If you stepped outside Tyler Stingley’s house and looked around, this is what you’d see: Toward the west, the Absaroka Range of the Rocky Mountains hang like smoke on the far side of a rippling ocean of hills; to the east loom the snowcapped Bighorn Mountains with their green skirt of lodgepole pines; north and south, a vast plain checkerboarded by verdant farmlands and barren badlands stretches beyond sight in either direction.
What you wouldn’t see is a bass lake or anything that comes close to satisfying that description, because the nearest, Montana’s Bighorn Lake, is 37 miles from Stingley’s hometown of Powell, Wyoming. Not that Stingley could fish it, but the stock pond that produced the state-record largemouth of 7 pounds, 14 ounces in 1992 is 120 miles away on the far side of the Bighorns. Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where the Wyoming record smallmouth of 5-15 was caught in 2003, is a six-hour drive to the southwest for him.
Such as these qualify as bass lakes in Wyoming, where just about everybody would rather fish for trout or walleyes. Stingley is one of the few exceptions. A senior at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and founder of the school’s bass club, Stingley is determined to fish bass tournaments and the inconvenience of not having bass close by to practice on won’t stop him.
His fellow club members are of like mind, which is why three of them will soon join Stingley in a 22-hour drive to the California Delta to fish a one-day FLW College Fishing Tournament. It’s their last shot at qualifying for the Western Conference Invitational, where the top 15 Western clubs will fish for the chance to be one of the five teams that will advance to next year’s FLW National College Fishing Championship.
The odds don’t favor the Cowboys. For a variety of reasons, including winter weather, the 11-member University of Wyoming Bass Club couldn’t send a team to compete in the first tournament of the year at Lake Oroville in California. Then, at Lake Roosevelt, Taylor Armstrong and Michael Barbero finished 22nd. They might have finished higher, recalls Armstrong, except he lost a big smallmouth at the boat.
An Army brat, Armstrong comes closer to being a veteran bass fisherman than anyone else on the team. He never lived anywhere for long, but three years of his life were spent in Alabama, where people know something about bass, and where people also know there are worse things for a youngster to do than fish.
“My mom worked with a retired policeman named Bobby Cantrell and he started me out fishing for bass at Lake Guntersville. He would take me fishing just about every weekend beginning when I was 13,” says Armstrong. “That’s where I got started. I loved it, and when we moved again, to New Jersey, an active-duty Army guy named Vinson Morris would take me fishing. In fact, we fished some tournaments.”
Eventually, Armstrong’s family wound up in Ft. Collins, Colo., on the Front Range of the Rockies between Denver and Cheyenne. When it came time to pick a college, he took a pass on Colorado State, which his parents attended, and instead chose the University of Wyoming. While exploring on the internet one day, Armstrong came across details about the school’s bass club and followed the leads to Stingley.
“Everything about Powell is agriculture,” notes Stingley. “But the farm I worked on as a kid is probably the only farm in Wyoming that raised cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli instead of corn and soybeans. We cut it by hand with machetes and shipped it all over the country.”
When they weren’t farming, Tyler and his father, Kent, spent summer days bass fishing, albeit at a distant lake such as Bighorn or Tongue River Reservoir, about 125 miles away. It was on such waters that Tyler developed a skill for catching smallmouth bass, and gradually he and his father started fishing tournaments.
“Dad was the only person I knew who was interested in bass fishing, and I became interested in bass fishing,” notes Tyler. “It went further with me, though. By the time I got into high school, I was reading every magazine about bass fishing and tournaments I could find, and watching all the bass fishing TV shows. I thought, wow, this is about as cool as it gets.”
FLW started its college fishing program in 2009, when Stingley was a high school senior, but by the time he entered his freshman year at the University of Wyoming he was laying plans for a competitive bass club.
“When I was trying to figure out where I was going to college, people told me to go to a school where I could get involved in something beyond classes,” says Stingley. “I wasn’t interested in joining an agricultural club, even though I’m basically a farm boy. I wanted to be a part of something that I could help start and grow.
“That’s kind of how the bass club came to be. It took some arm-twisting to get members at first. It took a couple of years, but we were registered with the FLW as of April 2012,” adds Stingley. “We couldn’t get everything together in time to send anybody to a tournament last year, but this year we flew the two guys down to Roosevelt and they made a good showing. We’ve got two challenges that are always there – lack of fishing opportunity, and funding. There are a few good lakes down around Ft. Collins, but it’s not the same as having fishing close and not having to burn a lot of gas.”
Phil Weber, a math professor at the university, is the Cowboys’ advisor. Otherwise, the Cowboys are pretty much on their own as far as covering expenses and competing in tournaments. To raise funds, the club sells team t-shirts through its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/WyomingBassFishing Team). The shirts show the outline of a cowboy with a lasso on the back of a bucking bass. According to Stingley, the club also has received “substantial donations” from its principal sponsor, Harvest Meats of Denver.
In fits and starts, then, the University of Wyoming Bass Club began and is now making progress. This spring, the club’s greatest ambition is to reach the Western Conference Invitational at Clear Lake in California, much less actually place high enough in it to win a berth in the national championship.
There’s something to be said for people who strive for goals that are usually beyond their grasp. Come to think of it, though, that fits the description of any tournament angler. And members of the University of Wyoming Bass Club are typical in that regard, no matter how unsupportive their locale is, no matter how far they have to travel to find bass.