It’s been a disquieting couple of weeks in Lake Wobegon, our hometown on the edge of the prairie.
Our summer light is fading a little each day, the lawns are going from green to brown, and we’ve made the annual switch from ticks to biting flies. News that the unofficial state storyteller, Garrison Keillor, was retiring spread like church basement gossip, and everyone wondered how we would keep up with the Bunsens when he’s gone.
The talk down at the VFW, however, has been mostly about the fish. When I say “fish” in Minnesota, you know I mean “walleye.” The Johnsons and Petersons and Larsons, no doubt, have been getting together to talk strategy over Windsor Cokes.
The walleyes aren’t biting on night crawlers, or on leeches or minnows, it seems. Slip sinker rigs are no good. Spinners and bobbers are duds. Not even the death roll walleye spinner rig does any damage.
So, the man from the Cities who counts the walleyes said the walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs had to stop, and now.
Because of a complicated set of factors, including weather, water temperatures, predator fish, something called the “spiny water flea” and perhaps overnetting, the number of young walleyes has been sacked. Putting a halt on fishing for walleyes might create a better future for the lake long-term, but it would certainly put a hurt on the local bait shop right now.
The situation, according to the guy who counts fish, is very complicated, a perfect storm of conditions. But folks don’t like complicated when they are hurting. They seem to need someone to blame.
Predictably, the walleye crisis has created a split among locals. It is not unlike Keillor’s recent story of David and Judy Inqvists’ divorce, kind of inevitable, but unpleasant nonetheless.
It might seem like a prudent trade-off to stop walleye fishing for the year as part of a long-term solution, but folks who count votes for a living define “long-term” as the date of the next election. So the people who don’t trust government got together with the people who don’t trust the tribes and the people who don’t trust science and gathered around the governor and the man who counts fish. It was like a gang of Catholics had walked into a Lutheran church supper. A couple of people even got a little snippy.
All the men might still be good-looking, but not everybody is above average, it seems.
The governor would like a special session to help folks stay on their feet. Call it “The Walleye Session,” which sounds like it could have been the title of an album from a Minnesota rock band during the “Minneapolis Sound” era.
There are some days you wake up and know you could only be living in Minnesota, like when the government calls off school because of the cold, or names a street in St. Paul after a Bob Dylan song, or when they call for a special session for a fish.
No one can deny times will be hard for the resorts over the coming months, when the Carlsons and Sundegaards normally come up for their family reunions, before they send the kids off to school.
But when you invest in Mother Nature, you quickly learn she is a very unreliable business partner. Just ask the farmers, the ski-lift operators and snowplow drivers. Which is why some people who write letters to the editor suggested that we let resort owners and fishing guides and launch owners fend for themselves and either survive or die. Big fish eat little fish, as the story line at Lake Mille Lacs seems to prove. These are the people who, like me, grew up with that poster in the school room that showed a small fish being eaten by a bigger fish, and that fish being eaten by an even bigger fish. Written below the picture were the words: “There is no free lunch.”
But the walleye is our fish, as big a part of our lore as Paul Bunyan and Keillor. It draws the fishermen by the carloads, causes normally honest men to lie about their day, and sustains an industry and a lifestyle. By the end of the week, there was talk of stocking Lake Mille Lacs, but not until next year, while a “working group” tries to come up with other ways to help hurting resort owners. Seems logical, though no one can say it if will work.
Some also are suggesting an advertising campaign to help. I hope it convinces people that the act of fishing is a lot more than catching a particular kind of fish. Go Up North as planned. Spend a day on the lake catching bass or perch, then go to the supper club for a nice piece of walleye. Seems like a good day to me.
I recently complained to my brother-in-law, an avid walleye fisherman, that I had spent $18 per pound for a fillet.
“Sounds pretty cheap,” he said. “My boat cost $16,000.”
In Keillor’s radio monologue in June, the Inqvists got back together and put on a public display of affection. We should hope that real life follows suit.
Also in Keillor’s monologue, a talking fish, “Wally the Walleye,” appeared and offered some advice to one of the characters: “Wherever you go, whatever you’ve got, it could be worse.”
“It could be, and it can be,” Keillor concluded.
I would hope that the folks and politicians involved in the walleye collapse of Mille Lacs can get together and make decisions that will lead to a long-term solution for the lake, its residents and its fish, and not for political ambitions or a desire to create the inevitable “walleye wedge” issue.
I’m afraid that won’t happen, unfortunately, until walleyes can indeed talk. Or better yet, vote.