The water was still and the bite slow on Lake Guntersville, where on the first Friday in March two-person teams representing universities from all over the United States competed for thousands in prize money and a direct qualifying spot for one of college fishing’s three national championship tournaments.
Lifelong friends Jackson Paden and Joey Bissing, of Libertyville, Illinois, were one of four pairs representing UT in the tournament. Around 11 a.m., with only two of their five-fish limit in the tank, Paden cast about 50 yards from the boat then began slowly reeling his red chatter bait along a grass flat.
Suddenly, he felt the hook stick.
From that distance, with the sun coruscating off the water, there was no way to tell if he was hung on a log or had hooked the fish of a lifetime. Instinctively, Paden did what every fisherman, from the seven-year-old on grandpa’s farm pond to the winningest pro in the country, does in that moment: he leaned back and set the hook hard.
Whatever was on the other end didn’t budge.
After a struggle, he wrestled the bass out into open water without it throwing the hook or breaking his line.
“Its mouth was so big, it looked like a five-gallon bucket just jumping in the air,” says Paden about the seven-pound largemouth, the biggest catch of his college career so far. At Guntersville, he and Bissing finished in fifth place, their best result of the 2021–22 season, earning the pair $500 and a guaranteed spot at the 2023 Major League Fishing national finals.
“The feeling was incredible,” says Paden, a construction science major. “Even if Joey had caught that fish, I would’ve felt the same way.”
That feeling—the tug, the fight, the ecstasy of a big catch—is what members of UT’s bass
fishing team chase every time they’re on the water. While not sanctioned by the NCAA, college fishing is a high-profile sport with dedicated student–athletes whose discipline and hunger rival those of any football, basketball, or baseball player. National competitions, or leagues, organized by MLF, Bassmaster, and the Association of Collegiate Anglers draw competitors from more than 300 universities. The ACA, which has BoatUS, Bass Pro Shops, and Abu Garcia—some of fishing’s most recognizable brands—among its sponsors, held its national championship in May at Pickwick Lake in Florence, Alabama. UT had two pairs finish in the top 15 among more than 150 teams—Robert Gee and Luke Byerly (’21) in 11th and Parker Kaye (’22) and Chad Sentell in 14th.
While small private schools, that regularly rank among the country’s best, even offer scholarships to their anglers, UT’s team is officially registered as a club, open to any student on campus. “The guys that don’t compete are a part of all our meetings, and we do a weekend or two where we all go out fishing together,” says Teddy Peznola, a senior business analytics major from Leominster, Massachusetts, and the current club president. “Everyone gets a jersey and the chance to be in an environment where everyone’s really passionate about fishing, and where they can learn from guys who’ve been doing this a very long time.”
Of the club’s 45 members, about a dozen anglers, including Paden, Bissing, and Peznola, came or were recruited to UT to fish. They travel the country every semester chasing trophy fish, winner’s medals, and bragging rights. UT ended the 2021–22 season ranked ninth in the ACA’s School of the Year rankings and hasn’t finished outside of the Top 25 in a decade—including a ranking of third in 2017. As a pair, Gee and Sentell are the 10th-best college anglers in the country, according to the Bassmaster rankings.
UT is located in the heart of bass fishing paradise—within an hour of campus, located along the Tennessee River and Fort Loudoun Lake, are at least five other major lakes: Cherokee, Douglas, Melton Hill, Norris, and Watts Bar. That’s part of the allure that attracts anglers from California, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, and throughout the Volunteer State to Rocky Top every year.
But fishing isn’t the only thing that brings them to UT.
A former high school football player, Bissing stopped playing after suffering two successive ACL injuries. To help keep him off the gridiron, his dad bought him a 2007 Ranger bass boat. “But I still love football,” he says. “When I came to campus, I snuck onto the field. And I looked around me and thought, ‘The school’s great, basketball team’s great.’ This was the coolest place I’d been in my whole life.”
Peznola had visited campus in 2017 with his dad on the drive back from the Bassmaster High School National Championships at Kentucky Lake. “I have this picture of me in front of Neyland when I was 15 years old,” Peznola says. “I never thought that day that I’d be back here for college fishing.”
Peznola’s best finish in a college tournament was eighth in the ACA Big Bass Bash as a first-year student in 2019. But even then he knew the chances of going pro were slim. So he chose to study in the Haslam College of Business, where he could learn the skills and develop relationships that would help him build a career in a fishing-adjacent industry. In May, Peznola interned in the accounting and IT departments at Malibu Boats. He got the internship with the help of the club’s volunteer coach, Caleb Lim (’13), a former UT bass angler, supply chain graduate, and IT project manager for Malibu. “The relationships and connections you make through the team are unmatched,” Peznola says.
Lim was at UT in 2007 when the club was first started by animal science graduate Nick Tate (’11). “I even have the original orange T-shirt we got screen-printed with Tennessee Bass Team on it,” he says. His parents had immigrated from Singapore. Lim’s dad, Philip Lim, a 1988 electrical engineering graduate, taught his son to love two things: fishing (Lim’s grandfather was a commercial ocean fisherman in Singapore) and education. “Ever since I was a boy, I knew UT was the only school I wanted to go to,” Lim says. “That’s where my dad set his roots. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
In July 2021, Lim and his wife were walking their golden retriever, Peyton, when a neighbor’s Labrador ran out to greet him. In the driveway, he had noticed a bass boat, so they got to chatting about fishing. She told him her son, Robert, was a member of UT’s team. When Lim mentioned he had been a club member more than a decade earlier, she suggested he connect. Before long, the team brought him on as their first coach.
“I’m not a traditional coach,” Lim says. The club members do their own research about where they want to fish, what techniques they want to use. “I’m in more of a servant leadership role.”
To triumph as students, professionals, or anglers, Lim believes they need to go through painstaking process of organizing events, fishing tournaments, turning in paperwork, and recruiting sponsors on their own. “My role is to support them, whether that’s fishing, career, or personal,” he says. “I give them the tools to be successful, then they do the rest.”
At the start of each season, the club officers map out their budget. Bissing, a marketing major, was the team’s social media manager his sophomore year and succeeded in bringing in a slate of new sponsors. This fall, he moved into a sponsor relations role, managing those relationships and attracting new businesses to support the team’s efforts.
“You’re asking for money or product from these companies, and you get a lot of nos,” Bissing says. “It’s tough. I’ve gotten so many nos over this summer.”
Fortunately, UT has prominently placed alumni in organizations like Enduro Power Lithium Batteries, founded by Harrison Smiddy (’01), who paid for the orange-and-white checkerboard wrap on Bissing’s competition boat. Other sponsors—like Matt McKee, owner of McKee Outdoors, and Crispin Powley, a UT Martin alumnus who is vice president of fishing for GSM Outdoors—just love UT. While many Tennesseans demonstrate their love for the university by cheering on football players in Neyland on Saturdays, McKee, Powley, and others show theirs by supporting student anglers with what they need to compete in their world.
Recently, the team signed Yamamoto Baits and Under Armour as sponsors for the 2022–23 season. Bissing may make big promises about the what the team can do for their businesses—but the team delivers with social media promotions and boat and jersey placements at the more than dozen tournaments UT anglers compete in throughout the year. Schools with scholarship anglers can compete on the water, but off the water they cannot match the exposure being partnered with UT offers.
“To be a pro, even to compete in college, half of it is marketing your team,” Bissing says.
It’s getting people to believe in you, believe in being on your jersey and on your boat, knowing you’ll promote their product to the best of your ability.”
Austin Wadzinski, a junior supply chain major from Franklin, Tennessee, was inspired to join the bass fishing team by his brother, Tyler Wadzinski (’14), a biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology grad who is now an optometrist in Morristown, Tennessee. Unlike Peznola, Wadzinski has aspirations of going pro after graduation. “It’s like basketball or football players,” he says. “All their dreams are to go to the NBA or the NFL. The great thing about fishing is that you don’t need a certain build, certain genetics. You just need to spend as much time on the water as you can.
He didn’t join the team his first year at UT; he didn’t have a boat and wasn’t sure he could compete. But Bissing and Sentell, who live in the same apartment complex, encouraged him to join. “It’s tough getting in with new people, finding a fishing partner,” Wadzinski says. The club goes out of its way to give members without access to boats a chance to fish with those who do. Wadzinski was eventually partnered with Connor Hicks. In June, the pair finished sixth at a Bassmaster tournament in Saginaw Bay, Michigan, qualifying them for the national championship.
“I’ve learned more in the last year on Tennessee’s team than ever before,” Waszinski says. He’s made memories he’ll never forget, too—like the time this summer when the group drove to Florida for a tournament and then stayed in a house together for an additional two weeks before competing again and returning home. “It was the best time of my life,” Bissing says. “No parents or anything. Just a bunch of guys fishing for 21 days in a row.”
At its core, whether competing or not, UT’s bass fishing club is about giving members the chance to experience moments they might never have again after graduating and going out into the professional world.
The club does its best to pay it forward, too. Besides organizing intraclub tournaments on Fort Loudoun and other local lakes for UT students who want to taste competition but can’t travel, they visit with the Bearden and Alcoa High School fishing clubs. They explain to them what opportunities they would have to fish in college and share about the day-to-day life of being a college student and competitive angler. In July, the club organized the first Smokey Invitational High School Tournament, with 28 high schools from the Nashville and Knoxville areas competing on Watts Barr Lake.
“It really is like this giant group of friends with the exact same passion you have; you’re always talking about it, traveling the country to do it together,” Peznola says.
On non-tournament weeks, the guys will go out to fish for fun. They don’t call it practice or training. Paden will drive up to Norris Lake, where he keeps his boat docked, with Bissing or another friend to chase smallmouth bass for a few hours. “It’s nice,” he says. “You’re out on the water listening to the birds. I still want to catch as many as I can. I’ll make it a competition in my head. But it’s relaxing at the same time. I guess there’s a time and place for both.”