About the book:
'Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts'
By Marnie O. Mamminga
192 pages, 85 b/w photos
Marnie O. Mamminga collects a series of vignettes and vintage family photos to paint a picture of her family's time at Wake Robin, the cabin her grandparents built in 1929 on Big Spider Lake near Hayward, on land adjacent to Moody's Camp.
In the excerpt that follows, Mamminga describes some of the fishing guides that called Big Spider Lake home.
The Fishing Guides Cast Their Charms: 1940s-1960s
“As the guiding went on, first friendships ripened into loyalties, and when old parties returned, the trips were always happy reunions.”
—Sigurd F. Olson
They were men of mystery.
And they held the secrets to the lake. They knew the shallows, the reed beds, and the cold, deep pockets of the depths.
They knew the sky, too. The feathery wisps of cirrus clouds, the billows of cumulonimbus, the slight changes in wind, and the meaning of it all.
And they knew their fish—crappie, walleye, bass, and musky— what lure to use and where to catch them. They were men of the water. They were the fishing guides.
When the lodge bell jubilantly clanged, all knew these lake Houdinis had worked their magic once again, and many rushed up to the lodge’s sturdy log pole set in the garden to see what magnificent fish now hung from its sunny scale.
Coming upon the guides as they strode from the gurgling bait tanks down to the boat dock, out to the lake, and back again with fish and beaming client in tow was like watching ongoing theater. With sparkling water as a stage and a bucket of minnows and a rod and a reel as props, no job to us seemed finer.
Tommy Seehuetter, Elmer Brunberg, and Eddie Ostling anchored the fishing services at Moody’s Camp, and they were as different as individuals as the fish they caught. Their main similarity was that they were men of few words, which only added to their rough, woodsy mystique.
Although their fi shing attire usually resembled a similar uniform of clean khaki trousers, ironed shirts, and laced-up leather boots, they were distinguishable from a distance by their hats, which also matched their personalities.
Tall and lean, Tommy wore his brimmed cap at a jaunty angle that suggested his cheerful spirit and friendly disposition. Elmer’s squat, sturdy frame was topped with a serious felt fedora that revealed his academic background as a teacher and principal. And Eddie’s roguish rolled-edge hat pulled down low to one side over his eyes gave him the rugged allure of a James Dean–type maverick.
Sitting on our dock, it was easy to spot these guides on the lake by the silhouette of their hats. We watched as they tirelessly rowed across the water so a client could troll, motored their 3 1/2-horsepower boats to another reed bed, or cast their own shimmering lines into the air like a spray of ice crystals on a hot day.
Yet, as glamorous as a career on the water appeared, the life of a guide wasn’t easy. The pay was poor, the hours long, and, sometimes, the clients were ornery.
Tommy: Fisherman and Friend
Fishing and the polka were his passions.
And each was a dance that kept him on his toes all his life.
Born on February 6, 1925, in his family’s Twin Lake home (the doctor had to borrow a Model T Ford and a pair of skis from the mailman to get there), Tommy Seehuetter credited his love of fishing to his parents.
“My mother and father went fishing every night,” Tommy said. “If I hadn’t been born in February, I’d have been born in a boat.”
Seehuetter roots to the Big Spider Lake area go way back before his time. His grandfather Preston was a logger from the state of Washington and came to Hayward during the great logging boom of the 1880s to open a steam-powered sawmill on what is now Murphy Boulevard and Preston/Lake Helene Road.
According to Tommy, most of the logs used for the local cabins and resorts came
from the swamps of North Lake and the north end of Big Spider.
Tommy reminisced that during his childhood, school was often called off because the roads were too muddy from logging and the runoff. “In the spring, we even had a mud week when the school closed down,” Tommy explained. There were few roads in the area back then and no bridge over the North Lake thoroughfare
to Moody’s Camp.
In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Tommy joined the Navy (again, his love of water guided his life choices). He served during World War II until 1946, and eventually returned to Hayward, married Violet Leatrice Cline, and settled into the family home built over his grandfather’s corner sawmill. There he and Violet raised six
Tommy worked a variety of jobs to support his family, including a stint as a sawyer. But it wasn’t long before he was lured back to the lakes, casting his luck as a fishing guide on weekends, summers, and most anytime he could work it in.
“The first time I came to Moody’s, it was by boat from Eggert’s Resort across the lake,” he said. “I also guided on Teal and Lost Land Lake.”
In the early years when Ted Moody ran the camp, Tommy worked alongside other guides such as Hank Smith, an Ojibwe (locally known as “Hank the Indian”), Elmer Brunberg, and George Hewitt. The days started early and frequently ended late.
“They were often ten to twelve hour days,” Tommy explained. “Sometimes I’d be out till 10:00 or 11:00 at night.”
At Moody’s Camp, it was Tommy’s job to get the minnows and the suckers from the bait house, pick up a shore lunch that the cooks had assembled for him to fix over an open fire, and be sure the boat was bailed, gassed, and readied with oars and anchor.
Throw in the “pee can” (usually an old coffee tin), and he was set to go.
Then it was out on the lake for a day of fishing with clients.
“We went out in all kinds of weather,” Tommy said. “The good thing was there were no mosquitoes on the lake.”
The early motors were 3 1/2-horsepower, so it took a long time to get from one fishing spot to the next.
“They didn’t start very good either,” Tommy said. “Sometimes it took two hours to get back, especially if we were out far, like on the Chippewa Flowage.”
Most often, however, Tommy used the time-tested technique of trolling by oar. To the squeaky tune of the oar-lock rhythm, he spent hours rowing his client around the lake with a lure dragging behind the boat.
“We didn’t have electric trolling motors, fish wells, or captain’s seats like they do now,” he said with a laugh. It was all back work and muscle.
For lunch, Tommy would pull up to an island or shoreline clearing and gather wood to start a campfire.
“I always cooked a shore lunch of fried potatoes and any fish we had caught, which I also had to clean and fillet,” Tommy explained.
“Moody’s always sent along some eggs to scramble just in case there were no fish.”
Occasionally, in an attempt to fulfill his client’s desires to catch that elusive musky, Tommy wound up performing chef duties well into the evening.
“Sometimes I’d be frying up steak and potatoes at 10:00 at night by car lights,” Tommy said. “It wasn’t an eight-to-five job.”
To top it off, some of the fishermen didn’t even know how to fish.
“I had a lot of clients that I had to teach how to cast,” he said. “I learned to be a good ducker.”
Many of the boats of that era were long, lean, low-riding wooden boats handmade by the Peterson Brothers of the Hayward area. Although heavy, they skimmed beautifully across the water for the rower because of their narrow design, unlike the wider hull of today’s boats.
They were, however, tippy. Consequently, Tommy had one golden rule.
“I never let clients stand in the boat,” he said. “If they wouldn’t sit, I’d say, ‘See this oar? Do you want it on the side of your head?’
“You could drown if a client lost his balance and grabbed you or the boat and fl ipped it over.”
Thankfully, most of Tommy’s clients were well mannered and cooperative. “Some clients griped a lot, but most did not,” Tommy said.
“Once, I had one complain so much because he was only getting weeds that I took him to shore and left him at the dock.”
That client had to be one rotten fish for the kindly, gentle Tommy to take such a stand.
Most often, an outing proved successful, and the musky was prominently featured on Moody’s menu that night. After a sparkling iridescent show on the garden hook for all to see, the fish was cooked, gussied up with garnish, and promenaded on a platter around the dining room by Ted Moody, and later by Dick Seitz, for all to ooh and ahh over.
Naturally, the proud fisherman regaled the admiring guests with tales of his conquest. An often-asked question was, “Who was the guide?”
Besides the musky, another frequent catch was the walleye. Too frequently, as it turns out.
“There were no limits on walleye back then,” Tommy explained. “Some people hauled in as many as fi fty to sixty a day. It was a dirty crime, and it hurt the lakes terribly.”
Despite all the detailed personal services Tommy and other guides provided, the pay was low, especially for a father trying to feed six children.
“I was paid $10 a day, and the highest I got paid was $18 toward the end of my guiding around 1968,” Tommy explained. “One client always gave me a dollar more for every fish caught over 30 inches.
“I liked fishing and being out on the lake,” Tommy continued.
“I would have liked it more if it had paid better.”
Any of the day’s catch not eaten were stored in Moody’s icehouse in a hold above the sawdust-covered blocks of winter lake ice. Packed on a shelf on ice, they were reserved for the client to hand carry or ship home—or saved for a private fish fry at the end of the client’s stay.
Tommy said the biggest fish he caught were a 17 1/2-inch crappie on Mud (later renamed Fawn) Lake and a 53 1/2-inch, 35 1/2-pound musky on Little Spider by the weed bed near the nuns’ retreat. No wonder Tommy was such a popular guide.
He offered a few tips from his reservoir of knowledge. “When catching walleye, you have to let the bait bounce on the bottom like a crawfish,” Tommy said. “Musky you have to just keep working at it and use spinners with different colors.”
Although the clients drifted off after Labor Day, some of the best musky fishing continued on into October and November—although changing weather patterns added a few more challenges to the outing. “It would be freezing and there would be two inches of snow in the boat,” Tommy said. “I’d catch the water from the back
of the motor to warm my hands.”
Whether he was frozen from whipping winds or sunburned and parched from a hot day on the water, Tommy headed home exhausted, ready to start all over the next day—but not before Ted Moody sent him off with a shot and beer to go.
In the off-fishing season, Tommy said he often guided during deer season and hunted regularly to feed his family as well.
“We ate a lot of ducks and deer,” he said. “I started hunting when I was six and quit in 1997 at age seventy-two.”
Tommy also was a caretaker for several nearby private cabins, putting in docks, opening and closing cabins, and helping with other miscellaneous jobs. One client even had him rake the woods in front of his cabin every spring.
“It was pointless,” he said. “It took me over forty hours. He was a fussy old fart.”
Tommy’s reputation as a fishing guide was on par with his renown as a polka dancer. Come Wednesday nights when the lodge drew guests and lake residents for the weekly square dances, he and his wife, Violet, energetically swung into the first notes of every polka with the joy and dazzle of two butterflies.
Those on the dance floor had to be on collision look out, such was Tommy’s polka zeal and zest as he and Violet circled the room.
For those watching from the sidelines, Tommy’s transformation from fishing guide to debonair dancer was as startling as the leap of a musky from a still, clear lake.
“The square dance was real nice because the resort people and the lake people and the workers all came together,” Tommy said. “Those were fun days.”
An understatement, if there ever was one.
When the Seitzes sold the resort in 1967, Tommy Seehuetter decided to leave soon after. An era had ended not only for the resort but for the fishing guides as well. Tommy, Elmer, and Eddie moved on to more secure work, for the guiding glory days, as they knew them, were over.
In the years that followed, it took a long while for those of us who love to watch the lake from our docks to get used to the emptiness that the guides’ absent silhouettes created. In addition to the smooth glide of their boats and the gentle, rhythmic creaking of their oarlocks, we missed the sight of their hats.
For besides being great fishing guides, they were our friends. Strong, tough men you knew you could count on no matter what the need.
And so, their disappearance from the lake was as crushing as when a favorite lure flung into the wind unexpectedly breaks free. With a soft splash it drops out of sight, and, like a wave rolling by, leaves just the ripple of its memory.
Sometimes in the early light, when the rising sun and the morning mist are just right, it is as though we can see them still.
The outline of a jaunty hat, the contours of a sleek wooden boat, the sound of squeaking oarlocks, and the arc of a powerful cast float for a moment in miragelike splendor. But just like the mystic end of a good dream, we blink our eyes and realize all has changed.
Just the same, we tip our hats in silent salute.