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Fishin' buddies: Longtime friends catch walleyes on Lake Vermilion

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Lake Vermilion fishing guide Cliff Wagenbach (top) nets a walleye caught by Jim Charles of Tower. The two are friends and fish together often on Lake Vermilion. (Sam Cook / / 6
Another eating-size walleye comes to the net for Jim Charles of Tower and fishing guide Cliff Wagenbach on Lake Vermilion on Aug. 5. (Sam Cook / / 6
Jim Charles, 93, plays another walleye during a day of fishing on Lake Vermilion with his friend Cliff Wagenbach on Aug. 5. (Sam Cook / / 6
Fishing guide Cliff Wagenbach holds a good eating-size walleye during a day of fishing on Lake Vermilion with his friend Jim Charles of Tower. (Sam Cook / / 6
Jim Charles holds a nice eating-size walleye he caught Aug. 5 while fishing on Lake Vermilion with his friend Cliff Wagenbach, a fishing guide on the lake. (Sam Cook / / 6

ON LAKE VERMILION — Doggone if Jim Charles wasn’t latched onto another walleye. At 93, he hasn’t lost the touch. He played the modest walleye to the boat, where his friend and Lake Vermilion fishing guide Cliff Wagenbach scooped it into the net.

This cool and breezy Friday in August was technically a day off for Wagenbach, 69, who’s been guiding on Lake Vermilion for 24 years. But sometimes on his days off, he calls his old buddy Charles, a long-retired Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, to see if he wants to get out on the water.

“It’s nice to have a friend like Cliff who will take me fishing,” Charles said.

Charles has a boat of his own and gets out frequently, but this was a windy day and Charles has some balance issues. He’s much more comfortable fishing in Wagenbach’s big Lund. Wagenbach had thought this August cool front might put the walleyes off their feed, but already we had boated a half-dozen.

Charles, a World War II Navy veteran, spent part of his four-year hitch looking for German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean.

He’s still very skilled at finding things underwater — namely the 13- to 15-inch “eater” walleyes so common in the east basin of Lake Vermilion. The lake is giving up a lot of them this summer.

“Fishing has been better this year than in several years,” Wagenbach said.

The eastern basin of this sprawling lake tends to hold more eating-size fish, where the west end holds more big walleyes. Under the Lake Vermilion slot limit, anglers must return all walleyes from 18 to 26 inches to the water and may keep only four.

We were fishing the way Wagenbach fishes with his clients 90 percent of the time, he said — pulling Lindy rigs with relatively heavy ¾-ounce sinkers and leaders trailing night crawlers cut in half. We trolled back and forth in 6 to 13 feet of water catching fish after fish.

Game refuge duty

Charles and his wife, Shirley, live on the east side of Lake Vermilion near Soudan. Wagenbach lives on the nearby Pike River, where thousands of Lake Vermilion walleyes come to spawn each spring.

It is something to be on the water with a couple of gentlemen who have more than 160 years of life experience in the outdoors between them. Much of that knowledge is centered on Lake Vermilion and the surrounding country. Not only did Charles patrol the country around Tower. After he retired, he also guided anglers on Lake Vermilion, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and in Ontario’s neighboring Quetico Provincial Park.

We had met at Charles’ home at 8 a.m. but didn’t get on the water until at least 9:30. Charles had some stories to tell first, and Wagenbach and I were eager listeners.

After the war, Charles studied fish and wildlife management at the University of Minnesota, then caught on with the DNR fisheries crew in Grand Rapids. He found the work a little — well, less than stimulating.

In 1952, he got an offer to become a game refuge patrolman north of Ely with the DNR, but the salary was just over $200 per month — $100 less than he was making in fisheries. He took the job anyway — his wife’s nursing salary would help make ends meet. He was looking for “beaver outlaws” in what is now the BWCAW. And part of his duties included snaring wolves.

“They were varmints in those days,” Charles said.

He and a partner traveled by canoe in summer, by snowshoe in winter, camping all the time.

“We only made $209 a month when I started on the refuge,” Charles said, “but those were the happiest days of my life. At the end of the month, we were lucky if we had 15 cents left over to go to the movies.”

And, yes, you could watch a movie for 15 cents in those days.

Charles became a DNR game warden (now called a conservation officer) in 1956, stationed in Littlefork. In 1960, he became the warden at Tower, where he served until retiring in 1982 at age 59.

His DNR career spanned 31 years. He’s been retired for more than 33, a fact even he has trouble comprehending.

Wagenbach described Charles’ reputation as a game warden in a single word.

“Fair,” he said. “But if he warned you, you’d better not do it again or he’d get you.”

A decent bite

The fish continued to bite on this August morning. As we fished, Charles told us stories of his days as a warden, including a memorable standoff that required him to draw his pistol and threaten a young man while confronting a group of suspects. The event ended without incident, Charles said, but it was not without its tense moments. His stories offered insight into the life of a conservation officer — including the many nights he went to bed with his uniform on expecting a call in the middle of the night.

We talked about the fishing on Lake Vermilion, invasive species, deer hunting, walleye stocking, canoe-country walleyes, Department of Natural Resources fisheries management, the old muskies-vs.-walleyes debate.

While walleye fishing is still Lake Vermilion’s main draw, many anglers come for the lake’s huge muskies — now ranging in the mid-50-inch range and up. Sixty inches?

“Some guys have caught some really big muskies,” Wagenbach said, “but they just don’t talk about it.”

Wagenbach, fishing walleyes with Charles two summers ago, hooked a 54-inch muskie and played it for 20 minutes on his 8-pound-test leader. He finally got it in his ample walleye net and lifted it into the boat. He measured and released the fish. Some walleye anglers, he said, believe muskies eat too many walleyes and don’t want to see them in the lake.

“Some old-timers kill ’em,” Wagenbach said. “Stick ’em in the gut with a knife and whoosh.”

His arms mimicked an angler tossing a fish overboard.

Finding the fish

Most of the stories that Wagenbach and Charles told were interrupted by one of us hooking and playing another walleye. The fishing wasn’t fast, but it was steady. In an hour and a half, we had caught nearly our 12-fish limit for three people. We kept fishing until we had caught 25, releasing all but our limit.

A brisk wind and big waves had kept us from fishing several places that Wagenbach thought might have been productive. But his knowledge of Vermilion had told him we might find fish in this semi-protected bay. Every time one came aboard, Wagenbach would flick his dashboard counter to keep track of the tally.

It was fun catching walleyes, but it was even more enjoyable watching the way Charles and Wagenbach fished together. There was no sense of competition between them, no dollar for the first fish or dollar for the largest. They were just a couple of longtime buddies sharing a day on the water, doing their best to find fish, catch fish and keep a few to eat.

“There’s one,” Charles would say, setting the hook.

He’d play the fish to the boat. Wagenbach would net it for him, remove the hook and toss the fish in the live well. He’d grab another ’crawler and hand it to Charles.

And this is what one realized, looking on: We may grow old, but catching walleyes with a friend never gets old.