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Sam Cook / Forum Communications Co., Published June 10 2012

Minnesota teacher making a splash with after-school fishing

Silver Bay, Minn.

The canoe already was on Ward Kaiser’s pickup when he came home from school Wednesday afternoon. Except for grabbing some leeches, he was virtually ready. He tossed an old blue pack with tackle, rain gear and his fishing rod in the truck.

Kaiser, 40, calls this kind of outing an “after-school special.”

Up the back roads, into the boonies, he will head for a remote lake somewhere in the vicinity of the Sawbill Trail north of Tofte, Minn. It’s late May, and Kaiser knew a spot where the walleyes school this time of year. He needed a bow paddler, so he gave me a call.

“I like to go on weekdays when I can,” said Kaiser, a social studies teacher and football coach at Kelley High School in Silver Bay. “There usually aren’t many other people.”

Getting to the lake involves a modest amount of paddling and portaging. Out of courtesy to Kaiser, we’ll keep it nameless.

This is the kind of little trip that you can do only if you’re lucky enough to live someplace like Silver Bay or Ely or Grand Rapids or a hundred other communities across Northeastern Minnesota. It is, in fact, why a lot of people like Kaiser and his wife, Liz, choose to live here, close to the land and the water and all the opportunities they offer.

If your gear is ready – and it always is – you can be fishing in an hour or so after work, stay until dark, come out by starlight, clean fish and call it a late night.

“Sometimes, I’m a little tired in the morning,” Kaiser said.

But it beats watching “The Bachelorette.” Or even the Twins.

Kaiser had been specific about how we’d be fishing for these walleyes.

“Black jigs. One-eighth ounce,” he had said.

We found the spot along a little bulge in the shoreline where a white pine stands above the rest of the forest. We dropped the anchor, a rock we had borrowed from the last portage.

Kaiser tipped his jig with a minnow. I tried a leech.

Already, the evening cool was descending over the water. The forecast called for frost warnings. We were worried that the cold might put the walleyes off their feed.

“On the plus side, at least we won’t be sweating on the way out,” Kaiser said.

We tossed our jigs into about 7 feet of water and bounced them down a rocky drop to about 12 feet. I picked up a 16-incher pretty quickly, and we hoped that was a sign of things to come.

This was not a catch-and-release endeavor. It was a catch-and-string mission. Kaiser was having a gathering at his place over the weekend, and he hoped to fry some fish.

It was a handsome evening. A shard of half-moon tickled the tree-tops on its way west. The lake was nearly still.

We could hear the soft splashing of loons a long way off.

It was good to be with Kaiser. We had crossed paths about 20 years earlier when he was at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. It had been fun to meet Liz – who sent us off with tummies full of her wild rice soup – and two of his three young daughters. Allison, 9, had been busy at the kitchen table, working on illustrations for the book she had written, “The Three Little Mice.” She told me all about the family’s recent trip to Arizona.

Because he’s a good dad and a family guy, Kaiser doesn’t abuse his freedom to make these quick fishing trips. Once a week at best. The Kaisers recently bought a travel trailer, and they hope to do a lot of camping with the girls this summer. There’s a good chance they’ll be learning about fishing along the way.

While we fished, we talked about kids and schools and football and mayflies and a hundred other things. It looked as if there was going to be plenty of time for conversation between bites.

“I think we should move just a little bit,” Kaiser said.

We moved twice during the evening, fishing shallower after the sun had dropped behind the tree line. The walleyes certainly weren’t eager to participate. They’d tentatively suck on our leeches or mouth our minnows, and we missed a lot of hits. But with persistence, we began to put some fish on the stringer. I took three on leeches. Then Kaiser began putting on a minnow-and-black-jig clinic. Pretty soon we had a decent stringer, a one-person limit of six walleyes.

We slowed our presentations, dragging our baits along the bottom rather than jigging them actively. Like gamblers responding to intermittent reinforcement, we kept catching just enough walleyes to keep us happy.

But the night was darned cool. It became somewhat problematic to tie on a new jig if you snagged up, or to pick up a leech that fell to the bottom of the canoe. Grabbing a walleye alongside the canoe felt good because the fish were much warmer than our fingers.

We kept thinking the fish might turn on and go on a minor feeding binge, but that never happened.

“They’re not poundin’,” Kaiser said.

No. But one by one, they kept us interested until, at 9:35, when it was too dark to see your black jig dangling below your rod tip, we put the last walleye in the canoe. We had an even dozen, our limit, all from 15 to 18 inches long. We had thrown back a couple of others.

We hadn’t found the odd 21- or 22-incher that Kaiser often finds on his after-school get-aways, but the stringer looked good in the moonlight. Kaiser would have a decent fish fry.

Back at shore, we were both shivering, and our words came out in little pieces. Kaiser pulled his gloves from his pack. I was mildly envious. Once we got to portaging, we began to warm up a little.

On our last lake, moonlight reflected on the water, breaking into white ribbons where it intersected the canoe’s wake. Stars had begun to poke through the night sky. The only sounds were sucking of the water in the little swirls behind our paddle strokes.

That, and the occasional flop of a walleye on the bottom of the canoe.

Cook is the outdoors writer

for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune