"When I first started, I imagined it would be really nerve-wracking, but it wasn't as bad as I expected," he said. "It was really a lot of fun, and it wasn't as competitive as you might think, because the bodies of water are so large that you probably won't see anybody you know on tournament day. It's very laid-back, and you just kind of do your own thing."
When Dylan is doing "his own thing," he's likely to be tossing a bright-yellow spinnerbait. "That jig on one side and the shiny spinner on the other, that really attracts fish," he said.
CLOSER TO HOME
This year's SATT events have been at Gull Lake, Lake Minnetonka, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and Lake Le Homme Dieu near Alexendria. There is just one regular season tournament left before the two championship events at Lake Vermillion and Lake Pokegama -- but the regular-season finale will offer the Byron kids a much shorter road trip and a home-water advantage.
All those young "Up North" anglers will come south on Sunday to fish Pool 4 of the Mississippi River.
Dylan is counting on his neighbor Joe Schimek, who is his boat captain, to put him and his partner, Logan Magnuson, onto some largemouth and smallmouth bass.
"I have not fished Pool 4 myself, but Joe knows a lot about the river, so that's going to be really helpful," Dylan said. "We're going to go over the day before to look for spots."
As is the case in professional bass tournaments, the outcome can hinge on being the first boat to reach prime waters. Chad Rolandson said that sometimes, the faster boat wins.
"One of our boats was on Lake Le Homme Dieu a couple weeks ago, and there was one last spot they wanted to try," he said. "As they were trolling over to it, another boat goes flying in front of them and gets to that spot first. They saw the kids in that boat register four fish. That's just how it goes sometimes."