NASHWAUK, Minn. – He wears a shirt plastered with fishing gear logos and his name across the back, but he just finished eighth grade last spring.
He has a nice boat, a fancy fish locator and a tackle pack stacked with layers of lures – but he can’t drive yet.
When he posts fishing tips on his Facebook page, anglers two or three times his age pay attention.
He’s Dylan Kukkonen, 14, a soft-spoken young man from Nashwauk who’s already making a name for himself among anglers across the Iron Range.
“He’s a 14-year-old I’m not afraid to take advice from,” said his fishing friend, Justin Bailey, 31, of Keewatin, Minn.
It’s a Friday evening in Nashwauk. Dylan sips a Mountain Dew as he waits for his dad, John, to hop in the pickup so they can haul Dylan’s boat to Big Balsam Lake. That’s where the family cabin is, and it’s one of Dylan’s regular fishing destinations.
“Northerns, largemouth, bluegills, crappies, walleyes,” Dylan says, reeling off the kinds of fish he catches there.
This is where he caught his 37-inch northern pike and a 5½-pound largemouth bass. But it’s crappies he goes after most often. His dad drops him at the public landing on this warm night, and Dylan eases the 16-foot Lund with the 35-horse Johnson outboard into the water.
He’s wearing his HookSet Media Outdoors fishing shirt, the one with his name printed on front and back. He’s been a member of the fishing promotions group since – well, since he was 13. He’s among a cadre of reputable anglers whom the media company counts on to share fishing tips and promote fishing products. Former fishing guide and nearly full-time fisherman Greg Clusiau of Keewatin recommended Dylan to HSM Outdoors, said Chad Peterson of Alexandria, Minn., owner of the media group.
“Greg said he was a great kid,” Peterson says. “We brought him on. It’s been a very good thing. He hits key points in his age group to get kids out fishing and into the outdoors.”
Now, Kukkonen regularly posts photos and shares information about fishing on his Facebook page.
“I’m looking at it as, how can we groom him and help him to respect the resource,” Peterson says, “rather than being a hotshot fisherman and ‘It’s all about me.’ I don’t think he’s like that at all. I like the kid. He has a little moxie to him, and he’s well-mannered.”
Dylan always has had an insatiable desire for fishing, said Dylan’s dad, John Kukkonen, an avid angler himself.
“He’s always been in the boat, ever since he was a baby,” John Kukkonen said. “I like to fish, and I know a lot of people who like to fish, but he never wants to leave the water. Six, eight hours? That’s not enough? No, it isn’t.”
Dylan is lucky. His dad can drive. That works out well when they run to Big Balsam or Upper Red or other lakes to fish. His dad also bought an Ice Castle crankdown fishing shelter for their frequent winter runs to Upper Red and Lake of the Woods. But once there, Dylan usually calls the fishing shots.
“I used to tell him what to do,” his dad says. “Now he tells me.”
Rigged and ready
If you show up to fish for an evening with Dylan, the boat will be clean, the minnows will be fresh and at least a half-dozen rods will be rigged for whatever’s biting. He has invited his dad and me up for an evening of crappie fishing on Big Balsam Lake. His dad and I start the evening with slip-bobbers and minnows, while Dylan tosses a Northland Thumper Jig.
Clusiau, his fellow HSM Outdoors friend, put him onto that lure. Clusiau has been impressed with Dylan’s angling skills.
“He’s years ahead as far as his knowledge of fishing,” Clusiau says of Kukkonen. “One of the first times we had him on Pokegama (Lake) last year, he ties into this fish. It was a big walleye, 29 inches. He played that thing perfectly. You’d swear he’d been fishing for 20 years.”
Dylan sits high on the stern pedestal seat, sucking sunflower seeds, tossing his Thumper. Blonde curls try to escape from beneath his Vexilar cap. A few freckles dot his face. When a broad grin spreads across his face, his countenance is incandescent.
Finding his boat
Dylan came upon his boat a couple of years ago, when he was 12. He had noticed that his late great-grandfather’s old Lund was sitting idle outside his great-grandmother’s home. Well – more than idle.
“There was a tree growing out of it,” John Kukkonen said. “Not a big tree, but it was a tree.”
Dylan expressed interest in the boat and asked his great-grandmother if he could have it.
“Well, I’m not going to be using it,” she told him.
So, he and his dad went about reclaiming it. New carpeting. New seats. New fish locator. New trolling motor.
Dylan passed his Minnesota Department of Natural Resources boating safety course, required of youths 12 to 17 who want to operate a watercraft. He was set.
Now, if he could just drive. Consequently, when he fishes with his HSM Outdoors partners, he usually lets them bring their own boats — and trucks. But he had a good streak going this summer when he fished in his own boat for six days straight on Big Balsam Lake, staying at the cabin.
“The kid has so much potential, it’s not even funny,” his fishing buddy and fellow HSMer Bailey says. “He has a love of the sport that not many kids his age do. He’s dedicated to fishing. That’s his life.”
Bailey says Dylan is low-key and unassuming in the boat.
“Sometimes he just says, ‘I’m going to need the net.’ You don’t even know he has a fish on,” Bailey says. “I get excited over fish. He stays calm.
“And he’ll give you tips. The other day, on Splithand (Lake), he said, ‘Maybe you should try this.’ He gave me a Thumper jig, and then I was catching fish like he was.”
Clusiau, with whom Dylan fishes frequently, says Dylan has another quality that can make an angler successful.
“He’s got the willingness to learn and adapt quickly,” Clusiau says. “If somebody’s catching fish, he’ll switch. He’s not stubborn. He’ll adapt quickly and be in the game.”
Dusk settles over Big Balsam now, and Dylan’s hopes are rising.
“One night I came out here with just 20 minutes left to fish,” Dylan says. “I caught 40 fish in that limited amount of time. It was every cast.”
He rigs all of us with the Thumper jigs, and we troll over 20 feet of water for crappies. Yes, troll, a technique most crappie anglers rarely employ.
“I just stumbled onto it,” Dylan says.
He has caught a lot of crappies that way. Sure enough, we all hook a couple of crappies in short order after the sun drops behind the trees. John Kukkonen also nails about a 5-pound northern pike. Dylan is busy, netting fish, removing hooks, tossing crappies back to the lake.
The evening doesn’t provide quite the action that Dylan is hoping for, but he has tried everything he can think of. He’s a confident fisherman, but he doesn’t expect to catch a pile of fish every time out.
“No,” he says. “Just come out and try.”
So far, the approach is working, even if he’s still a year away from a learner’s permit to drive.
And his potential is great, HSM’s Peterson says.
“When you see somebody with passion like that, you know they’re going to take that to the next level if they stay with it,” he says.
Or, as Bailey said in a recent Facebook comment to Dylan: “Don’t say ‘Thanks.’ Start signing things for us.”