Wednesday, February 6, 2008

56572@125 The Fish Behind the Bar

Written quite a while ago by Roger Pinckney XI

The most famous fish in Otter Tail County? Perhaps in all of Minnesota? Look behind the bar at Perry's Place.

Otter Tail County, County Road 4, east of Pelican Rapids. There is a roadhouse on the right. Perry's Place. Been there since Day One. It's a little run down, lately. Potholes in the parking lot, waist high thistles around the edges. Faded paint. Peeling siding.

But Perry's used to be the jumpingest spot in these parts. Hot bands, cold brew on weekends. A watering hole for sportsmen anytime. Inside there's a broad hardwood dancefloor, checkered tablecloths, dim lights. There is a short bar with a dozen wobbly stools, your choice of bottles, cans, or tap.

But behind the bar is a fish. A fish never seen in these parts. Almost pre-historic. Six feet two inches of pure ugly. And it came from a lake not two miles away.

Turn back the pages. Turn back the pages of The Pelican Rapids Press. Turn back to December 23, 1948. Fifty years ago.

Coach Martin's Viking football team had just beaten Dilworth, but lost to Comstock in overtime. Slim Hough's daughter, Mavis, had just married Ben Frazier ("an industrious young man") at Zion Lutheran out in Dunn Township. Johnson's Furniture won first place in the town's annual Christmas display contest. Lodin's Five and Dime placed second.

But the story that stole the news that week was the giant sturgeon hauled from the icy depths of Lake Lida by Harold Rice. "Excitement reigned supreme Sunday," the article begins, "when word was spread around that a huge 102 pound sturgeon was speared in Lake Lida."

Dick Swenson, Harold's brother-in-law, was along that Saturday morning. Half a century later, he is still laughing. "Harold and I had a system," Swenson recalls. "We'd flip a quarter to see who got the spear. We were one short of the limit when I missed. Then Harold took the spear and I worked the decoy."

The men peered at the bottom, twelve feet down. Swenson jigging with the decoy, Rice poised with the spear. Then Rice swore, "Now, what in the h___ is that?"

Swenson replied with the obvious. "It's a fish!"

Rice: "What should I do?"

Swenson was eighteen, with predictable judgment and enthusiasm. "Stick it!" he whispered.

The spear flew true.

Permit a digression. A spear is always retained by a length of rope. The rope is secured to something in the fish house, usually the ankle of one of the occupants. This time, however, Swenson had wrapped it around a 2X4. Good thing, or else the headlines may have read something else entirely.

The fish took up the slack in a micro-second. The roped twanged middle C and the house boomed in resonance, rocking on it's skids like a boat on rough water. "Get another spear!" Rice yelled.

But there was no other spear.

"Run find one!"

Another digression. The law requires a fish house door to be unlatched, primarily for the convenience of the warden, who may wish to stick his head inside, unanounced, to inquire about the fishing. This morning in 1948, however, the door was firmly secured.

Neither Rice or Swenson had illegal intent. The door had previously been wracked by the wind and was leaking light, spoiling the sport. The latch kept it tight and the dark house dark.

It was a classic case of irresistible force meeting immovable object. The Press tells it best: "Dick was so excited, he did not stop to open the door of the house, but plunged right through it, knocking it off its hinges."

Swenson collected himself, got up off the ice, sprinted to a neighboring fish house, flung open the door, snatched a spear from the hands of one very surprised Almer Ohe. But Almer Ohe had his spear tied to his ankle. Swenson headed back to his house, Almer Ohe hopping along behind, frantically trying to extricate himself from the rope.

Rice got the second spear into the fish, hauled it to the surface. On his knees, he got the fish by the gills, rolled through the remains of the door, out onto the ice, the sturgeon flopping and gasping atop him.

Allow the polite paraphrasing of an otherwise rude expression pertaining to individuals taken by sudden and extreme excitement--not knowing whether to defecate or go blind. Harold Rice did not foul his britches. He pushed the fish aside, struggled to his feet to find...

He was blind!

Stone blind! Dick Swenson explains, "The excitement was too much for him. I had to lead him to the truck and drive him off the lake."

The men drove to Perry's Place. The typical bleary-eyed Saturday mid-day crowd was there, soaking up some after breakfast refreshment.

Perry was Dick Swenson brother. He took one look at Harold Rice. "What in the world happened to you?"

"Hives," Rice said, squinting and blinking.

"You get any fish."

"Come take a look."

Perry Swenson's loud exclamations emptied the bar. Patrons streamed outside, wrestled the fish into a walk-in cooler.

Word spread. From Detroit Lakes, to Breckenridge, from Frazee all the way to Fargo and the Dakota line, the curious flocked to Perry's to marvel--and to quench thirsts provoked by endless palaver.

It was Perry's best weekend ever.

Soon enough, the story reached game warden McArdle. McArdle, as a somewhat younger man was a cop down in St. Paul. Once he traded bullets--the story goes--with Machinegun Kelly. He was a fair man, long on the spirit of the law, short on the letter. In the words of one old timer, "McArdle didn't care what you did, so long as you et it."

Not quite. Sturgeon were protected. The fish was confiscated, hauled to George Bonewell's meat market in Pelican Rapids. In those days, the finest walleye sold for a quarter a pound. But these sturgeon filets commanded $1.10. Proceeds went to the DNR in lieu of a fine. The next issue of the Pelican Rapids Press reported the meat "in great demand."

But it was nearly inedible. Dick Swenson again: "It was like eating mud."

The skin was saved, sent off to a taxidermist. The Pelican Jaycees were supposed to take custody of the finished product, use it as a tourist promotion, but somehow it wound up back at Perry's, where it was hung behind the bar.

Harold Rice is no longer with us. Neither are Perry Swenson, Warden McArtle. Dick Swenson lives outside Denver, Colorado.

Perry's closed, was sold, bought, re-opened, went bankrupt, was sold, reopened, once, twice, three times. Now it's open again, new folks trying to change a long run of bad luck associated with a business that--by rights--should be a gold mine.

And the fish is still there. After all this time, it's a little shopworn. And it doesn't look quite like a sturgeon in a book. That's understandable, since it was not presented to the taxidermist intact.

Meanwhile, the DNR is busy restocking local rivers with 250 sturgeon netted from the Rainy River near Baudette. The 18-32 inch long youngsters are expected to migrate up into the lakes. Dams at Fergus Falls, Moorhead, and Breckenridge have been modified to accomodate their passage upstream. Since there are no plans to ease them around the millpond dam in downtown Pelican Rapids, those Lida sturgeon aren't likely to have any new company.

Lake Lida sturgeon?

There is still something quite big on the bottom of Lake Lida. One fisherman relates the parting on a 20 lb test line. "It hung to the bottom until I bothered it enough. Then it just swam away." Last year, another reported seeing an unidentified behemoth in shallow water near the channel that connects Lida to its south arm beneath Highway 108. And locals still chuckle about the man and woman up from the cities for a weekend. They hauled something very, very large onto a Lida sandbar, but ran when someone brought a camera. It seems each of them was supposed to be somewhere else!

Perhaps those fish were sturgeon. The DNR reports them living over 150 years. It's unreasonable to assume Harold Rice stuck the only one, fifty years ago.

And the DNR says they may weigh 300 pounds.

Three hundred pounds?

Spearfishermen, be careful what you stick.

And please, don't tie the rope to your ankle.

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