In its five-year existence, the Oregon State University bass fishing team has earned Club of the Year and multiple national rankings, led by frontmen Ryan Sparks and Zach MacDonald.
BY COLIN HUBER | VIDEO BY DARRYL LAI
If fishing wasn’t a sport, there would be no trophies for it. There would be no TV shows about the people who won them. There would be no reason to get up before the sun and spend a day in a boat trying to win a trophy. There would be no boat, no competition. If fishing wasn’t a sport, the Oregon State University bass fishing club wouldn’t be ranked 6th in the country. There also would be no team.
It’s a practice day. Junior Ryan Sparks and sophomore Zach MacDonald are fishing a pond in Albany, Oregon, private property, supposedly full of bass. The Civil War tournament is the next day.
They fire up the motor of the boat, bring up the anchor, push off the dock and let the throttle rip as they shoot down a canal toward the open part of the lake.
“I’m always amped when I’m out on the water,” MacDonald said, smiling as the boat cuts through the glassy pond. “There’s just something about it.”
Today is not a competition, but that doesn’t mean Ryan and Zach aren’t competing.
“We want to see how many fish we can bring in today, how much weight,” Sparks says.
Soon after, they brought in fish — many of them:
Power of balance
MacDonald and Sparks are an interesting combo.
“I’m a little more relaxed, he’s a little bit more high-strung,” Sparks said.
MacDonald is pumped up all the time, even when they aren’t catching fish, and Sparks, although no less competitive, keeps everything pretty level in the boat.
“So far, its worked out really good for us,” he said.
The duo has been fishing together for two years now — two years of the hottest fishing streak on the west coast. It was fire at first cast.
They won the first tournament they fished together, a qualifier at Lake Shasta. Since, they’ve won three additional times, including a dominant performance in the Western Bassmaster Regional at Clear Lake that sent them to the Bassmaster College National Championship August 1-3. They earned five top-3 finishes in nine tournaments. They have been ranked 2nd and 3rd in the country. The entire team just won Oregon State’s Club of the Year and currently holds the 6th and 20th spots in the Bass Rankings and Bassmaster polls, respectively. MacDonald and Sparks, leaders of the bunch, sit 19th as a duo.
“People are born with natural ability to catch fish,” said professional angler and 1987 OSU graduate, Jay Yelas. “To be able to run fast or jump high or pitch a baseball — well, some guys have a sense for fishing — a feel for the game. Zach and Ryan are that way.”
They are the first Oregon State duo to qualify for both college national championships (FLW Fishing and Bassmaster) in one year. They finished 22nd at the FLW championships in April.
“Zach is the best bass fisherman Oregon State has had by far,” Yelas said, even supplanting his own successes. “Ryan is a really good all-around fisherman. They’re a great 1-2 punch.”
Club practice makes perfect
Make no mistake about it: The Pacific Northwest is not a bass fishing region. It’s salmon country. Compared to places like Tennessee and Georgia, where bass ponds are as abundant as country singers, Oregon is a mere blip on the nation’s bass fishing radar.
“Kids pick schools based on bass fishing teams now,” Yelas said. “College fishing has gotten real popular in the last six years or so. Schools in the southeast have 50 or more people in the club. I’ve heard they have some scholarship money.”
Yelas knows a thing or two about fishing. He’s spent 25 years making a living traveling the country, reeling in the big ones. He was the Bassmaster Classic Champion in 2002, has won “Angler of the Year” three times and even brought in an ESPN Best Outdoors Athlete ESPY award.
He’s also the reason Oregon State has a bass fishing team, created in 2008.
“It seemed like a natural thing to do,” said Yelas. “It was a good mentoring opportunity to spend some time with kids and give them the opportunity to fish in college.”
In between pro competitions, Yelas meets with the club at the Memorial Union about twice a year. He takes them steelhead, salmon and bass fishing.
The club has something close to 20 members, depending on the day. It’s made up of students, staff and faculty, people who love fishing or who want to learn.
Volunteers like Chris Ropp, Dan Hough and Jon Denton offer up their gear, boats and property to help the club practice and win.
“You want to give back to something you’ve enjoyed all your life,” Denton said. “You get hooked on fishing and you want to make a lifestyle of it.”
Hooked, literally. The prize money team members win in tournaments goes straight back to the club to pay for travel expenses, new rods and lines for beginners and gear for different competitions.
“If you’ve never fished before or even held a rod, we’ll help you out,” Sparks said.
“You don’t have to be on the water,” MacDonald said. “You can go out in a field or even in the middle of the hallway of your dorm. That’s what I did last year.”
Yes, her casted in the hallways of his dorm, lure, hook and all.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “I only snagged the carpet a couple times.”
Every second counts
Back out on the boat, Sparks and MacDonald are making one last push for fish along the bank before calling it a day.
“Let’s go fish that dug out area with the tree branch there,” MacDonald p0ints, feeling a hunch.
As the boat moves closer, they talk about their upcoming national championship tournament.
“We hope to fish good together,” Sparks explains. “There are days I don’t catch fish and he’ll catch them, and there’ll be days he doesn’t catch fish and I — FISH ON!”
Sparks yanks his rod backward to set the hook and masterfully pops a fish out of the surface and into the boat’s water-filled holding tank (in tournaments, anglers have to keep the fish alive, or will be penalized).
“FISH ON!” MacDonald yells just as Sparks gets his line back in the water.
“FISH!” Sparks echoes.
Two on at once. The duo maneuvers around the boat as their fish attempt to escape in the branches under the water. They can’t get their lines tangled or they’ll lose both. It seems like chaos.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’re just sitting there waiting for something to bite,’” said MacDonald. “But OK, come out here — especially when it gets hot or even if it’s cold — and stand in the elements for nine hours. You’re casting and reeling the whole time, over and over.”
Back and forth, side to side, in and out.
“Time is of the essence,” says Sparks after both fish have been safely landed. “You’re running around, strapping rods down, picking them up. Every second counts.”
You never know which shot will go in, which touchdown will be scored or which goal will be tallied.
“You never know which cast could be that 10-pounder,” MacDonald says.
See, fishing is a sport.