Baiting your first hook at the lake is a rite of passage for Minnesota boys and girls. It’s an act symbolic of a fishing culture that is often taken for granted by the citizens of the North Star State. In an effort to remind the “people of the lakes” just where their fishing quirks and traditions come from, local author Eric Dregni has cast an insightful line with his latest book, Let’s Go Fishing! Fish Tales from the North Woods.
“My book is more about the culture of fishing rather than a how-to,” Dregni points out. Part historical narrative, part travelogue and all character, Fishing! gives the reader a peek at the inception of fishing in ancient Egypt and China, and jumps ahead several thousand years to arrive at Minnesota lakes (including Lake Minnetonka) today.
Looking through the photos in the book, many shared by the Minnesota Historical Society, the reader gets to step back in time: Dregni has included classic postcards of human-sized muskies leaping out of the water, and classic 1950s advertising characters like Gus the Fisherman “who accidentally snagged a gorgeous mermaid” with Western Fishing Line.
Dregni also time-shifts to a period of Lake Minnetonka’s history when there was no doubt about spending an hour on the lake and reeling in a trophy fish:
“So many fish were caught [by hotel guests]…They were stored in sacks in the ice-houses and when there was no more room, the staff dug holes and quietly buried the fish.”
This nostalgia serves to remind us of the characteristics of a healthy lake. Today, invasive species, overfishing and illegal harvesting plague the Great Lakes and even some smaller lakes, and it’s hard to imagine a time when walleye and northern pike were caught in huge quantities. But Dregni and Peter Sorenson, fisheries professor at the University of Minnesota, believe that all is not quite lost. In Fishing!, Sorenson says:
“Could we go back to those days of thousands of fish? Probably so. The old stories are true about how many fish there were. They were giant and you could almost walk over the water on them. It was real and could happen again if we managed the lakes properly.”
When it comes to tales of fishing grandeur, the fisher is just as important as the fabled one that got away. Let’s Go Fishing! boasts a colorful cast of characters. There’s a famous tale of Marc Antony taking Cleopatra fishing in an attempt to earn her affection and attention. After coming up short after several casts, Antony instructs his fishermen to swim beneath the boat and put an already-caught fish on his hook. Cleopatra feigns admiration and the next day instructs her fishermen to swim beneath the boat and to put a “salted fish of Pontus,” a dried fish, on the line, which Antony reels in to much laughter.
There are candid fishing shots of President Herbert Hoover, gangster Al Capone and other legends sprinkled throughout the pages. But Dregni also emphasizes that the joy of fishing comes from its inclusivity. He says, “To fish is not to become rich, but one need not be rich to fish.” Simply put, there’s a place on every pond for every fisher. One story tells of a man who put life in the real world on hold for a season. Dregni explains, “To get away from it all, he put his ice house on Lake Minnetonka, and lived on the lake for much of the winter. He got a gym membership for showers,” and took some much-needed personal time to enjoy a simpler life.
When asked where he himself finds peace in fishing, Dregni says the lake near his family cabin is perfect. “There’s nothing like being out on a lake first thing in the morning,” observing the loons from his canoe, he says. The fish might bite, or they might just swim on by. But that’s not really the point, is it?