Minnesota lake trip brings back memories

I’ve often contemplated what I would give to fish just once more with my grandfather. There isn’t much I wouldn’t trade for such an experience. More than anyone, he’s responsible for my love of the outdoors, but he was especially instrumental in developing my passion for angling.

Last week, on a perfect early October day in the north woods of Minnesota, I came as close to being in a boat with the old man as I ever will again in this life.

Fishing trips with my grandparents to Lake Osakis were absolute highlights of my youth. I so clearly remember the rush I felt as an 8-year-old heading north for the first time to fish for walleye and northern pike. The excitement of pulling into the resort and taking up residence in a rustic cabin was overwhelming. To this day, I am still filled with euphoric emotions upon arriving at fishing and hunting camps, and it all stems from those early experiences.

Lakeshore Resort will always be special to me. A half-dozen times I traveled there with Grandma and Grandpa. Each time was special, but none compare to the last trip. It had been too many years since I had joined them on a journey north. The responsibilities of high school and college academics and athletics had stood in the way. But with my grandfather fighting cancer, and the outlook not good, nothing could have kept me from joining them one last time in September 2001.

Grandpa’s strength was depleted. The cancer was winning. He decided to sleep in that fateful morning and of course Grandma, as always, stayed by his side. I ran the boat a mile or so up the north shore of the lake to a large weed bed I knew would hold some largemouth bass. It was a gorgeous fall morning. I marveled at the mist rising from the water as I poured a cup of coffee and tuned the radio to a local country station. Then for the next couple of hours I threw a spinnerbait along the weeds, hammering some hard fighting, chunky fish.

When the news broke of the first tower being hit, the initial reporting from those on the radio was that a terrible accident had occurred. Alone in the boat, I never dreamed it could be more. That is until the second tower was hit. Then I quickly stowed my rods and ran the boat as fast as it would go back to the resort.

I’ll never forget entering the cabin and telling my grandparents to turn on the television. I sat down at the table and watched as horror crossed the face of a World War II hero who had been shot down over rural India.

Everyone in the camp eventually made their way to the little resort store, where we gathered together to watch the World Trade Center come crashing down. Every eye let loose of tears, but few words were spoken. Like the rest of the nation, our little fishing camp was in shock.

After we had watched all we could stomach on television, Grandpa said we should go fishing. He was right. The water was calming. We drifted over a long mud bar methodically jigging for walleye. As the sun set behind a long expanse of cattails and birds danced in the air picking insects off for their evening meal, we listened with broken hearts to President George W. Bush as he addressed the nation, telling us to be strong and to never forget.

This was the last fishing trip I ever took with my grandfather, and of course, I’ll never forget who I was with and where I was when the world stopped turning. Until last week, I hadn’t been back to Lake Osakis. Returning for the first time was a special experience.

I was in Minneapolis for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers conference. Being only an hour and a half south of the lake, I decided I had to go. I booked a half-day trip with Scott Merwin of Lake Osakis Guide Service and invited good friend Kevin Orthman to come along.

We met Scott at the city boat ramp and headed out on the water. From the looks of things, it could have been the day after I left 14 years ago. Things hadn’t changed a bit. Scott was extremely professional and quickly put us on fish. We hooked two nice walleye and a few northern pike, but I let him know as best I could that it really wasn’t fish I was after. It took a little time for him to let his guard down, but within an hour or so, we were just three friends fishing.

Scott took me over to Lakeshore Resort. We tied his boat off in the same spot I tied off after racing back to camp Sept. 11. Stepping onto that dock was like being transported back in time. I could see Grandma and Grandpa sitting on the end of the dock with friends, other regulars of the camp, talking and laughing while fishing minnows under slip bobbers for crappie.

I walked into the store and past Cabin 10, where we always stayed in. I could feel my grandfather’s presence as I stood staring out across the lake from the water’s edge. It was a comfort I won’t soon forget.

See you down the trail.

Brandon Butler’s outdoor columns appear in the The Republic. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.