By Brad Reynolds

Everyone has a big fish story—a catch as long as their boat or a behemoth that got away. They’re tall tales delivered with gusto, and while the storyteller will gladly show you just how big the fish was by stretching their palms far apart, rarely do they have anything in the way of actual evidence.

This is the sort of story Kokko Kuka thought she was being fed by her ten-year-old son, Cinto. When he came home animated about a “thirty-inch walleye” he caught, she suspected it was a goodhearted exaggeration from an excited young boy.

“Then someone showed me the picture,” says Kokko. “Holy cow, it was really neat.”

Cinto’s walleye was indeed thirty inches long, caught (fittingly) at Camp Walleye in August 2017. The camp, sponsored in part by the Great Falls Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited, has taken place at Tiber Reservoir every year since 2000. The 17th Annual Camp Walleye was the first Cinto had attended.

“I had always thought about catching big fish in the world,” he says. “My auntie told me about Camp Walleye. It turned out really good.”

The day of Cinto’s big catch, he was assigned to the boat of Donny and Wendy Roan, friends of his mother who have volunteered at the camp a few years now.

“We were only out on the water about five minutes,” says Wendy. “Cinto cast out the lure he made the night before. I thought it got caught on something but my husband said no; he could see the line moving.”

It took about five minutes for Cinto to reel in his catch, which he did on his own. Donny coached him through it, while Wendy stood ready with the net.

“When I saw it was a big walleye, I thought, ‘If I don’t net this fish, I’ll be thrown overboard,’” she laughs.

After a tough fight, the walleye was netted and put in the boat’s livewell. Wendy says Cinto had to sit down because his legs were shaking from both fatigue and excitement.

“We were all so elated,” says Wendy. “Not many kids get to catch a walleye that big. I’ve never caught a walleye that big!”

After some time in the livewell, the walleye regained its strength and Cinto held it for a photo op. Then the fish was returned to the water.

“It is great to see young kids catch big fish,” says Pat Volkmar, the Great Falls middle school teacher who helped establish and lead Camp Walleye. “Even better: he caught the fish on a spinner he made.”

Everyone was so impressed by Cinto’s achievement that Great Falls Hooked on Fishing not Drugs (Pat’s nonprofit fishing organization for youth) put donations toward a mount of the fish.

“If a child has caught a large fish at Camp Walleye, we pay for mounting of the fish if it’s not killed as part of teaching fish conservation,” Pat explains. “We either do a fiber glass mount or this time we did a carving. Wood was donated by Mike Wedekind and Windsor Plywood, and sculpted by wood artist Tom Maguire.”

Tom, who has been carving fish for 25 years, worked from a photo while creating the life-size replica.

“It makes a good trophy without having to harvest the fish,” he explains “I try to put life into a carving. It represents something someone caught in real life. Doing it for a kid makes it especially rewarding.”

Cinto is excited to have the trophy, a memory and proof of his incredible catch.

“It makes me very happy that they would provide that for me,” he says.

“For me it shows what kind of a community we have,” says Kokko. “A lot of people allowed this to be possible.”

Everyone involved is excited to see Cinto grow as a fisherman, and the young legend already has advice for those looking to snag a whopper of their own; “When you hop on that boat, think good thoughts of you catching that monster fish. That’s what I did.”