ON FLATHEAD LAKE – When Jason Mahlen wins his first Mack Days championship on Sunday – there’s no way anyone in the field will catch him – he’ll have Mike Benson to thank for it.
And it’s not just because, before this spring’s tournament got underway in March, Benson – himself a past champion – took Mahlen out and showed him a couple of his favorite fishing spots on Flathead Lake.
Not that that wasn’t important. All five days this spring when Mahlen has caught 80 or more lake trout in a single day, helping him build his insurmountable lead, he was fishing in places Benson had pointed out.
But looming as slightly more significant, in the larger scheme of things, was a day in the tournament two years ago, the day Mahlen, of Kalispell, and Benson, from Lonepine, met for the first time.
It was a day Jason Mahlen and his brother, Scott, could have died in Flathead.
It was a beautiful May day, not unlike Wednesday of this week, when the now-friends were fishing together from the same boat.
In fact, it was maybe even sunnier on that day in 2011, when Mahlen and Benson didn’t really know each other, and Flathead Lake was perhaps even calmer.
The bite was on in waters off Yellow Bay on that day, and anglers entered in Spring Mack Days were busy reeling in lake trout. There were about five boats congregated in the hot spot, and from one of them, Benson remembers hearing this:
“What’s that noise?”
Charles Forgey of Arlee, who was on his way to winning the 2011 championship, asked the question. Quickly, Benson and anglers in the other nearby boats heard it too.
Over the top of the Mission Mountains along Flathead’s east shore, a powerful wind swept down the mountainside and toward the lake. Although they were too far away to see it, the wind was so strong it was uprooting and toppling trees.
Benson describes it as a “wind shear,” and when it reached the calm lake, he says, instantly “waves were four feet tall, right off the beach.”
It was time to get off the water, and fast, the anglers knew, and they all headed for shore.
“You could tell it was going to get real ugly, quick,” Benson says.
The Mahlen brothers, who were fishing a ways north but in sight of the group, started pulling up anchor too.
Unfortunately, they were in Scott’s little 14-foot boat, powered by an 8 horsepower outboard motor.
“I’d gotten off work, and was going to hook up my big boat and come down, but my brother was already out in his little boat,” Mahlen says. “He said there was no sense towing the bigger boat down, it was such a beautiful day, and I’m such a tightwad I decided I’d save a little gas money.”
So Scott had picked Jason up at Yellow Bay State Park in his boat, and they had returned to the lake.
The fish were hitting well for them, too, when, Jason says, “the wind started blowing like crazy.”
They were pulling up anchor just as the calm water quickly turned to violent five-foot swells. From there everything happened quickly.
“A wave came over the top of the bow and sank the boat,” Mahlen says.
A couple of more waves turned the little vessel broadside into the wind, and the next wave flipped the boat upside down, tossing Jason and Scott into the 38 1/2-degree water.
It all happened in as little as 60 seconds.
They were more than a mile offshore.
Flathead, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, is known for its ability to have conditions change rapidly, but Benson says he’s never, not in 50 years of boating it, seen the lake change so suddenly, and so fiercely.
Jason says it happened so fast he and Scott didn’t even have time to put on life vests.
Indeed, from the time the boat took on water to the time it was upside down, he barely had time to pull out his cell phone and dial 9-1-1.
“What is your emergency?” the operator asked, and Mahlen yelled “We’re by Yellow Bay and we’re going down!”
That’s all he got out.
Even as he spoke the words, a big wave was flipping the little boat and tossing him and Scott into the lake, cutting off the call.
As he went under while yelling their predicament to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, Jason says he was kicking himself for not pulling his larger Lund boat down that day.
As soon as he surfaced, he adds, “I couldn’t remember whether I’d told 9-1-1 Yellow Bay or Woods Bay. My brother, he has nine lives, he said we were going to be fine. But I didn’t think we’d be fine.”
Benson already had his boat trailered and the tarp over it at the state park when he heard a siren screaming down nearby Montana Highway 35.
The highway patrolman raced into the campground and hopped out of the car, telling the anglers of the abbreviated report 9-1-1 had received several minutes earlier.
Search and Rescue, which would be launching from Polson, was over an hour out, he said, and had only a vague idea of where to look for an overturned boat.
Benson knew where he’d last seen the Mahlen boat, and figured that’s who was in trouble. They were the only ones who weren’t on shore.
He quickly relaunched into the violent waters. Angler Jason North of Stevensville joined him as they headed back into the storm to search.
The waves were cresting as high as five feet, Benson says, “and every time you went down in a trough you couldn’t see anything.”
What’s more, he says, the wind was blowing so hard it was kicking up tons of spray across the lake surface, and made visibility akin to a whiteout from a blizzard.
Benson steered his boat through the rough waters back toward the area he remembered seeing the Mahlen boat. But he and North couldn’t see any sign of them.
After being tossed in the drink, the Mahlen brothers swam back to their boat and managed to pull themselves partway onto the hull, where they were hanging on for dear life in the cold, rough waters.
“One boat passed us, but they didn’t see us,” Jason says.
Jason had grabbed a yellow oar that had been spilled from the boat, and was waving it wildly when he saw Benson’s boat.
“But I couldn’t see them until I was within 50 yards of them,” Benson says. “It was like being in a whiteout with all the spray.”
The tallest thing in the line of sight was the little propeller on the outboard, now pointing toward the sky instead of the lake bottom.
As their boat rocked violently in the waves, Benson and North each grabbed a Mahlen brother from the lake and pulled them to safety; to this day, Benson isn’t sure if he hauled in Jason or Scott.
“I just remember his legs scraping against the boat as I dragged him in,” Benson says. “He must have been so cold he didn’t feel anything.”
The Mahlens had been in the frigid water an estimated 30 minutes.
“When we got back, I told the patrolman that in another 10 or 15 minutes, they’d have been sending divers, and not rescue boats,” Benson says. “I think it was that close.”
By the time they returned to the state park at Yellow Bay, ambulance crews were waiting.
In assessing Jason Mahlen’s condition, one of the responders asked him to name the president of the United States.
“Bush,” Jason answered confidently, and the EMTs didn’t have to ask him whether he meant George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush.
Barack Obama had been elected 2 1/2 years earlier.
“How could you not know that?” Jason wonders now.
Brother Scott, meantime, was ushered into the back of an ambulance, where two female EMTs helped him out of his wet and freezing clothes.
“He said they didn’t get much of a show,” Jason says.
The next day the Lake County Sheriff’s Office contacted the Mahlens. They’d received a report of a small boat that had washed ashore.
It was theirs. The storm had carried it several miles, from the east shore to the west, across Flathead and into Big Arm Bay, past Wild Horse Island and onto the beach at Melita Island.
Benson says he never stopped to weigh the dangers of relaunching his boat and heading back into the violent storm, and he’s sure Jason North, his co-rescuer, never gave it a second thought either.
“We had to,” he says. “We had to try to find them.”
He was just glad everyone came out of it OK, with a couple of funny stories to tell about the brothers’ encounter with the medical responders after the rescue.
It wasn’t until last year, at the annual fish fry and awards ceremony at Blue Bay that closes out Mack Days, that Benson had what he calls his “gotcha moment.”
“I was talking to a couple of guys, and across the way I see this woman coming toward us,” Benson says. “I got this weird feeling, like I knew her, even though I’d never met her.”
“Do you have a second?” the woman asked Benson.
She started crying, Benson says.
“I’m married to the greatest guy in the world,” Anna Mahlen, Jason’s wife and mother of their two daughters, who were 16 and 5 the day their father and uncle nearly drowned, told him. “You have no idea what you did. My life would have been over if it had gone the other way that day.”
Jason, an employee at Lower Valley Processing in Kalispell for 23 years, says he hadn’t fully explained the danger he and Scott were in that day to Anna, for fear she would insist he quit fishing. But Scott did make it clear to other family members, and the word soon got to Anna.
Today, Jason says he’s not sure he could have clung to the boat hull much more than 10 minutes longer the day the wind ambushed Mack Days anglers back in 2011.
“It’s funny how life changes without changing,” Benson says. “It could have easily gone the other way.”
Instead, Benson and the Mahlens have become good friends – good enough, that Benson has shown them where to fish.
Now Jason Mahlen – who finished 19th in 2011 – is on the verge of beating Benson for the 2013 championship.
He has no one to thank but Benson, on more than one count, and Benson grins at the other half of the reality.
Mike Benson has no one to blame but himself.
He’ll take it, and gladly.
“I got to meet a couple of great guys,” Benson says. “I think it’s worked out pretty good for everybody.