Ray Gildow became a part-time fishing guide for the Nisswa Guides League in 1989. One day a friend and colleague, Mike Hager, suggested he write a book about the league.
"I told him I had no interest in writing a book," said Gildow, former vice president at Central Lakes College where Hager was a member of the faculty. "He said, 'Somebody's gotta write it or it'll slip by and nobody will remember it.' "
On Easter morning of 1999 Hager died of a heart attack. Stunned by the sudden loss of his friend, Gildow took on the book Hager had wanted him to write.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Gildow said. "I thought I would write about some of the more famous guides and that would be it. But one story led to another."
Gildow collected photos and interviewed guides past and present. Some of the early members of the league had died. Also dead was Harry Van Doren, who was instrumental in the league's evolution.
Brainerd Dispatch/Ray Gilldow
Gull Lake, photographed on a rare, sunny spring day last Monday, has been the scene for countless outings by members of the Nisswa Guides League.Nels Norquist-Brainerd Dispatch
"Harry was a full-time guide for almost 60 years," Gildow said. "Clarence Luther, Gene Shapinski and Rums Miller were other old-time guides who fished year-round."
The three got a lot of business from Fritz Potthoff, owner of Minnewawa Lodge, and later from Marv Koep, who bought his bait shop on Highway 371 in 1961.
"There were few public accesses even as late as the 1960s," Gildow said. "Most people didn't own a boat. Even some of the guides didn't have their own boats. They kept a motor in the trunk of their car and would rent a boat from a resort on the lake they were on that day."
In 1967 Al and Ron Lindner came to town looking to buy a bait shop. One day they saw a photo of Van Doren and Potthoff with a huge stringer of fish. Intrigued, the Lindners investigated the Brainerd lakes area and discovered that walleyes, bass, northern pike, lake trout and many other species of fish could all be had within a half-hour drive of Brainerd. Along with natural fishing ability the Lindners had another tool no other guide had yet to employ: sonar. They went to Marv Koep looking for work.
Ray Gildow's new book traces the history of Minnesota's most famous fishing guides, including the Lindners, Marv Koep, Gary Roach and others. Gildow was prompted into writing the book by a friend who said, "Somebody's got to write it or it will slip by and nobody will remember."
Gildow: "They told Marv, 'We can figure out these lakes real quick because we have sonar.' Marv thought they were full of it. He didn't think these two guys from Chicago knew what they were talking about. But he gave 'em shot anyway, and they produced."
Eight men formed the first chapter of the Nisswa Guides League. The idea was Ron Lindner's. He reasoned that by working together the individual guides could accomplish more than by working alone. In the early years they gathered at Potthoff's resort at noon and ate lunch and shared information from their morning trips.
Gildow spent up to four hours with every living guide featured in the book and put all the interviews on video.
"And I still made mistakes," he said. "I ran into Roach the other day. He pointed out that in the book it says he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Well, he didn't drop out of school until the 11th grade. I went back and looked at the video and, sure enough, there's Roach saying he dropped out in the 11th grade."
Ray Gildow, who retired as vice president of Central Lakes College in 2004, has written a colorful history of the Nisswa Guides League. Gildow has guided with the league on a part-time basis since 1989.
Gildow was struck by the natural marketing abilities of the early guides.,
"Ron Lindner wasn't the fisherman that Al was," Gildow said, "but when the league formed it was Ron who took photos of their catches and sent them to newspapers, magazines and television stations. He made the league famous. The Nisswa Guides League has never been as popular as it was in that era, and that was due to Ron's marketing skills.
"Jeff Zernov pointed out that neither Al nor Ron would have been as successful without the other. They were like Lennon and McCartney that way. They complimented each other so well.
"The other thing I think is notable is that they accepted the responsibility for educating the public and getting ethics to change. When they started the theme was 'Meat is Neat.' They killed everything they caught. Everybody did. But they changed and were among the first to promote catch-and-release."
Gildow said he was surprised by how little the members of the league knew about each other.
"Marv Koep jokes that if he had known as much about these guys as he knows now he wouldn't have hired them," Gildow said.
Many of the guides were instrumental in developing new products. Electronics wizard Jim Wentworth worked with Carl Lowrance, helping him fine tune his early technology. Van Doren made the first splash guards for boats. Zernov invented the underwater camera.
"It's remarkable how many products we take for granted today sprung from members of the league," Gildow said.
And to think that most of them were mostly broke at one time or another. The guides worked all sorts of odd jobs in the off-season to get by. Roach, for example, played guitar in a band in the winter.
"Money didn't matter," Gildow said. "I compare them to Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich that way. Sinatra was one of the greatest singers of all time. Buddy Rich was the best drummer who ever lived. But neither cared a hoot about making money when he started. The guides didn't do it to get into the hall of fame 'cause there wasn't any at the time. They just had a passion to be on the water.
"A friend once asked me, 'Do you think they would have been as successful in other lines of work?' I said I didn't know. It was there passion for fishing that made them successful. Had they been making boxes in a box factory they might not have been as successful.
"They still have that passion. Nick Adams is 80 years old -- just had surgery again a couple weeks ago -- and he still gets up and goes to work every day."
Later members of the league don't have the same notoriety, but Gildow said they wouldn't take a back seat to the earlier guides.
"Some of them have been doing it for 20 years and they still go out every day and produce," he said.
And, of course, there's Marv Koep, to whom the book is dedicated. It begins with Marv and his wife Judy coming to Brainerd in 1961 and buying Pete Link's old bait shop on Highway 371.
"Marv never made the kind of money some of these other guys did," Gildow said, "but he had the same passion and still does. He's out there every day. If he isn't guiding for money he's hauling out some priest from St. Cloud or somebody else who just wants to go fishing.
"There's a lot of people who guided for the league part-time but who aren't mentioned in the book: Jimmie Lindner, Doug Dypwyck, Kevin Koep, Sam Karels, Royal's son, and a lot of others."
Gildow said he still can't believe he finished the book.
"I hope people find it interesting," he said. "We haven't found too many errors. I just wanted to tell this piece of history. When we're all dead someday at least it's been recorded."
VINCE MEYER can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 855-5862
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