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June 5, 2019

Jim Harris

HOT SPRINGS – The first Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Commissioners’ Cup, presented by Xpress Boats, “exceeded our expectations,” AGFF President Deke Whitbeck said after the two-day high school bass fishing event held on Lake Hamilton.

Invitations were extended to the top 20 two-person teams from each of six high school bass fishing tournament circuits around Arkansas, essentially creating the first overall high school fishing championship for the state, Whitbeck said. The seven Commissioners of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission funded scholarships for the top three finishing teams. A bevy of sponsors provided merchandise that was given away as prizes and in “goodie bags,” Whitbeck said.

Beau Browning of Hot Springs and Braxton Shifflett of Jessieville qualified as a team, but Shifflett ended up with a conflict over the weekend, leaving Browning to bring home the hardware for the team. No matter – Browning caught 10 fish over the two days totaling 30.21 pounds to win the event by more than 7 pounds. 

Runner-up was the team of Cole Martin and Kanon Goss, both of Hot Springs, who caught 10 fish totaling 23.08 pounds. The third-place anglers were Weston Villines of Bethel Heights and Jacob Rhea of Rogers, who caught 21.75 pounds worth of fish over two days. Their biggest catch, a 4.88-pound largemouth bass, was the biggest fish landed by anyone and earned the Northwest Arkansas duo another trophy, one crafted by Harper’s Pure Country Taxidermy in Damascus and funded by an anonymous donation in honor of AGFC wildlife officers. 

The top 10 finishing teams and their boat captains received merchandise. Also, every team entered received a bag full of merchandise, Whitbeck said. The teams did not have to pay an entry fee to compete, thanks to Xpress Boats of Hot Springs as the presenting sponsor of the event.

“I thought it turned out terrific, better than I had expected,” Whitbeck said, “Not just looking at the number of participants – although we had over 120 kids and 60 mentors and boat captains out on the lake – but the fishing industry came out in a major way with donated tackle, stickers, hats and more swag, and we loaded up the participants with these goodie bags, which was exciting for the kids.”

Whitbeck noted that the tournament was much more than a Foundation event. Upon returning to the launch site, the AGFC’s Andrew H. Hulsey State Fish Hatchery on the west side of Lake Hamilton, the youths saw major fishing industry sponsors such as Trader Bills Outdoor Sports, Diawa, Lews, Strike King, Bale Chevrolet and Xpress Boats with tents and banners up around the staging area for the weigh-ins.

“It really energized them when they got out of their boats,” he said. “This feeling was different than anything they’d seen on their circuits. It wasn’t just the Game and Fish Foundation putting this on; these circuits from around the state joined forces to make it something special.”

With AGFC Commissioners on hand Sunday along with AGFC Director Pat Fitts, Fisheries Division Chief Ben Batten, visiting pro anglers, news reporters, other AGFC personnel, and CEOs from fishing industry sponsors during the afternoon weigh-in and on-stage interviews, “it just had a real high-level feel to it, which again just made it special for the kids,” Whitbeck said.

Whitbeck said he hoped this first event would help boost fishing participation in several ways. One in particular, he said, was that by holding it on Lake Hamilton, homeowners around the lake who may use it only for recreation – boating or skiing, for example – might be more inclined, after seeing the nice-size bass caught amid dozens of pleasure craft also using the lake, to try fishing in their backyards, too. Also, Whitbeck is hoping that many of the teenage anglers who competed will introduce other friends to the sport, which in turn could grow high school fishing in Arkansas exponentially as well as bring more young people to fishing, even if they don’t do it competitively.

Browning was accompanied in his boat by his mom, Tammy. But he wasn’t the only angler who fished alone; Whitbeck said a few other two-person teams who qualified showed up with one angler because of conflicting schedules, including some competing in last weekend’s Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program state championship in Jacksonville.

All boats were required to have one person over age 13 as an observer and a boat captain. 

“We’re so grateful to those boat captains,” Whitbeck said. “They are the mentors and coaches out on the water for these kids in the tournament. We wanted to recognize them with some good prizes as well as some door prizes at the end. We hope this tournament will shed some light on those captains. If there are others who want to get involved, there’s opportunity to do that with the teams.

“And we hope with this tournament we’ll have other high school teams interested next year in competing for a spot ... We’re already looking to see how to make next year even more exciting and to make improvements. We held our Friday night check-in at Trader Bill’s, and that was a fun way to start it off. It really made it a three-day event. I’d like to tie it maybe to an expo of some sort so the general public can be involved with the festivities.”

Top 10 Finishers: 1. Beau Browning-Braxton Shifflett,  30.21 pounds (4.68-pound best fish); 2. Cole Martin/Kanon Goss, 23.08 (4.31); 3. Weston Villines/Jacob Rhea, 21.75 (4.88 Big Bass prize winner); 4. Brody Jacks/Kanon Harmon, 21.54 (4.85); 5. Kendall Upton/Camron Belk, 21.47 (4.82); 6. Jordan Mungle/Asa Westerman, 21.09; 7. Gannon Arnold/Hunter Greer, 20.85 (4.44); 8. Deven Johnson/Hayden Kendall, 20.21 (3.84); 9. Tanner Fife/Kaylynn Finch, 19.76; 10. Austin Johnston/Cason Cannon, 19.58.