The Gull Chain of Lakes was the place to be for competitive anglers this weekend.
Not only did it play host to the 11th Annual Fleet Farm Minnesota Fishing Challenge Saturday, June 1, it also served as the first location on the tournament schedule for the Student Angler Tournament Trail. The fledgling nonprofit organization is on a mission to support a growing field of young anglers from across the state with a more robust competition schedule.
"It was great. We partnered with the Minnesota Fishing Challenge and we kind of ran a combined event, which was neat because there were really two different tournaments at the same time," said Kolt Ringer, president of Student Angler Tournament Trail. "It was a great way to kind of kick it off at the beginning of the season."
Two hundred student anglers participated in Saturday's catch-and-release bass tournament with the assistance of 100 boat captains. Participants weighed in nearly 1,000 fish totaling 1,737 pounds, or an average of 1.75 pounds per fish.
Registration for the Gull Lake event filled within 30 minutes. Ringer said this is indicative of a sport growing rapidly in popularity among young people.
Ringer attributed the sport's growth to word of mouth-the students are talking to their friends about how much fun they're having out on the water fishing for bass, he said. An estimated 5,000 students belong to one of nearly 150 teams throughout the state.
"There's a competitive nature to bass fishing," Ringer said. "They bite, there's a lot of action, they're a fun fish to catch. ... It's an exciting event when you wake up and go fish competitively."
Another draw for kids is the way their catch is measured, he said. Using an app, students input the weight of their fish and then release it. They're then able to see in real time how other teams are doing, ramping up the competitive spirit as the day progresses.
The idea to start Student Angler Tournament Trail came from Jason Bahr, coach of the Brainerd Warriors Fishing Team, one of the largest teams in the state. The two main bass fishing organizations in the U.S.-FLW and BASS-put together one or two tournaments for student anglers in Minnesota. But Ringer said their focus seemed to be primarily in southern states, where a student angler circuit has long been established.
Bahr organized the Brainerd Warrior Fishing Trail as a way to offer more tournaments, and the positive feedback pushed leaders to bring it to the next level.
"As word spread and teams started growing we kind of as a group ... sat at a meeting down at Rapala headquarters and said, 'We need five or six tournaments in Minnesota,'" Ringer said. Rapala, which bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of lures and other fishing supplies, became one of the sponsors of the organization, along with Lund Boats.
Ringer said beyond exposing kids to the outdoors and fostering a passion for fishing, the growing student angler scene in Minnesota offers a respite for those who may not feel like they fit in on athletics teams.
"It's another opportunity for kids outside of traditional sports at a high school level to have a group of people they can relate to," Ringer said. "Not everybody is a golfer, a baseball player, a hockey player or a wrestler. There's only 16 spots on some of those teams, where a lot of the fishing teams there's no limit to the amount of kids that can be on the team, as long as there's enough boats and volunteers."
On top of these benefits, the Student Angler Tournament Trail offers students scholarships for their efforts. Last year, the nonprofit awarded more than $10,000 in college scholarships.
Challenges ahead for the organization include offering enough registration spots to accommodate all the kids who'd like to participate, with the eventual goal for fishing to be recognized by the Minnesota State High School League as an official school sport.
Student Angler Tournament Trail results and schedule
Gull Lake results
The top three teams won $1,000 college scholarships donated by Sea Foam. Additional prizes went to the top five teams, including Aqua-Vu cameras and $100 in Fleet Farm gift cards.
• First place: Koenig/Keranen of Grand Rapids-23 pounds, 4 ounces.
• Second place: Wendt/Semmler of Pequot Lakes-23 pounds, 1 ounce.
• Third place: Brecht/Adair of Rogers-21 pounds, 10 ounces.
• Fourth place: Nehring/Hockert of Wayzata-21 pounds, 4 ounces.
• Fifth place: Doucette/Martin of Becker-21 pounds, 2 ounces.
Remaining tournament schedule
• Lake Minnetonka-June 16.
• Leech Lake-June 30.
• Mille Lacs Lake-July 14.
• Lake Le Homme Dieu-July 28.
• Mississippi River, Pool 4-Aug. 11.
• Lake Vermilion, Tournament of Champions-Aug. 25-26.
• Pokegama Lake, State Team Championship-Sept. 14-15.
Minnesota Fishing Challenge teams raise more than $341,000
Meanwhile, the other set of competitors on the water raised a significant amount of money to support Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program with a Brainerd location.
Anglers raised more than $341,000, raising the cumulative total generated by the tournament since 2009 to more than $2.2 million.
Stu Nelson and Rich Brummer of Cloquet set a record this year with the most ever raised by a team. They are passionate about restoring lives of those addicted to drugs and alcohol, a news release stated, and they brought in more than $151,000. Eleven of the teams raised at least $5,000.
The event was composed of 150 two-person teams and nearly every team caught a fish, according to organizers.
"We consider this tournament to be friendly competition, with the emphasis on friendly," stated tournament director Bernie Barringer in the release. "From professional anglers and fishing celebrities to youth and seniors, those fishing this event are focused on fun and raising important funds for an amazing cause: saving the lives of people trapped in chemical addiction. We are seeing amazing things happen and restoring broken families."
The Navillus Land Co. Walleye Division produced some big walleyes this year, including many over 6 pounds. Taking honors and the first place trophy were Al Lindner and Jim Kalkofen with 14.17 pounds for three fish. The McDonald's Big Walleye Award went to Reid and Melanie McGraw for their 7.06-pound walleye.
The Pinnacle Private Wealth Panfish Division was tough this year, the release stated, as the crappies were hard to find due to the late spring's cooler water. Father and son Dave and Daniel Buxengard of Grand Rapids won with 5.08 pounds.
A good bass bite saw many limits but father and daughter Todd and Anna Greatens of Breezy Point won the Lindner Media Bass Division with 11.77 pounds. The Worldwide Marine Insurance Big Bass Award when to Isaac Johnson and Austin Mau for a bigmouth weighing 4.38 pounds. For a prize, winners of these two awards were allowed to choose the fishing rod of their choice out of Lindner's boat.
The Nor-Son Pike Division winners, Matt and Josh Daiker of Big Lake, brought an 8.04-pound trophy to the scales for the category allowing one fish. Several pike over 6 pounds were caught and more than 95% of the fish caught were released back into the lake.
The challenging Sportech Mixed Bag Division consists of one pike, one walleye, one bass and one panfish. Only three teams managed to get all four species. Russ Pogatchnik and Nick Grbich brought in one of each for a total of 12.61 pounds.
The Beaudry Oil and Propane "Ugliest Fish" Category went to young brothers Jediah and Jaret Soxman, who brought in a homely dogfish. They each kissed the fish on the stage to the delight of the crowd of 700 onlookers, the release stated.
Prizes valued at $100,000 included Canadian fishing trips and guided fishing trips, rods, reels, electronics, trolling motors, tackle and gear. Each team that raised at least $500 was entered into a drawing for a new Lund boat powered by Mercury and outfitted with Humminbird and Minn Kota electronics. The $20,000 rig was won by Nelson and Brummer of Cloquet.
The 12th annual fundraising tournament event will be June 4, 2020.