Fish, Gump, Fish!Apr 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Don Kelly
The fog lifts on Nessmuk Lake as Colegan Stiner sends a topwater frog soaring through the air. Through polarized sunglasses, the sixteen-year-old Wellsboro Area High School sophomore—those who know him best call him Gump—watches as it splats into the weed mats. His rod tip twitches back and forth, walking the frog through floating vegetation. Beneath the surface, a hungry bass lurks, waiting for an easy meal. The frog stops, lying motionless for just a few seconds. Another twitch, and the water erupts as a bucket-mouthed beast breaks the surface, engulfing the lure. Colegan pauses a second, reels in the slack and yanks, setting the hook on a largemouth bass. What looks like a scene straight from the Outdoor Channel is just an average day in the life of this Tioga County local and 2022 Pennsylvania State Champion Bass Angler.
Calm, cool, and collected, Colegan wrestles the bass out of the weeds like he’s done so many times before. His dad, Jan Stiner, quickly grabs the net and scoops up the catch. His son’s humble demeanor magnifies a big smile as he reaches into the net and hoists the bass up for a quick picture before releasing it back to the lake. For Route 287 travelers passing by Nessmuk, seeing Colegan working a shoreline with a frog or dragging a jig on deep offshore rock piles is a common sight. Born with a love of water, Colegan spends every spare minute that he can pursuing fish with his family and friends. When he’s not in school or working at Dunham’s Do-It Center hardware store in Wellsboro, he immerses himself, sometimes literally, in the local fisheries.
Fishing gets him up in the morning, and it’s what he dreams about at night. He’s up at the crack of dawn and on the water until someone says, “Hey, we gotta go.” “Sure thing, just one more cast,” he’ll likely reply. Another hour will pass as that last cast turns into dozens more. A real angler knows they can’t leave the fish when they’re biting. And if they’re not? Well, maybe that next cast might be the one. If not that one, then maybe the next. Some might call it an addiction, but this one clears the mind and is good for the soul.
Colegan loves bass fishing and the waters where he can find those fish. Second to that, he loves trout fishing, and his favorite place to fish for trout is Pine Creek. Particularly the catch and release stretch around the village of Slate Run. No matter the conditions, whether spring or the middle of winter, Colegan loves wading the canyon armed with his trusty centerpin setups. His rods measure more than twice his own height, and curious observers often watch in disbelief as he propels a float through the air with perfect timing and a unique motion. Although a common tactic for steelhead and salmon, float fishing like this on Pine Creek isn’t familiar to most anglers. Just ask, though, and Colegan willingly shares his technique and leader setups. The rigging methods match the water conditions perfectly, and as the line slowly peels off the reel it’s easy to see how fish can’t resist his offering. Watching his float drop time and time again quickly proves to skeptics that it’s a deadly tactic here.
Especially when paired with his hand-tied “Colegan’s Customs” jigs.
Like fly anglers tie their own flies, Colegan lashes feathers to a bead-headed hook, thereby creating his own custom marabou jigs. While other teens play video games, Colegan spends many of his evenings patiently refilling his boxes one jig at a time, prepping for the adventures ahead. Box after box overflows with myriad color combinations in different weights and sizes. Many are crafted for catching Pine Creek’s big browns and rainbows. Others are specifically tied to tempt salmon, steelhead, and lake-run browns on the Great Lakes tributaries. While most stay tucked away in his personal boxes, Colegan is starting to dabble in selling some commercially. Soon, he plans to have small assortments available in local sporting goods stores.
What started as simply some relaxing time out on the water has turned into a full-blown passion for chasing fish and for the intimate details that go into successfully catching them. That’s his favorite part about it, too.
“The result of catching a fish directly depends on the work you put in,” Colegan says. “It’s a reflection of the time you spend. Persistence and determination lead to good results.”
After one of last year’s trout tournaments with his son, Colegan’s father, Jan, reported on his Facebook page that “...he kept me on my toes all day...he caught six fish in the first hour and then the trout stopped biting completely for everyone! Gump flipped a switch and went to work on a half-mile stretch...and started picking off trout behind every big rock on the stream in six inches of shaded water. A guy told me this weekend... ‘in my seventy years, I’ve never seen a man, let alone a fifteen-year-old kid read water like that kid does.’”
Be True to Your School
That persistence and determination was undeniable as he started chasing dreams in the tournament scenes. His smiling face and focused gaze became a staple at local kids’ derbies and trout tournaments across Pennsylvania, where he competed successfully. Then, in the summer of 2021, Colegan dipped his toes into the competitive bass fishing world, getting involved with the PA B.A.S.S. Nation High School and Junior High Fishing Series.
Competitive bass fishing is relatively new to high school sports, particularly in Pennsylvania. Though not the most publicized sport, its popularity continues to expand nationwide. The concept is simple. Two-person teams gather at a given lake and compete to bring the five biggest bass back to the scales in a specified time frame. Anglers must catch their fish using artificial lures, and fish are expected to be released after the event. Teams earn points throughout the season based on their finishes. At the end of the regular season, points leaders move on to regional and national events.
With the help of his parents, Jan and Dinate Stiner, and support of the community, Wellsboro Bassmasters was founded as the first high school competitive fishing team in the region. The team is completely self-funded, and they work hard to collect donations and solicit sponsors. Their locally made fishing jerseys are adorned with the logos and names of their supporters.
Colegan describes his first year as “very tough,” as he and his partner, Mike Haraschak, adjusted to the rigors of competitive fishing and traveling to fish new waters. They learned a lot along the way, and even scored a third place finish and lunker (biggest fish) in one event. Together, the team finished sixth in the standings for the year. Colegan says the biggest lesson he learned was simply “to not overcomplicate and overthink things.” He says he “learned to listen to his gut to make good decisions on the spot.”
At the end of the season, Mike graduated from high school, leaving Colegan in search of a new teammate. As luck would have it, his dad, also the team’s boat captain, attended a gun auction, and, while chatting with some people there about float fishing on Pine Creek, he met the Kapp family. Connor Kapp, seventeen, from Benton, also fished tournaments, and he too needed a partner. From that day forward their friendship grew, and by the start of the 2022 season the two were prepared for a new year of competition.
The season began on Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. It’s a reservoir, originally built as a hydroelectric project and finished in 1973 by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is one of the largest lakes in Pennsylvania. With over 8,000 acres of water, it was certain to be a challenging event and much different from the local lakes and ponds Colegan usually fished. As their strategy, Colegan and Connor found it best to stay on the move, covering water and getting in front of as many fish as possible. Moving baits like crankbaits or chatterbaits, and even some topwaters, proved most effective as bass roamed around chasing baitfish. Whenever they saw a laydown, or fallen tree, they would pitch a jig around, capturing a few extra bites. By the end of the day, the duo amassed a five-bass limit with enough weight to take home a second place finish, giving them the confidence they needed to compete on any body of water.
Coming off a great start to the season, the second event brought the Wellsboro Bassmasters closer to home with a tournament on Cowanesque Lake, also a man-made body of water. The hometown favorites had a rough start to the day, breaking their trolling motor shaft on an underwater structure, and making navigation much more difficult. They mustered through, and relied heavily on electronics to find bass holding on deep, submerged brush piles and structure. Pitching weightless worms and allowing them to slowly fall to the bass proved to be key, as all the best fish came off deep structure. Despite their unfortunate motor issues, Colegan and Connor ground out another five-bass limit. The big brims of their sun shade hats couldn’t conceal the pair’s joyous faces and giant grins as their fish hit the scales. Weighing in at almost fifteen pounds, the two took home their first win of the season and kept the good momentum going.
Hide and Sink
The final event of the regular season took team Stiner and Kapp to Bald Eagle State Park and Foster Sayers Lake. Throughout the prior weeks, the duo prefished, finding a pattern that they felt could bring them another win. The fish had other plans, though, and on tournament day all the bass seemed to disappear. Everything they had figured out was thrown out the window. The two kept their heads down and their eyes on the water, picking apart every square inch they could in order to scrape together some bites. They tried new areas and relied on jigs (weighted lures), Ned rigs (named for outdoor writer Ned Kehde—a technique using small plastic critters that will float easily off the bottom), and wacky rigs (a plastic worm hooked in the middle that wiggles attractively from both ends). The bites didn’t come easy and, as Colegan says, “keeping it simple” was key. By the end of the day, the duo had scraped together another limit of five bass. This time it was only good enough for sixth place, but, more importantly, it gave them enough points to solidify their spot at the PA B.A.S.S. Nation State Championship.
Throughout the season, Colegan and Connor fished a few other events on free weekends too, including the Major League Fishing High School Open on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. There, they scored a third place finish by skipping docks (fishing under a dock, where the big bass sometimes hide) with wacky rigs and throwing topwaters (using a floating lure) to bass that were busting schools of baitfish on the surface. Similarly, they fished the Bass Federation U.S. Open and caught largemouth skipping docks. Offshore, they found a solid smallie bite on the deeper shoals using crankbaits, jigs, and tubes.
Looking back on all the events, Colegan notes that each one was different, but that working together as a team was crucial. Some days he was better at catching bass. Other days, it was Connor who landed the most fish. Staying focused and making good decisions in tandem helped a solid plan come together as they prefished and worked toward the state championship. By the end of October, the two were ready to compete again on Raystown Lake. Unlike the other tournaments, the championship was a two-day competition.
The Biggest Catch
Come tournament time, fall weather had set in and water temperatures had dropped. Patterns that worked early in the year weren’t holding up—instead they found bass suspended in deeper water. Much like the Cowanesque event, their electronics proved to be key as they targeted submerged trees and suspended bass. Using live sonar, the team worked a three-quarter-ounce tail spinner through the schools, getting the key bites on gizzard shad colors. Bait fish patterns were crucial, and, through two days of competition, they managed enough weight to take home their second victory of the season. In that moment, the Wellsboro Bassmasters became the 2022 PA B.A.S.S. Nation High School Champions. The win earned them their place at the national championship in 2023, too.
Later this summer, Colegan and Connor head south to compete on the big stage. The national championship is the Superbowl of high school bass fishing. Teams comprised of the best high school anglers from across the nation will be there, each vying to bring home the win for their state. Scouts from prominent universities will likely be watching closely, looking to recruit talent for their college fishing teams. Last year’s competition was at Lake Hartwell in Anderson, South Carolina. The details, including location, for the 2023 fish-off are yet to be determined, but wherever and whenever it is, the Wellsboro Bassmasters will be ready. Behind them, their friends, families, and sponsors will be cheering them on.
For others interested in competitive bass fishing, Colegan offers a little advice. “Don’t be scared. Just jump right into it. You have to think about it as it’s just you going fishing, and not a competition. Make quick and smart decisions under pressure. Trust your gut.” Wise words from a young man. Words he continues to live by as he looks ahead.
The next few years Colegan will continue to compete in the high school circuit. After graduating, he hopes to compete with a college bass fishing team. Auburn University, in Alabama, remains at the top of his list, however he wouldn’t necessarily turn down an opportunity at another school. After college, he aspires to compete at the professional level and start his own his guide service. Colegan loves teaching new people how to fish and plans to guide clients on Pine Creek, local lakes, and possibly the Finger Lakes, too, with his newest venture, Gump’s Guided Adventures (see Explore Wellsboro Spring/Summer 2023 edition for the story). Whether its float fishing for trout or flipping jigs for largemouth, he wants to ignite a passion for fishing in others.
He’s a talented kid with big dreams and humble beginnings here in Tioga County. Like the flowing waters of his favorite streams, Colegan’s future is clear. He’s going to fish. Wish him luck as the Wellsboro Bassmasters embark on a new season and chase a national title.