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Big Brownie caught

Local pair catches first tagged fish during festival

News Photo by Diane Speer Robert Westenbarger and Jan Stepanski hold up their very valuable catch. The two pulled in the 2017 specially tagged Big Brownie for a $25,000 prize. It’s the first time in the 43-year history of the Michigan Brown Trout Festival that someone won the cash award.

ALPENA — No exaggerated fish tale here. For the first time in the 43-year history of the Michigan Brown Trout Festival, the $25,000 tagged Big Brownie has been caught for the money.

The team of Jan Stepanski and Robert Westenbarger, both of Alpena, reeled in the prize-winning brown trout at 9:15 a.m. while fishing in Thunder Bay. Still awed a bit by the enormity of their lucky haul, the couple were quick to give each other their due credit.

“She pulled it in,” he said.

“But he set the line,” she said.

At first, the two didn’t know for sure if it was Big Brownie. Upon catching the fish, they immediately noticed a tag, but couldn’t quite read the fine print. Westenbarger quickly called a Brown Trout committee member to find out the color of this year’s tag.

“We were pretty sure we had caught it, but we had to have it verified,” Westenbarger said of the 3.70-pound, 20-inch fish they caught aboard the Rusty Hook.

He’s been fishing the festival since 1990, and Stepanski joined him on the water 12 years ago. They have no concrete plans yet for their unexpected cash windfall.

“We’ll find something to do with it,” Stepanski said.

“It will go in the bank,” Westenbarger said, adding that he already owns all the fishing equipment he needs.

While the $25,000 could cover the cost of a new boat, he said he’s quite content to stick with his Rusty Hook.

The fact this is the first time Big Brownie has been taken during the tournament isn’t lost on tournament officials, who had nixed the $25,000 prize for a few years because no one had ever before reeled in the fish for the money.

“The only people more excited than the winner are the Brown Trout committee members,” Brown Trout official Diane Cantle said. “We just started up the big prize money again this year. For a few years we had done away with it because no one had ever caught the fish.”

She said officials were in the process of making sure the documentation of the catch was handled correctly to ensure release of the prize money to the couple. She also expressed the committee’s pleasure over the winners being local residents with a history of participating in the tournament.

“We are so excited that it was someone who fishes all the time and that it’s someone local,” Cantle said. “We would be thrilled for anyone who caught Big Brownie, but this makes it more special.”

The task of planting the tagged brown trout each year falls to Tournament Director Brad MacNeill. He was home sleeping after a night shift when he got the call.

“I figured sooner or later someone would catch Big Brownie,” MacNeill said. “This is going to be really good for the Brown Trout Festival.”

He said he did the plant last Friday three and a half miles out at 9:30 a.m., and that Stepanski and Westenbarger caught it at 9:15 a.m. about one and a half miles out.

MacNeill said that on two other occasions a Big Brownie has been reeled in, but not during the tournament. Three years ago, the tagged fish was caught two weeks after the tournament.

“They caught it by the breakwall and I had planted it by the pier,” he said.

Then in the 1980s, MacNeill remembers another fisherman having caught Big Brownie before the official start of the competition.

“Regulations stipulate that the fish must be planted 72 hours before the festival begins,” he said. “A fisherman caught Big Brownie the next day after it was planted. He was a good fisherman and knew what it was so he threw it back in the water.”

For now, the 2017 Big Brownie has been safely stowed away in ice, but the winning couple said they plan to get their history-making catch mounted for posterity’s sake.

Diane Speer can be reached via email at dspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5691. Follow Diane on Twitter ds_alpenanews.

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