SHABBONA, Ill.–A nearly apocryphal fishing story built around Melanie Fitzgerald. On a final summer evening in the Shabbona Lake Young Angler’s Fishing League, she caught either 59 or 75 bluegill, depending which tale you hear.
It’s part of league history.
On Tuesday, the league became the first fishing league in modern Illinois to finish its 20th year; and did so with a record 78 kids (3-18).
The league began two decades ago when Karen Rivera said there should be a follow-up after a fishing clinic. Rich McElligott with the Shabbona Lake Sportsman Club agreed. The league had 40 kids the first year.
If Fitzgerald is the league’s memory maker, T.J. Panttila is its soul man.
Soul is why the league survives.
Tim Tausch, 21, and Deanna Frances, 22, an engaged couple, direct the league now. Both fished the league as kids. Tausch is a DeVry student who has an IT company (he made the league website, shabbonalakeyounganglers.org). Frances is a senior music major at Northern Illinois.
Tuesday night on awards night, Tausch grilled beef hot dogs donated by Pokanoka’s Café while Frances worked the families, handed out food tickets and announced awards.
As to soul, Frances said, “T.J. is absolutely wonderful. He is the kindest soul I have ever met in my life.”
She said kindest soul. She could have as easily said the best fisherman.
Panttila anchored the Awesome Anglers, which ran away from even arch-rival, Wacky Walleyes, to win in the historic 20th year.
“I just love fishing,’’ Panttila said. “I like bass and bluegill.”
Panttila is the kid who sticks with Tausch, too.
“He will catch something big every week,’’ Tausch said.
This summer Panttila, a cancer survivor, caught the biggest walleye (17.5 inches) and biggest hybrid striped bass (14.75), a new category.
Paloma Contreras caught the biggest crappie (9), while Hank Hickey caught the biggest catfish (25.75) and drum (14.75), another new category.
The all-time records are held by Dillon Martenson (walleye, 22 inches), Melanie Fitzgerald (bass, 21), Steve Urda (catfish, 28), Jason Fox (crappie, 11) and Mallary Jordal (muskie, 16). Jordal’s is the only muskie landed in league history.
Hickey won the most improved trophy. He went from using a push-button spincasting outfit to learning a spinning rod combo he won from Lakeside Bait Shop.
The scoring system for the league is designed to push kids.
“We want them to catch bigger fish,” McElligott said.
Scoring is one point for fish under 10 inches, with a cap of 10 any evening. The exception is the final night when the cap is removed on small fish, ergo Melanie Fitzgerald’s legendary night was born years ago.
Normally, any fish longer than 12 inches scores 10 points, but in the 20th year, it jumped to 20. There is no cap for scoring on big fish.
“Most catch bluegill, catfish and bass, but we see them all,’’ Tausch said.
It’s about the fishing benefits.
“I think a big part of it for me is seeing how happy the kids are,” Frances said.
Cathy Fitzgerald, mother of Melanie and grandmother to kids just starting the league, said simply, “Seeing the smiles on their faces.’’
“And it teaches them sportsmanship and the basics of fishing,’’ her husband Jeff said.
Awards night was capped with cutting a massive cake, artfully designed (red icing bobber) by Kathy Sands. The line of families, waiting to finish with cake, stretched into the lawn by Lakeside in the fading summer light.