BIGFORK, Mont. – The brothers Benson were out fishing in Big Arm Bay with their father in the 1960s when Leo steered the little wooden craft around an island, and was met by a stiff wind and a big rogue wave.
What happened from there depends on who’s telling the story.
But since the boys were 11, 10 and 9 years old, we’ll accept the elder’s version.
Leo, now 86, says he was knocked off balance by a rogue wave but went in on purpose, before his weight capsized the little boat and his three boys with it.
On the way in, he turned the tiller so he wouldn’t be left treading water and watching his young sons motor off across Flathead Lake by themselves.
“The captain had to abandon ship,” he said. “I had to kick myself loose or we’d have all gone upside down.”
The boat circled around Leo as he yelled instructions to the boys. Steven finally pulled a knob on the outboard that happened to be the choke and killed the motor.
This was just one of many learning experiences Leo Benson used to teach his sons the finer points of hunting and fishing.
The brothers Benson make up 2.2 percent of the nearly 1,100 anglers registered for Spring Mack Days on Flathead Lake, yet last week, the three men accounted for 9 percent of the 24,337 lake trout caught in the tournament.
Steven Benson of Columbia Falls, having recently left Spokane and Fairchild Air Force Base, was in second place with 899 fish, trailing leader Stephen Naethe of Pablo, Mont., with 1,031.
Mike Benson of Lonepine, Mont., was in third with 737.
Jerry Benson of Plains, Mont., was in sixth place at 553.
“When this thing started, we talked about how it would be fun if we could all finish in the top 10,” says Mike, a past Mack Days champion. Every angler in the top 20 “has it dialed up on how to catch lake trout,” Mike says. “Once you get to the top 20, there’s a certain luck aspect as to how many you’re going to catch.”
The Bensons all fish differently and normally go in separate boats – although Steven blew a head gasket in his boat on the first day, and has been joining Mike or Jerry since.
“Everyone’s got their own lures they like,” Steven says, “and depths of water they like to fish at. But if the bite’s not on yet, the two brothers like to move around. I like to stay in one place.”
Moving a couple of hundred feet, he admits, can have its advantages, but Steven says he operates on the theory that “if you’re moving, you’re not fishing. You’re spending your time pulling anchor, moving and setting anchor again.”
The disadvantage to staying put? People notice. You’ll soon have company.
The brothers like the camaraderie among fishermen in the tournament, and the competitiveness as well.
Mike Benson won the 2007 fall event with 847 lake trout, the Mack Days record until Naethe broke it this spring.
“That was a phenomenal tournament for me,” Mike says. “I think there was a huge perch hatch that year, and the lakers came out of the deep water to feed on the fry. It was insane – I’ve never seen anything like it since then.”
While Naethe topped Mike Benson’s 21-day total with 911 this year – when an expanded Mack Days still runs through May 23 – Benson did leave the Pablo teenager something else to shoot for.
Benson had back-to-back stretches in 2007 where he caught his limit of 50 fish six days in a row. Naethe’s had a four-day run of consecutive 50-catch days this spring, but has yet to tie or beat Benson’s half-dozen, which Mike sandwiched around one day where he only missed the limit by three or four.
Like many of the anglers in Mack Days, the Bensons hit the water between 6 and 6:30 a.m., and if they don’t catch 50, will remain out till dark trying.
The Benson brothers have wives, children and daughters-in-law who are excellent anglers, too. If the family didn’t have distractions in their lives that kept them from fishing every weekend, the Benson name could dominate the leader boards.
It’s been Steven who’s put in the most days, caught his 50 most often (nine times) and is best positioned to challenge Naethe for the championship.
Freshly retired from a job at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Steven now lives in Columbia Falls and has cut his commute to Mack Days down from three-plus hours to about 20 minutes.
“I couldn’t be real competitive driving back-and-forth to Spokane,” he says. “You’re spending 14 hours a day on the lake, and that’s just fishing time. Stephen (Naethe) has youth on his side. The weather can get pretty brutal, and you’ve got to be in shape, you’ve got to be durable, you’ve got to be patient.”
Flathead is nothing like the lake Leo taught his boys to fish. They went after bull and cutthroat trout back then – the native fish the tribes are trying to bring back by reducing the numbers of lake trout, which have exploded in the last couple of decades.
But they fish it well, and they thank their dad for that.
“He taught me everything I know,” Mike says, waiting a moment before delivering the angler punch line.
“He just didn’t teach me everything he knows.”