By DALE BOWMAN
CARLYLE – Elverado’s Zach Berner and Alec Valerius put on the most impressive fishing display in the eight years of the Illinois High School Association’s state championship for bass fishing.
The dominating fashion in which they won on Carlyle Lake May 20-21 was impressive enough. They weighed five-fish limits both days to total 21 pounds, 5 ounces. Their closest competitor was Highland Boat 1 with 14-15.
I have said before Highland is to high school bass fishing in Illinois what Simeon is to high school basketball: At another level. Highland is the only school to have qualified all eight years.
That’s another reason to note Berner and Valerius: they passed two boats from the best program in the state to win it all. Highland Boat 2, Day 1 leader with opening day big bag of 11-15, was third with 14-7. Elverado was in fourth with 9-11 after Day 1 behind Highland Boat 2, Rochelle and Highland Boat 1.
The third reason Elverado’s win was so impressive was that Berner and Valerius overcame tough fishing conditions. I know the coaches and kids are schooled to put a happy face on everything, but all you had to do was stand by the edge of the water and see only an inch or two of clarity to know it was tough.
To complicate matters, the lake was cooler than normal for May with water temperatures in the mid-60s. Despite those tough conditions, Elverado was able to be consistent both days.
Many anglers reported catching fish on the first day, only to discover things had changed by Saturday. Not Elverado.
After Day 2, boat driver, coach and Zach’s dad, Greg Berner said, “They had six keepers, all before noon.’’
Zach Berner said they were using squarebill crankbaits, flipping blue and black jigs and throwing Lunker Lure spinner baits. Valerius would only say that they were in the “northeast part of the lake.’’
There may be more reason to why Berner and Valerius won than their being good fishermen. Experience mattered. This was the third straight year they qualified as a team for the state championship.
On their first trip to state, they finished eighth, then in the middle of the pack last year.
Both anglers acknowledged that the experience helped, both in simply knowing the mechanics of the tournament (the Thursday night dinner, the hotel protocol, launching procedure, weigh-in process) and in getting to know the lake.
In the mystery of the lake, the bright sun and warm air on the final day turned on a better bite for big fish.
The biggest one of the tournament (4-14) was caught by Sandwich’s Chris Thompson (at right). Jake Freeman of Highland 2 had big bass the first day (4-6).
Throughout the tournament, other fish were caught, including some really nice crappie and some big catfish.
“We caught some really big catfish,’’ said Cole Hopkins on DuQuoin’s Boat 1. “I had an 8-pounder and another that was probably 5 pounds,’’ his teammate Hunter Behm said.
This was the first state championship where weather did not delay or postpone fishing. The field was also divided into three flights for the first time. As usual teams went out Boat 1 to 66 opening morning, then Boat 66 to 1 on Day 2. But there were staggered return times: 3, 3:15 and 3:30 p.m. That eased launch congestion and made a better flow across the stage.
As the last team crossed the stage, Valerius said, “It is a good way to end it.”