When Haerer arrived at Duke in 2008, he was recruited by Chris Carson '10 to help organize a bass-fishing club. This past fall, their efforts gained momentum with the arrival of several like-minded fishing aficionados in the undergraduate Class of 2013: Santosh Shanmuga, a premed biomedical engineering major whose mother introduced him to bass fishing when he was two years old; Chris Busack, also premed, who grew up fishing in Norway and Wisconsin with his parents, aunts, and uncles and received lures, tackle, and gear for birthdays; and Jeremy Hockman, a Floridian who considers himself primarily a saltwater angler but who joined the club for "a more serene" alternative to ocean fishing.
Before classes started, the freshmen discovered their shared love of fishing through posts on the Class of 2013 Facebook page, and Shanmuga found Haerer through a North Carolina fishing website. By the time they met in person, Haerer was able to persuade Shanmuga that his enthusiasm and expertise were all it took to get the club off the ground. "I knew Santosh would make a great club president because he loves fishing, and he would have four years to keep it going," he says.
The group applied for club status, launched a website, and set up a table on the Bryan Center Plaza to attract new members. About thirty people have signed on. Most are interested in casual casting, but a core group of about eight are intent on forming a competitive component. (Teams consist of two people, so a club can enter more than one team in a tournament.)
Haerer gets a nibble on his line. It's a small largemouth bass, no more than six inches long. He unhooks it and throws it back in the water. "We really want to emphasize that the club is open to anyone who likes to fish or wants to learn how to fish," he says, adjusting his bait. "But we do want to get to the level where we can routinely compete in tournaments. Our immediate goal is to get enough money to buy a bass boat."
Duke is late to the sport of intercollegiate bass fishing. Nationwide, more than 150 colleges and universities have clubs, and tournaments held in the spring and fall (the height of bass spawning and feeding cycles) attract big-name sponsors like ESPN, Under Armour, Pepsi, and Yamaha, as well as a host of smaller manufacturers of things like boats, bait, rods and reels, and sunglasses. North Carolina State University's club, the BassPack, is considered one of the best in the country.
There's big money in professional bass fishing. Kevin VanDam, widely considered the best angler in the world, has lifetime earnings of more than $4.5 million. Sponsors see the collegiate arena as a spawning ground, so to speak, for the next generation of adult participants and followers of the multimillion-dollar sport of fishing. There are three major collegiate tournament circuits; winning clubs and their sponsoring institutions can receive as much as $100,000 in a single tournament.
"A few of the tournaments provide boats, but for others you have to have your own boat to enter," Haerer explains. "You can buy a used boat on Craigslist for about $5,000. A new one can cost about $20,000. Right now, we'll take whatever we can get." Once they secure a boat, he says, the club members hope to win or place in enough tournaments to earn money for boat maintenance and additional gear.
Spending a few hours on the Eno with Haerer provides a crash course in the art of bass fishing. "Most people, when you tell them that you like to fish, think that means going out with a cooler of beer and just throwing out a bobber," he says. "But the best guys are always prepared. They know when to change strategies or location. They understand the mental challenge but still stay relaxed."
On a day like today—sunny but mild, the water still on the cold side—Haerer watches how the wind creates rippled patterns on the water, indicating shifts in current and depth. He looks for places where bass like to congregate, like rocky drop-offs, floating docks, or patches of river weeds. He alternates between surface fishing (casting and reeling in along the top of the river) and bottom fishing (allowing the bait to sink before reeling it in). Bass behave differently throughout the year and follow predictable migration patterns. Right now there's not a lot of activity, because it's still a couple of months before the spawning season begins.
Still, by the end of the day, Haerer has caught and released three small bass. A few weeks later, he and Shanmuga fish from the banks of the Eno near Penny's Bend in Durham, downriver from the Hillsborough stretch. They have a bit more luck but say that they are eager for the impending spawning period, when fish are easier to catch. The Duke group also frequents Falls Lake, Jordan Lake, Lake Johnson in Raleigh, and the Shearon Harris Reservoir.
Shanmuga's enthusiasm extends to saltwater fishing as well. His most memorable catch was an eleven-foot, eight-inch hammerhead shark he landed off Singer Island, Florida. "I like being able to set a goal for myself that is different from what other people are doing," he says. "Like catching a twenty-inch bass." This summer, he'll be back at a cancer biology lab at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he's worked every summer since his freshman year of high school. He's particularly interested in cell signaling and transduction. An added bonus to working alongside senior researchers is access to the Huron River, a branch of which flows a stone's throw from the lab. "I fish for smallmouth bass and carp in the morning for two hours and then walk to work," he says.
Haerer and Shanmuga agree that fishing is appealing on many levels: It stirs strategic instincts, underscores an appreciation of nature, and promises the thrill of landing a big one. Teammate Chris Busak, who is spending the first part of his summer at Duke's Marine Lab taking courses in chemistry and physics before heading to Norway to fish and visit family, says fishing helps him escape from the intensity and stress of academics.
"The thing I like the most about it is that it is so relaxing," he says. "It gives me a chance to just be wild and forget about modern society for a little bit."