A loon howls like a coyote beneath the full moon sky. Its voice carries over the water until answered, followed by silence.
My friend Jim recently invited me to join him and his two kids for an entire week of fishing at the Big Rock Resort on the shores of Leech Lake. This was to be my first visit here, and my very first time fishing.
Leech Lake is Minnesota’s third largest body of water, located in the north central portion of the state, within the Chippewa National Forest.
Jim had camped here years ago and spoke of fish that would not bite, blustery weather and a close call with death in a carbon monoxide filled tent he called “The Governor’s Mansion.”
Undaunted, he chose to return to Leech Lake, but this time in style.
Upon my arrival at Chicago’s Midway Airport, I rode public transportation to the North Shore where I helped Jim load his Mercedes G500 with fishing gear and provisions for our ten-hour drive to Minnesota.
Thanks to a tanking economy and $4.50/gallon gas, Jim was able to rent a three-bedroom cabin on the banks of Leech Lake with ease. Had the price of gas been lower, Big Rock Resort probably would have fully booked.
Jim said his Mercedes G500 is the same model of car used by the United Nation Peace Keepers and even the Pope. Its high roof allows soldiers to enter and exit without bumping their helmets and its transmission has three differential locks that can handle any terrain. Its armored doors and airbags make it one of the safest cars on the road and its fully adjustable, heated, ergonomic leather seats make traveling a real pleasure.
I helped with some of the driving, but Jim, who cut his teeth on the German Autobahn, grew impatient. “You drive like an old lady,” he grumbled. This made sense since I picked up most of my long-haul driving skills from my mom, during our many Las Vegas road trips.
Jim taught me how to drive without relying so much on the cruise control. He cautioned me not to hog the left lane and showed me a way to pass other cars quickly and efficiently, just like a race car driver.
As we drove along, the kids kept us entertained with their endless chatter. I don’t have children, so I found them amusing . . . for a while.
But when Connor (age 11) started saying “I like turtles” over and over and over again, and when Ashley (age 8) began screaming louder than a jackhammer, I started to lose it.
Jim saw my dismay and said, “You know, it’s really not so bad when they’re your own.”
Things eventually calmed down. The driving weather was perfect and we sang along to Johnny Cash, Steve Miller and Harry Chapin.
We relied on a mangled MapQuest printout for navigation because I left the AAA map on the kitchen table. We drove and drove, making only brief pit stops for gas, fast food and mad dashes to the bathroom. We arrived in St. Cloud by nightfall and spent the night in a Best Western Motel.
Early next morning we were back on the road and stopped at S&W Bait and Tackle in Brainerd, MN to buy fishing licenses. They were good for a week and cost $29.50 for an adult and $17 for each child. Jim graciously paid for my license and the clerk handed him a thick, 80-page manual of regulations to read.
We arrived at Leech Lake earlier than expected and had to wait a couple hours for the cabin to be cleaned. We spent that time emptying the truck and piling everything by the front door. Ashley and Connor explored the terrain and made friends with children from a nearby cabin.
I walked around and marveled at the resort’s amenities: Tennis courts, hot tub and floating docks with crisp, new American flags adorning every slip. The resort was managed by Martin and Mary Andreasen and its rustic lodge, graced by tiny, darting hummingbirds, contained souvenirs, tee-shirts, a bar and a satellite TV.
I started making mental calculations and realized that this trip must be costing Jim a fortune. So I took him aside and offered to write him a check to help cover expenses.
“Now you’re insulting me,” he said.
“I just don’t want you to think I’m a freeloader,” I said. “I really do want to pull my weight around here.”
“You are pulling your own weight and then some,” Jim said.
But my responsibilities seemed so slight: I kept a close eye on the kids and told them to play safe. I acted as a referee for wild wrestling matches on the beach and warned them not to throw sand in each other’s eyes or to use sticks as weapons. The only time I needed Jim’s help was when Ashley managed to get her hair tangled in the propeller of her brother’s radio-controlled boat.
Once the three-bedroom cabin was cleaned, we moved in, unpacked and stocked the refrigerator. The cabin was spacious, the mattresses solid and the kitchen fully-equipped. Best of all, I had my own room.
When Jim inspected the cabin he said, “Thank God there’s no television!”
Our rustic cabin, with its screened-in front porch, sat within a stone’s throw of Leech Lake. A rolling lawn with a picnic table marked the front yard and two trees provided shade. From their limbs we suspended a ½-inch thick, 50-foot nylon rope that Jim had brought along. The kids found endless ways to amuse themselves with this rope and I turned part of it into a clothesline for our wet swim suits and towels. Jim said my clothesline made us look like a bunch of hillbillies.
Jim purchased broadband Internet access from the managers so that he could keep in touch with his business, and his sleek AT&T cell phone seemed to work everywhere on the resort.
My clam-shaped, "pay-as-you-go" Virgin Atlantic phone, on the other hand, would only work about 30 feet from the cabin, on top of a little hill, beneath a tree, facing the dock. If I moved an inch, I would lose the signal, but it helped me keep in touch with my long-legged supermodel-partner, Jennifer.
Big Rock Resort soon began to feel like one of the most private and safest places on earth. We left the cabin unlocked; we dressed casually and left our clunky wallets and keys in the cabin.
Once we were settled in, the kids threw on their swimsuits and life jackets and begged to swim out to the inflatable trampoline moored a couple hundred feet from the water’s edge. One look at it and I felt a similar desire.
We waded into the deep water and swam the rest of the way to a ladder which led up to the tough, slippery surface of the trampoline. I bounced the kids off the platform into the surrounding water as Jim watched from shore. When we were thoroughly exhausted, we headed back to the cabin and dried off.
After some relaxation, Jim loaded up our rented 18’ Alaskan Lund fishing boat with gear and we headed out of the tall grass of the harbor to explore the waters of Leech Lake.
Utilizing the onboard depth finder as well as his instincts, Jim found us a secluded area near some weeds. There he taught us how to bait a hook, to cast that hook, to set the hook in the fish’s mouth and how to bring that flopping fish into the boat, without injuring it.
Being of a fairly squeamish nature, I was totally grossed out by the live leeches and crawlers that we were using for bait, but I found Ashley’s unruffled dealings with them to be inspiring. And since I wasn’t about to be totally humiliated in front of this eight-year old, I quickly learned how to handle these spineless, blood-sucking creatures without whining. Most important, I learned how to cast a line without hooking anybody on board.
Once Jim had shown me the basics, he told me to concentrate on what I was doing. Before long I was able to cast the hook pretty much where I wanted it to go and then let the filament rest against my finger. By doing so I could feel when the fish nibbled on the bait, as if it were telegraphing me a message. Jim also taught me about artificial lures and how they were sometimes superior to live bait.
I felt horrible when my line got tangled and even worse when I lost his beautiful red and white, long oval, metal lure in the weeds.
But Jim was supportive. “If you’re not losing lures and bait, then you’re not fishing,” he said.
When you are out fishing with your friends you are both spectator and actor on a stage surrounded by water. Sometimes you are the object of attention (like when you get a bite) and sometimes you are on the sidelines, cheering your friends on when they get a bite, helping them get the fish out of the water, measuring it and, most important: snapping a decent photograph.
Jim had brought expensive fishing gear along for this outing. Yet on that first day of fishing, Ashley had caught her first perch and an 18 inch walleye using her favorite Zepco fishing rod and reel. Connor caught an enormous big mouth bass, which Jim threw back into the water, saying it was a bony fish, not nearly as good eating as walleye.
As Jim piloted our fishing boat into the sheltered harbor at Big Rock Resort, he turned to us and joyfully said, “They fixed Leech Lake!”
Recreation is a huge part of the Minnesota economy and when the fish had disappeared a few years ago, local fishermen and resort owners approached The State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and demanded action.
In response, Leech Lake was stocked with 22 million newly-hatched walleyes in 2006. Strict possession limits and a “slot” policy were introduced. This “18- to 26- inch protected slot,” as it is called, preserves the walleye population by mandating that all walleye of that size be immediately returned to the lake. This frustrating “slot rule” does not apply to other fish, like the sharp-toothed northern pike, which seems to have no problem surviving here.
As a final gesture, the DNR eliminated the walleye’s most deadly predator: the double-crested cormorant, a bird once protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The DNR shot over 11,000 cormorants at Leech Lake in a four-year period, using .22 caliber rifles and shotguns equipped with silencers.
This cormorant genocide seems to have done the trick and the walleye population has rebounded.
On the first night Jim prepared a magnificent dinner of perch, walleye and sunfish, baked potatoes and salad.
At the end of the day, before we all hit the sack, we would all sit down in the living room and I would read to them. The book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the kids would curl up next to each other on the couch and sit mesmerized while I read them a chapter or two.
Last thing I heard Jim say that night was, “First one up in the morning makes coffee and bacon!”
I was first one up that next morning and confidently approached the kitchen as the snores of my host and the kids filled the air. Problem was, I didn’t know how to cook bacon. But I had watched Jim cook breakfast the previous morning and felt confident that I could do it, no problem.
As it turns out, I almost burned the cabin down. The bacon quickly shriveled into tiny bite-sized pieces as the fat melted into an ocean of flammable grease under a fire that had been turned all the way up. Before I knew it, the smoke detectors were going off and Jim, who had been a fireman in his youth, calmly entered the kitchen and turned the heat down, while I watched in horror.
Later, as we sat down for a generous breakfast of crunchy bacon, biscuits, sunny-side up eggs and juice, I spent a good couple minutes trying to spear a sunny-side-up egg from the community plate using a fork. Jim rolled his eyes as he watched me mutilate the poor egg.
“I wonder how your brain works sometimes, Chuck,” Jim said.
I couldn’t even wash the dishes properly.
“No wonder there’s no water in the desert,” Jim said as he watched me struggle with the plates. “You’re using it all to wash one dish!”
Once we were all fed and everything was washed and put away, it was time to fish. On this day Jim hired a professional walleye fisherman to show us the ropes.
Enter Chuck Emery, son of Jerry and Sandy Emery, owners of Red Rock Resort.
Chuck is a top-rated professional walleye fisherman whose corporate sponsors include Crestliner, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia and Fenwick. He pilots a $50,000 Ranger 620VS boat, powered by a 500 pound Mercury 225 horsepower motor that can reach speeds of 70 mph. On board he has a bunch of sonar instruments, useful in keeping track of the bottom of the Lake, as well as locating schools of fish.
Chuck had an easy and professional way about him that commanded respect. And since there were now two Chucks on board, he was now “Captain Chuck” and I was “Mister Chucker.”
The kids took an immediate liking to Captain Chuck. Connor (as a sign of respect I suppose) even stopped saying “I like turtles” over and over in his presence. Captain Chuck kept busy steering the boat, baiting the hooks and carrying on a lively conversation, while making each of us feel important and good about ourselves.
Best of all, he took us to all his favorite fishing holes. “Pete’s Hole” proved to be one of the luckier places and on this day, fishing in the rain and the waves, our catch was impressive. Connor and his dad caught two walleyes, each measuring over 25 inches. Ashley caught a beautiful sunfish and an 18-inch walleye, as well as a bunch of perch. And I caught my first 18 inch walleye.
You've got your good days and your bad days and no amount of fancy equipment is going to make the fish bite when they don’t feel like it.
When you don't catch anything, you've been "skunked," I was told. And although "good luck" can not be guaranteed, there are ways to avoid "bad luck."
“Bananas on a boat are bad luck,” said Jim. "But the baby whale call is good luck . . . And rubbing the reel three times is good luck."
You may be wondering why I am referring to our catch in inches instead of pounds. This is because weighing a fish with a scale can traumatize and even kill it. And since the dreaded “18- to 26- inch protected slot” rule means that you will probably have to throw back at least half of your walleye, you are morally and legally bound to keep your catch in good health.
One way to help a fish to survive the ordeal of “catch and release” is to estimate its weight according to its length and girth. There are many fish-weight calculators on line and they can get within 10 percent of the fish’s actual weight.
After a hard day’s fishing, Captain Chuck taught us how to clean a fish, using the tools and facilities located in the boat house, next to the dock. Since the fish were kept alive in a bait well on board the boat, the fish had to be killed, gutted and filleted. This is a grizzly affair, but honestly, when you’re tired and hungry as a bear, humanitarian thoughts don’t last long. The best thing is simply not to look the fish in the eye after you catch it.
The small fish give up the ghost pretty quickly but the larger fish put up a fight. In order to calm them down, the fish has to be clubbed. At first this caused Connor some distress but that soon changed to fascination as he began asking endless questions about fish anatomy, making me think he might someday be a doctor.
Once the fish were cleaned, we breaded and fried them in oil on a cast iron skillet. There is nothing quite like a dinner of freshly fried, breaded walleye, mashed potatoes, salad and an ice cold beer, or soda, as the case may be.
The next day Jim decided, at the earnest request of Ashley, to rent a 25’ Premier pontoon boat with a 75 hp four stroke Honda motor which Jim called “a floating party barge.”
Two notable things happened on the pontoon boat. First, as we were leaving the dock, Jim noticed that the boat’s propeller had become entangled with undergrowth. This was our encounter with Eurasian Watermilfoil, an invasive non-native species of seaweed that grows like wildfire. Jim solved this problem by simply reversing the motor and allowing the plant to fall off. We can only hope that the DNR can figure out a way to permanently remove this aquatic plague.
The second odd thing occurred when Jim drove the boat close to the floating trampoline. The kids abandoned ship when we got within swimming distance of it and Jim prepared to join them, when I pointed out that there was no way of getting back onto the boat once he jumped off.
It turns out that our hosts had neglected to give us a ladder before we left. He looked at me in surprise, surveyed the boat and decided not to jump, after all.
And that was probably a good thing. It is doubtful that I would have been able to pilot the boat, and even if I were able to get it into the resort’s harbor, I probably would not have been able to park it without taking out the entire dock. My parking skills are bad enough when it comes to cars but they’re abysmal when it comes to vehicles that do not have brakes.
Connor said it best when Jim decided to teach me how to park the fishing boat the next day. He covered his eyes with his hands and said, “Oh no . . . I can’t watch” as I shoved the motor into reverse at the very last moment and barely prevented a collision with the dock.
One day led effortlessly into another. We had all fallen into a wrinkle in time I suppose, like in that book we were reading. “I could easily stay here another week,” I overheard Jim say in a cell phone conversation.
Jim is an excellent photojournalist. A day did not go by when he did not upload a bunch of photos onto his computer and send them to friends and family. The digital photos he sent were perfect size for e-mailing and I was in awe of his computer prowess. Along with every photo, he sent an explanatory blurb of text.
This is what Jim wrote on Day 5 of our trip, “Yes there are huge leeches in Leech Lake: We saw a horse leech in the water while we were fishing that was at least 6 inches long! Connor caught a 12 inch bass and also a 19 inch northern pike. Ashley, Chuck and myself didn’t catch anything on the morning outing.”
On Day 6, Jim wrote, “Today went well . . . Started out with perch fishing in Wogum Bay: The waves were quite big and it took about 45 minutes against the waves to get there, so we just took it slow and easy so we didn’t get beat up too bad by the high surf.
“Connor and Ashley hooked up with some nice perch. Now that we have been out on the water every day for the last five days they are getting comfortable with the rough water boating. Their fishing skills are also getting better. They are tying on their own hooks and rigs, baiting leeches, minnows and crawlers. Getting proficient at casting, hook sets, jigging, trolling, twitching and drag fishing. Ashley has even learned the names of all the lures, and let me tell you there are a lot of them.
“They wanted to clean and cook the fish so I gave them lessons on filet knife sharpening and fish cleaning. Ashley was especially interested in the cleaning of the fish. She even cleaned one herself with a little help from me to guide the knife in the correct direction.
“Then they wanted to cook the perch for lunch, so with a little instruction they cooked the meal and it was quite tasty . . .
“Chuck has decided that there are mosquitoes up here so we now call him the Leech Monster because of his mosquito suit.”
A word of clarification is in order here. The bugs only got bad at night and that’s when I put on my suit, and yes, I suppose it looked odd, but it was absolutely necessary for my survival. It’s true that the managers “had never seen anything quite like it,” but whatever humiliation I suffered was well worth it.
The managers at the lodge showed me a picture album from a golden age when the cabins were booked months in advance. I stared at the yellowing black and white photographs of a bygone era, when an old concrete pier jutted into the lake. Faded color photographs and exquisite postcards spoke of a time when everything was brand new, when the fishing was so plentiful that it seemed as though nothing could keep the resort from flourishing.
The managers left a diary in our cabin which contained the writing of those who had stayed in the cabin. As we began to pack up our stuff and prepare for departure, I looked at what Ashley had written:
“Cabin 7 was the best cabin that I ever stayed in. Last cabin we were in had six people, 2 rooms . . . it was cramped. I love fishing with Chuck Emery. He was the best. On the last day we were out all day and I and an 8 year old girl caught four walleye, one northern pike and two perch. That is 7 in total. I love the pontoon boat, almost hooked myself with one of my dad’s lures. I love leeches especially. I like the trampoline. I hope you like cabin 7 because I did.”
By the time we were ready to leave Big Rock Resort, I marveled at how we had bonded into a family unit.
So, what is it to become part of a family unit? There’s certainly the division of labor. Watching the kids. Cooking the food. Cleaning the plates. Putting out the garbage. Hanging up the wet towels.
But there’s more.
Soon the towels get all mixed up and before you know it, you’re using somebody else’s towel. That’s awkward at first, and soon it’s no big deal.
Singing songs out loud, sharing drinks from the same straw: Awkward at first, then no big deal.
Realizing that I’m not as smart as I thought, learning how to be useful and considerate . . . Coming to terms with the fact I can be every bit as annoying, in my own way, as a boy who says “I like turtles” constantly or a girl who can scream louder than a jackhammer: Awkward at first, then no big deal.
Being invited to join my best friend and his little ones for a week in paradise: Awkward at first, then one of the most relaxing and enjoyable vacations I’ve ever had.
Thank you for visiting Chucksville. If you would like to learn more about Big Rock Resort, Chuck Emery, or how you can own your very own cabin on the shores of Leech Lake, please follow this link.