Young angler tackles goal to land species of all statures

With the modern emphasis on gadgets and technology, it’s rare to meet a youngster whose life revolves around something as age-old as fishing.

But out of Montana this week comes a story about a kid who suffers the five days between weekends as though they were the Hundred Years War.

Joe Hagengruber, a 10-year-old from Helena – an angler who lets his fishing rod do most of the talking – means every word when he says, “I really like fishing.”

Bruce Auchly, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks information officer, says this kid has an uncommon passion that stands out in a crowd of other 10-year-olds who say they like to catch trout and perch.

Having landed 38 species, Hagengruber is well on his way to completing his goal of catching all 86 species of fish that reside in Montana, Auchly said.

“That kid really has fish on his brain,” said his uncle, Jim Hagengruber, a former writer for The Spokesman-Review I queried by e-mail in Bosnia. “I never met anybody quite like him, except perhaps his old man.”

Most anglers have never heard of a central mudminnow – average length 2 inches, an introduced species found only in a few ponds west of the Continental Divide – much less how to catch one.

But Joe Hagengruber fears no fish, big or small, popular or overlooked.

How about a lake chub? How many hot-shot tournament anglers have caught one of those 4-inch-long beauties?

In August, Hagengruber landed a 3.9-incher that weighed one-third of an ounce to set the Montana lake chub state record.

He matched tackle to the quarry, using a tiny size 22 dry fly hook tipped with a bit of worm, Auchly said.

The kid’s quest started two years ago while fishing with family and friends on Fresno Reservoir near Havre.

“He caught six species in two hours and an idea was born,” Auchly said.

“It started with how many different fish I caught and making a list,” Hagengruber explained.

Of the 86 fish species in Montana, 56 are native. But while Hagengruber seeks them all, he wants some more than others.

“Trout are boring,” he told Auchly, who said the kid’s more interested in shorthead redhorse suckers, one of the most common fish in the Missouri River downstream of the Great Falls.

Known by their shorter name, redhorse suckers look like Montana’s other eight members of the sucker family, with the typical sucker mouth, except several of their fins are red.

How many veteran anglers know that?

How many anglers have the patience to seek fish virtually no one has angled before?

Hagengruber has set the first Montana records for lake chub and the spottail shiner, both under 4 inches long.

He does it by the book, with spinning rod, fly rod or just a cane pole, but no netting.

Those parameters are a staggering hurdle, considering that many of the species en route to his goal are minnows.

Is he tenacious? He and his dad made five specific trips to Canyon Ferry Reservoir near their home just to bag his first carp, Auchly said.

Even tougher fish await: chinook salmon, which are planted only in wind-whipped Fort Peck Reservoir.

“And the common goldfish, which exists in a few Montana lakes and ponds because unthinking people illegally released their pets into the wild,” Auchly pointed out.

“They’ll be some tough days ahead for young Joe and his quixotic task, but don’t bet against him,” Auchly said.

One thing the kid has going for him that veteran anglers can’t match: plenty of time ahead.

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