They Caught More Than Fish

They Caught More Than Fish

A glimpse into the record-setting gap year of two pandemic college students.

Luke Konson and Daniel Balserak of Oakton graduated from a private school in mid-summer of 2020, and were set to attend Clemson University where they would be roommates. On July 22, 2020, the university president announced classes would start virtually. Not wanting to take endless online courses, Luke and Daniel ditched college for a gap year with their parents' blessings. 

The two borrowed the Konson family van and set out with the goal of each catching the state fish in all fifty states hoping, by the best of their knowledge, to become the first anglers to do so.

Fast-forward to June through September 2021. Through a series of emails, Luke and Daniel keep the Connection up-to-date  as their gap year came to a close. 

There was some serious fishing going on in the gap. Luke Konson and Daniel Balserak hooked salmon, fish #7, in Maine, caught Smallmouth bass, fish #12, on the Little River in Tennessee, and reeled in walleye, fish #19, in a heavy Minnesota snowfall with temps hovering at 12 degrees. A flight to Hawaii tallied the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a #49. Then it was back to Virginia, the Rapidan Headwaters Park in Syria, for brook trout, fish #50.

The gap year really wasn't about the fish, though. That was the diversionary activity. Luke and Daniel reported that up to fish #49, they traveled 47,053 miles in a minivan, crisscrossing the United States. The earth's circumference is 24,901 miles. They wrecked 1.5 minivans and spent 206 nights on the road sleeping in the van.  

Physically, Luke and Daniel successfully caught the state fish in all 50 states. The kindness of newfound friends coming forward even during the pandemic sustained them and propelled the anglers forward, helping to locate prime fishing spots that would yield success and dollars donated to their GoFundMe.

Internally and emotionally, Luke and Daniel snared a survival guide on how to approach potential challenges. 

"We have lived so frugally this past year, sleeping in our parent's vans in Walmart parking lots most nights and losing tens of pounds as we eat very little on the road. Our biggest costs have been gas and fishing licenses." They lived on jars of peanut butter, ramen noodles, and a boatload of coffee.

Paul Balserak is Daniel's father. "The trip could never have been done by one person alone," he said after the epic journey. "Simon and Garfunkel, Bonnie and Clyde … Everyone needs a partner. And Luke could never have done this without Daniel, and Daniel would never have done this without Luke. These days there's more fear and timid living than when we were young. I love how these boys took off on a grand adventure, being careful and thoughtful but also taking risks."

Luke and Daniel learned about resilience. There was a car accident in which Konson said, "thankfully, neither of us was injured." They faced ice storms and elk appearing most unexpectedly around highway turns from Colorado to New Mexico. They dealt with flat tires, being stuck in the mud, and "having to make and change plans over and over due to circumstances," as they said in an email. 

However, when multiple challenges toppled together and amplified their combined challenges, Luke and Daniel sought support. It was, according to Mickey Konson, New Mexico, that nearly beat down Luke and Daniel.

Luke later said that they already felt despondent and were exhausted by the cold days of long hikes to different streams attempting to catch the elusive Arkansas alligator gar. Trying to sleep in the frigid van added to their stress. They didn't know what to do except to avoid any further challenge from the alligator gar. They traveled to New Mexico, hoping to try their luck and knowledge to fish for trout. It didn't pan out.

"Luke talked about New Mexico," said Micky Konson. "That was really the lowlight of the trip because it was January; it was cold … they were both miserable and just wanted to come home. I had not heard them say that before. So, they did come home, and they regrouped and headed back out. You know, it was unclear whether they were going to finish."

Months later, an email arrived from the promising anglers. The weather had warmed, and their journey was filled with countless stories of how strangers and friends, and friends of friends, reached out to them and helped them along the way.

Once again, co-signing their email “Luke & Daniel,” they wrote: "It's been so heartwarming to see and experience people's generosity and kindness in this way. We're hoping for one last push to get us over the finish line before we move into Clemson on Aug. 12." 

Aug. 14, Luke & Daniel wrote: "WE DID IT!!! We caught our Virginia state fish, a brook trout, this week on our way to moving into Clemson University. We are so thankful for all the support we received from people literally all throughout the country … We are now roommates with a different challenge ahead as we embark on our college studies in Environmental Resources (Luke) and Engineering (Daniel). So, our Fish All Fifty journey is complete!"

AT THE BEGINNING of their journey, Michelle Konson said why she sent her 18-year-old son around the country fishing. "He's learning to figure out life ... the value of a dollar, how to be flexible and change plans."

A year later, in September 2021, Michelle Konson said that Luke and Daniel had done something that they will likely never have the opportunity to do again in their lifetime. She added, “Luke has grown this past year; he is so much more confident, capable, and has a much stronger sense of who he is. Luke was initially enrolled at Clemson's Business School, but after his year on the road, he switched his degree to Environmental and Natural Resources. He realized after this year that his passion and interests lie in the great outdoors, and that's what he'd like to pursue for his future.” 

Lori Balserak said that the journey was a "great alternative to a year of online learning. … They learned lots of life lessons, such as patience and perseverance; they're better prepared for college and life. They saw and came to appreciate the wonder of nature [and] they experienced kindness from complete strangers. 

Paul Balserak added, "It was trusting God that helped …[us] parents let them take such an adventure."

According to Luke when he closes his eyes and thinks of the trip’s good memories although there are many, it is driving at night where there is no light pollution. “Just the stars as we’ve never seen them before, and driving through deserts and mountains, seeing elk and moose.” Asked what they did, their parents told them not to do, Luke said, “They always said, don’t drive at night, especially out west and we primarily drove at night.”

One final question, what will Luke tell his grandchildren in the year 2071, fifty or so years from now and they are graduating from high school. 

“Get out on your own and travel, whether in the United States or not… You learn a lot of things. That’s really the only way to get the experience. Not exactly like this but something similar … and their own.”

Read The Prequel

"Casting off Distance Learning for Fishing Line," Vienna/Oakton/McLean Connection, September 9-15. 2020