IN NORTH-CENTRAL MINNESOTA — Fishing stories often are not only about fishing. Frequently misunderstood as tales of conquest, or attempts at conquest, the best of these yarns instead often regale the vagaries of family or friendship, or sometimes the settling of scores whose origins defy recollection. "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after," Henry David Thoreau observed years ago, and he had a point.
We were on the water a short while after daybreak because Marv Koep figured low light would be our best shot at catching a few walleyes. Mike Arms, a retired Catholic priest pal of Marv's and mine, and a veteran of more than one sunrise service, was good with the early wakeup call. So we launched Marv's boat into Pelican Lake when the sun was angled perhaps only 20 degrees above the horizon. This was a few mornings back and we had the lake nearly to ourselves.
Attempting to catch walleyes in July beneath blue skies with no wind and temperatures soon pushing into the high 80s can be tough sledding. Yet as Marv brought his boat on plane, billowing our light jackets, the morning bore the eternal promise of possibility. The rest of humanity must be as clueless as stones not to be here, we figured, and we high-tailed it to our first honey hole.
"The water temperature is already 78 degrees,'' Marv intoned over the outboard's rumble.
Except in spring when he'll impale shiners on bare hooks or small jigs to seduce walleyes, Marv's a redtail chub man. Known in Minnesota angling lore as the owner, with his wife, Judy, of the now-shuttered Koep's Nisswa Bait and Tackle, Marv is a veritable repository of all things fishing within a 100-mile circle of Brainerd.
"Bottom is about 28 feet,'' he said, settling his boat to a stop. "We didn't always fish this deep to find walleyes in this lake. But the water's so clear because of zebra mussels the weed line is farther down.''
Redtails are expensive and Marv has learned through the years he loses fewer of them if he baits everyone's hooks rather than allowing clients to perform this rudimentary function themselves. We're fishing as friends, so Marv was essentially off-duty. But he can't shake the habit, and soon enough he performed this service. Then, the three of us lowered our chubs to the bottom, where they swam vigorously, anchored by sliding sinkers.
Bass and muskie anglers sometimes upchuck the tired observation that walleye fishing is "like watching paint dry.'' Repetitive casting, they argue, is a faster and more productive way to cover water and also less tedious.
Walleye anglers counter that these are animals of different stripes, walleye fishing and just about every other form of angling, and anyway, as the turtle said to the hare, just because you're moving doesn't mean you're going anywhere.
Time passed, nothing bit, and we settled into the rigmarole of group fishing.
"Mike,'' I said, "I guess the Packers signed [Aaron] Rodgers to a big contract and all is kumbaya in Green Bay. This can't be good for your Vikings.''
Prince owned a lot of purple. But he had nothing on Mike, whose possessions include his two season-ticket-holder seats from the Metrodome, in which he passed many a frustrating autumn afternoon.
Yet as Mike is quick to remind you, backed up by none other than Jesus, all things are possible for those who believe, including Super Bowl victories.
"Rodgers has his bags packed,'' Mike said. "He's going to Denver. Or San Francisco. Or Jeopardy. Whatever. He's out of Green Bay. Go Vikings.''
Ignoring this banter, Marv intently watched the bottom contours displayed on one of his two sonar units. Deploying his stern-mounted electric trolling motor, he used the measurements to guide his boat at the exact depth he wanted, along the course he wanted.
As he did, he watched for "hooks'' on the screen, indicating fish lurking below.
"There's something,'' I said, and I let line unfurl from my reel into the water.
This wouldn't be a big fish, and I quickly had it in hand, a walleye. Just as quickly we sent it packing back into the lake.
Soon the warm sun arched nearly overhead. The morning still was windless, the sky, cloudless, and the feeling creeped in that if we were going to catch walleyes, we would have done it by now.
Such are the negative vibes that can beset all fishing, indeed all worthwhile undertakings, the only antidote to which is patience, or better yet, the zen-like meditative states that can clarify for anglers and others that challenge engaged is the point of these outings, and less so putting meat in the freezer.
We boated a few more walleyes and a couple of northerns before we angled for shore.
One northern was chunky and offered a good fight, and the walleyes would contribute to a feast Mike planned that evening for visiting cousins, who before dinner would splash into Cross Lake to cool off and afterward would watch the sun set below the distant pines.
Another fishing story, ended.