He’s just 23 years old, but there have been plenty of twists and turns in Gage Griffin’s life up to this point. Most of them positive, for sure, as the recent UW-La Crosse graduate is heading to medical school this fall.
Before that happens, there is a few fish to fry. Well, at least catch.
Griffin, you see, is an avid angler in addition to being a top-notch student and former collegiate wrestler. He’s about to test his skills once again in Major League Fishing’s Abu Garcia College Open, set for Friday, July 30, on the Mississippi River at Stoddard.
Yes, the organizational umbrella for professional and amateur fishing tournaments, Major League Fishing, sponsors college and high school divisions, too. This is big-time stuff, as the national championships for each are televised and streamed all over our universe.
The Abu Garcia College Open is set for Friday at Stoddard, while the U.S. Army High School Open is set for Saturday, July 31, also at Stoddard.
“It is a pretty good-sized event for the college and high school anglers from the Midwest to compete in,” said Jeremiah Burish, director of sports sales for the La Crosse Area Visitors and Convention Bureau. “There are some really great things about it and it’s great for the future of the sport.”
People are also reading…
Griffin, a Lake Forest, Ill., native who graduated from UW-L in May with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, has waited a year to test his skills against the nation’s best collegiate anglers. As a member of the UW-La Crosse Fishing Club — yes, the university has an active and growing club for anglers of all levels — Griffin is representing the Eagles on the water.
“This will be my last college competition, period. This is my final hurrah,” Griffin said recently, taking a break while fishing with his girlfriend, Hailey Rueth, on the Mississippi River near Trempealeau. “Because I have graduated, this is it. You have to be an enrolled student to keep competing.”
If Griffin and his UW-L teammate, Jordan LaRue of Wausau, Wis., happen to finish in the top 10 percent of the Mississippi River event, they would get another chance to fish. That opportunity would be in the national championship, but that’s putting fish in the boat before they bite.
If the past year has taught Griffin anything, it’s to take nothing for granted. He was set to compete in last year’s national championship that was held right here in La Crosse, but COVID changed that. Because of the pandemic, no UW-L team — intercollegiate or club status — was allowed to compete.
“We couldn’t fundraise, travel or compete (in 2020). It was kind of frustrating as they had a (MLF College) tournament in La Crosse last year and we couldn’t compete,” Griffin said. “It was a UW System mandate, and they told use couldn’t compete for safety reasons.
“As frustrating as it was, I understand not driving to multiple states, but not being able to compete on (Mississippi River) pools 7-8-9, that was difficult.”
That’s why Griffin is eager to show what he can do against the best college anglers right in his back yard. He’s lived in La Crosse for more than three years, and tries to fish every day. He and Rueth were out scouting different water in preparation of the College Open, which is a one-day event.
He’s also determined to erase the memory of his last national championship, which he qualified for during the 2019 regular season. The championship, which was actually held in February of 2020 at the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida, was a humbling experience for Griffin.
“I had some really good beds I was on in practice, then the weather changed,” Griffin said. “I didn’t weigh in a single fish in two days.”
Griffin has faced adversity before, and came out stronger and better because of it. He started college at Cornell University in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and was a varsity wrestler there for the 2016-17 season. He transferred to UW-L and was a member of the 2018-2019 Eagles team, but then came one of twists in his life.
One he thanks Eagles’ wrestling coach Dave Malecek for, even though it meant the end of his wrestling career.
“I was committed to coming to UW-L for academics and wrestling. I decided to wrestle there (UW-L), as it was a Top 10 program,” Griffin said. “I had a pretty bad season after the one I had at the other school. My coach told me I was going to have to scale back on other things (fishing, for one) if you are going to compete. It was nothing personnel.
“If you are not willing to give 100 percent, you won’t be successful. I appreciate him being totally honest, even blunt, with me. I took his advice and made a decision. He was straight to the point, and you do what need to do to be successful.”
So Griffin left his wrestling career behind, concentrated on academics and, of course, fishing. He earned a runner-up finish in one college event in 2019, and sixth in another and qualified for the national tournament his first year.
In the 18 MFL Phoenix Bass Fishing League events, Griffin has two Top 10 finishes.
“I really enjoying the fishing and opportunities it provides and have had a lot of success at that level. It started to become more of an all-in sport for me,” Griffin said. “There was another event, the MLF College Faceoff in 2019. They nominated 30 boats from the entire country and UW-L was picked. We took second as an individual boat.”
Griffin knew he was reaching a point where he had to make a decision on his future direction. His passion for fishing was flooding his every thought.
“My plan came down to whatever opportunity presented itself first — fishing or medical school. Fishing would be awesome if that is what you are doing for work, but the money and work in general is inconsistent,” Griffin said.
“I don’t plan on quitting on fishing by any means. It is something I definitely plan on coming back to when my life settles down. In medical school, it is all-in or not. I am totally committed to medical school.”
While he started fishing when he was 2, Griffin said an incident that happened a few years later established his career path. Yes, a visit to the hospital turned out to have a life-long impact.
“I had an issue with my (big) toe. I cut off a chunk of toe with a wind chime when I was a kid. My doctor, and the health care workers, were so helpful. I don’t know exactly why, but through it all I wanted to become a doctor. Ideally, what I want to be is a foot and ankle surgeon.”
So when he started applying — and was accepted — to a medical school in the Chicago area, his future plans were cemented. Before that happens, however, there are bass to catch. Lots of bass, he hopes, especially on Friday while wearing his UW-L fishing jersey.
“I fished literally almost every day. Even on its toughest day, I am still so grateful I am fishing here. You never truly master this fishery. It is the river, that is why I love it here,” Griffin said.
“You have to be constantly be fishing different methods and places. It is summer, fish are changing and moving. It is hard to pinpoint one area. It is more about covering water, keeping an open mind and fishing the day.”
And accepting, and overcoming, what twists and turns are thrown your way.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org