You could debate whether it’s nature or nurture that starts an angler toward success in tournament bass fishing. In the case of Thor and Mitchell Swanson, the answer is both.
Like so many Minnesota natives, the brothers grew up with rod in hand, logging thousands of hours on the bass-rich waters surrounding the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. They also come from a fishing family with deep roots in the tournament scene.
So rich is their family fishing tradition that the two brothers went off to college together at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota because of the campus’ proximity to good bass lakes and the quality of the school’s fishing club. Teammates throughout their college careers, Thor and Mitch fished 11 FLW tournaments together, and before they graduated last year they qualified for their second YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship, which takes place this week on the Potomac River.
Both brothers share the same aspirations to go pro in bass fishing. That’s the long-term goal. In the short term, they’re hoping to achieve the one milestone that eluded them through four years of competition: a collegiate win.
They have just one more chance to earn it.
It’s common throughout the college fishing ranks for student anglers to change partners from time to time as class schedules dictate participation and teammates graduate. In Thor and Mitchell’s case, that was never really necessary.
Mitch, age 25, is the elder sibling. After high school, he enrolled at Bemidji State University, but he experienced a slow start to his college career.
“I’m three years older than Thor, and I went there for a semester right after high school. I didn’t like it. I didn’t have a boat or anything,” he says. “So, I left. I started working. Then my buddy made the bass team at Bemidji, and it was right when my brother was finishing high school.”
Mitch and Thor talked it out, and they decided to enroll in classes together.
While Mitch will certainly benefit from the business marketing degree he earned at Bemidji State, he admits the educational opportunities weren’t the deciding factor in why the brothers chose Bemidji over other universities in the state.
“It was for the fishing,” he confesses. “If it wasn’t for college fishing, I don’t even think I would’ve gone back to school.”
“One hundred percent,” adds Thor. “We knew they had a campus on the lake, and when you look at it on Google Earth or Google Maps and zoom out, there are just tons of lakes everywhere. We knew that was the best option for us. It’s four hours from home, but the fishing opportunity was just great, and we knew we wanted to fish every day. My junior year, I took all online classes so I could fish every day, and I did schoolwork at night.”
The Swanson brothers’ preparation for tournament fishing began during their pre-teen years when they got their first johnboat, which was rigged with a 9-hp outboard, to fish on a lake near their family’s cabin.
Their father, Brad Swanson, frequented large local tournaments in Minnesota. And their grandfather, Robert Dickson, fished a handful of FLW tournaments as a co-angler. Both brothers, looking back to their formative years, recall admiring a photo of their grandfather taken with Jimmy Houston at one of those FLW events.
It only made sense that they’d navigate the tournament waters together in college. Their history fishing with one another also turned out to be a major competitive advantage.
“I never fished [tournaments] with anybody else,” says Thor, 22, who studied marketing communications. “It’s pretty awesome. We grew up fishing together out of a little 14-foot duck boat, and then when we went to college we knew we’d fish together. We have a little club series up there at Bemidji, so we always fished together in those and kind of transitioned to the college stuff too.
“You can imagine if you fish with the same person over and over, you kind of click at some point. So when we go fishing together we know exactly how we’re going to approach something. If we fish up shallow, one will throw a flipping bait and one will throw a moving bait. We always know what the other person is doing.”
Mitch describes the brothers’ connection as teammates evolving into a sort of subconscious understanding of how to work together based on their individual strengths and preferences. For instance, Mitch is the heavy-hitter of the pair, preferring to gear up with 65-pound-test braid and a heavy rod over anything else.
“We’ve kind of adapted to how each one of us fishes,” he says. “Any time we come to a patch of reeds, if we flip it, he always takes the outside edge and I always go as far in as I can. It’s the same aspect with frogs. He likes a walking frog; I like a popping frog. It helps when we fish together because we both know how the other likes to fish. We don’t even do a whole lot of talking, and if we do, even off the water, it’s pretty much all fishing. That’s pretty much all we talk about.”
Their connection as brothers and teammates has produced consistent results, including five top-20 finishes in 11 YETI FLW College Fishing appearances, two FLW College Fishing National Championship qualifications, three top-20 finishes at the Bassmaster College Series Championship (including two top 10s) and two Bassmaster College Series Regional top 20s (including a third-place finish).
Business marketing and marketing communications are smart majors for aspiring pros who’ll eventually need to create their own brands and promote sponsor partners. Thor and Mitchell both hope to make it at the highest ranks one day. For now, they’re being patient, hoping for a National Championship win with FLW to give them a boost in notoriety, but also preparing financially for when the time is right, however their collegiate finale turns out.
Thor works in operations for Penske Truck Leasing. His employer grants him enough time off to fish the Bassmaster Cenral Opens. Mitch, who wanted to avoid an office job, landed a gig as an installer for Rain for Rent, which tackles projects such as oil and sewer pipeline construction. He had planned to fish the full T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Great Lakes Division and Costa FLW Series Central Division schedules this season, but hasn’t accrued the vacation days needed to get away yet. Instead, he’ll cherry-pick some BFLs this summer and compete at the National Championship while squirreling away as much money as possible for making a run at the triple-A ranks down the road.
Both believe Minnesota and the entire Midwest region is an overlooked, yet suitable place for young anglers to build their skills for a shot at the pros. They point to Minnesotans Seth Feider, Josh Douglas, Austin Felix and Chad Smith, as well as Canadian brothers Chris and Cory Johnston, as examples of pros that made it out of their area.
Aspiring to be like the Johnston brothers is setting some lofty goals, but the connection makes sense. The Ontario hammers are a good example of how family ties can be beneficial on the tournament trail.
“Obviously, me and Mitch would like to be like those two,” says Thor. “I just think it’s awesome that they’re winning so much, and what they’ve done coming from Canada is pretty crazy. It’s unreal, especially since they have to drive twice the distance as everyone else to compete in tournaments. So they have so much expense and time. It’s crazy that they’ve been able to do it, and they’re killing it.”
Mitch and Thor recognize there are gaps in the Minnesota bass fishing repertoire that they need to fill. They’ve made strides to do so by competing in FLW College Fishing Opens on Kentucky Lake and other collegiate events throughout the central U.S.
“I definitely think there’s still a learning curve,” says Thor. “We don’t have the baitfish that everybody else does, like blueback herring, shad and stuff like that. It’s all perch and bluegill here. It’s a hindrance a little bit.”
The advantage Minnesota has is its 10,000-plus lakes and rivers. More than 2,000 fisheries have largemouth bass, and more than 500 have smallmouths. There’s also ample variety.
“I feel like the only downfall of Minnesota is the wintertime,” Mitch explains. “But as far as knowing techniques to fish, you can go to one lake and catch them 25 feet deep on a football jig and go to the next lake down the road and catch them flipping milfoil up shallow. The only thing we don’t throw much of is crankbaits in Minnesota, just for the fact we have a lot of pike here. But as far as diversity goes and knowing a handful of techniques, Minnesota is great for that.”
Thor concurs and adds that the bass are virtually always biting. Their willingness to chew allows him to cram a full year’s worth of fish catches into just a few months’ time during the open-water season.
“I’ve got some buddies that primarily fish shallow or primarily fish deep. You can get away with it sometimes, but to have good finishes overall, everywhere you go, you need to be pretty versatile,” he says. “I’ve been working on a couple different lures I want to get a little confidence in. In Minnesota it’s a little easier. I pick out a lure, go to a lake and just throw it until I get confidence I can get the fish to bite it. It’s just so easy half the time.”
Versatility aside, both brothers agree their biggest strength is shallow power fishing, particularly around grass – skills that should be valuable at the Potomac come championship week.
Due to work scheduling, neither Mitch nor Thor was able to take his boat to Maryland to pre-fish for the National Championship. Instead, they’re relying on internet research and past Potomac River episodes of the FLW TV show to get an idea of what to expect.
They’ll dial in further during the official practice period, which ends Monday afternoon.
While the usual baits that win at the Potomac – swim jigs, ChatterBaits, frogs, Texas rigs, etc. – fall right into the Swanson brothers’ wheelhouse, figuring out the tides will stretch their fish-finding abilities.
“I have never been on tidal waters before,” says Thor. “I think my brother told me it went in 2-foot swings. The only way our water goes up in Minnesota is if it rains.”
With basically two full days of practice, their strategy is to break the river system down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
“I think the way we’re going to attack it is to just pick out two of the bigger, more popular areas and spend a day in each,” Thor says. “If they’re popular, it’s for a reason. There are obviously good fish there. You just have to find them.”
If they find them, the brothers hope their experience fishing together will help them execute at the level needed to finally get a W.
It’s not just the National Championship on the line, either. This season, both members of the winning team earn spots in the FLW Cup at Lake Hamilton in August. The Cup pays every place, and every dollar helps when making the change from the low-cost, club-supported college tournament scene to paying their own way in the pro-am ranks.
Plus, just being there earns an angler a lot of notoriety and has jumpstarted many FLW Tour careers.
Mitch and Thor are well aware of the potential value of a Cup appearance. They saw what it did for fellow Minnesota native and 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship winner Austin Felix, who’s now enjoying a successful Tour career.
“To us it would mean everything,” says Mitch of winning the National Championship and qualifying for the Cup. “To me, it feels like we’ve been so close. If it were to happen I feel like it would change both of our lives, for sure. It would give us an opportunity to do what Austin Felix did. It would at least give us the chance to do what we want to do and hopefully make the best out of it.”
To this point, the Swanson brothers have enjoyed a very similar career path as Felix. To stay on track would take a big win against a stacked college field.
It’s a tall order, for sure, but after a lifetime of bass fishing in the varied waters of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and a unique brotherly bond resulting from growing up together on the water, Mitch and Thor are as well-prepared for the task as any team in the field.