Mar 8, 2022
Pit here coming at you guys with a “hotstove” of sorts… Pat, can I just say that Julie and Janelle are going to be pretty excited that we are writing this column? They have been bugging us (Pit & Pat) to get some of these stories down in writing for a while. That said, we also want this to feel like you are on the porch of Big Guy’s Bait Tackle & Bullshit Shack at Aikens with us after a day on the lake. I can see us there cracking a beer open because the boats have begun arriving at the dock, happy hour is just starting, and we are sitting there with guests and guides having a laugh as we dust off some old stories from our guiding days. Let’s dig in!
Pat, you were head guide at Aikens for 4 seasons (and worked as a fulltime guide for 6 others). I know people love hearing about my best days on the lake. There was one day early in my guiding career that does stand out… it was a crazy slot and trophy walleye bite in Stange Bay early one spring. Every drift was a 24”+ walleye, with double-headers and eventually two trophies in our boat before lunch. The other boat that was with us also landed a trophy. Must have had 50 fish of 24” and over in a couple of hours. And we didn’t get a fish on the first two passes so we almost left the spot before the action hit… thankfully we stuck it out for one more try! Then we followed it up with a near lake-record lake trout at 43” first thing after lunch out on Chris’s Corner. June 2nd… I can’t go by that day every year without smiling at the memory from 1997. What is a day that sticks out in your mind?
Some days out there, it seems like everything you do turns to gold. I remember one summer I came back from a break in early August and I jumped into the boat that morning right off the plane to guide a group from the Prairies that had also just arrived. We smacked fish right away on our first spot and the sonar was lit up with active hungry slots. The guys I was guiding had never been on a fly-in before and they were blown away with the size and the action. It didn’t matter what we threw down there, the walleyes were hammering the baits. We end a particular feverish session that was chock-full of slot fish and with a trophy walleye boated. We headed for shorelunch chuckling at our good fortune.
After lunch, my guests asked if we could try some pike fishing. I was happy to indulge, however quietly I was more eager to get back to the outstanding walleye bite we had been on in the AM. Off to the Bay of Snakes we went. Typically, in early August, I like to troll large cranks and spoons along the boulder and transition areas of the mouths of bays where the water temps are cooler and bait fish tend to blow in. Think 12-16 feet of water. For some reason, I decided to have us start our troll in the weed-filled shallow water deep in the back of the bay. There couldn’t have been more than 4 feet of water, surface temp was through the roof, and there were piles of cabbage floating around. Trolling in here would be tough, Snag City. I rigged up my guest’s rods with two crank baits, they cast out the lines and I kicked the outboard into gear. I got them to let out line as we pulled away. At around 100 feet, I got them to close the bails and we would start the troll. As soon as my guest click the bail shut, the rod doubles over and the drag started peeling out. I’m thinking, damn it snag, but no, hold on, the rod twitches with a big head shake. No way, we’re on! We fight the fish, and it puts up a good couple runs before it glides into our landing net. A thick trophy northern pike. It had smoked the Smithwick Rattlin’Rogue and swallowed it sideways in its shovel shaped mouth. A quick measurement and pictures were taken before we released her back in the water. High fives galore.
The rest of the afternoon I don’t quite recall, but I do remember heading to Big Molly’s that night feeling pretty pumped about our awesome day on the lake. You know, they say luck comes in threes? That evening a poker game breaks out and lo and behold I take home the pot too! One guy around the table says to me: “Patrick, today you just can’t *bleeping* lose can you?”. He was right, that day, I couldn’t lose.
OK Pit, your turn! I know that you grew up here and did all the dirty jobs as a kid. I know you didn’t start officially guiding until after high school. But you did hit the water a bit sooner than that, didn’t you?
True enough. My guiding career actually started (and quickly went on pause) when I was 13. My dad needed an extra guide for a couple from Texas and offered that I could take them out. Caught only a few fish, got her line stuck in the prop, got us soaked trying to cross the lake, lunch on the fire took forever. Pretty much every rookie move in the book! My experience with “Texas Dolly”, as she became known, inspired my father to not rely on me again as a guide for a few more summers until I was 15! Rough start to a career, I say.
But at 15 I was put in charge of being the “Bonaventure Guide” for our largest customer at the time, Milwaukee Stove & Furnace. They had back-to-back groups of 40 people staying 5 nights each, so I spent 10 days in a row in Bonaventure with two new guys every day. I named every nook and cranny of that 2-mile lake… The Grocery Store, the Narrows, The Beaver Sticks. We caught over a thousand small walleye a few trophy northern. But the Bonaventure boats back then had no seats or back support, so even my young body was sore from that tour of duty!
Pat, did you have any hard lessons learned when you finally hit the water as a guide? I remember catching a trophy walleye in my first year on the water while guiding a lodge favorite, old Mike Poja. When we got back to the dock, and with a huge smirk on his face, he mischievously told my dad “You forgot to give your son page 4 of the guide handbook… never outfish your guests!” Never again! I rarely drop a line anymore if I do hit the water (which is rare… sometimes only a day or two in September after the crew heads back home for the start of school).
I remember that my first season at the lake I didn’t get many opportunities to guide being a rookie and at the bottom of the depth chart. I did however get to hit the water for a few groups and try my hand at guiding. I remember one rainy morning in late June, I was fishing with a gentleman from Minnesota and his teenage son. We were drifting jigs and minnows at the Mouth of the River and despite my best efforts, my boat was bobbing around all over the place, the lines in a tangled mess. Finally, the father quietly reels up, puts down his rod down and I know he’s not having a good time. I apologize for the lack of boat control, and I get him to give it one more chance. So, we motor upwind and get set and cast out our lines. We start our drift, and the Dad feels a bite and sets the hook. The rod has weight on it and we’ve got a big on. He fights the thing for a while, but it is holding bottom.
REWIND, ok, so back then I thought everything I read in the fishing magazines was irrefutable scripture. Through that, I’d learned about the effectiveness of stinger hooks on short-biting fish and the incomparable feel of 4 lb test line.
BACK TO THE ACTION, Mr. Minnesota is fighting this fish on a rod I had lent him. He starts making ground, carefully lifting the fish and reeling down to make progress. The fish is now only a few feet under the boat and I’m ready, net in hand. The fish takes one big pull and with a flick of the white spot of its tail, it‘s gone and the jig flies out of the water. There is a smoking gun to the story, in my lack of experience, I had tied the stinger hook to the jig using only the same 4-lb test line… All we had to show for that fight was a short piece of snapped line tied to the jighead. You want to talk about a quiet rest of day. Man did I feel like a jack wagon.
But the best (worst) part of the story is, that evening after I’d dropped of the guests at the dock, back in the Portage (the old original lodge which served as the staff quarters at the time), my buddy Cedar walks in and ask me and the fellas if any of us had lost a fish with a stinger hook that day? I said “Yeah, I did, and I think it was a good one.” He says, “You’re right, it was” and he hands me my stinger hook with the small length of 4-lb test line that he’d removed from a 29” walleye’s mouth that afternoon at the Mouth of the River. I’ve never fished with 4-lb test line or a stinger hook on Aikens Lake since.
Now Pit, here’s a weird question… and I ask because for me the answer would be one of my prized possessions at the time, a nice chunky dress watch that I got from my aunt and uncle for my graduation. It now lives in 30 feet of water at Table Top Rock off of Bear island. What is the most expensive thing you have lost in the lake?
Well, you mean other than all the feeling in my body when I had to jump in to fix a waterpump one September? For me, it would probably be a bunch of logging tools (axes, picks, chains). We were 15 or 16 and on our way home from a day of hauling trees in the bush, and it was super warm and windy. Probably close to 3-foot waves. As we got near the shallow point near beacon reef, the swells got massive! My buddies and I decided to just get soaked while ripping up and down those big waves like cowboys in a small 14-foot Naden boat (don’t worry, we don’t have small boats like that anymore!) The crew boss went by in his bigger boat and shook his head at us “kids”. As he rounded the point, we continued to bounce around a few more minutes. Then we decided we’d had enough and started to go in as well… but the boat had filled with too much splash water and as soon as we turned to go with the waves again, our nose dug into that first crest. It was like hitting a wall! We instantly stopped and it took about 2 seconds for next wave to crash over the motor and completely submerge us. We clung to the boat upside down and floated it to shore… but alas those tools never were recovered. Needless to say, the Big Guy was less than impressed, and our paychecks were a bit lighter after that.
Pat, time for some rapid-fire answers! If you had to pick one spot to fish under these conditions, what would it be?
1) Guiding a first-time group… First thing in the morning on June 15th. Well, the Saddle probably isn’t hitting yet so, I’m thinking a bottom-bounce session around The Flats, Split Rock and Beacon Reef.
2) Going to have fun with the guides for a sunset walleye bite in August. Hard to go wrong with the night bite on Wet Rock or the South Arm.
3) Hunting for big pike on a fly during a warm afternoon in the spring. Depending on the wind, Secret Bay or Bay of Snakes
4) Taking your kids out for an hour after lunch. Spring: Honey Hole, Summer: South Shore Reef
5) Mother-in-law needs a trophy fish… where are you going? I’m going home (Saddle)
6) Janelle says let’s catch a fish in a spot you’ve never caught one before… where to? Well, I guess we’re not going fishing on Aikens then…
I knew you were going to say going home to the Saddle. Classic Pat! Tell me about your favorite bite and structure on Aikens, and why you like it so much.
The Saddle is the best spot on the lake, hands down. A superstructure that offers something for everyone. Jigging, drifting, bouncing, trolling, cisco rigging that spot has it all. You’d be hard pressed to find a better place to set up. Also, there is sometimes confusing interference on sonars at the Saddle, so I rely on gut feel and experience which works in my favor when others are busy buzzing to find fish. However, since the roll out of GPS, the intricacies of knowing the “spot on the spot” has lost some value. The Saddle has plenty of room for a few boats to each be on an active school of fish. From July to early September, I’ll never hesitate to be out there on the Saddle.
Our kids are getting a bit older, as you know. We have a lot of fun watching them grow up our here. Eventually Annika, Marty, Natasha, Oscar, and Arthur will be part of our summer staff. I know that I am excited to have them start to learn that work ethic that this place instilled in us. And it will be fun to watch them become really good friends with the other people that will be working here. Some of my best friends today (like you!) are people that I met here while working as a student. What are some of the things that you are most excited about when the kids start to get that kind of experience?
I’m loving watching the boys discover fishing. It is amazing how you get to experience everything for the first time through their eyes. I’ll never forget Oscar’s first fish a few year ago. He’s just a little guy with his Lightning McQueen kid’s rod at the Honey Hole. A fish takes the bait and I’m there helping him along as his little arms are cranking as fast as they can. A good size pike gets to the surface and we boat the fish. I congratulate my son and tell him “Wow Oscar way to go!” Pit, who is in his boat next to us with his kids yells over “Nice fish Oscar!”. Three-year-old Oscar without hesitation yells back to Pit: “It’s not a fish, it’s a WHALE!”. I’ll never forget that. Man did we laugh. I guess the best part is for them to eventually realize the amazing place they are getting to grow up at and the longstanding friendships and relationships they’ll forge at the lake.
Well that was fun! Can’t wait to actually be able to tell these stories in person at the lodge again. That’s one thing that is so great about Aikens. There are new stories to tell every year, and new voices to tell those stories as well. But the common thread is that we love to have fun, share some laughs, and create memories that last a lifetime! last a lifetime!