Dennis Anderson: After more than six decades, the Minnesota fishing opener still brings them together

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune on

Published in Outdoors

MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday, at the crack of dawn, these old boys weren't on the water. They were near it, in the same cabin at the same resort they've been visiting for decades; in no hurry on this fishing opener to push away from the dock.

They're weren't worried. They'll catch their walleyes.

For 64 years running — 65 this opener — they always have.

Four of this bunch first met as kids in south Minneapolis. The year was 1957, a time when most blocks south of downtown had an empty lot, and it was there that kids could goof off, throwing their bikes in the dirt as they came to running stops, streetcars clanging in the distance.

In those years, the four boys had a serious hankering for fishing, and knew where to dig worms and collect them in tin cans they swung from their bikes' handlebars. Their hot spot was a pond in Lakewood Cemetery that they sneaked into for largemouth bass and giant sunfish.

"We weren't supposed to be there," Bill Voedisch said the other day. "But we knew we could outrun the cemetery people if we dodged among the headstones on the way out."

Years later, Voedisch ("Vodi"), Dean Sweeney ("Scrawn"), John Zollars ("Z") and Dave Johnson ("DJ") — the four schoolboy chums — would enter Southwest High School, and it was there that they cooked up the idea of taking their fishing addictions on the road.

Any road, as long as it led north.

So it was on an early summer morning in 1960 that Vodi, Scrawn, Z and DJ clambered into Scrawn's 1953 Buick Roadmaster and watched as the Twin Cities grew smaller and smaller in the hulking vehicle's rearview mirror, cigar smoke billowing out its windows.

Vodi was 15 years old. DJ and Scrawn were 16, and Z was 17.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and gas was 31 cents a gallon.

"We didn't know where we were going," Vodi said. "We had a big map we had unfurled, and had looked at different destinations. In the end we said, 'Let's go to Itasca County.' That county is loaded with lakes and we figured there had to be one where we could catch fish."

So began, for these fellows, the tradition of getting away on the season's first day to fish together, a ritual that for countless Minnesotans dates to statehood and before.

In the 1800s, White Bear and Minnetonka lakes were as far as some St. Paul and Minneapolis anglers ventured on opening day. As roads improved, Mille Lacs became within reach, then Gull and Leech, Winnibigoshish and Vermilion, and other lakes farther north still.

Outboard motors were so much a luxury back then that resort owners pulled rowboats full of anglers, one craft roped to another, onto these big waters to fish. For some of these fishermen, walleyes, northern pike, crappies and sunnies were easy pickings, while for others, not so much.

Regardless, the chill of opening morning, the swaying of tall pines encircling northern lakes and the tug of hungry fish gulping baited hooks flooded their senses, and when these opening day adventurers headed home, their intent was to repeat their experiences one year after another.


I first wrote about this gang of well-traveled anglers 15 years ago, when most were 65 or thereabouts. Now Vodi is 80, Scran 81, and Z is 82.

Filling out the present-day roster, Herb "Calf Man" Polzin, 82, joined the group in 1967, and in 2005, Terry "Bo" Beaudry, 65, signed on.

Unfortunately, DJ — hands down the best fisherman of the bunch, and the funniest — succumbed to cancer in 2004.

"DJ died the same day Rodney Dangerfield died, and on that day, the world lost two very funny men," Vodi said.

DJ's passing was for Vodi, Scrawn and Z a reminder that their time together won't last forever. Over many years they've watched each other's kids grow up, get married and have children of their own. Through it all, like clockwork, they've headed north for opening day, still excited like the kids they once were, to get away and fish.

This year, the 65th trip for the outfit's original members, wass no different, except that unlike their first trip in 1960, they didn't rely on fishing tips spouted by a tipsy local perched at the end of a bar 20 miles north of Grand Rapids.

"We had stopped at a resort that had a bar," Vodi said. "None of us had IDs, but we ordered beers, got them, and listened to an old guy tell us about Dead Horse Lake, where ultimately we ended up fishing, casting Bass-Orenos and Lazy Ikes and catching seven largemouth bass.

"Later we graduated to Spider Lake and then about 35 years ago to Williams Narrows Resort on Cut Foot Sioux, where we've been ever since, first in Cabin 3, now in Cabin 5."

During their working days, Scrawn and Z toiled for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Bo still works there), while Vodi was at West Publishing, DJ sold Harleys and Calf Man, with a doctorate in animal science, peddled feed.

Now, mostly, in early May, the surviving original members and the add-ons think about fish and fishing, and about everything that accompanies opening weekend.

This includes a shared walleye dinner and come evening, a game of 500 or perhaps five-card stud.

If their luck held, they even returned to the Twin Cities in the same vehicles they drove north, and not in a Greyhound bus, as they did one year when the jalopy they piloted on the fishing season's first weekend broke down.

But that's another story.

And memory.

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