'Reel' friendship bonds over decades of openers

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2012 - 10:30 AM

From gawky teen years five decades ago, fishing has helped keep a group of guys together - and laughing all the way.

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From left, John “Z” Zollars, Terry “Bo” Beaudry, Bill “Vodi” Voedisch, Herb “Calfman” Polzin and Dean “Scrawn” Sweeney have been fishing together for decades.

Photo: Genevieve Ross, Special to the Star Tribune

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Fifty-two years after they first traveled to northern Minnesota to fish together -- crazy high school kids piloting a '53 Buick Roadmaster to a lake they had never seen, except on a map -- Vodi, Scrawn and Z are older now.

But still crazy.

And still looking forward to Saturday's opening day of fishing, as if it were their first.

On that initial fishing adventure, in 1960, Scrawn's vintage Buick steamed north trailering a sailboat, on top of which was a 12-foot stretch of aluminum bent vaguely into the shape of a watercraft.

Their first night, Vodi and Z slept on the ground under the sailboat, trying to escape pouring rain, while Scrawn and DJ scrunched in the Roadmaster.

All funny these many years later, except the part about DJ not being around anymore.

"DJ died of cancer the same day Rodney Dangerfield died, Oct. 5, 2004," said Vodi. "That day, two very funny guys left my life. DJ was also the best fisherman in our bunch, no question.''

To the rest of the world, Vodi, Scrawn, Z and DJ have real names -- Bill Voedisch, Dean Sweeney, John Zollars and Dave Johnson, all from the Twin Cities. And real ages: Voedisch, Sweeney and Zollars are in their late 60s.

But among themselves, they still use nicknames hung on them when they were students at Minneapolis Southwest High School, and even before that, when as grade-schoolers they rode their bikes to fish Calhoun and Harriet and other city lakes, cans of worms swinging from their handlebars.

DJ and Vodi were class of '62 at Southwest, Scrawn and Z '61.

Bound by their love of fishing, the remaining three -- joined in 1967 by Herb "Calfman" Polzin and in 2005 by Terry "Bo" Beaudry -- will each, save one, leave this earth laughing, knowing that the original group's last surviving member is obligated by promise to take a final fishing trip ...

With the surviving wives.

"Talk about a disincentive to hang around," Vodi said. "There's one for you."

• • •

Boys become men awkwardly, forming brotherhoods in their late teens and early 20s that sear their memories -- before yielding to adulthood, and with it women and marriage, and kids and parenthood.

Scrawn, Z and Vodi have over time succumbed to these adult predispositions, as have Calfman and Bo, their lives made more complete by marriages and births, and by watching their own children grow up.

Through it all, rather than splitting apart, they've become closer.

"We would do anything for each other," Scrawn said.

"When my brother died tragically in 1969, DJ, Z and Scrawn were there for me," Vodi said. "Before, during and after the funeral."

Credit fishing, and fishing memories, for holding them together, and for providing the incentive during this run-up to yet another walleye opener to once again spool new line on their reels, dig out old lures and buy new ones.

And to meet once more on a Friday in May to drive north together.

• • •

Rewind to Spring 1960.

Eisenhower is president, Kennedy in the wings. The Cold War is heating up.

Vodi is 15 years old, DJ 16, Scrawn 17 and Z 18.

On their first trip, DJ packed his old man's North Star gas card in his wallet. But he'd never put more than $4 worth of fuel into the Buick at a time, at about 31 cents per gallon.

That way, the math was simple: $4 worth of gas meant Scrawn, Vodi and Z each had to cough up $1 apiece to DJ.

Only then was the Buick's Dynaflow tranny dropped into gear and the outfit pointed farther north toward the group's destination.

Rumbling into and then out of Grand Rapids, the big sled of a vehicle was a den of cigar smoke, as the young anglers inhaled deeply all that was at their fingertips.

Pines taller than they'd ever seen soared to their left and right, and among them, interspersed like sapphires, were crystalline lakes, in which -- surely -- fish swam by the thousands.

Stogies afire, DJ, Scrawn, Z and Vodi unfolded with their well-worn map a newfound world that bore little likeness to their more pedestrian Minneapolis lives.

"About 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, we come to Caribou Lake," Scrawn said. "Across the highway was Camp Caribou, a bar. We pulled in, ordered a beer -- Irene was the owner, and she didn't ask our ages -- and asked, 'Where are the fish?'

"There's an old guy at the end of the bar. Wick was his name, and he had only one tooth. He waved at us and said if we'd buy him a bump and a Grain Belt, he'd tell us everything he knew. We did, and he did, telling us about a nearby lake that had everything -- panfish, northerns, bass.

"We tried many lakes over the next 10 years, fishing Leech and Winnie and others, and none was as good for us as that lake.''

A few days later, on a supply run to Grand Rapids, DJ, Scrawn, Vodi and Z grabbed lunch at Soder's Diner.

Also grabbed there were a knife, spoon and fork, replacements for the ones Vodi forgot at home.

Unwittingly, Vodi also left his watch at the table.

When they returned for it, the boys were offered a proposition

"I'll give you your watch back if you give me my silverware back," the owner said.

• • •

Walleyes have become the group's target species over the years, and for a couple of decades now on the season's first days, William's Narrows Resort on Cutfoot Sioux has been where they hole up.

Scrawn and Z are both retired from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). Vodi worked for West Publishing before hanging it up. DJ was a gearhead who sold Harleys before retiring in 2004, the same year he died.

Bo, meanwhile, is still at MnDOT, and Calfman, with a doctorate in agronomy, is in feed sales.

The cook of the bunch is Z, and on this opener, as usual, he'll schedule an Italian night, a Texas barbecue night, and so forth.

Come evening, when cards are dealt, Vodi will keep score. Some nights it'll be bridge, other nights poker, sheepshead "or any other good Wisconsin bar game.''

"For 55 years I've kept score,'' Vodi said. "Some guy complains, and I say, 'You want to keep score for 55 years?'"

Yet guys complain.

Said Scrawn: "Vodi's always coming up with new card games. You don't know whether you had a winning hand until the game is over."

One night, at least, fresh fish will be feasted upon, just as it is when this same crew fishes together in winter, through the ice, and when they make an annual fall sojourn to the North Shore for trout.

More than a half-century after it all began.

"Women are deep friends while men are just buddies?" Vodi said. "We all have very understanding wives, whom we appreciate. But we're more than buddies. Each of us would face an empty place were it not for the others."

An empty place would also await if they didn't drive better vehicles today than they did on their early trips.

"One year," Scrawn said, "Vodi had a van, and its transmission went out up north.

"We had to come back by Greyhound bus.

"That was embarrassing."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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