Saturday Singles Nos. 130 & 131

Originally posted May 9, 2009

Today is one of the most-observed unofficial holidays of the year here in Minnesota: It’s the fishing opener!

Earlier this morning, as Friday changed into Saturday, the season opened across Minnesota’s 13,000 or so lakes. (Our license plates say “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but I don’t know if that’s Nordic modesty or if somebody miscounted the first time and the folks who came along after the second, more accurate count, said, “Close enough.”) That meant that Thursday and Friday, the highways leading from the Twin Cities to the northern part of the state showed a constant stream of traffic.

I’ve never done a fishing opener. Fishing has never been a pastime that’s attracted me much. But for about four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I went fishing once a year with my pal Larry. He and I met in late 1978 at a gathering of journalists; he was the editor of a weekly newspaper published in Isle, Minnesota, on the southeast corner of Mille Lacs Lake, one of Minnesota’s larger lakes and one of its most prime fishing spots. We saw each other regularly at our monthly meetings in St. Cloud, and after one of them, he invited me up for a day of fishing. So, one summer Saturday in ’79, I packed my rudimentary fishing gear – one rod and reel and a woefully stocked tackle box – into the car and headed north to Wahkon, the small town just outside of Isle, where Larry lived with his wife and young daughters.

He and I spent the day in his boat on Mille Lacs, trying to catch either walleye or northern. We got some sunfish and crappies, two smaller fish that are good eating (but tedious because of all the small bones). Sometime late in the afternoon, I lost a lure when it got caught on something underwater and my line broke. Larry offered to let me use one of the many he had in his deluxe tackle box. I declined, and spent the little that remained of the afternoon sipping beer, smoking cigarettes and talking with Larry about life and lures.

That afternoon started a tradition: Once a summer for the next four years, I’d head north. In the next year, Larry got a job editing a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, another hundred miles further north, and the day trips became a weekend trip to visit Larry and Joyce and the girls. We’d spend Friday evening playing board games or just catching up with each other, and Saturday found Larry and me out on a couple of different lakes, usually Lake Pokegema south of Grand Rapids in the morning and then, in the afternoon, Trout Lake, just south of the nearby small town of Coleraine. I’d fish until I lost a lure, which was my signal to sit back, pop a beer and enjoy the day out on the boat.

Larry was a far more committed angler than I was. During those years in Isle and Grand Rapids, he’d slip away from the office whenever he could find time, taking his boat out on Mille Lacs in the first years I knew him and then out on Pokegama or one of the many other lakes in the Grand Rapids area in those later years. An editor in both cities, he christened his fishing boat Assignment so that if someone called for him at his office, his secretary could honestly say, “I’m sorry, but Larry’s out on Assignment.”

During one of my visits, probably in 1982, I even caught a small northern. Somewhere in my boxes is a picture of me holding my catch. (I think it’s 1982 because I got the Yellowstone baseball cap I’m wearing in the picture during a trip west in 1981.) Larry did much better than I at fishing: pretty much every year, we headed back to his house with a good catch of walleyes, northern and smaller fish. I usually had a package of frozen fish to take home with me the next morning.

I last saw Larry in early 1987, when I took a couple days off from St. Cloud State and spent a long weekend in Grand Rapids. We didn’t go ice fishing. Instead, we went to a couple of hockey games and just sat around the house and caught up on things. That summer, I moved to Minot, and sometime that autumn, Larry left newspapering and moved west to Washington. Letters went back and forth for a few months, and then a letter sat unanswered on someone’s desk (probably mine) for too long, and we lost touch with each other. I heard, but I’ve never confirmed, that sometime in the 1990s, Larry had a heart attack and crossed over.

But wherever he is, I’d like to think that today, the fishing opener, he’s got a line in the water and a beer in one hand, out on Assignment.

Here are two versions of a perfectly appropriate song for Larry, today’s Saturday Singles.

“Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas, Vocalion 1249 (Chicago, June 13, 1928)

“Fishin’ Blues” by Taj Mahal, from De Ole Folks At Home (Los Angeles, June 27, 1969)

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