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It was ‘this’ big: Broomfield students win state fishing title

Riley Petrone and Joey Punko won the high school state title in bass fishing

Riley Petrone (left) and Joey Punko (right) at the high school BASS state championship at Horsetooth Reservoir on Sept. 25, 2022.
Riley Petrone (left) and Joey Punko (right) at the high school BASS state championship at Horsetooth Reservoir on Sept. 25, 2022.
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Riley Petrone talked about life through fishing with a phone in one hand. Held his rod in a lake he forgot the name of in the other.

When having a conversation with the 17-year-old local fisherman Monday afternoon, it only made sense he was resting his line in a place somewhere off the grid. His locus of pearl.

“I got another fish,” Petrone said, his third during a 15-minute chat. This one was a walleye that his friend helped him unhook.

“This guy’s about 16 inches, just over a 2-pounder. He’s probably 17 (inches).” He sent a picture of it moments later.

One of the fish Riley Petrone caught Monday, October 17, 2022.
One of the fish Riley Petrone caught Monday, October 17, 2022.

The fish seem to get bigger every time for Petrone of late. But this is a story you can believe.

Petrone and fishing partner and fellow-Broomfield High student Joey Punko snagged bigger and bigger catches last month at the Colorado BASS High School Championship at Horsetooth Reservoir, winning the club state title while punching their tickets to the national Bassmaster tournament next year.

Tasked with hauling in the heaviest seven bass over a seven-hour period, the pair won with a bag of more than 11 pounds. As they remembered the day, after being dry for the first few hours they pulled in somewhere around 30 fish in a span of 90 minutes.

Bigger fish went in, smaller went out — the best was judged before all were released for good.

“We just kept catching and catching and a lot of them were bigger than the last, fortunately,” Punko, 17, said.

Call it catch and relief following (in true Hemingway fashion) a last-place finish in their first club tournament together the year before.

“I think Joey caught two that day and I got skunked,” Petrone recalled of the 2021 tournament at Chatfield Reservoir. But that’s fishing. “Sometimes it’s the person. Sometimes it’s the place. Some days are just better than others.”

Both know it well, being on the water since they were small children.

As far back as he could remember, Petrone said he loved catching animals — things on land, like frogs. Catching fish, though, was the best.

Punko on the other hand said it was his dad that got him into it. He took him out on the water as soon as he could walk. Punko said his first cast ended up in a rainbow trout, which is mounted in his home.

Their passions would bypass each other for years fishing at Josh’s Pond in the Lac Amora Neighborhood in Broomfield. Only later would they become partners in the Front Range Bass Club, fishing for gold.

“Just one day we started fishing together,” Petrone said. “We exchanged numbers I guess and now we fish together a lot. Fish in big tournaments.”

From left: Frank Villa, Joey Punko, Riley Petrone and their boater, Edwin Johnson at the high school BASS state championship at Horsetooth Reservoir last month on Sept. 25, 2022.
From left: Frank Villa, Joey Punko, Riley Petrone and their boater, Edwin Johnson at the high school BASS state championship at Horsetooth Reservoir last month on Sept. 25, 2022.

The two could talk fishing, while fishing, all day long.

It takes more than luck and patience to be good, they say — though those are both needed.

Before the state tournament last month, they “pre-fished” at the reservoir. That’s when anglers scope out the best biting spots of the next day’s tournament, looking for any important intel.

On the big day, they explain how deep the line should go in the water depending on temperature and time of season, among other things. Their knowledge of sport and its techniques drowns into something of a different language to a novice.

“You have to be able to fish differently throughout the day,” Petrone said while fishing. “This morning we were catching them on top waters and they were really aggressive because it’s early morning. And I actually caught a fish while we’ve been on the phone, and I caught it on a very slow moving lure.”

Both he and Punko say they fish most days through the fall season. Hours upon hours.

They’ll ice fish in the winter.

What keeps them coming back is the outdoors, the struggle, the competition with nature. It all leads up to that moment of bliss.

Catching a fish “is a feeling of success and excitement,” Punko said. “It’s a lot of fun just fighting the fish to get it in.”

Days with the biggest hauls are the best. Though, they cherish them all.