ON LAKE SUPERIOR — Not long after the fog lifted Monday morning on Lake Superior, one of the 12 trolling rods aboard Peter Dahl’s charter fishing boat went to bouncing. Somewhere behind the boat, a coho salmon was thrashing at the end of the line.
First mate John Meining grabbed the rod and put it in the hands of Maurice Russell, 94, who sat bundled in blankets in his wheelchair aboard Dahl’s “Hooker Too” charter boat. Russell, who had long ago worked for the CIA investigating thefts from Army bases, clutched the rod as best he could.
“What have we got? A perch?” Russell asked.
Russell wasn’t able to turn the reel himself, so Meining cranked. Joyce Scott, a recreation staffer at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay where Russell lives, helped him steady the rod. Little by little, the coho came to the boat, where Dahl netted it.
“That looks pretty good to me,” Russell said. “Do I get to bite the head off?”
This is the 21st year that Duluth and Knife River charter captains have taken a half-day out of their summer schedules so that military veterans from four Minnesota Veterans Homes can once more feel the tug of a fish on their lines.
On Monday, 74 vets joined 17 charter captains, who started leaving the Knife River Marina shortly after 5 a.m. The day means a lot to the veterans, said Colleen Wallin, recreation director at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay.
“It’s one of the few days where everyone stays wide awake and smiling,” Wallin said. “And we get a lot of thumbs-ups from the non-verbal communicators.”
The charter captains, some of them veterans themselves, embrace this chance to brighten a vet’s day.
“You’ve got a guy drooling in his wheelchair, and you get a fish on, and he looks up and he’s smiling. It’s something you feel good about,” said Duluth charter captain Don Nelson.
After a drizzly, cool weekend, Monday dawned calm and sunny, with a low fog hanging over the lake. It came and went during the morning as charter captains motored away from Knife River looking for water warmer than 38 degrees.
Dahl ran nine miles down the lake to near the McQuade Small Craft Harbor, where he had found 52-degree water the day before.
“We caught 22 fish here in four hours yesterday,” said Dahl, in his 26th year as a charter captain. “There are lots of salmon this summer. It’s fantastic.”
The lake has been slow to warm this year, he said, but pockets of warmer water can be found.
“The fish have found it, and they’ve stayed,” Dahl said. “They’re concentrated, and concentration is the key to success.”
Another coho took a minnow imitation a few minutes after Russell’s fish. Bud Hamilton, 61, a resident of the Silver Bay veterans home who worked in inventory management for the Air Force, took the rod and, in matter-of-fact style, reeled the fish in.
The “Hooker Too” (Dahl’s first boat was the “Happy Hooker”) was on its way to an eight-fish morning. Other boats were onto fish, too, and together they would catch 154 in the morning, a record for the event, far surpassing the 92 caught in 2006.
The biggest fish of the day, a 19-pound lake trout, was caught by Rogenald Keller, 98, a resident of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay. He was fishing aboard the “Captains Choice” with Duluth charter captain Tom Cheetham of Sunrise Charter Fishing.
On the “Hooker Too,” Russell offered plenty of commentary as he fished from beneath all of his blankets.
“This reel is smokin’,” he said, playing another coho.
“Get the camera,” he said, fighting a salmon.
On a particularly long fight with a 4-pound lake trout, the battle was taking its toll on him.
“That rod is making a blister on my belly!” he hollered.
Scott and fellow Silver Bay veterans’ home staffer Troy Paulseth of Duluth made sure Russell and Hamilton had hot coffee and fresh doughnuts. Scott paused to hug Russell as he sat in his wheelchair.
Dahl and Meining made sure the veterans got their pictures taken with the fish they caught.
Russell kept barking out instructions.
“Let’s get on it!”
“Put on a bigger bait.”
When someone asked what the limit was, he had a ready answer.
“There’s no limit for old veterans,” he quipped.
Russell, a 12-year-resident of the Silver Bay veterans home, was asked if he had expected to live to be 94.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m shooting for 110.”
If he does, he can look forward to several more outings on Lake Superior, wide awake and smiling all day.