Saturday, March 2, 2024

Young angler reels in big catches

Hank Riley’s love for fishing extends beyond his backyard in Argyle and has netted him a pretty impressive resume.

Just a seventh-grader at Liberty Christian School, he’s been fishing and learning the ropes from some of the top instructors and professional anglers in the world since he was 5 years old. He’s competed in over 40 junior tournaments in three years and has several record-setting performances, including his best of an 8.75-pound bass.

Hank, 13, has held his own on some of the toughest bass fishing lakes in the country. In fact, he set a new junior lake record on Lake Granbury in his first-ever tournament three years ago. He’s only gotten better since then, and in January, he was named the Lone Star Jr. Bassmasters’ 2022 Angler of the Year for his age group.

But ask him what’s next in his young career, and he may say learning how to throw a line safely into his parent’s swimming pool.

“I was working on my casting one day and didn’t realize where it went until I saw that the pool vacuum sucked it up,” he said. Hank uses his parent’s pool for practice when he’s not on a lake somewhere. “That turned into a five-minute deal. Luckily, I got it out. I’ll always try my best to throw it away from the vacuum from now on.”

Recently, he brokered a deal — his parents helped him, of course — with Liberty officials to add a fishing team to the school’s lengthy list of extracurriculars.

Hank also has his sights set on one day attending Auburn or Clemson. Both universities are widely considered the top collegiate angler programs in the country.

He’d like to get a degree in sports medicine while he’s there, but that’s only as a backup for his future career as a professional bass fisherman on the Major League Fishing (MLF) circuit. In his mind, there’s no other option.

“I’m going to make a career out of [fishing],” he said confidently.

His parents certainly wouldn’t put it past him, either. He’s so bought in that he sends his own emails asking for corporate sponsorships.

“It’s super fun to watch,” his mother, Billie, said. Hank is currently part of the Lone Star Jr. Bassmasters youth fishing club and is sponsored by Dobyns Fishing Rods and Tri Lakes Tackle Town. “He has such great patience, especially for his age. Not many boys want to sit on a boat for eight hours, and it’s not something you wake up one day being good at. It’s hard work. They get up and leave for a tournament by 3 a.m.; they’re on the lake by 5 and weigh in at 3 p.m. So it’s a long day, but he loves the anticipation of it.”

His father, TJ, added, “He’s worked hard and listens carefully. He loves it. He constantly thinks about fishing and watches all the videos. I’ve even challenged him to teach me how to fish. I think that joy will carry him to the point where he’ll never get burned out by it.”

Hank’s story of determination, patience, and passion is impressive when you consider that he accomplished all of those feats while overcoming a rare brain tumor. He was only in the second grade when his parents raised concerns with his pediatrician over the fact that their son wasn’t growing. On the one hand, he was the spitting image of little Ray Boyd from the 1996 movie “Jerry Maguire.” He even had blonde spiked hair. But on the other hand, he was significantly shorter than his classmates, and no one knew why.

A subsequent brain scan revealed a tumor on his pituitary gland. Known as the master gland, the pituitary gland monitors and regulates many bodily functions through the hormones that it produces, including growth.

Though the tumor was noncancerous, Hank needed surgery to avoid future complications.

“He initially passed all the growth tests, and the doctors just thought he was a late bloomer and needed to take growth hormones,” Billie said. “But I wanted to know why; I kept thinking something else was wrong and wanted to do a brain scan. That’s when they found it. We went to St. Jude for the surgery, and the plan was to partially remove the tumor and do radiation, but by the grace of God, the surgeon said the entire tumor just ‘fell away’ as soon as he touched it.”

She added, “He’d never seen anything like it, and Hank couldn’t be doing any better now. Fishing has been his way to stay active.”

Hank agreed. He’s been tumor free for five years and said the prayers and support he and his parents received from friends and family during that time in his life were overwhelming. With that said, he refuses to let that health scare define him.

That’s fishing’s job. And when you’re busy looking forward to the future, you have no time to worry about the past.

“Fishing has always fascinated me — nature and being outside in the wilderness,” he said. “My timeline is that I want to fish all three seasons as an eighth-grader and all 12 seasons in high school. From there, I’m going to fish in college at Auburn or Clemson and then fish in the MLF tour and other invitations. It’s going to be a year-round thing for me. I could spend hours upon hours fishing.”

That includes in his parent’s pool — provided that he doesn’t break the vacuum.

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