Fast, whipping wind creating four-foot rollers. A powerful motor pushing a forty-six foot launch through the water, lifting, surging and falling, creating squeals of delight from those who love the roller-coaster effect, or yelps of protest as cold water splashes the unwary. Chatting and laughter is brought to the ears and carried away by the breeze. Under the wind is the scent of live water, lake grasses and fish. Excitement rises as the pontoon travels further into the lake, anticipating a good evening’s fishing. More waves splash up over the bow and onto the full front windshield, obscuring the view and then clearing. With eighty-six miles of shoreline surrounding the lake’s 132,516 acres, it’s large enough that the opposite shore is no more than a mere thin dark line on the horizon.
It’s Tuesday evening, and Fisherman’s Wharf Resort on Lake Mille Lacs is running a two-for-one special. The pontoon is filled to capacity with couples, family groups and friends, people ranging in age from under ten to over sixty.
A scant ten minutes ago, people were boarding the Experience 2.0, stowing stocked coolers and choosing seats, placing themselves under the care of Captain Darryl and the deckhand Austin. Darryl gave an introductory speech, spiced with humor and good information. Once to the fishing hole, he said, the more experienced were free to set their own depths and bait their lines, and for those of us who weren’t he and Austin would see to us one at a time. He and Austin were there to take care of us, he said, and if they did a good job, to be sure and take care of them. If Austin didn’t do a good job, he went on, let him know and he’d toss Austin overboard and for the rest of the night – and he pointed at a small, tow-haired lad who couldn’t have been more than four – that young man would replace him.
Darryl spoke of lifejackets, and his plans for us throughout the evening; there were two spots he had in mind where the fish had been biting, and if we weren’t catching proper-sized walleye in the first we would move, and since the launch was at capacity, pointed out there would be little space beside the boat for all our lines, so if someone near to us got a strike, reel in and give our fellow fishermen room.
Now, the services provided by the Fisherman’s Wharf aren’t unique. Most of the guided tours and fishing provide a skilled captain, bait and all tackle, a good-sized launch, and no guarantee that you’ll catch and keep anything. But there’s something singular about a Captain who gave up a respected position in a well-paying job to move to a lake and guide people in their quest for “the big catch.” He meets over 3,000 people a year, Darryl does, and he said “you never know what you’re going to get.” I listened, fascinated, as he shared stories of some of the groups he’s taken onto the lake. It’s obvious that he enjoys people; meeting new ones, learning a bit about them, helping them enjoy their adventure on the water, sharing his own expertise in order to improve their chances of catching a keeper.
And he has maybe a unique approach: He decided he was going to learn just one quadrant of the lake, but get to know it so thoroughly that he could pinpoint exactly where the fish would be and when. After that, it would be up to the appetites of the fish and the respective skill of the fishermen.
This evening, we were in two different spots. Darryl and Austin moved around the pontoon, setting bait, depths, checking to be sure people were enjoying themselves, netting the fish that were caught and determining if they were legal to keep. We were a mixed bag of results, too: Ted caught a lovely perch; Ivan had a GREAT strike, but the line came undone before he got the fish to the boat; Jerry… got skunked; and I brought in two baby walleye (the lake’s specialty).
Darryl told me about one group he’d taken onto the lake. Word had gotten out that he knew where to find the fish, and so all the other launches on that side of the lake would follow him out. Well, after being on the north tip of a reef that ended in a rock pile (the GPS images of the lake bottom are getting really detailed these days!) he pulled anchor and threaded his way between all the other launches to take up a spot on the southern tip of the reef, not expecting much.
He said it was the first time he ever came so close to limiting out everyone on his boat; of over 150 fish caught, 47 were keepers.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening. And when we motored back after dark to tie up to the dock just about 10:00 PM, Darryl filleted all the fish and packed them in bags for their respective fishers to take home. I just hope we tipped enough; they certainly deserved it. My only regret is not getting there early enough in the evening to sample the food in their bar ‘n grill.
Fisherman’s Wharf Resort
Where: 5101 Whistle Road, P.O. Box 62, Isle, MN 56342
When: (Oh, my, all year long! Some folks fish on the ice, too.) Official hours, though, are: Resort, open at 8:00 Monday through Friday, open at 7:00 on Saturday and Sunday; the Kitchen hours are Sunday – Thursday open until 10pm and Fri & Sat open until 11pm
Contact Information: Phone (800) 645-3693; and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Website: www.wharfmn.com and they also have a Facebook page