POLSON – Two years ago, Mike Benson and another angler probably saved the lives of Jason Mahlen and his brother after the Mahlens’ boat capsized in a freak windstorm during Spring Mack Days on Flathead Lake.
Over the weekend, Mahlen paid Benson back by beating him for the 2013 championship.
Mahlen, of Kalispell, set a record catch for the tournament with 1,651 lake trout this spring, and took home $9,100 in prize money in the process.
Mahlen fished all 34 days of the tournament and averaged 65.8 lake trout during his 18 best days on the water, the number used to determine the top 10 overall finishers.
No one else approached that. In fact, the “worst” of Mahlen’s 18 best days was a catch of 47 – more than anyone else in the field averaged over their 18 best.
Benson, of Lonepine, was second with 1,142 and a 45.7 average.
Mahlen’s total bested, by exactly 100, the record set by Don Beville of Lakeside last year.
Mahlen and his brother Scott were in a 14-foot boat during the 2011 tournament when, on a sunny, calm day, a sudden brutal wind swept over the Mission Mountains, uprooting trees on land and chasing anglers off the water.
Benson already had his boat on a trailer when a Montana Highway Patrol trooper pulled into Yellow Bay and said 9-1-1 had received a report of an overturned boat as the lake suddenly turned into violent 5-foot swells in the wind.
Search and Rescue, which was launching from Polson, was probably an hour away, he said.
Jason Mahlen had actually made the call, only able to report to the 9-1-1 operator they were off Yellow Bay and going down when a wave crashed into their boat, which had just been submerged by another wave.
It flipped them into the 38 1/2-degree water and abruptly ended the mayday call. The Mahlens estimated they then held onto the hull for 30 minutes, and weren’t sure they’d last another 10 in the rough, freezing water.
Benson, of Lonepine, re-launched his boat and angler Jason North of Stevensville joined him, and they were able to find the Mahlens despite rough seas and the fierce wind kicking up a spray that made it seem like they were in the whiteout of a blizzard.
Of course, the Mahlens long ago thanked Benson and North. Benson has become good friends with the brothers, whom he hadn’t previously been introduced to, and even showed them some of his favorite spots before this year’s tournament.
Benson and Mahlen brothers captured five of the top 10 spots this year.
Tying for third place behind Mike Benson were his brother Steven of Four Lakes, Wash., and Craig Morigeau of Polson. Both averaged 41.39 lake trout over their 18 best days on the water.
Steven Benson, who fished five more days total than Morigeau, finished with 1,021 lake trout. Morigeau had 927.
Danny Smith of Hot Springs finished fifth with a 40.6 average and a total harvest of 931. Following Smith were Scott Mahlen of Bigfork, 37.7 (901); Dean Vaughan of Charlo, 33.1 (615); David McDaniel of Polson, 32.6 (774); Jerry Benson of Plains, 32.56 (744); and Bryan Long of Columbia Falls, 32.5 (641).
Susan Martin of Polson won the women’s division with 369, beating Julie Vacca of Missoula (239) and Nicole Peters of Missoula (196).
Danner Shima of Kalispell won the 13-17 age division with 411. Tanner Murry of Columbia Falls was second at 207, and Connor Kowalski of Florence was third with 204.
The under-12 title went to Garett Vaughan of Charlo with 391. Matt Guckenberg Jr. of Kalispell was second at 77, and Abby Hodgson of Kalispell had 51.
Spring Mack Days harvested 28,321 of the predacious and non-native lake trout from Flathead Lake.
First place was only worth $700 of Jason Mahlen’s total winnings. Mahlen, who also won money in a lottery-style drawing, for catching tagged fish and for catching one of the tournament’s two smallest fish, took home the bulk of his prize money in bonus payouts.
His record total netted him $6,700 there.