By CHRIS NISKANEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press
BAUDETTE, Minn. — “You’re wasting the best years of your life.”
That’s what Bill Mouw’s father told him more than four decades ago when the elder Mouw learned of his son’s bright idea of buying a farm in northern Minnesota. The Mouws lived in northern Iowa, where the dirt was black and fertile, and the weather always had a helping hand on the plow.
Baudette is one of the coldest frontiers in the Lower 48, but Bill didn’t listen to his father. In 1966, he and his wife, Bette, bought a farm outside this small town on the Minnesota-Ontario border, then a second. They grew wheat, oats, flax and clover, and embraced the tight-knit community.
There might have been another reason for the Mouws’ migration: Bill loves to fish.
“He does a lot of fishing,” Bette said, chuckling. “He taught me how to fish, and he taught me how to cook, too.”
The day after the fishing opener, Bill was driving a pontoon boat into Lake of the Woods for another round of tangling with walleyes. At 79, Bill still has a handshake like a wrestler but the touch of a 46-year veteran of Lake of the Woods. After all, he fishes 200 days a year and lives on Rainy River, where he and Bette moved 14 years ago after selling their farms.
The sun was bright, casting warm streams onto the pontoon’s deck, and boats filled with anglers zipped up and down Rainy River and past us into the big lake. Mouw was giving me and my friend, Joe Rossi, a tour of Rainy River, Four Mile Bay and beyond the big waters of Lake of the Woods.
There was no doubt this was the happening spot.
When Mouw dropped anchor past Curry Island, I counted 139 boats strung across the horizon.
“They’ve been catching ’em out here, looks like,” Mouw said.
He took out his secret weapon and unconventional walleye lure: a Swedish pimple-style jig made by Northland Tackle called a Buckshot lure. Usually, this lure is used through the ice, but Mouw swears by it.
He threaded a frozen shiner on the hook, forgoing another traditional opener method: using live bait. Around Baudette, a frozen shiner is the favorite bait among locals because you don’t have to fuss with keeping them alive, and “they really work,” Mouw said.
We dropped our lines into the water, and before long, Mouw was tangling with a big walleye. Rossi netted it, and Mouw slipped it onto a tray with an adhesive ruler attached.
Mouw eyeballed the fish closely. The previous night, he and Bette caught their limit on Rainy River in front of their house; Bette nailed two 18-inch walleyes.
They’ve been married 58 years.
“She’s my fishing gal,” Mouw said. “She shoots deer and catches fish, but I do the cleaning.”
The walleye was a hair over 19 1/2 inches. On Lake of the Woods, walleyes between 19 1/2 and 28 inches must be thrown back.
“About a quarter-inch over,” Mouw said with a grin. “We’ll toss it back.”
You never know what you might catch in Lake of the Woods. Sturgeon have made a tremendous comeback, and we saw at least one angler fight one for about 20 minutes before he landed it, a small one about 4 feet long. Mouw will fish for sturgeon, but he’s not fond of them once walleye season begins.
“Takes away from my walleye fishing time,” he said.
“I hooked a sturgeon last summer that I couldn’t move,” he continued. “I was in my pontoon boat, and it was towing me upstream. I had 45-pound test line, and eventually he just snapped it. Never saw him.”
Before long, Mouw is tangling with a small sauger. He hefts the fish into the pontoon like a mackerel, just as some friends pull up in another boat.
Eden Berg and his family are out fishing. The Bergs own a cabin on the river near Wheelers Point. Berg greets Mouw and then pulls closer to the pontoon. He’s a big fan of Bill Mouw.
“I’ll sneak on his pontoon once in a while to see what he’s using,” Berg said. “These guys like Bill are veterans; he knows the river and lake so well. You gotta learn from these old guys.”
I soon realize Bill is a well-known face in these parts. He helped organize a Let’s Go Fishing chapter, which sponsors fishing trips for senior citizens and kids. Last year, the group took 45 trips. He served on the county board and helps every civic group he can.
“Bette went into the grocery store the other day and didn’t come out for the longest time,” he said. “Geez, I thought maybe she’d had a heart attack or something. So I go in, and she’s there, just talking to folks.”
Assistant Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor Dennis “Topper” Topp said he respects Bill’s fishing experience and his volunteer contributions to the town.
“If there’s a project to be done in Baudette or Lake of the Woods County, Bill and Bette are there to make it happen,” Topp said. “It’s folks like Bill and Bette that keep me living in Baudette.”
Mouw got a cell phone call: Two officials with the Let’s Go Fishing group were waiting at the dock for him. We slipped back to Wheelers Point, picked them up and headed back out to an area known as the Green Buoy, an old river gouged out by Rainy River.
We catch one small walleye, then Bill decides it’s lunch time.
We motor back to his house, where Bette makes a salad and au gratin potatoes and Bill fries walleye fillets for his guest. I surmised this happens a lot: guests dropping in on the Mouws and getting the fish dinner of a lifetime.
“Bette makes our batter using wheat she grinds herself, then a little pancake mix and some corn meal,” Bill said. The meal is devoured by five hungry fishermen.
Later, Bill apologized for the slow walleye action but tempered it with a familiar saying, “They say that any time spent fishing or hunting doesn’t count against the rest of your days.”
A few days later, he called me.
“Fishing has been real good,” he said. “Bette and I went out last night and caught 14. This morning, I went out and caught four and kept three.”
If time spent fishing doesn’t count against Bill Mouw’s time on Earth, he’s destined to live to 120.