NEAR BRAINERD, MINN. – Saturday morning Marv Koep was unsure just how many walleyes we might put in the boat. Among his concerns was a cold front that had settled over this portion of central Minnesota. Even golfers on the many links that clutter this area likely wore long johns beneath their checkered pants. But Marv had no use for the extra duds. Nor did the other guy in the boat, Mike Arms. Nor did I. We, after all, were fishermen.
A legend hereabouts, Marv in summer usually avoids dropping his boat in the water on weekends. The landings are too busy, he says, with ski boats and other, similar craft. But on occasion after Labor Day when the lakes quiet down, he’ll make an exception. This was one. The two of us hadn’t fished together in quite a while, and this would be a chance to do that. And anyway, we both knew our friend Mike could use some time on the water, tapping his foot as he does this time of year, waiting for duck season to open.
The lake Marv chose was North Long. I can say so publicly because North Long is big enough to accommodate copycat expeditions that might occur following publication of this story. Also, Marv can produce fish when others on the same water cannot.
So, yes, just because in a few hours on North Long on Saturday morning we put seven walleyes in the live well and also boated a dandy northern, it doesn’t necessarily mean another angler can duplicate the same trick.
Maybe. But maybe not.
“Let’s try it here,’’ Marv said as we hovered over a favorite break of his in the lake bottom, a hump with depth varying between 18 and 25 feet.
Each of us was rigged the same, with sliding sinkers, snells about 6 feet long, and Marv’s favorite bait: red-tailed chubs.
Just moments earlier, Marv had tail-hooked a chub on Mike’s plain hook, before performing a similar service for me.
“I haven’t changed,’’ Marv said. “I insist that clients keep their hands off my bait and my wife — in that order.’’
The son of a bait dealer, Marv grew up in tiny Urbank, Minn., near Alexandria. He and his wife, Judy, had been high school sweethearts, had married young and soon thereafter were proprietors of a business that ultimately would become the famed Koep’s Nisswa Bait and Tackle, located along Hwy. 371 between Brainerd and Nisswa.
The founding in 1961 of that business occurred at a pivotal time in Minnesota fishing history. Walleyes were a big deal then, but not the only deal. Northern pike and bass also were popular. And plenty of anglers in the Brainerd area — with Harry Van Dorn at the forefront — were developing and refining angling techniques and equipment that, in retrospect, were revolutionary.
“I think even Al and Ron Lindner will tell you that Harry Van Dorn was a mentor,’’ Marv said. “He certainly was to me. He was the one who taught me about tail-hooking minnows for walleyes, something no one else at the time was doing.
“Also, in winter, he’d go to Texas and fish and come back with new ideas, including plastic baits and crankbaits that we weren’t using.’’
When Van Dorn’s wife died, he asked Marv to take calls at his shop from clients wanting to schedule fishing trips. Marv agreed, and soon he was booking trips for a fleet of guides, a group that became known as the Nisswa Guides League — perhaps as productive a bunch of anglers as the world has known. Ever.
“It was a good group,’’ Marv said. “Van Dorn. Royal Karels. The Lindners. And many more. Very few of them, if any, had their own boats. Each had a 10-horse outboard, and they rented boats for $1 a half-day from resorts. The fee for two anglers was $15 a half-day, plus the cost of gas and bait.’’
For 30 years, Marv and Judy operated their shop. Then, in 1991, they closed it, unable to compete with the big retailers that had opened in Brainerd.
From that time until two years ago, Marv guided full days.
“Then I went to half-days,’’ he said. “It works out well. I stay busy, and I get the afternoons to myself.’’
• • •
A retired Catholic priest, incorrigible Vikings fan and inveterate duck nut whose congregants once gifted him camouflage vestments, Mike is one of Marv’s regular fishing companions. Each thinks the other is the greatest, and neither is far from wrong.
And, while both are gregarious — each grew progressively less so when I caught the morning’s first walleye, then the second … and third.
“It can’t be all skill on my part,’’ I said, as if sympathetic to their feelings. “Some luck must be involved.’’
“Right,’’ Mike said.
“I liked you more,’’ Marv said, “when you weren’t such a smart-aleck.’’
“Just saying,’’ I said.
Soon enough, however, the scales tipped, and Mike and Marv boated the remainder of the morning’s catch.
Seven walleyes on a cold-front day, with nary a ripple on the mostly glasslike lake.
Plus a nice northern.
“Marv’s still got it,’’ Mike said.
Yes, he has.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org