Minneapolis Star Tribune: Bemidji State anglers hit big lake for Bassmaster national championship

Several weeks ago, Mitch Swanson was in his boat, readying equipment for a fishing trip. The task complete, he jumped out, landed in a puddle and lost his balance. Falling, he tried to brace himself against the ground with his left hand but wound up breaking it instead.

A busted hand isn’t ideal. That’s doubly the case when it happens on the eve of the biggest fishing tournament of your life. Worried, Mr. Swanson?

“I’m left-handed in everything except fishing,” said Swanson, deftly shutting down the line of questioning.

Mitch Swanson, 24, and his brother, Thor, 21 — both from Blaine and entering their senior year in the fall — are two of four members of the Bemidji State University fishing team who are competing in the Carhartt Bassmaster College National Championship that began Thursday on Lake Bemidji and concludes Saturday. Luke Gillund, 20, of Ham Lake, and Robby Troje, 20, of Hastings, form the other Bemidji State team. Gillund and Troje will be juniors. The championship includes 90 teams from 59 universities across the nation.

BSU is the lone Minnesota school represented, though other schools — including the universities of Minnesota (Twin Cities), Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Winona State — also have fishing teams.

Thor Swanson, the BSU team president, said he is looking forward to competing against the best of the best. (How good are college bass anglers? This year’s champion of the Bassmaster Classic — the Super Bowl of the sport — is Jordan Lee, 26, who came up through the college fishing ranks before turning pro.)

“I’ve heard the comment before — ‘Oh, it’s just college fishing.’ But people don’t say that about college hockey,” said the younger Swanson. “It’s the same category, but people don’t really associate fishing with being a college sport.”

Both Swansons have aspirations of continuing their fishing careers when their college days end. It’s a dream they’ve cultivated since they were young, fishing from a 14-foot aluminum boat at their grandparents’ cabin. Later on, they pooled their money and bought a boat, enabling them to compete in tournaments and hone their skills.

Mitch Swanson graduated from Blaine High School in 2011 and spent a semester at BSU before moving back home. A couple of years later, he met a member of the BSU fishing team, and it wasn’t long before he decided to give school another shot. His brother also made the decision to attend due in large part to the fishing team.

“The biggest thing the fishing team did is encouraged me to go back to school,” he said. “If Bemidji wouldn’t have had a fishing team, I don’t think I would have gone back to school. I would have started to look for a job and stuck around [Blaine].”

Bemidji State’s fishing team has been growing in recent years, and Thor Swanson believes as many as 60 young anglers will be part of it this fall. Some members are hard-core bass tournament fishermen, while others prefer to catch walleyes. Still others simply enjoy catching whatever’s biting and hanging around with like-minded peers.

“College fishing is way more popular down South, but our team gets bigger every year,” Thor Swanson said. “It’s fun to see it growing.”

None of the BSU anglers has fished a tournament on the 6,600-acre Lake Bemidji, but all of them expect the college anglers participating in the event to be pleasantly surprised.

“There’s a lot of (bass) in there, and some big ones as well,” Mitch Swanson said. “But if you can catch a 5-pounder [as part of a five-fish daily limit], that’s going to put you over the top.”

Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert@startribune.com.

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