GRAND MARAIS, MINN. — Santiago, the protagonist in Hemingway's novel "The Old Man and the Sea,'' was a fisherman with a long run of tough luck, 84 days without a catch. Yet his knowledge of fish and how to pursue them carried him through the drought, and ultimately he hooked the marlin of a lifetime.
Pete Harris is like that.
And he's not.
He is a fisherman and has been most of his 86 years. He can tell you about catching walleyes on Leech and especially Winnibigoshish, about the crappie bite on a favorite lake north of Grand Rapids and about tramping alongside creeks and rivers that spill into Lake Superior, fishing for brook trout with his dad.
But Pete Harris is not old. Or doesn't seem it.
And he's never gone 84 days without catching a fish.
Like Santiago, however, he is persistent.
Visitors to Grand Marais this summer who strolled its Lake Superior shoreline at dawn might have spotted a wool-clad boatman leaving the village's quaint harbor in a vintage aluminum 14-footer.
The incongruity of a man alone, bent at the tiller of such a small boat motoring onto such a large lake, might have given pause, though the craft's downriggers, two to port and one to starboard, would have suggested the man's intent.
"Maybe I'm a loner,'' Pete said the other day. "But a lot of times it's simpler to go by yourself if you can't find someone to go with you who is really into fishing.''
In the 20 years or so since he and his wife, Carol, moved to Grand Marais from Grand Rapids, Pete has fished Lake Superior for lake trout about twice a week, almost always alone and each time deploying the same three-seater Starcraft he bought in 1964 to fish for walleyes on inland lakes.
Hanging on the boat's stern is a 15-horsepower Yamaha and attached to its front seat is a 2-horse outboard Pete is counting on if the larger motor conks out and he needs a way to get home.
How exactly he might transpose the two engines, he's uncertain. Maybe he'd slide the 15-horse to one side of the boat's transom to make room for the smaller outboard. Or, depending on the size of the waves or the thickness of the fog he might encounter, perhaps he'd deep-six the larger motor and clamp on the smaller one.
"But I'd still have to get the 2-horse outboard from the front of the boat to the back of the boat,'' he said. "I haven't started the 2-horse in a couple of years, so hopefully it won't come to that.''
Carol doesn't worry about her husband while he fishes.
"He knows what he's doing,'' she said.
Born in Cloquet, Minn., where his dad worked in the town paper mill, Pete grew up hunting and fishing, and thought for a time he wanted to be a forester. But a summer job in the woods swatting deer flies changed his mind, and subsequently his college major, and when he graduated from the University of Michigan, he did so as a chemical engineer.
"I had worked summers in Maine and in Alaska, but I wanted to get back to northern Minnesota,'' he said. So he signed on with Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids, where he was employed for 32 years before hanging it up in 1990 at age 55.
He and Carol subsequently moved to Grand Marais, where for years they paddled, hiked and skied, while also volunteering to help maintain the Superior Hiking Trail and salting hunters' contributed deer hides to raise money for the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
They still cook sap in spring, tapping about 75 maples, and maintain four vegetable gardens on plots around Grand Marais. They share the syrup and the gardens' bounty, as they do Pete's lake trout, with neighbors and friends.
"Those trout I caught the other day?'' Pete said. "That was dinner for 10 people.''
He would fish more, he says, but he's too busy.
"After we moved to Grand Marais, I went out on Lake Superior with a charter boat captain to learn how to fish lake trout,'' Pete said. "I thought I could fish the lake in my 14-foot boat if I just used common sense.''
From their cabin-turned-home perched along Superior's shoreline, Pete and Carol can gauge the lake's many moods. On days when a strong north wind blows, Pete will watch through a spotting scope as freighters laden with ore emerge from and disappear into the gauzy distance. Often playing in the background, like music, is the weather forecast.
"The fishing is best and the lake is calmest at sunup,'' Pete said. "That's when I go out.''
Guided by a hand-held GPS, he leaves the Grand Marais harbor watching the small screen of an aging depth finder whose transducer pings signals off the lake bottom, first in 100 feet of water, then in 150 and finally, about a mile from shore, in water 200 feet deep.
"I'll drop the downrigger balls while setting my baits for the depth where I see fish on my depth finder,'' Pete said. "Sometimes the trout are 10 feet or so off the bottom, other times they're suspended farther up. I use flashers ahead of Sutton Spoons, which for me have been the best baits.''
Keeping the 10-pound downrigger balls from snagging the bottom while trolling is important because the cables connecting the balls to the downriggers could pull the transom down, sinking the boat.
Tricky as well while fishing alone is netting a trout that might weigh 8 pounds.
"Once I get a fish in the net, I'll drop my pole and use two hands to lift the net and the fish into the boat,'' Pete said.
Trout season ends Sunday on Lake Superior, leaving Pete more time to help Carol can vegetables, while keenly anticipating next month's deer season.
"One deer in the freezer will get us through the winter,'' he said.
What Pete isn't doing is pining for a new or bigger boat.
"A bigger boat might be safer, but that's about all you can say for it,'' he said.
Hemingway's Santiago agreed:
"Now is no time to think of what you do not have,'' he said. "Think of what you can do with what there is."