BILLINGS — At first glance, it may look like fishing just comes easy to McKeever Dahlberg.
He’s got a natural talent for it, no doubt. But he’s also been working on it since he could walk.
"Probably when I was two or three years old at my grandpa’s pond in Red Lodge," Dahlberg said of his first time.
“I knew at an early age it was a passion for him, but I had no clue it would turn into this," said dad Ty Dahlberg. "I don’t think I’ve out-fished him in the last five years. He catches the first fish, he catches the last fish, and I’m trying to figure out what to do in between.”
McKeever makes almost everyone in the country feel that way. Last year, after 15 years of fishing, the 18-year-old decided he was ready for the next step, so he approached dad with an idea.
"Dad, I want to do the pro circuit," McKeever asked. "He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re ready for that.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’”
“How about we do a couple?" Ty retorted. "And he said, ‘Nope. I’m not doing a couple. I’m doing all of them or none of them because I’m going to the championship and you can’t qualify for the championship unless you do all of them.’"
"I said, ‘Ok, we’re doing all of them.’ So we signed up for all of them, and here we are."
McKeever is one of the youngest co-anglers on the National Walleye Tour. Early on, he was met with more than a few sighs from pros who thought they'd just been paired up with a kid still wet behind the ears. But it didn’t take long to change that.
“First day, I didn’t do very good - I was in 70th place," McKeever said of his initial tournament in Chamberlain, South Dakota. "Then the second day, I had the biggest bag of the day out of everyone and jumped to 10th place, so that was pretty cool.”
By the third tournament this summer - not long after his Billings West High graduation - McKeever moved all the way to No. 1.
“Every single pro he’s been out with, they’ve come up to me afterwards and said, ‘This kid is really fun. He’s fun to be around but he’s an awesome fisherman, and he’s a hell of a hand in the boat,'" Ty said.
At this point, everyone wants to catch a glimpse. An hour into our day at Yellowtail Reservoir, a black bear walked down to the shore and sat in the background of McKeever's interview.
Later, after we moved to the other side of the canyon, a brown bear took it one step farther - literally - getting into the water about 30 feet from where McKeever had just caught a small-mouth bass, wishing it had his skills.
Those skills have him sitting No. 3 heading into next month’s National Walleye Tour Championship, set for Sept. 22-24 in Ottertail, Minnesota. At the beginning of the journey, his goal was just to make it there. Now?
“There’s still one more goal," McKeever said. "I dropped two places so I can make two places up again at one more tournament.”
“When he goes in to do something, either he’s going to win it or it’s not worth doing, and that’s how he went into the whole Tour thing," Ty said. "I’m going to come out on the other side a winner, and I’m going to win the championship, and I’m going to win the boat.”
That would come in handy when McKeever turns pro next year, especially if it comes with all the latest technology. His current boat gets the job done, but he admits he can't wait for more.
“No, I can’t," he said with a big smile.
Waiting just isn’t in his vocabulary.