When Huntley's Erik Lachel arrives to school every day at 6:30 a.m., it's not uncommon for the social studies teacher and bass fishing coach to be greeted by a handful of excitable Red Raiders students waiting outside his door.
Lachel, an avid fisherman who also sits on the IHSA advisory committee for bass fishing, took over the school's bass fishing team in 2013.
Back then, with a team of six to eight anglers, Lachel had difficulty filling a boat. Today, the Red Raiders' bass fishing team is among the biggest in the area with 48 anglers, both boys and girls.
Huntley also is among the most successful teams with three sectional titles in four years. Mary Raclawski caught the biggest fish at the Chain O'Lakes South Sectional last season at 4.57 pounds, and the Red Raiders won a sectional title with a bag of five fish weighing 12.22 pounds.
They went on to place 15th at the state tournament, with the unified division team taking third.
“We’re getting so big at the high school, we have very little space for everyone,” Lachel said. “The kids will just come to my room first thing in the morning and talk fishing. They’ll show each other (fishing) videos on YouTube, and they’ll talk about their biggest catch from the weekend."
While Huntley’s team has more than quadrupled in size since Lachel took over five years ago, he also has noticed growing interest among high school students throughout the McHenry County area.
On Monday, 10 local high schools will be represented at the Chain O’Lakes North and South sectionals in Fox Lake with the top three boats advancing to the state tournament at Carlyle Lake in Carlyle.
Huntley, Dundee-Crown, Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake South, Hampshire and Marengo will fish for eight hours on the south chain. Alden-Hebron, Johnsburg, Marian Central and Woodstock North co-op will compete on the north.
South, Hampshire and Prairie Ridge have new teams this season, and Dundee-Crown is in its second year. According to IHSA.org, the number of schools participating in bass fishing has grown from 199 in 2009 (the first year of statewide competition) to 271 in 2017.
Huntley senior Tyler Colton has been on the team all four years of high school and was on the sectional winning boat last year. He, too, has been surprised by the fast growth of the sport.
"The sport has grown a ton," Colton said. "There's probably twice as many boats now for each tournament.
"I think more and more schools will get into it, and more kids are trying to start their own clubs. I have buddies at other schools that are interested in doing it, too. They just want to get into it and be outside."
Lachel has students from other sports asking to join all of the time, he said. Raclawski is one of the area's top distance runners and advanced to the girls track and field state meet last year. It was the same weekend as the bass fishing state series, forcing her to miss the trip to Carlyle Lake.
With no set schedule and tournaments taking place on the weekends, it's easy for athletes of other sports to join.
“There are so many kids that go hunting and fishing to begin with,” Lachel said. “Their parents fish, and so they do, too. This community has always been sportsmen oriented and outdoorsy. Nobody protects the water and sport better than those who are actually in the sport."
“The other part is the social media component of it. Kids have their own YouTube channels, and they’re constantly posting stuff on there and watching videos."
Because bass fishing is considered an "activity" and not an official IHSA sport, teams must provide their own equipment, including rods and – often most difficultly – a boat. Lachel remembers the Raiders winning their first sectional at Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village on a jon boat provided by the Cook County Forest Preserve with nothing but a cooler and aerator on board.
Parents, volunteers or sponsors most often provide boats and equipment for each team.
Now, the sport is becoming so large that there has been talk of adding a regional round to feed into sectionals. Last year's state meet had 64 boats, and tournament officials had to run them in flights of 20 to 25 boats at a time.
As the number of schools competing in bass fishing has grown, so has the level of competition.
"It’s taken off so much that’s it gotten so competitive at the high school level," Lachel said. "You have dads on boats that are semi-pro fisherman, so it’s becoming harder and harder to win it."
For a few years, Dave Kranz of Dave's Bait Tackle and Taxidermy in Crystal Lake captained the boat for Faith Lutheran, which won a sectional title in 2015.
Prairie Ridge coach John Pellikan, who also coaches on the Wolves boys golf team, got the idea to start a bass fishing team when he got to talking with Dundee-Crown coach Matt Schwenk at a golf meet.
Pellikan's son, Hank, is a freshman at Prairie Ridge and knew of some other friends with interest.
The Wolves took third at the Dundee-Crown Bass Fishing Tournament at Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake on April 22. Pellikan had 26 kids attend the first meeting for the bass fishing team in February. The team has about 22 members now, he said.
Crystal Lake South's Aaron Michaels and Zack Michaels won that event, in which 65 local anglers competed. Prairie Ridge also participated in weekly meets hosted by Grant and took first twice.
"We have 16 kids that are pretty serious about fishing, and I think that number is going to go up," Pellikan said. "I was thinking maybe 10 kids might join, but we're pushing 20 right now. It's been pretty cool. I have kids stopping me in the hallways all the time. I had a kid email today seeing if he could join the team."
Pellikan said some team members have tournament experience, and some are just fishing for fun.
"I think kids in McHenry County want to be outdoors," Pellikan said. "I think fishing draws in a special kind of person who is really inclined to be patient and has the personality for fishing. I think these communities support it.
"We called up Crystal Lake Park District, we called up the City of Crystal Lake, and they are all about supporting us. I think there's just a natural fit for this community."
Lachel said his greatest achievement in the sport has been advocating for the unified division. IHSA and the Special Olympics teamed up in 2015 to provide students with special needs the ability to participate at the bass fishing state meet. It's been a big hit, Lachel said.
Lachel said the spike in interest has brought up additional discussions of how to accommodate so many boats and anglers in future meets.
"I don't see it stopping," Lachel said about the growth of bass fishing. "At some point, we'll need to have regionals because we're just going to run out of bodies of water. It would be nice to see 100 boats at the state series, but, ideally, 60 is a good number.
"If it continues to grow at this pace, we won't have enough bodies of water to accommodate it all."