ON LAKE PEPIN -- A fish nipped at Scott Hennessy's bait as the plastic worm — rigged wacky style — drifted underwater near a downed cottonwood tree.

The president of Twin Cities-based Waterdogs Fishing Club quickly surmised that the bite came from a panfish too small to take his bass bait. He rigged up a new line with a bobber, jig and night crawler. On his next cast, he hooked a bluegill and swooped it into the boat.

The sunnie measured a mere 8.5 inches long, but big enough to score 60 points in the 'Dogs' one-day, multispecies tournament last weekend in Lake City. His two-person team had its first points of the day with four hours of fishing to go.

Founded by two conservation-minded anglers who wanted to bond with fishermen who would "take to the water like dogs," the old-school club is thriving after 38 years and still giving nicknames or "handles" to its members.

In person and in printed stories written for the "o-fish-al" club newsletter, The Dogumentary, Hennessy is referred to as "Kojak" just as others go by Buick, Farm Boy, High Five, Butcher, Sticky, Shamu and Dock Boy.

Then as now, the club targets all species of game fish while trading knowledge and techniques to improve their skills. The club's six or seven catch-and-release tournaments each year are laid-back and fun, topped off by an annual muskie hunt in the Northwest Angle. Group membership is currently maxed out at 35 people, and there's often a waiting list to get in.

Former Minnesota fisheries chief Don Pereira joined the club in 2018 after retiring from the Department of Natural Resources. Like legendary comedian Groucho Marx, Pereira used to say: "I refuse to join any club who would have me as a member."

But now he's a full-fledged Waterdog, enjoying the club's camaraderie, its multispecies philosophy and its vast pool of fishing talent. He has leveraged his connections to bolster the Waterdogs' lineup of monthly speakers, including the founder of roughfish.com, Corey Geving.

On Aug. 6, Geving took a seat amid a circle of Waterdogs in Hennessy's backyard to chat with club members about marble cat bullheads, blue catfish, redhorse suckers, eels and gars. His own "lifelist" of fish caught by hook and line stands at 134 species.

His message to the group: Diversify your fishing and match wits against fierce and elusive nongame species that other anglers scorn.

"A lot of what we do is education," Hennessy mused after the meeting. "But our club is mainly about having fun fishing. ... It's a man's social club built around fishing."

When the coronavirus pandemic ends, the Waterdogs plan a return to Tuttle's bowling alley in Hopkins, their home away from water. Club bylaws require minimum participation in at least half of all club tournaments, and meetings. It's also a rule that any prospective candidate for the club must be recommended by a current member.

Hennessy and Pereira both said the club is struggling to attract younger members — a challenge for many long-standing hunting and fishing groups tagged by society as "male, pale and stale.'' For the Waterdogs, it helps for recruiting purposes that members aren't required to own a boat. About 30% of current members don't own one.

Another underpinning of the group is to discourage cliques by constantly mixing up teams for all fishing events. Each boat captain is assigned a "swab," or fishing partner, by random drawing. The swab buys lunch and helps with boat expenses. Pairs are redrawn if the same two guys have fished together in the recent past. Hennessy said the arrangement maximizes the goal of learning from one another.

Club rules prohibit alcohol consumption during the posted hours of all fishing events. The tournament committee varies the rules for each tourney, assigning points for each catch. At Lake Pepin, for example, a big perch was worth roughly as many points as a big bass or big walleye.

Teams could count nine fish, but no more than three of any listed species. The winners, Peter Yawn and Bruce Zilke, scored 742 points with catches of three bass, three crappies and three bluegills.

Tournament champs receive bragging rights, not cash, but the season's top point-getters win a custom fishing rod inscribed with their achievement. The year-end banquet also features the annual "Weenie Award" for the club member "who does the dumbest thing and gets caught," Hennessy said. One memorable award went to a boat captain who screamed past a marker buoy on the wrong side, shearing off the lower unit from his outboard motor on Lake of the Woods.

At Lake Pepin, the club president fell on hard luck when it came to fishing but avoided any nominations for the Weenie Award. When he and Pereira returned to the Hok-Si-La public boat launch for the day, Hennessy mocked triumph by announcing to other Waterdogs that he and the former fisheries chief weren't skunked. Their lone bluegill saved the day.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213