Through the 1970s and on, Nisswa bait shop was epicenter of fishing opener
Pick a year. Any year.
When John Wetrosky worked the counter at Koep's Nisswa Bait and Tackle from 1971 to 1978, every Minnesota fishing opener knocked him out.
The joyful stampede of walleye anglers veered off Hwy. 371 toward the can't-miss shop starting at midweek. Then, at 6 a.m. Friday, the trickle would turn into a torrent as the doors opened for two days of round-the-clock sales. Hour after hour, customers jammed the aisles to pick out supplies. They waited in line at the minnow tanks and again at the checkout lane. So rabid were people to go fishing and get away, some buyers would hand over their cash and exit without their change, Wetrosky said.
"It was a crossroads like no other," he said. "The cash registers were hot."
Wetrosky, of Pine River, and Brainerd area fishing guide Royal Karels recently reminisced about a time and place in the history of Minnesota fishing openers when a mom-and-pop bait shop could draw celebrities, ring upward of $10,000 a day, showcase leading-edge technology, corral the state's finest fishing guides, and hire a clown to untangle parking lot snarls.
"The adrenaline was flowing," Wetrosky said. "Everyone was done with winter and excited to get outside and do something."
Said Karels: "It was crazy. There were just tons of people."
The two men had front row seats for a bygone era of May Madness fostered by Marv and Judy Koep. Each year, the couple prepared weeks in advance of Opening Day. The high-flying retail destination provided an impressive selection of live bait, the latest must-have walleye lures, motor rentals, repairs, how-to lessons for the breakthrough Lowrance Green Box Fish Lo-K-Tor, and a very large, signature supply of glazed doughnuts.
"Marv and Judy understood their crowd," Wetrosky said. "People would come in for those doughnuts. That was another reason to stop."
Most other bait shops had yet to invest in equipment to sell minnows in oxygen-filled plastic bags. For Marv Koep, it was part of the windfall he enjoyed as the son of a prominent bait distributor from the Alexandria area. So, too, were his enviable supplies of red-tailed chubs, spottail shiners and other hard-to-find minnows, jumbo leeches, frogs and night crawlers.
"Money was no object when it came to what those anglers purchased," Wetrosky wrote in a personal remembrance from those opening day weekends. "They bought more minnows than they could ever use, bought tackle like there was no tomorrow and wedged themselves between the narrow aisles picking out lures they knew could not miss."
The flock at Koep's included a large number of anglers who savored the place as a vital pit stop. They were on their way to lakes around Longville, Hackensack, Walker, Cass Lake, Bemidji, and as far north as International Falls.
Still, the Koeps prided themselves on promoting fishing in their own Crow Wing County, home to 400 lakes and 75 rivers. The interior of their store was practically wallpapered with local fishing photos — a powerful marketing tool that boosted area resorts and coaxed customers back in the doors to show off their catches. One of Wetrosky's jobs was to snap pictures of customers holding up stringers of fish in front of an "Up North" backdrop that hung on a wall.
During his first three or four years as an employee at Koep's, the store probably tripled in size, Wetrosky said. The fortunes of walleye pros in the Nisswa Guides League were growing too. Harry VanDorn, Gary Roach, Max Slocum, Cully Swenson, Bob Collette, Rod Romine and Dick Young lit up the shop with fish tales and lies in between their half-day outings with customers, Wetrosky said.
"I didn't make much money then, but it was so much fun to be in that central meeting place," he said. "Sometimes the fish don't bite, so you have to be kind of a character to be a guide."
Al Lindner and his late brother Ron also were part of the scene, and Wetrosky recalls appearances in the store by actor Paul Newman, singer Mac Davis, inventor Carl Lowrance, national bass fishing celebrity Virgil Ward and several standout players from the Vikings.
Karels, 83, a Brainerd native who still works as a fishing guide, said a lot of mentoring took place at Koep's. He was an elementary school teacher who primarily worked summers as a Nisswa Guide starting in 1969.
But Karels always helped out during the fishing opener, which was busier than Memorial Day Weekend or the Fourth of July. Lending to the circus atmosphere at Koep's, he said, was all the gawking that took place in the parking lot when guides pulled in with their trailered Lund 315 fiberglass boats. The rigs were built with rounded front ends and modified with splash guards. They were equipped with new outboard motors and the Lowrance green metal box depth finders — a sight to behold for anglers who were more accustomed to fishing from bare-boned, 14-foot aluminum "car toppers."
Four-hour guide trips booked through Koep's were sold for $15 to $18 and opening weekend trips on Gull Lake, Lake Edward, North Long Lake, Pelican Lake and other local hot spots were very likely to end in six-walleye limits. Karels said the openers would draw plenty of customers from out of state, including St. Louis, but a lot of the trips were purchased by locals — house painters, plumbers, mill workers, store owners and the like. They were always central to the festivities.
Karels said local walleye abundance back in those days was an obvious part of the charm. He was more of a bass fishing guide, but the Lindners taught him how to catch walleyes with Lindy Rigs tipped with leeches or fatheads.
"In four hours, we could often get limits," Karels said. "There was so much going on back then, it was really an exciting time."
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213