Crappies, cigars and fishing with Dad

Some traditions are worth keeping

Pastor Earl Johnson holds up a nice walleye and pike he caught in the mid-80s from Pine Lake in northern Minnesota.

Fishing is a rite of passage for most kids growing up in these parts, and I smile each time I see kids riding bikes with a fishing pole in one hand and a tackle box in the other, managing a loose finger here and there to hang on to the handlebars. You can literally see the pure excitement on their faces as they weave a wobbly path down to the local fishing hole.

I wasn’t all that different when I was young. Summer meant baseball, the high dive, sunburns and Dairy Queen, but, more importantly, it meant fishing with Dad.

Going to ‘church’

I’m a pastor’s kid. And while I was growing up missing church wasn’t an option unless you were sick — I’m talking “hospital bound world is ending” sick, as it should be. Every Sunday morning my mother would hustle my older brother, sister and me out the door in time to meet our standing reservation in the third row of Dell Rapids Lutheran for early service while Dad preached from the pulpit.

Every Sunday of the year, that is, but one.

Right around Father’s Day and about the time the peonies in my mother’s flower garden would start to bloom, Dad would load us all up for an annual five-hour pilgrimage to my Uncle Arlen’s cabin on Pine Lake in northern Minnesota.

Some folks might have viewed this a family vacation, but make no mistake, we were there to fish. Time spent out of the boat was time wasted.

Now, there are about a hundred “pine” lakes in Minnesota, but in my eyes there remains only one worth mentioning. Our Pine Lake was literally dammed up with fish. There were sunfish and bluegills the size of a grown man’s hand — so many that we often thought of them as a nuisance, especially when they swallowed the hook. There were also plenty of heavy largemouth bass, hard-fighting northerns, sneaky perch, the bonus walleye and even an occasional dogfish.

Above all, however, the lake held bushels of shiny, black crappies.

We didn’t own a depth-finder, and the only lake map we had was trying to position ourselves in the reeds about halfway between the lake’s lone island and the dock in front of the blue cabin. Truth be known, we didn’t even own a boat, relying instead on my uncle’s or maybe a neighboring cabin’s boat.

Regardless, we still managed to catch fish. A lot of fish.

And during the week when Sunday eventually rolled around, our regular church service was held in relative silence while we fished for crappies. No lessons were read, no sermons were given. The gospel that Sunday was seen and not heard.

No, we weren’t dressed in our Sunday best, sitting in the third row surrounded by stained glass and hymnals. However, a more hallowed time would have been hard to come by as we communed with each other in a simple, borrowed boat, with the collective hope and faith that a fish would rise.

In fact, I am convinced it was while fishing on Pine Lake with my Dad — not Pastor Johnson — where I first began to understand what “church” really was.

Backwoods memories

Perhaps the best part about our trip north each spring was that the fish we kept were naturally pre-smoked with a hint of the Backwoods cigars my Dad would puff on in the boat. The small paper package of cigars held a special place in his tackle box, and he used to jokingly tell us kids that cigar smoke was a natural fish attractant.

He also convinced us that the smoke doubled as an effective mosquito repellent, which, to a degree, I suppose was true. Anyway, the Backwoods seemed to be just as important to fishing as the hook and bait.

Looking back, it all seemed so effortless. In fact, the bounties of Pine Lake spoiled me so much in my youth that I now have a warped sense of expectation any time I head out fishing.

To this day, whenever I catch a whiff of any kind of cigar smoke wafting on the breeze I’m instantly taken back to simpler times and memories of Dad while fishing for crappies on Pine Lake.

This Father’s Day I plan on taking my own kids fishing, and when we stop to grab some minnows and crawlers, you can bet I’ll ask the clerk to also reach behind the counter for that familiar gray package of Backwoods cigars.

After all, some traditions are worth keeping. Heck, we might even skip church.

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