Lake Minnetonka area, Minnesota

Lake Minnetonka
and Flyfishing with Mr. Phu

Fishing notes from the Lake Minnetonka area.

Above: Carver Park Natural Area


y brother and I drove past Olson's, and Snyder's, even across Olsen Bridge, not too far from Wayzata or Shakopee, and Gustaffson Street.

"Mackenthun's!" "Mahtomedi" It was the annual parade in Mound, and people were dressed as woodchucks, rather chipper today, and jumpy too, but the geography of Minnetonka is surprisingly complex, given it's all islands, bridges, and swamps.

The parade meant only the backwater routes were open; it would take twenty minutes along marsh and through neighborhoods of military-cut grass and picnic tables and American flags to get to the bait & tackle shop. "Which way ya goin?" the officer said. "We're going to pick up some tackle!" Hans said. "We were thinkin' of going to the Mound bait store." "Its mighty problematic getting down there an' all. Best go to Spring Park Tackle."

This was a laborious affair, given the fair, and a parade of slow-drivers, in their Pontiacs, Lincolns and Buicks. We came here to visit with Grandmother, who dared us to serve fresh fish for breakfast, to see father throwing gasoline on the grill, and mother unwrapping a salmon from who-knows-where.

The tackle shop is a basement store near the abandoned 'Tonka Trucks' headquarters. Everything about the store was old, and damp-smelling. It is much the way I remember it, 23 years ago: father filling the minnow pail. The clerks were smoking, and drinking Mello-Yellow. One said, "Looks like a good day for fishin'." The other said, "yup."

Hans was already digging through lines and lures, reels and rods. I said, "how do you know all this?" "Six years of fish camp and I better know it!", Hans feigned bitterness. I had forgotten that, yes, he did go to fish camp for six years. We fastened lines and tied flies and practiced the cast and floated out on kayaks into glacial Minnetonka, a lake of 300 some miles of coastline, plenty of bays, and boats whirring about, and Hamm's cans bobbing.

Kayaking is a nearly perfect form of travel, and a better way to fish, than say, an outboard, which doesn't clear a flat. Like walking, kayaking is flexible and unconstrained movement; effortless and rhythmic. Unlike boats, ships and canoes, a kayak can take in a 3 inch draft and ride a 60 foot roller. Kayakers have crossed the Pacific, the Atlantic, circumnavigated Australia and looped around Cape Horn.

Minnesota farmland in winter.

Frozen farmland near Lake Minnetonka

A person who can walk and kayak can see all of the Earth. But today, I intend to see only what I have seen before. I am lost, in a lake called Minnetonka, where I was born. I am on a lake-kayak, which rather resembles the preferences of Midwesterners. She is wide-hulled, with a comfortable seat, and a 'pop' holder.

Comfort is what the Midwest is about. Lawnmowers have heavy leather riding seats, ('John Deere' green), gas-grills have taken over. Parking lot spaces are large. Minneapolis suburbanites tend to be colored that color of a frog's underbelly; white, even with a tinge of green. Even Minnesota's darker minority population is pasty.

This is what visitor's see upon arrival at the Mall of America; those droves of hopeless beady eyes and white faces, and acres of junk, and North-Stars t-shirts, and Minneapolis Lakers t-shirts. Minnesotan's are fair-weathered fans, like anywhere else, but except here it's literal, and almost the whole Twin Cities' have given up 'goin' to the game' for the 'sittin' in front of the television getting' pasty,' and with such inspiration in the tube, all that would appear to be left is the Mall of America, and 'Jesse Ventura!' and 'Woodchuck Festival!'

We waded in by the mayflies who were dancing a few inches above the water, and under the overhanging trees where the drizzle was tamed, and on my third cast I said, "Hey, perfect cast, eh?", and Hans said, "excellent!" and while I was standing there, in awe at my cast, the rod bent sharply and I yelped, "It's a northern pike."

It jumped and fought a bit, and I yelled again, this time it was, "What do I do now!" It was big, maybe small for a northern, but a rare catch, even by Minnesota standards, and Brother Andre came down to follow the fuss, and he said that now I have to kill it. I took to a large rock in my hand, but Andre said that I need to do it the proper way. He told me to hold the fish like a bat, and whap it against a rock, and so I did, but the fish slipped from my grip and bounced down the lakeside stones, and again, so Andre put it from its misery with a quick bat and while it was wriggling in its last seconds, he said, "now you have to gut it."

We went for the knife, and he told me to split it in half up the stomach. The process of filleting a fish is much more gruesome than I expected, because the guts, and the intestines are quite distinguishable. Brother Andre desired his hand in the fish, and so did Grandma and father, but at least I had sawed off the head, tore out parts, and learned how to fillet a fish. It began to rain, which meant worms were surfacing in the woods, and the wind would die. "Lets go wormin'," Hans said.

Minnesota Farm Country

Barns in Minnesota Farm Country

It began to rain, and so we headed for the woods, where we could pick them from the earth and pocket them for bait. "I haven't done this since I was four," I said. "Yeah, it's fun, huh? You don't realize until after college that the best things are what you did when you were four," Hans said.

When the rains grew heavier, and we gave up on the nightcrawlers, the line and sinker, we went knee-deep in the water by the mayflies hovering inches above, and cast flys into the shallows. This was fishing the way it had always been done; a glorious line snapping back and forth, and no fish to be caught. Just us, the water and the rain. No more worms, no more lures, no more bobbers.

Any fisherman who doesn't take it all too seriously will tell you the same thing. Its not about catching fish, but for me, fishing was about food, and that's why I had taken under Hans' direction. In the wood, a large-format photographer doesn't have an idle pack to fill, and to go farther than a day hike, we have to learn to what they call 'fishin' and foragin'.' In Minnesota, fishing is king. One neighbor describes the best date as a heated ice house, an ice drill, and two lines. Fish have always been a part of my life - I was an aquarist for 15 years, and then I learned to spear, which I had trouble with since my catch rarely died, and instead went limping and bleeding into the depths.

Later, I would work in a fish meal processing plant in Bremen, where I learned to take the horrid smell of dried fish, and learned that Germans didn't appreciate me sitting near them on the train home. Later, I began an unsuccessful seafood export company, where I met Mr. Phu and Mr. Hand. Mr. Hand said, "I cannot believe you sell dried sea horses!" I said, "my sea horses are farm-raised, but you (The Vietnamese) eat them (as a male aphrodisiac) and take everything from the sea!"

I told him that the Vietnamese had over-fished the squid in the South China Sea, and why did they continue to do it? In his middle years, Mr. Phu worked directly under the socialist Minister of Agriculture, as a squid drier. I said, "I can get you squid!" He said how much? I thought, two-thousand dollars a ton. I said, "eight-thousand dollars a ton!" I called the Peruvians and said, "I need you to dry squid!" They said, "we can dry squid for you, Meester Gauger!" For a year we went about perfecting the process of drying squid into flat pancakes through a fishmeal facility.

American Redstart near Lake Minnetonka

Male American Redstart on Lake Minnetonka

Mr. Phu, who had hand-dried squid for the Vietnamese ministry of Agriculture for thirteen-thousand dollars a ton, was ecstatic. Mr. Hand was jumpy, and chipper too. When Mr. Phu flew to Vietnam to meet with the Minister for a taste-test, which apparently was a formal affair with top chefs, things didn't go over so well. "How did it go?" I asked Mr. Hand. "Mr. Phu said it tasted like cat!" (cat are not eaten in Vietnam, this was a joke.)

And that is how it all ended, but I had left export with a firm understanding of fish: how pacific hagfish are carnivores, and how in Florida, dusky shark fins were sliced and the skin was thrown overboard (I worked with the U.S. Dept of Fisheries to try to sell the skin to the Chinese as jerky). I didn't mean to have ethics in the seafood business; ruthlessness is religion, but ecology was my specialty, and I knew about untouched seas and unspoiled waters.

I also solidified my respect for the fishing industry, and also how it needed to radically change, fast. The world consumes roughly half of the sea's fishable output. As China becomes a few dollars wealthier per person, that output will presumably double. Through all of this, I have learned that the fishing industry needs to be regulated - internationally. Economists and Greenpeace, for example, agree that ocean resources need to be given property rights - some sort of tax-collecting entity which has a long-term interest in the growth of a particular species. This is why economics, and environmentalism, are one in the same.

Carver Park in winter.

Lake Minnetonka area in winter

For some species, the answer will naturally be off-shore hatcheries. This is an expensive proposition, of course, but then again, so is the depletion of man's healthiest meat. Countries who eat fish as a primary staple are our healthiest: the Japanese live the longest, Hawaiians are America's healthiest. And the Trobrianders, despite malaria, live unusually long and healthy lives. When Pacific Islanders give in to spam, they get fat. Samoans have almost no fish in their diet and the King of Tonga recently directed a national campaign of fitness in which people who lost the most weight won prizes. Curiously, spam is produced in Minnesota.

Fishing with a fly-pole is much the way fishing has always been done. And for that, it is one of the last respectful forms of fishing. Marine aquarists have brought rare species of reef fish near extinction, tropical fishermen use chemicals and bombs to bring fish to the top. They sell the poisoned bodies to places like Minnesota, frozen. But the fly-fisherman, despite his inherent elitism, is the last true sport-fisherman: no mechanized reels plated in gold, no embroidered 'team' shirts, no 'its 360 horsepower!', and no big guts. Fly-fishing is one fish at a time, with a stove grilling near shore.

Common Loon on Lake Minnetonka

Common Loon in breeding plumage on Lake Minnetonka.


A pharmacist, well into his seventies, floated past us in an outboard. "Good day for fishing!" he said, and when we said, "yup", he swung around and showed us his fly-pole. "Check out my grubs," he said, opening a pill bottle of larva and chatting about 'good fishing', and isn't a nice day? That was Minnesotan, to talk about weather. Minnesotans are clean, and educated. They are also wealthy, and have given in to sprawl. They are willing accomplices to 'Jesse Ventura', and the 'Mall of America', they are proud of the attention they get to 'cold weather', but most of the talk of stoicism and 'sixty below' is a bunch of hot-air, or as they would say in Minneapolis, 'a bunch of baloney, ya know?'

Minnesotans sue people less. They get less funding per capita from the Federal government than any other state outside of Wisconsin. They eat potatoes. They like snowmobiles. They are innocent, in many ways, of the rest of America. Like Alaskans, or Puerto Ricans or Guamanians, they are somewhat bewildered by the rest of the country - they are isolated, and happy with that. But Minnesota Public Radio, and rigorous education, and a penchant for reading make Minnesota a rather nice place, at least to fish. But the Pharmacist, like any number of lake-people, are a different breed.

Explore more in the Great Plains

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Notes on Minnesota culture and fishing customs, including a backstory about hagfish.

Travels in Austin and the Texas Hill Country region, including notes on American camels.

Notes on the Spam Museum, Southeastern Minnesota and the Amish of the Midwest.

The sky above is green, and the strange color casts a glow on everybody rushing for cover.

Travels in Southern Georgia, from Macon to Okefenokee.

Sketches, photographs and notes from my travels in America's deep south.