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Knights of Columbus Walleye Classic's youngest team secures win in annual tournament

Jun. 10—BEMIDJI — After not catching a single fish last year, duo Darren Roth and Kamin Pierce were crowned first-place champions on Saturday in the annual Knights of Columbus Walleye Classic fishing tournament.

The pair also happened to be the youngest of the nearly 100 two-person teams competing in one of the largest catch-photo-release walleye tournaments in the area. They were awarded with $15,000, champion jackets and plaques.

According to Phil Hodapp, tournament chairman, the team is the youngest to win since 2015 and might even be the youngest in the event's history.

"I was up on stage when the top 10 finalists were up there, who are really good fishermen, and they were all thrilled by them winning, too," Hodapp shared. "They thought it was just exceptional for a young team to win like that. I think everyone in the fishing world just loved it."

Boats lined up along the shoreline of Lake Bemidji at Paul Bunyan Park at the crack of dawn on Saturday in anticipation of the 7 a.m. start time. The anglers fished for walleye and documented each one through the smartphone app called FishDonkey. This ensured photographic proof for officials so the fish could be released back into the lake to decrease fish mortality.

For the first time, the award ceremony that followed was held in the Sanford Center arena, rather than being held at the Lake Bemidji waterfront in Paul Bunyan Park. At 5:30 p.m. drawings for the Walleye Classic fishing boat and other prizes were held. Friends and family waited anxiously to see who would make it into the top 10.

Once the award ceremony began, the top 10 finalists were announced with each of their boats pulled one by one into the arena. As the anglers were pulled around the stage, they tossed candy and merchandise to the young attendees lined up at the front of the crowd, amping up the energy in the room.

After Roth and Pierce were declared the tournament winners, the Empty Cooler Band provided live music as friends and family members mingled and enjoyed the remainder of the evening's activities.

Roth, 21, and Pierce, 20, were neighbors growing up in Bemidji and have been fishing together for as long as they can remember.

"I can't even put a date on when our friendship started," Pierce said, gesturing to Roth.

"I don't know when we started fishing either. Probably when we could barely walk. We were young enough where we definitely had life jackets while we were on the dock," Roth chimed in.

The life-long friendship served as a perfect pairing for the fishing competition as they were able to keep each other company and stay calm throughout the day.

"We honestly had the nerves running all day long but when we caught that first fish things started rolling," Pierce said. "We were both pretty serious and would try to lighten each other's moods a little bit."

This was Roth and Pierce's second time competing at the Walleye Classic. Last year, their results were quite different.

"Last year we zeroed, no fish the whole time," Roth said with a sigh. "That's why nerves were so high today."

After their last catch, they thought there was maybe a chance they could be in the finals. They anxiously waited for the phone call to confirm they would make it to the Top 10.

When the call came, they were excited but still didn't think there was a chance they would get first place.

"We knew it was a good sign when our names weren't being announced right away," Roth said of the awards countdown. "We didn't even think there was a chance that we were going to win. Everything started to line up at the end of the day and that helped us secure our win."

Both men have always wanted to fish in the tournament since attending as children.

"When we got into the tournament last year, we made the most of it even though it didn't go the way we wanted it to," Roth said. "To come back and win this year feels amazing."

The team shared that they "mesh really well together" and that helped the dynamic on the boat.

"We've spent a long time together and a long, long time together in the boat," Pierce said. "It all adds up. Look where it got us."

The duo confirmed they will absolutely be competing next year. As the youngest team to win this year, they hope to be role models for the next generation, especially the kids in attendance.

"There are some professional guides up on that stage who have been doing this for years," Hodapp said. "It's pretty incredible that these young fellows come along and win the whole thing. Everybody loved it. The kids were blown away. It was an exciting day for everyone to witness that."

Roth's younger 6-year-old brother, Peter, lept into his big brother's arms as soon as he had the chance after their award was announced.

"I am very proud of him," Peter said. "I want to win someday too."

Peter shared that he has already been fishing and really enjoys the sport.

"I catch a lot of rock bass, smallmouth and largemouth bass," Peter said. "He likes to go fishing and I do, too. I like when we fish together."

The duo left off by encouraging others to get out on the lake and try fishing for themselves.

"Fishing takes time," Roth said. "But it only takes one fish to get you hooked for life.

Here's a look at the main awards and top 20 teams from the tournament.

The Big Fish Award went to Andrew and Ben Hittle for their 27.75-inch walleye that weighed 8.9 pounds.

The Legacy Award for the highest-placing father/son team went to Toby and Dean Kvalevog, who placed second overall.

Top 20 finishers

1. Kamin Pierce and Darren Roth with 31.80 pounds.

2. Toby Kvalevog and Dean Kvalevog with 30.48 pounds.

3. Matt Newell and Mark Newell with 29.40 pounds.

4. Pat Mcsharry and Dan Fuller with 28.96 pounds.

5. Aaron Schmitz and Tony Klaers with 28.90 pounds.

6. Will Pappenfus and Stephen Roller with 28.81 pounds.

7. Kelly Juelson and Michael Juelson with 28.42 pounds.

8. Sam McSharry and Bart Rosen with 27.09 pounds.

9. Larry Eichstadt and Andrew Vaughn with 26.71 pounds.

10. Andrew Hittle and Ben Hittle with 26.61 pounds.

11. David Zothman and James Foerhenbacher with 26.42 pounds.

12. Bryan Martinka and Scott Lewis with 26.40 pounds.

13. Will Annette and Andy Fisher with 25.85 pounds.

14. Dan Schultz and Bob Wagner with 25.80 pounds.

15. Mike Straus and Asher Straus with 25.41 pounds.

16. Tom Petersen and Keith Hanson with 25.33 pounds.

17. Bryan Hanson and Conner Hanson with 25.13 pounds.

18. Jace Peterson and Charlie Peterson with 24.82 pounds.

19. Mike Winkler and Sean Moran with 24.82 pounds.

20. Aaron Murphy and Rich Blomberg with 23.66 pounds.