The waves were up when Jim Rose steered the fishing boat onto a windswept St. Croix River under skies gray as gun metal. He cut across the chop to the Wisconsin side, opposite Bayport, where his three-man crew dropped anchor in 19 feet of water.
"Let's see if those fish are biting!" Rose, the captain, commanded the four "guests" on board. One of them, Dorothy Molstad of Stillwater, joked with crew mate Gary Peterson of Cottage Grove as he prepared her rod and reel.
"They bait your hook for you and everything," said Molstad, a five-time veteran of Let's Go Fishing, an all-volunteer effort that will take 1,500 people onto the river this season.
The Stillwater chapter, new last year, will hit the water as many as 10 times a week through October to take seniors, the disabled and veterans aged 55 or older out fishing -- at no cost to them whatsoever. A crew of "captains" and "mates" will help anglers on the pontoon boat with anything they need to make the fishing a memorable experience.
About 50 volunteers take turns guiding the excursions, said chapter spokesman Rick Fields.
"When you get seniors out on the water, it just seems like magic happens," he said. "People get out of their element, their routine, they mix with other folks, they're on a beautiful river, they're relaxing, it brings back lots of childhood memories. When you're on the water, the whole world seems right."
The Let's Go Fishing organization was founded in 2002 by Joe Holm of Willmar, Minn. Hastings and White Bear Lake also have chapters. In the first season last year for the Stillwater chapter, which is one of 28 in Minnesota, volunteers took 600 people fishing, including a man more than 100 years old, Fields said.
"They truly feel like it's their mission to brighten up somebody's day," he said of the volunteers.
Molstad was short on luck during a recent excursion, but she knows how fishing works.
"It's like shopping," she said. "Sometimes you go buying, sometimes you go shopping. Sometimes you catch fish and sometimes you don't."
Volunteer Bob Johnson of Grant, meanwhile, stood at the back of the boat pulling in one fish after another. By quitting time he had reeled in five of them, mostly white bass, before tossing them back into the river. Another volunteer, Bob Siegel of Woodbury, caught a fish from the side of the boat.
Rose, a Stillwater resident, watched the depth finder as the boat bobbed in the wind. "Fish headed this way," he announced. None of the guests caught any, but it wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm. William Samuelson, who had come along for the scenery, said any fishing trip would be a memorable one.
"They're just glad to be out on the water," Peterson said.
Rose and Peterson, longtime friends and fellow retirees from Andersen Windows, have hunted and fished together for years. St. Croix's solitude gets Rose to talking about the past and thinking about the future, and he reminisces about sporting trips he's made with his grandson and other kids.
"We've got to keep this place for them," he said.
Soon it was time to putter back to the marina. Molstad and the others reeled their lines from the water. The two-hour trip came and went in a heartbeat. Geese and ducks cried across the river. The boat slapped through the waves as the guests settled in their padded chairs, their eyes scanning the St. Croix vistas that stretch forever.
Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgilesJoin us on Facebook: facebook.com/ strib.washco