Early last week, I was chatting with my buddy Donnie about his job. Donnie used to own Castle Baits in Ignace and many of our long time guests know him and have purchased minnows from him in the past. Donnie no longer retails bait but he still wholesales to other retailers. Amazingly minnows and leeches don’t just appear in those tanks at the minnow shop. Bait harvesters have been working for weeks already getting ready for opening weekend. In our conversation, I somehow invited myself along to harvest leeches. How hard could it be?
On Friday last, Donnie picked me up shortly after day break. In the dark I managed to make some coffee but hadn’t managed to consume it. So, I tried to drink my coffee while bouncing along on a bush road and pretending it was a normal thing as Donnie did the same without a lid on his cup.
The next series of events magnified my appreciation of flying into the wilderness as a means of transport.
After a spine jostling tour through the back country we parked the truck and unloaded the quad. I was surprised it managed to remain in the back of the truck since I had a hard time remaining in the cab. The quad is a one man vehicle, so I was relegated to walking and trying to keep the quad in sight as we left what could be barely called a road for what could be barely called a trail. By the time I managed to catch up to Donnie he had loaded the smallest canoe (dare I call it that) I have ever seen with his buckets and good supply of raw beef kidney for leech bait.
He informed me that I was paddling and he was leeching. We only had 70 traps to pick up. He purposely took me to a small lake since it was my first time. In retrospect I really appreciate that small tidbit of sensitivity on his part. I stopped my panting and tried not to whimper. I secured my life jacket as though I was a band member on the Titanic. I wasn’t sure I trusted the canoe with even one leech as a passenger once Donnie and I ensured there was no more than a half inch of freeboard. I paddled and he picked up leeches and reset the traps. We managed a good harvest. To me it was about as many leeches I ever cared to see… ever. Donnie told me it was only about 7 lbs. As good of friends as we are, I came to the conclusion that if we capsized, Donnie would rescue his leeches and come back for me when he got a chance.
We managed to finish the lake, and as we returned to our start point, I realized I hadn’t felt my legs or my fingers for about an hour. Did I mention it was cold? Even after ice out, the water is cold in early May and when I can see my breath, I really shouldn’t be sitting in a canoe shorter than me retrieving leeches at an hour most sane people, like me on a normal day, are just rolling out of bed.
We managed to get out of the canoe with the grace of two logs rolling down a hill. That’s probably what it looked like but since we were in the middle of nowhere, who cares. Donnie put his leeches on his quad and headed back up the hill to the truck. Somehow, while slogging to the lake, I managed to miss the fact the the lake was downhill… way downhill from the truck. By the time I managed to hike back to the truck Donnie had loaded the quad and was beginning to warm his hands on a cup of coffee.
I poured myself a coffee from my thermos and struggled through the same gymnastics of drinking coffee on a bush road as the ride in, but this time with stumps as hands. Having frozen fingers creates a new dynamic in this effort.
Donnie dropped me back at my office, just in time to start MY work day. I vowed I would never again complain about the price of leeches. I can imagine the job not being cold in the summer, but then the bugs would be out and I’m not sure that would make it any better.
I have a whole new respect for another aspect of our industry serving the angler. I have a team working with me to make a great experience for our guests, but bait harvesters work alone in a rather harsh environment providing the leeches and minnows which make walleye fishing so fantastic.
I did try to take pictures, but the aim and operation of my new camera was drastically affected by frozen fingers that couldn’t be easily pried from the paddle or gunnels of the “canoe”. I also had a sincere desire not to rock the boat in any way. Sorry.