The Peons of Lake Minnetonka

The glorious yachting days of summer--as seen from the shore

The yacht has been cruising Lake Minnetonka at summer-fun speeds, but when it approaches the channel under the County Road 19 bridge, its captain yields to the slow-down signs. The huge vessel cuts through the water deliberately, motor idle and partiers silent. A girl in an orange bikini is sprawled out on the ship's sleek white bow. She rises from her sun-tanning slumber and perches on one elbow to look at the people on the shore.

Her friends do likewise. Seven hard bodies in one-pieces, bikinis, and jams, parading skin that sweats of PF Ultra and late-afternoon booze. A couple of stony-faced jet-skiers and a pontoon filled with hot boys and girls follow closely behind. They've been tooling around the lake, free and easy, but now comes the channel's awkward moment: the time when they stare wordlessly through wraparound shades and mirror sunglasses at the people on the shore.

"It's like we're from the hills," says Marian Schlegelmilch, who is 77 years old and who sits with her friend Delores Lenzen. Both women hold long bamboo poles ("We're too old to go dancing, so we go fishin'") and wear truckers' caps.

"Some of them look at us like we're peons," says Carmen Garcia, from Crystal, who casts with her husband and their two-year-old son.

"Lot of rich people," says 17-year-old Michael Burke from Minneapolis, who has been fishing Lake Minnetonka with his brother Ermani "since we were babies."

"I think it'd be tight to be on a yacht or something, fishing," says Ermani.

Weighing in is Doug--"just Doug," he says--a sixtysomething unemployed construction worker from southern Minnesota. "Everybody in their fancy boats playing fancy boat ride, and there's not a fishing pole in the boat," he says. "I've been out in a boat in the sun like that. It's stupid. They might as well just ride around on the bike path.

"See all those big mansions over there? They bought that scenery. They're paying big money for that. They're probably full of lawyers. But I bet there's not a fishing pole in one of 'em. A working man will never have one of them fancy houses. Don't want one, neither."

The people on the shore have found a fishing hole that feels like a secret, but can hardly be classified as such, given the eight cars and couple of dozen bodies parked under the bridge on a Tuesday afternoon. Most are retired. Some are goofing off. They come as often as they can, sometimes every day, armed with chicken liver, minnows, hot dogs, night crawlers, lures, nets, pickle barrels. They go for sunnies in the afternoon; muskies, bass, catfish, and walleyes in the evening.

The green shores of Lake Minnetonka are dotted with mansions, golf courses, sculptures, country clubs, churches, shacks, putting-green perfect lawns, and iron gates. And the people in the boats who live here are toned and tony. Then there's 77-year-old Ralph Schlegelmilch, a farmer from Chaska who looks ready for winter in his work boots and blue industrial shirt and pants. He keeps a cane at his feet. He, like most of the people on the shore, comes here because they say it's the only good shore fishing close to the cities. And because the city of Minnetonka maintains the area as a fishing park, open from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

The people on the boats parade in the sun, but the people on the shore hunker under the bridge in the cool shade. Sometimes the people on the boats wave and ask how the fishing is. They look like they suspect that they might be missing something, like they'd like to trade places. The people on the shore never look that way. The fishing crowd rarely even acknowledges the leisure-buyers on the boats.

They gaze into the water and watch their bobbers and methodically reel in fish after fish. The people on the shore are not drinking, or mating, or thrill-seeking. They are fishing. If you ask them why they do it, they may say something about relaxation or lifelong habit. They're not a philosophical bunch that way. What they say is what Marian says: "We come home now and clean 'em and eat 'em. That's the time they taste the best."

"Just scale 'em, roll 'em in some flour, fry 'em in some grease. A little salt," says Doug.

"Deep fry 'em with corn meal," says Michael. "Ooh, they taste good with some hot sauce."

Having cleared the bridge, the yacht's big engines belch back to life, ferrying the vessel's sweating passengers to a place where the sun is just a little bit hotter.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com.

 
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