Janet Hommel Mangas: These precious fishing days

On the screened-in cabin porch, I’m listening to the sound of the distant minnow aerator and the occasional pacifier-sucking sound from my 5-month-old sleeping grandson.

He and I had a team huddle and decided to take a day off from morning walleye fishing — one can get too greedy after our guide (also my guide and husband of 33 years) put us on a cherry-pick of 30 chunky walleyes the morning before. I personally picked up six hefty walleye at Mary’s Point in Little Trout and eight more at Steve’s favorite rock pile on the big Trout Lake. We kept six for our boat’s shore lunch portion, and returned the rest to the lake.

We’ve been coming to Sandy Beach Lodge in Northwest Ontario as a family annually for the last 33 years, minus the two pandemic years when Canada’s borders were closed. But Steve had been coming since he was mop-headed 18-year-old with his mom and dad in 1978. The lodge was opened in 1959 and the Mitchell family bought it in 1968 and continue to host hundreds of elated anglers.

With fishing gear packed into two vehicles we drove about 1,100 miles — from International Falls, Minnesota, 250 miles north to Red Lake Ontario — where we took a float plane into Sandy Beach. Amongst our group of eight was the hubby Steve and I, daughters Aly, Chloe and Phoebe, son-in-laws Michael Tillman and Jacob Ritchie, and grandson John Steven.

We had many new firsts:

Since Phoebe and Jacob were married Pi Day of 2020 — the Saturday before the world shut down — it was Jacob’s first fishing trip with us, though he has been a life-long fisherman.

Life-jacketed and strapped to our daughter Chloe while she jigged for walleye, John Steven Tillman makes the fourth generation to fish at Sandy Beach.

John had his first taste of solid food – a small bit of smushed walleye during shore lunch. And on the last evening of our trip he rolled over from his stomach to his back.

In the main lodge while eating dinner on the last night, Phoebe tallied up each of our groups fish counts: number of walleye, number of northern pike and the biggest northern. Meanwhile I asked everyone their main impressions of this trip.

We had eaten every breakfast, shore lunch and dinner together. We worked together in three different boats to fish, then came together at lunch to build the fire, cut up potatoes and onions as our two non-family Sandy Beach guides filleted and pan-fried the fish. Then after a long lunch, we wash and dried the plates, pans and utensils.

Steve said, “First, seeing the fourth generation here. Second, watching everyone relax at shore lunches. Third, seeing Mom (me) interact with John. Fourth, the banter over the fishing competition. And fifth, my trophy 40-inch northern pike.”

Chloe Tillman noted, “It wasn’t until after the third day of fishing when Mom took John and I looked up and realized I hadn’t looked up to see the shore-line trees because I been taking care of John with his life-jacket on. It’s a whole new perspective.”

Michael Tillman, who has come with us five times in his eight married summers, listed his favorites: “Shore lunches, and golden, flaky walleye and potatoes with Frank’s hot sauce and chipotle mayo.”

Phoebe finished tallying, then added her perspective: “Twenty-one bald eagle sightings, a cormorant, and one golden eagle. Oh, also watching Chloe’s victory gloat after winning crazy eight with Aly’s Harry Potter cards.”

Jacob said, “All of us huddling into ‘last-chance point’ (a fishing spot near the lodge.)”

Aly summed it up: “Playing cards and just being together.”

As Phoebe began to share the fish competition numbers, I recalled laying my Ann Patchett’s book of essays, “These Precious Days,” down onto the floor of the boat as I watched an impromptu, lively walleye tournament erupt between Steve and Phoebe.

It had been a normal day of fishing that morning, but 20 minutes before we needed to boat to our lunch spot it was suddenly Phoebe nine walleye, Steve 10 walleye. Steve found a honey hole of a fishing spot and the fish were famished. For the next 20 minutes it was back and forth until it was time to go. They had tied both with 15 walleye each. A fun memory for sure.

I was going to list Phoebe’s tally — but everyone is asleep and her numbers aren’t adding up. I will admit that I have caught the least number of fish, but we still have one more morning to jig and cast before we have our last shore lunch then fly out in the early afternoon.

I’m pretty sure I probably won — not the family fishing competition, but in pulling a quote from page 320 of Patchett’s book that wraps up our vacation time: “We take in the fullness of the day and the joy of being together and we are grateful for every second until it’s time to go.”

Janet Hommel Mangas grew up on the east side of Greenwood. The Center Grove area resident and her husband are the parents of three daughters. Send comments to [email protected]