“Ass Over Teakettle”

Grandpa was an avid duck hunter. He experienced duck hunting in its heyday, at least in this part of Minnesota. Back in the 1940s and 1950s Minnesota’s countless potholes supported millions of ducks, much to the delight of duck hunters. I remember looking at pictures of a garage floor full of ducks with Grandpa and Grandma posing behind them on one knee.

But as time went on government-sponsored “conservation” programs and the development of bigger and faster farm equipment resulted in the draining and plowing of thousands of wetland acres in northwest Minnesota and elsewhere. When I rode along with him when he was checking on his crop insurance customers Grandpa would look at the latest drainage and tiling projects and shake his head.

By the time I was old enough to hold a shotgun, duck hunting had become as much about finding a place to hunt as it was finding the ducks. Fortunately, Grandpa and Grandma’s neighbors and good friends the Gandruds had huntable wetlands on their farm. Gandrud’s Slough (actually a small lake) was a favorite spot for Grandpa to set up his duck blind. This was the place where I first experienced duck hunting.

Grandpa had his blind set up on the north side of Gandrud’s Slough with decoys arrayed in front of us on the water. Grandpa’s wooden duck boat was behind us in the reeds. We had the radio on, listening to the Twins play the Orioles for the American League pennant. I seem to remember not liking the Orioles much, probably because they’d beat us the year before, so that would make it 1970 when I was 9. It was a fairly warm and dry day, by duck hunting standards. My role was to sit quietly and watch for ducks. I was learning about patience.

Suddenly we heard some shots; Uncle Harold was in another blind a few hundred yards away. Out of nowhere, two ducks came zooming across our field of vision, about four feet off the water. Grandpa took a couple of passing shots and knocked them both out of the air. But one of the ducks was only wounded and was thrashing about a few yards out on the water. Grandpa loaded a 20-gauge, single-shot shotgun, handed it to me and told me to dispatch the wounded duck. I was excited, because I was no longer just along for the ride, but actually hunting! I pulled the gun up, took aim and squeezed the trigger. The next thing I knew I was lying in the duck boat with a bloody nose. Apparently, I had put the gun’s butt under my arm instead of on my shoulder and the recoil caught me square between the eyes.

Grandpa helped me up, laughing and saying something about going “ass over teakettle” while he checked me over. I don’t remember crying, but I probably did. As was his way, Grandpa continued to chuckle about this for the remainder of the hunt.

I wasn’t really embarrassed by this – after all, I was brave enough to squeeze the trigger. I remember rejoining the others in our hunting party back at Grandpa and Grandma’s for coffee. Grandpa let me tell the story. By then I thought it was funny, too. After swapping stories with the other hunters I felt like I belonged. I was a hunter.

Better than Christmas

March and April seemed to last forever when I was a kid. Nothing to do but watch the snow melt and the mud dry. This was also the Lenten season, when I gave up cookies or chocolate for 40 days. Easter Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. My birthday during the first week of April was a bit of a reprieve, unless it fell during Lent, then no chocolate cake for me.

But the hardest part of waiting out March and April was anticipating the opening of fishing season the second Saturday in May. This was the most exciting day of the year for me, bigger than my birthday or Easter Sunday or maybe even Christmas. Fishing Opener meant spending the weekend with my grandparents at Island Lake.

Leading up to the big day, I would go through my tackle box, making sure I had enough hooks, sinkers, leaders and swivels. I carefully untangled the Daredevil spoons and sorted them by color and size. By late April, most of the snow had melted and formed small ponds in the fields surrounding our home. These made perfect locations for casting practice. Having had to slog through the muck a few times to retrieve a lure hung up on some stubble or a rock, I learned to take the treble hooks off and practice with a blank lure.

On the Friday before Opener, my grandparents would pick me up after school on their way to the lake. I don’t think I learned much in school on those Fridays; the anticipation was so hard to contain. Grandpa would have his 14′ Lund loaded in the back of the pickup, inverted with the bow above the cab, and the Hiawatha camper hitched up. I imagined how jealous my classmates were as they watched me climb in.

I always thought the drive to Island Lake, along Minnesota 34, was beautiful, no matter the weather. The scenery heading east from Detroit Lakes transitions from scattered oak stands in fields to dense hardwoods and then to a mix of hardwoods and pine in the hills further east. Having grown up surrounded by farmland, I’ve always been attracted to the beauty and mystery of the Minnesota northwoods. Spotting the first majestic white pine along the highway, somewhere around Toad Lake, was always a highlight for me.

The only part of the drive I didn’t like was the annual stop at Hanson’s Flyway on Height-of-Land Lake. Lawrence Hanson ran a small bar and gas station along the highway, and loved to tell stories to anyone who would listen. As I learned growing up, Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside joints for a beer or two and a story or three. So I would get a candy bar and bottle of pop and sit and wait, spinning on a bar stool until it was finally time to go.

Island Lake lies northeast of Height-of-Land in eastern Becker County. In addition to several islands, the lake features an assortment of points, bars and other structures, which make for excellent walleye habitat. The fishing was great, as well as I can remember, in my early years. Like with most lakes that receive a lot of fishing pressure, fishing at Island seemed to decline over time. But that didn’t discourage us from coming back every year.

After setting up the camper and unloading the boat, Grandpa and I would sit down and go through our tackle to plot our strategy. We’d check the rods and reels, changing line if necessary. Grandpa taught me how to tie knots, pick sinker weights and put together the best presentation to fool the wily walleye. For me, the anticipation continued to build. I couldn’t wait for Opening morning.

We usually headed out just after daybreak, with Grandpa at the helm, Grandma on the middle bench and me at the bow. We had our favorite spots: the Moosehead, the Sunken Island, Barrel Bay (“like catching fish in a barrel”), and others. Grandma would hand out the minnows, but she would not touch the leeches. We would fish until mid-morning, come in for lunch, and then head out again in the late afternoon and fish until dark.

I always liked fishing in the evening the best, enjoying the colors of sunset, the silhouettes of the pine trees along the shore and the calls of the loons. According one of Grandpa’s favorite stories, I didn’t always like the loons. One evening when I was probably 7 or 8, I said “I wish those loons would quit making all that noise.” Apparently, it was affecting my concentration!

Most years we were joined at Island Lake by Uncle Dewey and Aunt Elsie from Brooklyn Center. Uncle Dewey was Grandma’s only brother and a World War II vet who fought all the way across Europe. Being really into all things WWII, I was fascinated by him. Dewey wasn’t one to tell a lot of stories, but once in a while he would talk about his experiences and answer my questions. Aunt Elsie always brought really decadent treats to share and had an infectious laugh.

Uncle Dewey drove a fancy Buick Electra, the first car I ever saw with electric windows and air conditioning. He had a contraption mounted on top that would allow him to load and unload the boat by himself. Grandpa gave him a hard time about living in the lap of luxury. Grandpa would also grumble about Mitzi, the little poodle that went everywhere with Elsie.

When I was little, I thought I would always want to be with Granydpa and Grandma at Island Lake. But that changed when I got to high school. It so happened that the high school prom fell on the same weekend as the Opener. Although I didn’t have a girlfriend, I still asked a girl to prom, because that’s what everybody did. Grandpa and Grandma seemed to understand. Looking back now, I would rather have gone fishing.

“Grandpa wake up!”

Grandpa, wake up! That wheel is going R-R-R-R!”

My earliest memory of my grandpa took place in his fish (or ice) house when I was about 3 or 4 years old. Let me preface this story by saying I have a hard time imagining taking someone that young out to the fish house. Grandpa had to have immense patience to make this work. It helped that I adored him and always wanted to please him, but preschoolers aren’t known for their ability to sit still or pay attention. Looking back now, I see it as a measure of how much Grandpa wanted to share fishing, a sport he loved, with me.

The house sat on the ice of Big Floyd Lake, over his favorite fishing hole. It was painted Institution Green and had a tiny window up high next to the door, so he could see who was coming. If it was the game warden, he figured he had time to tidy up the place.

I remember looking at all the curious, ancient-looking features inside the house. There was a propane stove along the wall opposite the door. It was black, with an elongated top over a smaller base. The stove reminded me of the anvils Wiley Coyote was always trying to drop on the Roadrunner. I loved watching small ice chips sizzle when I put them on the top.

Above the stove hung a small metal cupboard with a white enamel finish. The enamel was chipped at the corners and the doors didn’t close right. The cupboard held a small tin pan, cups a jar of instant coffee and maybe some hot cocoa mix. Grandpa would dip water out of the lake and set the pan on the stove to boil. When the water was ready, he would make himself coffee and me hot cocoa. Sometimes, when there wasn’t any cocoa I would drink a little coffee. This may be why I learned to like coffee at an early age.

The house had four holes, one in each corner, for fishing. Grandpa made himself an power ice auger using an electric motor that had been used to raise and lower landing gear on an airplane. The thing saved him some grunt work with a hand auger, but it weighed a ton so it still took a lot of effort. It was fast, which was the main thing – Grandpa couldn’t wait to get the lines down and start fishing.

We usually fished with little wooden jig sticks, which held just enough monofilament line wound over two knobs above the handle. A small hook baited with wax worms, grubs or corn, a couple of sinkers and a cork or styrofoam bobber were all we needed to catch sunnies (sunfish or bluegills).

In one corner hole, Grandpa had another rig he used for catching bigger fish. He nailed an old open-face reel to the wall and equipped it with heavy black nylon line, a large hook and a long, pencil-shaped plastic bobber. Grandpa would bait this rig with a large minnow. He really wasn’t after a big fish (he preferred panfish) but he wanted to catch any “hammer handle” (small northern pike) that was hanging around, scaring off the sunnies. If it was big enough, it would go home with us and Grandma would pickle it. If not, it got tossed out the door.

The fish house also had a small bunk built along another wall and covered with tattered old couch cushions. This came in handy when Grandpa took his afternoon naps. On this particular day, he instructed me to watch the lines as he took his snooze. It seems a little crazy to me now to leave a preschooler in charge, but Grandpa always believed in learning by doing.

While he slept, I wandered around the little house, checking the bobbers, but also looking at the various poles, hooks, lures and other gear hanging on the walls. I also spent some time eyeing the bag of candy Grandpa brought, which he stowed in the cupboard next to the instant coffee. That bag usually held candy corn, french burnt peanuts or mints, which he would share with me. But not often enough, I thought.

While thinking about how I could get to that candy, the reel in the corner started spinning. I ran over to watch the pencil-shaped red and white bobber disappear beneath the ice. The line kept stripping off the reel, which produced a mechanical whirring sound.

I ran over to Grandpa, still asleep on the bunk. I hesitated to nudge or shake him; that seemed as scary as waking a bear. So I yelled instead. “Grandpa, wake up! That wheel is going R-R-R-R!”

Grandpa roused himself, sitting up, reaching for his glasses and asking, “What’s the matter?”

I pointed to the reel in the corner, which was now quiet, and repeated: “that was going round and round and going R-R-R-R!”

Grandpa stepped to the corner, noticed the bobber was gone, and began yanking up the line. He started to get excited, in a hoarse whisper saying, “ooh its a nice one!” Grandpa landed a sleek northern pike. This was no hammer handle for pickling; it was a real keeper. I’m sure it was the biggest fish I’d ever seen to that point in my life.

For the rest of his life, Grandpa loved to tell that story, repeating the “R-R-R-R” sound effect to friends and acquaintances. I didn’t get too embarrassed about it, even as a teenager. After all, it was his way of telling people his grandson knew how to catch fish.