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The Child Angler in All of Us

January 7, 2011 | by Bruce Auchly
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Joe Hagengruber with a shovelnose sturgeon

Remember being young and everything revolved around fishing? School was barely tolerable and the five days between weekends dragged on like the Hundred Years War.

Meet Joe Hagengruber, 10-year-old Helena schoolboy.

Joe lives and breathes fishing. Believe him when he smiles and says: “I really like fishing.”

What’s the big deal, you say. Many 10 year olds like, even love, to fish, you say. And most anglers have caught a rainbow or a walleye or a perch.

Here’s the big deal: Joe is out to catch every species of fish in Montana. All 86 species.

Like the central mudminnow, average length 2 inches, an introduced species found only in a few ponds west of the Continental Divide. Or the lake chub, typically coming in at 4 inches.

Actually, last August in the Teton River near Choteau, Joe caught a lake chub, establishing the state record in the process. He landed the monster, all 3.9 inches and one-third of an ounce, on a worm-tipped size 22 dry fly hook. That’s tiny.

Joe’s quest started two years ago when he was fishing with family and friends on Fresno Reservoir near Havre. He caught six species in two hours and an idea was born.

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

So far he has landed 38 species. Of Montana’s 86 fish species, 56 are native.

Written records of fish and wildlife start 200 years ago with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Fish that were here at that time are called native. Fish introduced since, like brown trout, carp and smallmouth bass, are called nonnative.

Joe has caught plenty of the easy fish: Brook trout, rainbow trout and perch.

“Trout are boring,” he says with a shrug. He’s more interested in shorthead redhorse suckers, one of the most common fish in the Missouri River downstream of the Great Falls.

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Joe with his state record spottail shiner

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

While on his mission, Joe has set state records where none existed: the aforementioned lake chub and the spottail shiner. The latter fish came in at three inches long and almost half an ounce.

Any fish Joe catches has to be by hook and line. The method matters not, whether spinning rod, fly fishing or just a cane pole. No netting, however, which will make many of the minnow species tough.

So far the hardest fish to catch, surprisingly, was the common carp. Canyon Ferry Reservoir not far from Joe’s Helena valley home is loaded with carp, but it took Joe and his dad five trips to land a carp.

“We put more time into catching a carp than any other fish,” Joe says.

With most of the easy fish checked off his list, Joe eyes a gleaming is focusing on the difficult ones. Like Chinook salmon, which are not native and planted only in 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.

They’ll be some tough days ahead for young Joe and his quixotic task. But don’t bet against him.