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IMG looking to lure students
By RODNEY PAGE, Times Staff Writer
Published July 3, 2007
Noah Bressman, 13, gets instructions from Captain Blair Wiggins while fishing for bass in a practice pond at the Professional Fishing Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton.
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Seth Walter (left), 7, and Noah Bressman fish for bass in a practice pond at the Professional Fishing Academy featuring Captain Blair Wiggins at the IMG Academies.
BRADENTON -- Blair Wiggins is a small fish in a big pond. As the newest instructor in International Management Group's ever growing pool of sports academies, Wiggins is hoping to lure students to his professional fishing school.
So far there have been a few bites. Classes are slowly starting to form with between four and six students. Still, the academy is just a minnow in the vast sea of the IMG academy.
IMG's 300-acre campus has more than 12, 000 athletes hoping to make big bucks in their chosen sport. It started as a tennis academy run by Nick Bollettieri in 1978. Since then it was sold to IMG in 1987 and has grown to include golf, soccer, baseball, basketball, and now, fishing.
Students take classes in the morning, then lug their golf clubs, tennis rackets, soccer balls or bat bags to their specific areas on campus.
"Our goal is to have a bunch of kids walking through here carrying fishing poles, " Wiggins said.
For now, Wiggins has a modest classroom in a trailer near rows of tennis courts and PODS storage units. He has access to three ponds spread throughout the campus, as well as two flats boats for use on Sarasota Bay and the surrounding flats. He expects to get two more boats to use on the ponds.
Three-day and five-day classes are offered every week. The cost can range from $1, 550 for a five-day class with boarding, to $850 for a three-day adult class without boarding.
Word is slowly trickling out about the academy. Not all week-long classes are full, but Wiggins and assistant Sean Flynn hope participation will pick up as summer wears on. There were four students in the five-day class last week. Flynn expects at least as many once classes resume next week.
Year-round classes are also available for the fishing academy, as they are with the other sports IMG offers. Currently, there are no takers for the year-round class, although Flynn said there have been some inquiries. It would cost $41, 100 annually to stay on campus, go to school, and spend the rest of the day fishing. It would cost $31, 100 without boarding.
"Eventually, yes, we'd like to have students here on a year-round basis, " IMG director of business development Chris Ciaccio said. "But for now we're offering weekly programs. It always starts slowly until it builds momentum and word gets around. There are still slots open, but that's expected in the first year. We want to be the leader in training and education and make people better fishermen."
Why start a fishing academy? Ciaccio believes with the recent boom in fishing, which he claims has more participants than tennis and golf combined, and tournament money, IMG needed to start an academy before somebody else did.
"Turn on the TV and you'll see saltwater and freshwater fishing shows on ESPN or ESPN2 or Fox all the time, " Ciaccio said. "It's gone from a recreational level to a serious sport. It gets worldwide exposure. It's expanding at a rapid rate, and we felt this was something we needed to explore."
One of the first tasks in starting the academy was finding a competent instructor. Last year, during the trial run of the academy, Darrin Isaacs was brought on as an instructor. Isaacs mostly fishes the blue waters around Key West, and wasn't as familiar with the flats around Sarasota.
Norm Isaacs, Darrin's father, is still available to teach classes on deep water fishing through the IMG program for anyone willing to go to the Keys.
This year, IMG hired Wiggins, 42, a Cocoa Beach native and accomplished flats fisherman who has won several redfish and kingfish tournaments. Ciaccio would not reveal how much it took to lure Wiggins into the classroom, but it was substantial enough to take him away from the tournament trail.
"I was on the road for about 300 days in a year, " said Wiggins, who recently won the 2006 FLW Redfish series, which came with a $100, 000 payout. "This opportunity was best for my family."
Wiggins' days are now filled with teaching wannabe fishermen how to tie knots, pick lures, rig equipment, cast nets, maneuver boats, read tide charts and fight fish.
"You can go out with a guide, and they bait the hook for you, cast for you, catch the fish and then let you reel it in, " Wiggins said. "What have you learned by doing that? We're going to teach you every aspect of fishing so that when you leave here you're prepared to catch fish."
Every aspect includes use of the training and performance institute and mental conditioning facility.
"When you're out on the water, it's not like you see on TV, " said Wiggins, who is also host of Addictive Fishing on Fox Sports Net. "We're not always catching fish. There's a lot of down time when you're out there for seven or eight hours. You have to be mentally tough."
Cameron Gorski is a tanned, 12-year-old native of Sarasota. His first memory of fishing is when he was about 5. He remembers a big fish biting his hook and dragging his SpongeBob SquarePants fishing pole out of his hands and into the ocean.
He has been fishing ever since. When he grows up, he wants to be a professional just like Wiggins. In fact, his favorite TV show is Addictive Fishing. Now he gets to learn from Wiggins.
"It's awesome, " Gorski said before heading out to catch some fish. "You get to learn a lot of different techniques on how to catch fish. The thing I like the most is how to tie knots so I don't lose fish. And I've learned how to throw a cast net."
When a participant finishes the week-long course he should be versed in all aspects of inshore fishing. Some may move on to professional tournaments. Some may eventually pursue a captain's license and become charter fishermen. And others might just become better recreational fishermen.
Some believe a fishing academy might be a little overboard. The only way to really learn how to fish is to spend hours and hours on the water, not in a classroom.
"I wish they had that when I was first starting, " said local guide and tournament fisherman Steve Papen. "I think it's a good idea. The only question I have is how you teach people to fish in tournaments? I'm not a master angler by any means, but I fish on a regular basis. I know the waters and I try a lot of different things. I don't know how you teach that in a classroom."
Wiggins admits it's hard to cram all the information needed into just three or five days. But he does believe it's enough time to improve anybody's fishing skills.
"In one week you're not going to learn everything that I have in 35 years of fishing, " Wiggins said. "There's just so much information. But we can make you a better fishermen. We want to help the novice fisherman or someone who wants to become a full time fisherman."