Eric Dregni is a hack when it comes to fishing (his words), but he pulls up trophy after trophy from the depths of Great Lakes lore in his new book.
“Let’s Go Fishing! Fish Tales from the North Woods” is a quirky assortment of dubious stories and characters, strange lures and odd gastronomical inclinations. As cultural historian, Dregni delivers with a deft hand and light wit, and validates what every Midwesterner with a few rods, a net and a tackle box knows: Fishing is what we do. Moreover, for better and at times worse, it’s who we are.
• The fishing hauls shown again and again in photos from the late 19th century and early 20th century are almost comically huge, and resonate in the context of today’s fishing challenges such as the one playing out at Lake Mille Lacs. Excess ruled back in the day, judging by the book’s collection of snapshots and tourist postcards. The Minnesota Democrat in August 1851 wrote of four St. Paul men who “enjoyed a day sport at hunting and fishing last week, on Rice creek and Rice lake. They caught 300 pounds of black bass and killed 63 prairie chickens.”
• German and Scandinavian immigrants formally protested the dearth of carp — yes, carp — with a letter campaign to persuade U.S. senators to intervene. “The carp arrived at Union Station in St. Paul under guard because they were thought to be so valuable,” said University of Minnesota fisheries professor Peter Sorenson, of the carp’s popularity in Europe. On Nov. 1, 1888, the St. Paul Daily Globe ran a banner headline, “Carp by the Carload: Brain food which will be distributed through the Northwest.” State fish commissioners went on to distribute a flier about best practices for helping the carp “grow and flourish.” Within 10 years, the carp was the pariah of Minnesota waters — dubbed the “German menace,” among other things.
• Little wonder in a state where fishing is king that Minnesota communities would duel for bragging rights. Dregni chronicles the “fishing town fights” of Baudette and Garrison over which is the “walleye capital.” But who knew of Port Clinton, Ohio, on Lake Erie? Quoted in the Bismarck Tribune, a representative from Ohio State University said Lake Erie is unequaled for its walleye production. Port Clinton celebrates New Year’s Eve with its version of a ball drop: It lowers an 18-foot walleye named Captain Wylie.
Dregni, 48, grew up in Minnetonka but recalled that most of his fishing days were spent at his grandparents’ spot north of Pequot Lakes, Minn. He said he reacted to summer boredom by wetting a line, whereas today his three children view dock fishing as an almost quaint departure in the wired world.
An English and journalism professor at Concordia University St. Paul, Dregni proposed the book years ago. A Star Tribune story about the ubiquitous Main Street fiberglass fish statue was a catalyst, he said. He has been accumulating tales of fishing lore through research and road trips, with some of his own photos from more than a decade ago.
“There is so much fishing culture here. I didn’t want to do a how-to book,” said Dregni, who adds to his collection of offbeat books such as “Minnesota Marvels” and “Vikings in the Attic.” “I didn’t want to have people talking too much about how beautiful fishing is and all that, but all the cultural aspects around it.”
Fittingly for a collection devoted to fishing’s allure, one of Dregni’s final work trips for the book was to Aitkin, Minn., to snap photos of the “World Famous Fish House Parade.”
Did Dregni complete all that went into the book with a new appreciation for fishing? Deeper, perhaps, is the better word. “I think it’s something we don’t want to lose here,” he said.
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899
“Let’s Go Fishing!”
By: Eric Dregni
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 256 pages, $39.95
• 7 p.m. June 2, Excelsior Bay Books, 36 Water St., Excelsior
• 6:30 p.m. June 8, Bookstore at Fitger’s, 600 E. Superior St., Duluth