When we last heard from Daniel Balserak and Luke Konson, they were sleeping in a minivan in the Cabela's parking lot in Woodbury. This was November 2020, snow was falling and the intrepid pair started the van every couple of hours to keep warm.
High school buddies from Oakton, Va., Konson and Balserak should have been freshmen at Clemson University. But upon learning a year ago that classes would be virtual during their first year, they opted instead to fish all 50 states in 12 months.
They also set a goal of each catching the state fish in every state, hoping to become the only anglers to do so.
Before their arrival in Minnesota last fall, Balserak and Konson had no contacts here to steer them toward walleyes. That they would be fishing from shore only complicated the challenge. Hearing from them, I suggested they fish the St. Croix just upstream from Prescott, Wis. But for their efforts, they got only cold.
Consulting the online app fishbrain (fishbrain.com), the pair diverted Nov. 12 to the Minnesota River, where four casts starting at 9 p.m. earned them four walleyes. Then they were off to Iowa, where for days their attempts to catch channel catfish were stymied by Minnesota-like frigid weather.
Fast forward to this past Wednesday.
With 46 states checked off their list, Konson and Balserak, both 19, were on the phone from Arkansas, where their attempts to catch a pair of alligator gar (each of the anglers must catch a target fish before they can leave a state) were going nowhere.
"We're running short of time,'' Konson said. "We have plane tickets from [Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.] to Hawaii on Monday, and from there we fly to Alaska. After that we're back home to Virginia, where we'll end our trip later this month by catching brook trout, the Virginia state fish.''
"If we can't catch an alligator gar today in Arkansas, we're going to drive to the Trinity River in Texas and try to catch one there. If we do, that fish will have a bit of an asterisk for us because we didn't catch it in Arkansas. But alligator gar don't seem to be catchable right now in Arkansas.''
• • •
Careful readers of this column will recall that last Nov. 20 I wrote that Balserak and Konson were stuck in Iowa, sleeping in their van and surviving on ramen noodles while trying to beach a pair of channel cats. I asked anyone who could help to let me know and I would forward the information.
Sitting in an archery deer-hunting blind that morning on his property near Adel, Iowa, Scott Jungman read my column on his phone and quickly e-mailed me. "I live on the Raccoon River,'' Jungman wrote. "The boys can stay in nice comfy beds at my house and fish the river below me. The channel cats will be holding in the deep pool on my land.''
So it was that Konson and Balserak met yet another good person in yet another place they had never been.
Or imagined being.
Other Star Tribune readers came to their aid as well. Some, like Jungman, offered advice, while others chipped in money to the anglers' gofundme account. One octogenarian reader said if he were 19 he would make a similar trip. He donated $1,000 and wished the boys well.
Meanwhile, Jungman's promise of creature comforts and willing fish held true. In no time Konson and Balserak had their channel cats and were off to Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, each of which they fished successfully before arriving home to Virginia for Christmas.
"After Christmas we fished in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma before driving to Arkansas try to catch alligator gar,'' Konson said. "But it was too cold. So we went to New Mexico. But this was March and there was too much snow in the mountains to fish for trout. We returned home and waited for the weather to improve.''
On May 1, Konson and Balserak again headed west.
"New Mexico turned out to be our most physically demanding state,'' Konson said. "We hiked 50 miles there before we each caught a Rio Grande cutthroat trout. From there we went to Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, before driving to Oregon for pink salmon and Washington for steelhead.''
Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Colorado were their final states, before returning to Arkansas again last week to fish once more for alligator gar.
Again, they came up empty.
• • •
Thursday morning, Konson and Balserak were in Palestine, Texas, having driven there the night before from Arkansas. Texas guide Dawson Hefner specializes in alligator gar fishing and had volunteered to ferry the two anglers onto the Trinity River in a final attempt to boat the elusive fish.
"We had a number of hookups before we caught a couple,'' Konson said Friday morning by phone. "I caught a smaller one first, then just before we went in, Daniel caught a big one.''
Beginning Wednesday, on Oahu, Hawaii, Konson and Balserak will try to catch two Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, a fish they hope is easier to hook than pronounce. (Note: Konson and Balserak are too young to rent a car and their money and Oahu connections are thin. If anyone can help, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"After Hawaii, we're looking forward to Alaska, where our dads will meet us,'' Konson said. "That will leave only our home state of Virginia and a couple of brook trout to catch.''
Having spent about 50,000 miles sitting next to each other in a van, and having shared more ramen noodles than most inmates, Balsarak and Konson say they are still buddies.
At Clemson, in fact, they'll be roommates, with Balsarak studying engineering and Konson, environmental resources.
The home stretch
Last year, recent high school graduates Daniel Balserak and Luke Konson of Oakton, Va., had an idea: Visit every U.S. state over the course of a year and not leave until each had caught the state fish. Here's an update:
• Down to Hawaii, Alaska and home stateof Virginia.
• Have logged about 50,000 miles in their Honda van.
• Cheap meal of choice: Ramen noodles.
• Major resources: Fishbrain app, GoFundMe, help of generous strangers.
• Big expenses: Gas and fishing licenses.
• Needed a week in Ohio to catch their walleyes.
• Caught four muskies in three days in Wisconsin.
• Caught four walleyes on the Minnesota River near Belle Plaine last November.
• Went after channel cat back-to-back-to-back-to-back in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.