Mack Days tournament forges lifelong friendship

jason mahlen, mack days fishing tournament fishing flathead lake montana living

Jason Mahlen leads the 2014 Mack Days fishing tournament on Flathead Lake. Dave Reese photo

Flathead Lake fishing tournament brings buddies together

By DAVID REESE/Montana Living

Fishing has a way of making friends.

For Mike Benson and Jason Mahlen, fishing forged a lifelong friendship.

Benson recalls the day perfectly. It was one of those blue bird spring days on Flathead Lake; the sun was out, and fishermen were fishing in t-shirts and shorts. Then he heard a strange noise. He looked up to see a big, white-capped wave coming toward him. His boat rose up and over it, and he thought nothing more of it, until he had his boat out, on shore, and a Montana Highway Patrol car came skidding to a stop in the gravel at the Yellow Bay boat ramp.

The patrolman told Benson there had been a 911 call for an overturned boat on Flathead Lake, and he asked Benson to put his boat back on the water and help find the fishermen. Benson and his buddy found Jason Mahlen and his fishing partner clinging to their overturned boat — and their lives.

Benson helped get the men to shore. With the water temperature of Flathead Lake around 36 degrees at the time, the men likely wouldn’t have lived much longer in the frigid waters.

Mahlen and Benson now have become good friends now, a bond forged on the icy waters of Flathead Lake. You could see that friendship last Friday when Mahlen and Benson were fishing a few hundred feet away from each other in the Mack Days fishing tournament. The men launched their own boats in the dark of the morning and headed out to their spot just west of Yellow Bay. We anchored in 220 feet of water and started fishing. Mahlen soon found fish and with his brother, Scott, was busy hauling lake trout into the boat.

Benson looked over at the Mahlens with respect. A two-time winner of the Mack Days fishing tournament, Benson knows how to fish Flathead Lake. In fact, last week caught his 10,000th fish for his Mack Days career.

But Jason Mahlen is a strong upstart in the Mack Days tournament.

“He’s going crazy psycho today,” Benson said, watching Mahlen haul in fish after fish. “Nobody’s going to touch him.”

Benson watched his own line closely for the telltale twitch of the jig. Mahlen and his brother, Scott, shouted and laughed when they got a double.

Benson prefers to fish solo.

He works a one-man show during the tournament, and he’s a whirlwind of activity in his boat, checking lines, cutting bait, setting the anchor. If you do get the chance to fish with Benson during the Mack Days tournament, don’t expect a ton of idle chatter. Eye contact is rare while he’s fishing. His eyes stay focused on his line.

Other than letting this reporter on the boat last Friday, Benson has allowed only one other person in his boat during the tournament. “Well, the kid caught me at a weak moment,” Benson said. “Nobody else has been on my boat for three years. Not even my wife.”

She’s not far away, though. Cindy Bras-Benson runs the Mack Days fishing tournaments, a spring and fall event targeted at lake trout. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes sanction the tournaments with cooperation from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While Mike Benson is out in the weather on Flathead Lake, Cindy is at the Blue Bay tournament headquarters — a log structure at Blue Bay campground that’s warm and cozy, where the coffee is on, and anglers come to check in their fish.

On Friday, the father-son duo of Bob Turner and his son, Keaton, arrived at headquarters around noon to turn in their fish. One fish had the telltale lump in its cheek, meaning it had been tagged by tournament officials. Tagged fish are worth anywhere from $100 to $10,000, and the Turners watched closely as Cindy Benson measured the fish before she scanned the electronic tag. The fish was worth $100 to the Turners.

Mike Benson works the tournament like a job. In this year’s spring event he’s fished all 18 days of the tournament. In the last several years those more than 10,000 fish he’s caught have helped him earn close to $14,000 in prize money. Mack Days has paid out around $950,000 in prize money since it started in 2002.

Benson lives in Lonepine, just over the hill from Elmo, near Hot Springs. Born and raised there, he’s passionate about fishing. It helps to have a wife who supports him in his passion. “Other guys say they have to ask their wives permission to go fishing,” Benson said, with his understated, wry sense of humor.

Fishing styles have changed since the tournament began. Anglers are getting better at jigging, which is used mainly in the spring. In the fall, trolling seems to work better because the lake trout are spawning and will react more aggressively to a trolled lure.

“There were about five guys who were good at jigging when we started,” Benson said. “Now there are 50. On any given day anyone one of us could win this.”

The skill in jigging is finding your feel. The jigs weigh one ounce to 1 1/2 ounces. It’s typical to use that heavy of a jig at the end of your line, and attach a fly about 13 inches above it to simulate mysis shrimp that are in the lake. Sometimes the fish bite the fly, other times they hit the lead jig. Sometimes they hit both, as Scott Mahlen displayed last week with a fish on the fly and on the jig.

When your lure is sitting on or near the bottom, more than 200 feet below you, it’s crucial to know when a fish is on the lure. “When they’re feeding, anybody can do it,” Benson said. “But being able to do it when they’re not feeding is a lot harder.”

Benson won the tournament in fall 2007 and fall 2010. He’s been “first loser,” as he calls it, or second place, five times.

He does, recognize, though, the inherent aspect of fishing: luck. While Jason Mahlen and Scott Mahlen fished close to us last week and were loading their coolers, we were slow going.

When he started fishing the tournament hard about six years ago Benson set a goal to remain in the top five of the tournament. He’s done that every year, but winning is another issue. “No matter how good you are, it’s hard to win this repeatedly,” he said. “After you do this a while you understand you’re not going to win it every time. But it seems like a long time since I’ve won it.”

He started off with a bit of luck this year; his first fish he caught had a tag in it worth $100.

THE TOURNAMENT is based partly on a lottery system. The more fish you catch, the more tickets go into the lottery for cash drawings at the end of the tournament. There are other ways to win money. Once you catch over 1,075 fish in the 34-day tournament, each fish is worth $4 each. Anglers who catch over 1,300 fish are eligible for $5,300 in prize money.

Cindy Bras-Benson gets to hear a lot of the stories when the anglers come back to Blue Bay to check in their fish. In the large, open shop of the fish house, two big chest freezers are loaded with prime, pink fillets of lake trout. These will be given to local food banks.

The taste of the fish has changed since the days when lake trout fed mostly on kokanee salmon. Back then, lake trout had white meat that was often greasy and gamey. Now that lake trout feed on mysis shrimp, their meat is pink and delicious. “They’re an excellent eating fish,” Mike Benson said as he tossed a 12-inch laker into the cooler.

Anglers have had to adapt their techniques to the new style of fishing for lake trout in the spring. Since the lakers are often at or near the bottom in deep water in the spring, jigging seems to be the preferred method. This can frustrate some people, Cindy Bras-Benson said.

“People are not used to fishing like this,” she said. “It’s changed from the days of taking old leaded line out there and dragging steel.”

Last year’s fall Mack Days winner, Max Martz, won the tournament by trolling.

Mike Benson has improved his technique, too. He used to be called “Old One Fish” by his wife, when he’d come home from Flathead Lake a long way short of a limit. He’s since honed his style to become a top angler in Mack Days.

As a native American, Cindy Bras tries to keep things from getting too political in her conversations with anglers. But she does hear about the friction between the “north and south,” the line that’s drawn between state management and tribal management of Flathead Lake. She bears the brunt of some anglers, often charter boat owners, who want the lake trout fishery to remain strong.

“It’s an emotional issue,” she said. “These guys live and breathe fishing.”

It seems pretty rare that people who fish the lake want to see lake trout completely removed, in favor of native species like bull trout or cutthroat trout.

“We all need to work at this before these fish (bull trout and cutthroat trout) disappear,” Cindy said. “To me it’s important that these fish continue to be out there. It’s an important part of the history, and of the lake.”

LAST FRIDAY a snow squall started to brew on Crane Mountain above Yellow Bay. The wind changed, and was now coming out of the south. Our boat bobbed in the waves, held tight to its anchor. The waves were getting bigger, but didn’t cause Benson or the other boaters near us any concern. He kept his eyes steady on his line, retrieving often to check his bait and re-cast.

The Mahlen brothers hooted and hollered nearby when they landed a double.

When it was time to head to shore, Benson drove his boat close by the Mahlen’s boat, hoping to throw a bit of spray on them, in good nature, of course. They all laughed.

The friendship between the Mahlens and Benson started three years ago, just a few hundred yards from this spot, when Benson plucked Jason from the waters of Flathead Lake.

At last year’s tournament banquet, Cindy Bras-Benson watched curiously as another woman kept eying her husband. Then she figured out who it was: it was Jason Mahlen’s wife.

Finally the woman approached Benson, tears in her eyes. She wanted to thank him for saving her husband’s life. “She cried, and told him how much it meant” that Benson saved her husband’s life,” Cindy said.

Mack Days is about the fishing. Winning money is great, also. But sometimes more important things happen out there, too — like making lifelong friends.

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