As scores of enthusiastic young anglers made the trek this weekend to La Cygne Reservoir — located about halfway between Kansas City to the north and Fort Scott to the south — one man’s journey to the lake was bittersweet.

Richard Heflin, 48, of Topeka, has been coordinating the youth and high school fishing tournaments for Kansas BASS Nation for the past five years, staying on long after his son, Jesse, graduated high school and left the program’s ranks following the 2014-15 season. But after this weekend, he’ll be walking away from the youth director role, allowing "new blood" to take over and continue improving the fast-growing program. Travis Burch, the uncontested nominee for the volunteer position, looks set to provide that new blood following the KBN officer elections in November. 

During Heflin's five years in the role, he has had a positive influence on a multitude of young anglers all across the state of Kansas.

“My dad has so much passion towards the outdoors and getting youth into respecting and appreciating time with family,” said Jesse Heflin, a Seaman graduate who won the state championship his senior year to advance to the Bassmaster High School National Championship on Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tenn. “He has spent his free time for many years teaching and fostering the youth of Kansas in many ways. Not only was he my coach and mentor, but I feel like he also was a father figure to many of the young fishermen in Kansas.

“Having him on stage with me meant a lot to me, but it means more to me that he kept with it and got the state of Kansas to that level of organized fishing that we've never had before.”

The move has been a long time coming for the elder Heflin. Following his second straight unopposed election two years ago, he told the club that he would step away from the program this year, clearing the way for new leadership in the youth and high school divisions after years of meteoric growth. However, he plans to remain involved with the program in his free time, and has plans to organize a fishing summer camp and other educational activities for the youth anglers to help the program continue to grow in popularity.

 

And grow it has

In the season-opening tournament Sept. 7 at Melvern Reservoir, Heflin said the high school division saw a record-setting field with 45 teams, as did the youth tournament the following day with 24. For comparison’s sake, the 2017-18 high school opener on Perry fielded just 11 teams, and the 2018 high school opener on Hillsdale fielded 35.

"When I go to the national youth director meeting every year, they always give us numbers," Heflin said. "Kansas has grown 400 percent year-over-year, so that's probably one of my proudest accomplishments."

But not only is the program drawing in big numbers of teams, it also is developing them into highly skilled anglers who are among the nation's best.

“Richard has been a big part of my high school bass fishing career,” said Shawnee Heights angler Parker Still, who fished mainly for crappie in the Kansas Crappie Club with his dad before joining the high school circuit in 2017-18. “I went to him a few years ago when I didn’t know nothing about the club and how to get into high school fishing and he helped me every step of the way. Any time I had a question or needed to ask him anything, he always helped me out. The tournaments he puts on were always very well run, everything went smoothly and we always had a good time.

“Richard always made things fair for everybody and there was never any confusion at any tournaments."

Now, Still is among the state’s best, earning an honorable mention nod on the 2019 Bassmaster High School All-State Fishing Team in March.

Still added that he wanted to tell him, “Thanks for everything, Richard, and I wish you the best!”

 

College clubs

Heflin has also overseen the introduction of the KBN’s College State Championship, which began in April 2018 on Milford Reservoir. The winner of the college state title is then eligible to compete on the national stage via the Bassmaster College Fishing National Championship.

During his tenure, Heflin also was able to see a major national college event come into the state in August 2018, when the 2018 Bassmaster College Series Classic Bracket was held on Milford. The invitation-only event offered the top four teams from the Bassmaster College National Championship a chance at a spot in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic.

Heflin said he'd like to see the college side continue to grow and have more programs from a wider range of Kansas schools. Currently, he said, the only two schools with programs in Kansas are Kansas State and Washburn, with a third program in the works at the University of Kansas. Colleges ranging from JUCO to the Division I level are eligible to compete in the state championship.

While the state doesn't yet offer a wide variety of college teams, Heflin has played a major role in helping many Kansas anglers chase their dreams of fishing competitively in college and maybe even beyond, including Washburn angler Thomas Heinen (Hayden), UL-Monroe angler Connor Nimrod (De Soto), Drury’s Brock Bila (Louisburg) and Hunter Baird (Salina) and K-State’s Zach Vielhauer (Shawnee Mission Northwest), to name a few.

“The program has grown a lot since Richard took over and I hope that it keeps growing,” Vielhauer said. “The youth and high school programs are great stepping stones for the college programs like K-State’s.”

For Heinen, a fellow Topekan, Heflin has been a familiar face over the years and a great mentor.

“When I first met Richard, I was probably 7 or 8 years old, when I joined the Topeka Jr. Bass Hawgs,” Heinen said. “Richard has taught me many tips when it comes to bass fishing. He helped me learn how to tie knots, how to cast and how to jig fish. Richard was a big part of making me the fisherman I am today.”

Heflin said perhaps his proudest moment from his time as youth director was seeing so many of his former youth and high school competitors come back to help the younger anglers with their tournaments as boat captains and by helping with the weigh-in, including Heinen, Vielhauer and Josh Flynn, another K-State team member and a graduate of Blue Valley Northwest.

“You know, we all see the stage set up for these fishermen, ready to weigh in their fish, but nobody sees the work that gets put in behind it,” Heinen said. “After joining Richard to help at the weigh-ins, I realized how much work goes unnoticed and I respect Richard for that. It’s not just setting up the stage, it’s paper work, checking licenses, answering countless questions, etc.

“He also helped at the College Series, which I thought was pretty cool. I have had Richard as my tournament director since I pretty much started fishing. It’s going to be a little different not seeing Richard at weigh-ins, but he has contributed a lot. I think the man taking it over, Travis Burch, will continue to do great. I have spoken with Travis a few times now and plan to continue to help out at weigh-ins.”

 

Looking ahead

As he reflected on his five years with the program, Heflin also looked to the future of the KBN with optimism. When asked about what he saw in the next five years, he perhaps even surprised himself a little with what he foresaw.

"You know, I would like to see the program break the barrier I set five years, and we're really close," Heflin said. "... Five years ago, I said the maximum number of high school teams fishing an event in Kansas would be 50, because of the limitations we have. Kansas is not known for having a lot of bass fishermen. A lot of the adult tournaments never draw more than between 30 and 60.

"So I said five years ago that glass ceiling was kind of 50 boats. I would like to see in five years us to be up around 75. ... If we can be at 75 teams and 25 or 30 schools actually having programs, I would be ecstatic."

At its current rate of growth, the program might make that mark by the next tournament this spring.