The boy was five the first time his Great Uncle Ken took him out in his boat. The resigned words of an avid fisherman turned reluctant babysitter echoed across the bay--"I'll have him back in an hour."
Five hours later they returned, both grinning ear to ear. "Catch anything?" I asked my son. "Sure did!" Dylan proudly held up a six-inch sunfish.
I turned an apologetic smile towards Uncle Ken, grateful that he fell on that sword for me. "Wore him out finally?" I laughed. Uncle Ken shook his head. "No. Other way around. That boy could fish all day." (Ten years later, he still does.)
Personally, I never understood it. Fishing has never floated my boat. I grew up on the ocean, adjacent a West African fishing village even, but I wanted action and fun, not... well... static boredom. I chose surfing over swordfishing. I got into golfing as a hobby, fatherhood as a career, then writing as a... well... whatever it is I'm doing. The only time you'd catch me dead sitting on the water for 10+ hours was if I was in fact dead. And then I learned a valuable lesson.
Life Is Fleeting. I've been a stay-at-home dad for almost fifteen years now, fifteen years after I swore I'd never do it... not even for a day. My fourth and final child is mere months away from her first day of school, and I'm that far away from tearfully reminiscing over every moment I had at home with each of them.
I learned my lesson last summer, when traveling around the country with my wife and kids. My girls wanted me to go swimming with them every day. Literally. Every. Day. My son, he didn't necessarily want me to fish with him... but he wanted me to "go fishing" with him. He wanted me to be there while he caught fish. Six months and six huge fishing trips later, I get it. I understand the allure of no mobile interruptions, and of being out on the lake so early that you wake up the loons so late that you catch the reflections of fireflies on the water.
I thrived on the joy in Dylan's eyes as he yanked a thrashing bass to the surface and, again, as one of his sisters asked if she could come fishing next time, too.
It turns out, (a surprise to no avid fisher) that fishing is about loving the little things in life (occasionally bigger things), and (in a father's case) about spending undistracted time with the ones you love in their element. It's about sacrificing what you really want to do for what you really should be wanting to do. No matter how old you are, trust me, it's not too late to fall in love with the hobby. Whether or not you have a kid to take, there's a lake out there with your name on it. (There has to be in this state.) I spent over 100 hours on the lake with my kids this past year and never caught a single fish myself. But I hauled in a boatload of memories and, for the first time in my life, I heard the words come out of my mouth--"I can't wait to go fishing again!"
LEGEND OF EXCEPTIONALLY LARGE FISH
Lynn "Lunker" Harker was also five the first time he went fishing, and he was hooked every bit as hard as my son. 60+ years later he's still doing it daily, emerging from 35 years in a Brainerd classroom to complete his education career as a fishing guide on the water bodies across the state.
It was Lynn's grandfather, James, that enabled his passion, himself a professional guide in the Whitefish Chain of lakes (Minnesota's S'more Capital). Lynn's grandfather charged $5 a day for his services, taking clients out in a cedar-strip wooden boat with a 5 horsepower motor. His "high-tech" depth finder was a construction plumb bob with incremental knots. They would fish places known as "The Rock Pile" and "Foley's Bar," or for smallmouth bass just off the dock, often catching keepers with only a 5-pound line. His grandfather owned a cabin Up North and of everywhere on earth, if Lynn had but one last day to fish, that's where he would go. "For the beauty and the memories," Lynn says, then waffles a bit (understandably). "That, or the Rainy River." Lynn and his son, Jamie, once caught over 100 walleyes there, in just a few glorious hours. (Best fishing day of his life!)
Today Lynn Harker goes by the trade name "Lunker," for the exceptionally large fish he's known for catching. He operates mostly out of Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge Resort (covering the Brainerd Lakes/Mille Lacs region) and he took my son and I out on Bay Lake with his good friend Captain Don Nyvold. The Ranger 621 Vs purred like a turbo-powered, swimming kitten as we pulled away from the docks, in search of largemouth bass, pike, and walleye. Chased in early by a storm, we nonetheless caught a significant haul, 19 fish in just three hours, including a 27-inch "Hammer Handle" (northern pike) and a 20-inch walleye.
Lynn prefers to fish using the technique known as "jigging." I asked him if he ever goes fly fishing and he replied. "No. I like to catch fish." He doesn't use live bait (prefers PowerBait plastic worms) and two fish into our journey we learned what makes a guided fishing trip with him such a remarkable experience for kids. After my son hauled in a somewhat unspectacular rock bass, Lynn said, "Watch this." He proceeded to point out a bald eagle perched in the trees and thunked the side of the boat with the fish. Immediately the eagle launched itself in our direction. Lynn tossed the fish through the air and, mere seconds after it splashed, the eagle plucked it from the water. "Wow," I said. "That was awesome," Dylan echoed.
Ask Lynn for fishing advice and he'll tell you to not be discriminatory of species when you fish (especially with kids). "Let them catch fish and have fun!" And, when you get a bite, set the hook hard--
"Rip Their Lips Off."
LEGEND OF THE DEEP SEA
Captain Darren Peck has two kids (Jack and Katie), two yellow labs, and a beautiful wife (Annalisa) that is almost too good of a cook. Man, that Venison Parmesan! It makes sense that a man with so many twos would be on his second boat--Tofte Charters II. (Stretch transition.) TCII is a 27'7" Baha Cruiser, a comfortable 375 HP aquatic limousine, perfect for fishing salmon and trout on Lake Superior.
Darren's life isn't now, nor has it ever been, all fishing. That said, he has 27 years of experience on Lake Superior. The U.S. Coast Guard licensed, Fire Department volunteer may spend every day from May to November running charters on the water, but his "in between" months are spent on land, grooming ski trails, helping people, and spending quality time with his family (a lot of it at Lutsen Resort). He worked at Bluefin Bay Resort for 20 years in a variety of positions but finally had to break away--he needed to be on the water more. He needed to be fishing more!
The first catch every year has a name--"Katie's Catch." Darren won't touch a pole or run a charter until his daughter catches that fish. Katie likes to fish with her dad, but then, who wouldn't? Forget for a second that you're surrounded by a freshwater ocean, the stunning Sawtooth Mountains, and Superior National Forest, and that Darren insists, "If I see two other fishing boats in a day, it's crowded." TCII has a hardtop, enclosed cabin, and Cannon electric downriggers, a Hummingbird fish locator, GPS Navigation, and everything but a toaster (just saying). To fish with Darren and his toolbox of lures is like singing a duet at a talent show with Carrie Underwood. (You're going to win!) Tofte Charters are a huge perk of an experience for those staying at Lutsen Resort, (a family favorite of ours as well) home base for a steady stream of Darren's loyal clients.
A guide is useful on Lake Superior because "deep sea" fishing involves a lot of trolling (not the social media kind) and spooning (not the... never mind). The fishing lines trail the boat, which sounds simple, but there's a learned finesse to the execution--a steep curve to being successful. The boat speed has to be just right, the depth of the lures spot on, and the water temperature has to be as close to 50 degrees as possible.
There's a tale of a daring rescue in 8-foot swells during a Midwest tempest that Darren preferred I not share. (You'll have to ask him yourself.) He was however open to disclosing his passion for performing "Fish CPR," which I should probably explain. It's Catch, Photograph, and Release, which is what Dylan did with all but two of his 10 lake trout--even the 15-pound one. The other two fish Darren cleaned and ice packed, as he does for all his clients, and we gratefully took those II monsters home.
BENEFITS TO HIRING A FISHING GUIDE
• No boat ownership, insurance, or maintenance expenses.
• No towing, trailer, or parking issues.
• Spending a day with someone as passionate as you
are about fishing.
• Not having to keep up with all the costly advances
• They know the local fish hot spots under all weather
LEGEND OF CANOE COUNTRY
Mike Heiman is crazy. Crazy lucky... crazy nice... crazy cool... and, well, crazy crazy. (Apologies to every English teacher ever, and to my super awesome editor.)
Mike is Crazy Lucky. He wakes up every day in Ely, Minnesota, kisses his wife, Allison, goodbye, and goes to work for Jim and Joan Blauch (with their kids Gavin and Claire) at Moose Track Adventures Resort on Farm Lake--a gorgeous gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Mike has worked at that Boundary Waters Outfitter & Guide Service post for 13 years now--at the aquatic doorway to heaven (in Minnesota). Mike is lucky--even lucky enough to have seen actual moose (almost extinct in Minnesota now) on his canoe trips.
Mike is Crazy Nice. He and Dylan hit it off right away, and the Blauch's swear he's the nicest "kid"--basically family to them. "Mike loves working with kids, loves teaching them how to fish and loves sharing in their successes." Mike's favorite way to fish is out of a canoe. In fact, he might like canoes just a bit too much. (I'll get to that.) Mike is also nice enough to warn Up North visitors about the dangers of Lyme Disease (something that hits close to home for him). "If you're fishing, hiking or camping anywhere, you need to watch out for ticks."
Mike is Crazy Cool. He fell in love with fishing when he was young... um, younger. (He's not 30 yet.) He's cool enough to let clients use a bobber. When inexperienced boaters get tired of paddling, Mike keeps the boat moving and he knows the subtle differences in technique to use between fishing a lake or a river. Mike is soft-spoken but enthusiastic, aware enough to high-five a 15-year old when he hooks a 20" smallmouth--never forgetting how cool it is to catch a big fish, no matter how many thousand he's seen. BTW - We left that beast in the shallows near what I call "Big Smallmouth Island"--three islands up the Kawishiwi River from Farm Lake. Go get him!
And Mike is Crazy Crazy. This is Where His Legend Begins. Last summer, Mike embarked on a 78-day canoe/fishing trip through the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park to International Falls and Lake of the Woods. (His longest prior trip was 8 days.) Do you have any idea how much time that is in a canoe? That's almost 115,000 minutes. How long can you sit still? Yeah, that's what I thought. Mike is crazy.
LEGEND OF THE MN FISHING HALL OF FAME
Royal Karels is "the nicest old man I've ever met." That's what my son said. (A tribute that Royal's four kids and multiple grandkids would no doubt endorse.) But this wonderful and extremely accommodating man has received plenty of accolades far greater than my son's, including what is arguably fishing's greatest local honor. Royal Karels, in 2016, was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame is an odd place for a man like Royal, who would prefer the spotlight be redirected towards the people he'd do anything for--like Dutch and Irma Cragun, the owners of Cragun's Resort in Brainerd. (We're in the same boat on that one.) That people today can still have the opportunity to book a legend like Royal as their guide is a testament to the great fishing fortune we have in Minnesota, and (should you be looking to fish around Brainerd) an option you ought not overlook.
Royal (like seemingly every avid angler) began fishing at age five and literally started his guiding career in a rowboat at age 10 on Shirt Lake, while working for his grandfather. He knew every corner of that lake then like he knows every corner of water around Gull Lake now. Royal graduated from St. Cloud State and (like Lynn Harker) was a schoolteacher in Brainerd before transferring to the outdoor classroom full-time in 1993. He married his "greatest catch"--his high school sweetheart, Diane--and is entering his 49th year as a professional fishing guide. To say that Royal Karels has a passion for fishing is like saying Tom Brady is good at football. "Is fishing something you can perfect?" I asked him. "No," he replied. "Fishing Is Already Perfect."
It was a great quote, but even Royal would concede it's not entirely true. As much as he loves fishing he wishes people would appreciate the "nature" aspect of it a little more. Royal has been advocating for the "Catch and Release" program since the 1970's. He has no problem with people mounting a trophy fish or three, and/or keeping a few big ones to eat, but he hates seeing wastefulness, and wants future generations of fishers to have the opportunity to catch "the big ones" too.
People who get the chance to fish with Royal don't pass on it. Ask Bob who just took his 60th trip with Royal in October, or Al from Naperville, Illinois--a man who has been fishing with Royal for 47 years now... well over 100 trips. Royal takes on 100+ guiding gigs a year and his Guide Book would be even more overbooked if it weren't for the fact that he sometimes elects to just "get away," (to fish with his kids and grandkids).
Dylan caught 11 fish with Royal on Lake Sylvan, including a 38-inch 14.5 pound northern that Royal insisted he could keep. Dylan respectfully took a picture, then let it go.
We were in Estes Park, Colorado, fishing for rainbow trout at a stocked farm (if that even counts as fishing). It costs $1.25 an inch for whatever fish you catch, and I would imagine I wasn't the only dad praying his kid would catch a minnow. Alas, Dylan caught a 26" trout in about 2.3 seconds. "Isn't Fishing Awesome, Dad?" he asked. I looked at the beautiful mountains around us and took a deep breath of perfectly pure air before responding, probably with a slight bit of sarcasm. "Yeah...It Sure Is."