(Above) Five members of Osceola’s twelve-member state ice fishing team pose from their undisclosed lake location on February 20. Left to right are Sam Schiebel, Colton Wilmot, Dawson Rosenow, Lance Wallis, and Kolten Heimbach (2 time Master Angler, 11 Master Angler Fish this year).

Fishing is a…discipline in the equality of men, for all men are equal before fish.” – Herbert Hoover

Some kids like to wrestle. Some love to sing. Some play in the band. Some get really good at playing ball.

And some…just love to fish.

For those outdoorsy high-school students, whether boys or girls, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Fishing Association (WIFA) is offering a new way to compete, and even stand out on a state level.

This February 20, quietly without fanfare or fan buses, Osceola High School in Polk County claimed their second straight WIFA State Championship ice-fishing title. Not bad for a few small-town kids from up north.

Traditionally WIFA tournaments are held on a given body of water or chain of lakes, but for the Statewide Tournament, 2020 and 2021 presented unique challenges. Last year, before COVID-19 was even a concern, the originally scheduled State Championship scheduled in Eagle River became problematic due to heavy snow, slush, and variable ice conditions. A decision was made by the WIFA Board to hold a statewide event where teams could choose any public body of water and submit their catches on an app called “FishDonkey,” which uses photos of the fish to measure and tally team scores. The goal? Each team of twelve students and four coaches aims to catch the most length for maximum number of fish allowed across six different species, and the winner takes the title.

The remaining seven members of the Osceola team pose for a snapshot at their separate undisclosed location on February 20. Left to right are Max Michel, Kaden Pingel (three time Master Angler, five Master Angler fish this year), Mason Wood, Joshua Demulling, Brock Studer, Drew Pingel (two time Master Angler, five Master Angler fish this year), and Nick Nissen (one time Master Angler, five Master Angler fish this year).

Going virtual has been a literal game changer. But it’s not as simple or as fallible as it sounds. There are plenty of rules. Lots of judging and scrutiny. And the competition is steep.

WIFA was organized less than ten years ago and has quickly grown to include over 120 school districts across Wisconsin.

Osceola math teacher, Rick Stewart, coaches track in the spring, and the ice-fishing team in the winter months. For the most part, it’s a volunteer position.

“Jacob Meyer and I started the team in ‘15-‘16. This year we had 50 kids on our roster.” Stewart says the mix is mostly boys, but also some girls.

“We had 30 students who fished in tournaments this year, and I think it would have been higher had we not had that extreme cold in February.”

Which begs the question, how does he narrow the field down to twelve for the state event?

“If they participate in the Master Angler program through WIFA, that’s the first tier I look at,” says Stewart. The Master Angler program teaches students how to fish using different techniques with different species and challenges them to catch fish of certain minimum lengths, helping them become a much more well-rounded angler.

“After that, it’s their longevity with the club, their efforts while fishing, and if they’ve demonstrated they can fish hard for an extended period of time. We teach the kids while we’re out there, but come state tournament time, it’s time to see who can put it all together. And who can do their best to help out the team and fish hard, and to know that they’re going to show up and do their best.”

This year, eight members of Osceola’s twelve-person team will graduate. Stewart recalls the journey these students have taken the past four years.

“In 2018 we had an 18th place finish. That was with a team of all freshman. So we told those kids if you want to get serious and compete for a state championship, you’re more than able to do so.”

Those freshman kept their eyes on the prize, helping carry their team to 11th place in 2019, and a landslide first place win in 2020 when Osceola brought in an incredible 578.5 inches of fish, followed distantly by DC Everest at 523.75, and Drummond with 493.75.

And those numbers pale in comparison to this February, when Osceola took the title with an unbelievable 612.5 inches. Rounding out the rest of the top ten were Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln (597), Ledger Fishing Team SMS (552.25), Pulaski (550), Neenah (505.25), Dummond (482.5), New Richmond (472.5), Appleton North (446), Ashland (444.75), and North Fondy (444.25).

Why such a big jump in numbers over last year?

Stewart thinks it was the added time to plan, research, and strategize.

“We had a very short time from when they decided to call off the Eagle River location [in 2020], so it was kind of ‘Oh, we’ve never fished in a tournament like this, how are we going to come up with the best plan so that we can land as many quality fish as we can?’ And we were fortunate to be the only team in the state last year that caught all 45 fish.

“This year with the virus, they made it a virtual tournament much earlier. We had more advanced notice. We didn’t think that our inches from last year were going/ to hold up, so we put in a lot more time of scouting, trying to locate those quality fish. We definitely were able to find some larger pike this year, which was a huge benefit. Had we not found those we wouldn’t have won because we never ended up catching our fifth walleye this year.

“It’s a lot of understanding fish behavior, looking into how we can eliminate water that we know isn’t going to be productive for us. How can we pinpoint those fish and then how can we adjust our technique so that we can land more quality fish.”

Weekly meetings. Practicing setting tip ups, learning how to read structure, maps, and use underwater cameras. It takes a lot of research and a lot of practice to win this game.

And where was this year’s winning location? Well, Osceola was split between a few locations this year. But exactly where isn’t something he’s likely to tell you.

“That’s just fishing,” he chuckles. “Because of all the research that you put in, you’ll share it with a select few, but you don’t want to share it with everyone.”

Over 120 schools across Wisconsin now have WIFA teams. Learn more at http://www.studentfishing.com.

This is a seriously competitive sport. But it’s more than that.

“They’re working together for a common goal, just like any other sport,” Stewart adds. “They’re also learning a lot about our natural resources and how they can help preserve them. All of these fish are going back into the lake. The kids are [learning] that when we’re bringing this many people to a body of water, it’s in the fishery’s best interest to protect our resources, enjoy them, and put them back so that other people can enjoy them too.” Osceola’s team this year consisted of Kaden Pingel, Drew Pingel, Josh Demulling, Nick Nissen, Max Michel, Brock Studer, Mason Wood, Kolten Heimbach, Colton Wilmot, Dawson Rosenow, Lance Wallis, and Sam Schiebel. Stewart says that every one of them contributed to the team’s success.

“A big thank you to the parent coaches who have gone above and beyond for the kids in the program: Josh Pingel, Tim Michel, Dean Nissen, and Mike Wallis. This wouldn’t have been possible without their help. There was two years there when I did it all on my own, and just having their help has been huge. Also, a big thank you to the WIFA Board of Directors for all of their efforts in providing a high quality, memorable experience for the kids.”

No one knows yet what next year’s tournament holds. If everyone is back on the same ice, it could be yet another game changer, for everyone. Stewart is looking forward to whatever next winter brings.

“Hopefully we can use [this win] as a springboard. We’ll have a lot of open spots on our state roster next year.”  

Posted by Jessica de la Cruz

Publisher Jessica de la Cruz is an independent marketing consultant and award-winning journalist who was born and raised in Spooner, Wis. She has a passion for storytelling, good coffee, meeting new people, and exploring the world around her.

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