Detroit Lakes man, 94, took memorable flight in September
By Lowell Hunt
Here I am... 94 years and two days old and still getting gifts. My last big gift happened on Sept. 17, 2019, when my grandson, Israel, and his wife, presented me with a baby boy, That was hard to top, but today, Sept. 9, 2023, came close.
I got a call on Thursday from my son-in-law, Vern. He told me to keep Saturday morning open. I said, “What’s cooking?” He said that he and Fred Skoda were planning to take me up in Fred’s airplane and go see anything I wanted from the air.
Well, today Fred got us all strapped in and gave us some things to observe on the instrument panel and explained the take-off procedures. We taxied to the south end of the Detroit Lakes airport. When we got down to the south end, he explained that we would be taking off going north because that was where the wind was from this morning. We checked with the tower to see if it was all clear for takeoff. Fred had informed me that I would be doing the flying when we got in the air, so I gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I had my headphones on and got all set for the beautiful blue yonder. I have always heard about it, and yes, it is beautiful!
We got in the air and Fred asked me where I wanted to go. I thought it would be fun to go see some of the lakes Vern and I have fished in the area the last 20 some years. Then I thought about a place my dad used to take me when we used to come up to Fergus Falls in the summers of 1938-1941.
I said, “Can we go to Fergus Falls? Is that too far?”
He said, “Fergus Falls, here we come!”
You see, I had an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm just east of Fergus Falls. It was so close to town you could walk to the A&W restaurant from their house, which my sister and brothers and two cousins, Claudine and Carol, did quite often during our visits. I remember the big, frosted mugs filled with root beer we got for five cents a glass. We got a quarter from our folks and five of us would have an icy cold root beer. Sometimes we would really splurge and blow another quarter and spoil our supper.
I then told him I would like to fly over the Ottertail River and over the Dayton Hollow Dam, where our family always went while we were in the area to fish from the dam. We used to catch nice crappie, sunfish, an occasional walleye, and even a northern once in a while.
Below the dam were bullheads for as far as you could see... hundreds of them. When the fish weren’t biting, we would catch bullheads as fast as we could bait our hooks. I don’t know exactly but I would guess it was 20 or 30 feet from where we stood to the surface of the water. When we caught a fish, we would reel it in and they would flop and swing, especially if they were big ones.
One time me and my older sister, Charlene, caught one at the same time. While we were reeling them up our lines got tangled and our dad had quite a time straightening that mess. But the fish were nice, and he was happy. He did, however, space us out so that didn’t happen again!
There was a beautiful area around the generator plant with a spacious lawn and some benches. We would picnic there sometimes. Mom was always afraid we would fall in the river, but dad kept us safe. I’ll never forget the times at that place. Just inside the building there was a water fountain where we could get water and the men operating the generators were so nice to us. They kept that building spotless. It was noisy, but spotless!
My dad found out that a farmer who lived just upriver on the east bank had a boat. We went to his farm and dad asked him if we could rent the boat and fish above the dam. The farmer talked kind of broken, I think he was German, and he said, “I have never let anyone else use it. I get out once in a while and catch a few fish for a meal and that’s about all.” He asked, “Is it just you and the boy?” (meaning me and dad) and dad said, “Yes.” The farmer said “You might have to bail it out. It’s been raining a lot lately.”
So, we walked down by the river and yes, it was about half full of water. I am wondering if that is all rainwater or does that old flat bottom boat leak? We tipped the boat over and got all the water out. It was in pretty good shape with two seats, one kind of in the middle where the oars would fit into each side and one seat on the tip of the boat. We got the oars in place and dad tried them. He was satisfied with them.
Now came the shock. It had a nice new anchor rope but an old wheel off some farm machinery for the anchor! We pushed it out into the water and I watched for leaks. I didn’t see any, so I loaded up our fishing tackle on two five-foot steel rods with 18-pound test line and dad’s trusty old tackle box made from a half-gallon syrup pail Aunt Minnie provided for the grub worms I had dug out of Uncle Karl’s manure pile.
Off we went.
The river had a gentle flow going south, we were about three-forth of mile north of the dam and dad thought it was about 20 or 30 feet deep in the middle. My dad loved to troll for northern and walleye, so we put on our red and white daredevils, pushed out in the river and let the flow float us down the river on the east. He said it was just right for the daredevil’s action.
I don’t think we went three or four blocks when dad caught a nice northern, about five pounds, I think. dad had a gaff hook rather than a net. He had me reel it in. It scared the life out of me, but I got him up close to the boat and dad took his trusty old gaff hook and brought him in the boat. We pulled into shore and put the wheel (I mean anchor) on the shore and took out the lunch box and the two-quart fruit jar wrapped in burlap and had a little lunch.
The stringers back then were a strong small rope with a painted metal device on one end and a round ring on the other. They were about three feet long. What you did with the first fish was place the painted spear-like thing through the gill and out the mouth and then put it through the ring and then the next one just put it through the gill and out the mouth.
We finished our lunch and went back on the river. We didn’t get one block when we caught another northern about the same size. Before we got down to the dam, we had five nice northerns and were worried about the stringer holding so we left the fish in the boat and once in a while dunked them in the river to keep them fresh. By now it was rowing against the flow to get back to the farm. We both put on spinners and grubs thinking we would catch walleye or crappie. It was crappies. The trolling was slow because of the rowing, and it really worked well. We caught 14 crappies on our way back.
By then we were beat, so we pulled in and unloaded, tipped the boat over on the shore and walked about two blocks to the car. The old farmer named Andy came down and helped us carry stuff up to the car. Dad gave him a big northern and four crappie and said, “You can have fish for supper!” Then my dad said, “What do I owe you for the boat, Andy?” Andy said, “What do I owe you for the fish?” They shook hands and I never saw two happier guys like that before! It was one of the best fishing trips I have ever had. Thanks to dad and Andy for showing me what a friend is in the wonderful world that God created.
We went back there one more time and this time we were trolling down the east bank toward the dam. Using our trusty old red and white daredevils, we got down pretty near the dam and wham! I got the biggest strike I have ever had fishing from that day on. It was a huge northern!
It took us quite a while to land it. Our boat drifted to the shore and dad threw out the anchor (yes, the machine wheel) and we fought that fish. We would get it close to the boat and he would take off. Finally, the fish got worn out and almost floated toward the boat. Dad took the trusty old gaff hook and brought him in. I think he was about 30 inches long.
Well, that was the end of that fishing trip. We rowed back to the farm and parked the boat, gathered up the rods, reels, and bait pail and I carried all that stuff while Dad put the fish on that old stringer and carried that.
The farmer came out to the car as we were loading up and said, “What’s wrong? You sure didn’t fish very long.” Dad took him back to the trunk of the car and showed him the fish. He said something in German that I don’t think he wanted a 12-year-old boy to hear and said, “That’s the biggest one that the old boat ever hauled in! Just a minute, I’ll be right back.” He had a scale and a brand-new burlap sack to put the fish in. Well, it weighed 15 pounds and six ounces!
Dad gave him the pail of grubs and offered to pay him boat rent, but he said, “Thanks for the grubs and by the way, what did you catch that whopper on?” Dad opened that old tackle box and handed him a brand new red and white daredevil and said, “On this!” The farmer smiled and said, “Thanks!”
That was the last time we ever saw him. World War II broke out on December 7 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and we never went to Fergus Falls again.
Thanks Fred and Vern for sparking this story and these precious memories.
Over the countryside we flew. At one point we were flying towards a dark bank of clouds. Fred said, “We don’t want to go through those!” So he had me turn the plane away so around them we went. I was amazed to see all the water, lakes, rivers and ponds. I found out that 16 percent of Ottertail County is water. It looks like more than that from 3,500 feet in the air! It sure is beautiful.