NISSWA, Minn. – On Wednesdays in summer in this central Minnesota tourist Mecca you can fish — or you can watch turtle races. Both have appeal. But on the Wednesday just past, turtle races appeared to be more popular, gathering in excess of 100 cheering fans in the town’s center to watch kids and their parents urge small tortoises toward a finish line.
Marv Koep, Mike Arms and I had other ideas. Middle of July though it was, we wanted to put a few walleyes in a live well, a not altogether original thought in Minnesota.
On this excursion, Marv, who could find walleyes in a bathtub, would be our guide, and as such attempted to lower our expectations for a positive outcome before dropping his boat into North Long Lake.
“The last few days have been tough,’’ he said. “Tough.’’
Arms, a retired Catholic priest and a longtime fishing buddy of Marv’s, has heard a few suspect confessions in his day.
“Tough, huh?’’ Mike said.
Marv’s fishing history parallels the last half-century of Minnesota’s fishing history. The son of a bait dealer who grew up in Urbank, Minn., near Alexandria, he’s had fishing on his mind as long as he can remember. His interest culminated in 1961 when he and his wife, Judy, purchased a bait shop between Brainerd and Nisswa that would come to be known as Koep’s Nisswa Bait and Tackle.
When Marv and Judy’s shop opened, fishing as a Minnesota passion was on the cusp of its heyday. One reason: Crappies, sunnies, walleyes, northern pike and bass were plentiful.
Harry Van Dorn was among a handful of guides in the 1950s and ’60s who plied these waters with eager clients, many of whom routinely ended outings with limits not only of walleyes but of northerns and bass.
While Van Dorn fished, his wife booked trips, and when she died, he asked Marv if he could perform the same service from his shop. Marv agreed, and soon he was booking clients for a group of fishing pros that came to be known as the Nisswa Guides League.
In addition to Van Dorn, Al and Ron Lindner were in this bunch, as well as Jeff Zernov, Max Slocum, Cully Swensen, Rod Romine, Dick Young, Gary Roach, Royal Karels and Ron Kristofferson.
“Fishing was great,’’ said Marv, who also guided part-time. “Everyone kept a lot of fish. The resource seemed endless.’’
By today’s measure, fishing at the time was a relatively primitive art form. Many guides didn’t even own boats, possessing instead only 10-horsepower outboards and renting boats from resorts at a cost of $1 per half-day.
For their services, guides charged clients $15 for four hours, plus gas and bait.
Nonexistent at the time, or virtually so, were fishing electronics. This forced guides to fish “the old way’’ by triangulating lake hotspots with landmarks on shore. It wasn’t until Carl Lowrance developed his Fish Lo-K-Tor — soon to be known as “The Little Green Box’’ — in the late 1950s that guides and other anglers could “see’’ lake-bottom contours and visualize fish locations.
By the 1980s, members of the Nisswa Guides League amassed in Koep’s parking lot early each summer morning, awaiting clients. Bait was bought by the scoops-full by Brainerd-Nisswa area anglers and by those who traveled up and down Hwy. 371, destined for lakes near Hackensack, Walker or Bemidji.
Plastered with photographs of happy anglers holding fish, Marv and Judy’s shop became a virtual billboard testifying to the region’s excellent angling opportunities.
“That was the shop’s peak,’’ Marv said, “in the 1980s.’’
But changes were afoot. Big-box stores opened in Brainerd, and Marv and Judy couldn’t match their prices. In 1991, after more than 30 years in business, they closed the doors. Marv started guiding full-time, while Judy continued — and continues to this day, for more than 50 years — as liturgist and keyboardist at St. Christopher’s Catholic Church in Nisswa.
Locked in on bait
“Don’t touch my bait or my wife, in that order.’’
Having never lost his boyhood fascination with minnows, leeches and crawlers, Marv routinely issues that directive to clients. Or at least he does to Mike and me.
One reason is that the bait he prefers for walleyes, red-tailed chubs, is expensive, often in the range of $1.50 per minnow.
“Why don’t you just use leeches?’’ I asked. “Everyone else does for walleyes. Plus, they’re cheap.’’
“I haven’t had a leech in my boat for … ever,’’ Marv said.
Marv credits Harry Van Dorn for showing him a trick no one else was using in the late 1950s and early 1960s to catch walleyes — hooking minnows through the tail.
“Red tails have a lot of action that way, and when a walleye sees a red tail, [the red tail] will to get away, and the walleye will strike,’’ Marv said.
But when Marv baited my hook and Mike’s, he didn’t impale every one through the tail. Some were lip hooked.
“One reason red tails are so expensive is that they are only collected in rivers, and bait dealers can’t net all the rivers they once did for bait because so many now have zebra mussels, and by law they can’t net in those rivers,’’ Marv said. “So they’re limited where they can find red tails.’’
Marv hooked the first walleye, which was no surprise. Soon, the action spread around, and in the next 2½ hours we boated 13 of these fish, each fooled by a red-tailed chub. Averaging about 15 inches, the walleyes were perfect eating size.
About noon we pulled alongside the dock at the lake’s public access.
“Fishing wasn’t tough. It was good,’’ Mike said.
“But tomorrow,’’ said Marv, again lowering expections, “I’ve got to fish Whitefish. And it’s been tough over there.”
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org