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MTC - 'It's why I made the trip'

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Get 120 boats together for a day of fishing and you’re going to hear stories.

It is, after all, why most — if not all — of these anglers were here.

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Stories of perseverance and triumph have that effect.

Yes, after Saturday’s fourth annual Minnesota Fishing Challenge on Gull Lake, there was probably the occasional fish story about the big one that got away. Or, in the case of 9-year-old Zac Anderson, the one that didn’t. But that’s not why friends and family and spectators packed the big tent Saturday afternoon on the beach at Cragun’s Resort. They were there to hear the success stories — stories of how those at Minnesota Teen Challenge (MTC) have fought back from the lowest depths to find their way.

Those stories and the success story that is Minnesota Teen Challenge brought Jeff Kolodzinski all the way from Atlanta. Sure, for three straight years now, Kolodzinski, brand manager for the Humminbird fishing electronics company, has teamed with one of his childhood heroes — Ron Lindner — to fish the event. But the trip has always been about MTC.

“As fun as it is to fish with Ron, the guys from Teen Challenge are why it’s worth the whole trip,” he said. “That’s why it’s worth it to come. You see the changes that go on in their lives. The program is undeniable and the changes are undeniable. It’s why I made the trip.”

The mission of MTC, which has a campus in Brainerd, is to assist teens and adults in gaining freedom from chemical addictions and other life-controlling problems by addressing their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Like the program, the Minnesota Fishing Challenge has produced amazing results in just four years. Last year, the event drew 83 boats and raised a record $125,000 for MTC. This year, MTC had to get a special permit from the DNR, allowing for more than 100 boats for such an event. And Jim Kalkofen, director of the event, estimates that this year’s Challenge will bring in about $190,000.

Contestants are required to do the fund-raising on their own — it’s part of the uniqueness of the event — and Kalkofen said Zac Anderson raised about $8,000 by going door-to-door for donations and even selling some of his grandfather’s old fishing tackle online. Zac also landed a 27-inch walleye as he and his father, Sam, finished fourth in the multi-species division.

This was, after all, a tournament, complete with high-end prizes donated by a host of companies in the fishing industry. But let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of scoreboard watching for this one.

“The special thing for me, the reason why we all come, is the guys at Teen Challenge,” said Kolodzinski, who along with Lindner finished second in the multi-species division. “It’s so incredible to see their lives change.

“I’ll visit and see the guys, and I like nothing more than when I come on a visit and half the guys aren’t there,” he added of the Challenge “graduates.” I know they’re in a better place. I know how the program works. The work that the staff does here (on the Brainerd campus of MTC) is incredible.”

Larry and Todd Bollig won the multi-species division at 16.24 pounds and event host Al Lindner and Bob Bakilla won the walleye division at 11.95 pounds — with just two fish. Other division winners were Mike Guin and Dan Robertson, pike, 8.24 pounds; Scott Wielenberg and Gary Rehbein, bass, 11.25; and Jeff Ekstrand and Steve Walstad, panfish, 4.32 pounds.

Yes, on the water, a field that included the Lindners, Gary Roach (Mr. Walleye) and Dan “Walleyedan” Eigen was mostly business.

“It just shows their competitive nature,” Kalkofen said. “They want to beat their buddies and do well, but they really want to do well for Minnesota Teen Challenge. And the reason for the popularity increase (of the event) is a love for Gull Lake, and Al (Lindner) as the host and Steve Pennaz as the honorary host. When you bring names like that it means something. And the industry was so kind with merchandise prizes. Add it all together and ... we had an alternates list to work with this year.”

Kolodzinski said he and Ron Lindner didn’t necessarily have a game plan Saturday.

“Bass was our fish of choice, but the hard part about that (doing well in multi-species) is getting a good walleye,” said Kolodzinski, who lived in Lakeville for three years before moving to Atlanta. “We got the walleye fairly early — around 8:30 or 9 (a.m.). The last tail hook of an X-Rap got the walleye, and when we got it in the net, it spit it out. That (the walleye) was the catalyst. If we hadn’t gotten that we wouldn’t have done it (multi-species).”

Kolodzinski said the team fished mostly around popular Squaw Point, on the south side of Gull.

“No fish were really deep. The shiners are so thick along shore now and the weed growth is coming up. There was no action beyond 14 or 15 feet. We fished somewhere around 12 feet, which is where we stayed all day. Nothing produced like the weed tops.”

Then, as the MTC “students” gathered at the weigh-in stage for their annual choral performance, to be followed by those stories of perseverance and triumph, Kolodzinski quickly changed the subject to THE subject on this day.

“That these guys have enough courage to come up there and sing — I know not all of these guys are singers,” he said. “But when you come out of where you were to where you need to go, you need to go through some fears and uncomfortable things. It’s a great uncomfortable thing to watch them do it, but they do it with bravery and honor.”

BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at brian.peterson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.

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