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When people think of college athletics, the mainstream sports come to mind: football, basketball, hockey, baseball and softball.

Now you can add fishing to the list.

College-age anglers are getting the opportunity to keep casting, and it’s more than just a hobby. Bethel University, a college in McKenzie, Tenn., with an enrollment of 5,825, first laid the roots for its fishing program in 2009. They weren’t the first school to offer bass fishing, but they were the first to offer scholarships for anglers.

“The athletic director approached me about the possibilities of having a collegiate bass fishing team at Bethel,” said Gary Mason, Bethel’s head bass fishing coach.

“At the time I was a professional hunting and fishing guide here on Kentucky Lake and I suggested that we offer scholarships for fishing at Bethel. He liked the idea and we developed a program, and since then we’ve become one of the most popular and well-known fishing colleges in America.”

Mason, who is also the director of Northwest Tennessee Tourism and founder of the Legends of the Outdoors National Hall of Fame, said the number of college fishing teams has grown significantly in the last five years.

“When we started in 2009 there was probably only about 125 or 130 colleges in America that had clubs that were fishing,” Mason said. “Now there is probably over 300 and the sport has really grown and now the high school part of it is coming on strong.”

Winona State University and UW-La Crosse have both added fishing as club sports within the last four years.

“They started the fishing club in 2010. That was right before I came here,” said Cade Laufenberg, a Central High School graduate who is a student at Winona State. “That was a big part of me coming me coming to Winona State, I wanted to compete. It’s been a real awesome deal for me; all expenses are paid for. It’s been a good opportunity for me to get out and compete in tournaments.”

Laufenberg has seen his fair share of success at Winona State. The team qualified for the 2013 FLW National Championship Qualifiers, finished eighth place in the 2012 B.A.S.S. National Championship and were ranked fourth in the nation in 2012. Winona State doesn’t offer fishing scholarships, but the team can still win money that pays for the club’s traveling expenses.

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“We can it play money. We’re fishing for play money because we don’t get to spend it on whatever we want. We get to use it for tournaments,” Laufenberg said.

That doesn’t mean play money can’t lead to bigger things.

“The reality is if we go to the national championships and get on TV and you do that repeatedly, people start to realize who you are,” Laufenberg said. “Those are the things that are going to help an angler down the road. Even if you don’t have that financially backing to start out, you might be able to earn it through sponsors by the end of your college fishing career.”

In a sport like fishing where breaking even financially is half the battle, college teams offer a chance for anglers to experience what competitive fishing -- and the business aspect that accompanies it -- is all about.

“If you don’t have all that money sitting around or support from your family to go out there and try to be pro, it’s really hard to do that,” Laufenberg said. “So college is a nice stepping stone for the average guy, who is fairly broke, to get a chance to get out there and get some exposure.”

A significant dose of exposure has trickled down to the high school ranks. Bethel University is set to offer a $5,000 per year scholarship to the top finishing junior or senior team at the National High School Bassmaster Championship, which starts Wednesday on Kentucky Lake in Tennesse.

Bether features 32 scholarship athletes on its club team’s fishing roster, and they hail from across the country, including Milwaukee’s Kyler Chelminiak.

“Bear Bryant said the road to winning championships was straight through recruiting and that’s the philosophy that I followed in my tenure as coach here at Bethel,” Mason said.

“I certainly believe that recruiting the right young men and women helps you win, but the No. 1 thing is helping those students get their education and that’s what we’re all about at Bethel.”

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