Sequoyah teens net state fishing title for budding program

Cherokee students Zack Cooper, left, and Kobe Rider recently won a state tournament for the Sequoyah High School bass fishing team. COURTESY

TAHLEQUAH – Two Cherokee teens representing Sequoyah High School’s fledgling bass fishing program recently won the team’s first state title, which in turn earned them an opportunity at the national level.

With five keepers weighing a total of 17.3 pounds, Zack Cooper and Kobe Rider out-fished 140 other teams in the Oklahoma Bass Nation High School championship on Lake Eufaula in June. Their closest competitors caught 3 pounds less.

“I caught my first keeper, a 3-pounder, in like the first three casts,” Rider, 16, said. “I thought it was going to be a pretty good day after that.”

In addition to winning the state title, Cooper, 17, was celebrated for reeling in the largest catch of the day – a 6.26-pound largemouth bass.

“I’ve been fishing since I’ve been able to walk,” Cooper said. “The biggest fish I’ve ever caught was actually at that tournament. That was my first fish of the day. We’d had one practice day beforehand and I didn’t catch a single fish all day.”

By winning the state tournament, Cooper and Rider earned a spot in the Bassmaster High School National Championship on Chickamauga Lake in Dayton, Tennessee.

“Other than the right to call us champions, we qualified for the national tournament in Tennessee,” Cooper said. “The official practice days are July 26 through the 28th. Then the 29th and the 30th are the first two days of competition. On the 31st is championship day, if you make it.”

According to the national tournament organizers, as many as 275 high school teams are expected to compete for the championship.

“I think we’ll do alright,” Rider said, adding that their strategy is to “wing it for a little bit, find a pattern and stick with it.”

Both teens, now headed into their junior years, are interested in obtaining fishing scholarships. Cooper has hopes he can “make a career” out of the sport.

“I know there’s a lot of scholarships involved with this, and I know I’ve already got colleges looking at me for just winning this,” he said. “I’ve had people contact me from different states. That’s pretty cool.”

In their first year of fishing together, Cooper and Rider competed in a boat manned by Cooper’s father. Both teens said their fathers inspired a love of fishing.

“I go fishing every day,” Rider said. “I’ve been fishing since I was like 3.”

The state championship was a first for SHS’s fishing program, which Cooper helped establish as a freshman.

“We’ve only had the team for two years, but the first year we really didn’t get to fish many tournaments because of COVID,” Cooper said. “This was actually our first year of being able to compete.”

In October, the duo placed seventh in a tournament, also on Lake Eufaula, with a five-fish limit of 10.45 pounds. Earlier in September, they placed ninth with five fish that weighed a total of 8.84 pounds in the NextGen High School Tournament on Grand Lake.

To help spur the school’s fishing program, students sought sponsorships.

“Our first year we had 10 or 12 kids that wanted to fish, so we went around from business to business,” Cooper said. “We gave them a proposition that if they wanted to give us money for a sponsorship, we’ll put their logo on our jersey. So that’s what all those logos are from, all those businesses giving us money to buy those jerseys and take us to these tournaments.”

While the fishing program is relatively new, there has been interest, Cooper said, but the pandemic slowed its momentum.

“We haven’t really been able to contact a lot of people who were on it the first year because half of them went to different schools or just don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “But this upcoming year, we’ll actually be able to get a good number of how many people are on our team.”