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From left, Jerry Johnson, Wally Pearson, Glen Shaw and Bob Santwire have been fishing the Minnesota opener together every year since 1963. The so-called "Last Fisherman's Company" moved the tradition to Star Lake in 1968. Submitted photo

Group of eight has fished the Minnesota opener together for 46 years

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DENT, Minn. – Rick Sieg remembers when seven of his best friends sat him down on a recent fishing opener weekend and told him to drop dead.

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“I had had a whole series of heart attacks, open heart surgery, everything else. I was supposed to be gone 10 years ago,” Sieg, 71, recalled, “and they put me on trial for cheating the undertaker.”

It wasn’t an intervention, per se. Just a normal meeting of the Last Fisherman’s Company, a group of eight friends who have met every year for the past 46 years to celebrate the Minnesota fishing opener together.

For decades, the group of eight, most of them retired schoolteachers from central Minnesota, has met up at Star Lake, about 12 miles east of Pelican Rapids.

They drink beer, sing songs, cast lines and fry fish, and on one night during the opener, they hold what Sieg called a kind of “kangaroo court,” charging each other with ridiculous crimes, like accidentally tossing your reel into the lake. They’ll even get after you for cheating death.

It’s all good fun among good friends, Sieg said, and that’s what makes it worth coming back year after year.

“It’s a great group of guys,” he said. “Couldn’t ask for any better friends.”

The company of eight started as a group of five in Ada in 1963. Four of them were schoolteachers and another worked at a body shop. The young 20-somethings fished the opener on White Earth Lake for five straight years.

“Then everybody went their separate ways,” said Glen Shaw, 75, one of the original five.

The company dispersed across central Minnesota, landing in Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Wayzata and Montevideo, but the lure of a special friendship was too strong.  

Tradition trumped distance, and the group decided to meet up again at Star Lake for the 1968 fishing opener. They’ve done it ever since.

Since moving to Star Lake, four others have joined the ranks, many of them also schoolteachers. Rick Sieg was a teacher in Fergus Falls in 1968, and he remembers the day he was asked to join the company.

There wasn’t exactly an intensive screening process.

“They said ‘Come on out!’ And we’ve been coming out ever since,” Sieg said. “It’s been great. It’s a tradition.”

About 30 years ago, Shaw and a couple of others purchased an old Star Lake resort, which the group made their annual headquarters. It’s a quiet lake off the beaten path, but not too far from popular Lake Lida and Otter Tail Lake. Shaw built his home next door in 2000.

“There’s nobody around here. It’s very secluded,” Shaw said. “So we have bonfires and play guitars, and all that stuff.”

They hold a fishing tournament among themselves and always have a big fish fry with whatever they’ve caught. And Shaw makes embroidered hats every year for everyone who shows up, denoting the current year and how long that person has been coming to the celebration.

Some years, that group is as large as 25 people, when the company members’ family and other friends travel hundreds of miles to join in on the festivities.

A friend from Thunder Bay, Ontario, is a regular attendee, and he dons a robe and acts as judge during their kangaroo courts, Sieg said. Other friends come from South Dakota and Colorado.

But it’s the core group of eight that’s always around days before Minnesota’s fishing opener, chopping wood and preparing the resort. They’ll be there long after everyone else has left.

“Saturday and Sunday, people come and go. We don’t hit it real hard because we drink a lot of beer,” Shaw said with a laugh, “but Monday we’ll hit it hard. Monday we’ll fish in earnest.”

The eight even have a plan for when the day finally comes that seven of the eight have died. On a proclamation signed years ago by all eight, the last company member standing – whoever it may be – pledges to toast his seven friends when they are “opening the fishing season together on the big lake in the sky.”

One of the original five, Darrel Danner, died in the early ’90s, and the company cracked a special bottle for him, Shaw said.

So when this weekend is over and many of the boats are off the water, you can bet the Last Fisherman’s Company will still be there, sitting on Star Lake, making one more memory.

“You have a lot of friends in the world, there’s no doubt about that. Teaching, you touch a lot of people,” said Wally Pearson, 76, a retired schoolteacher and one of the original five.

“But the people that come here are the closest to my heart, I guess, and that’s why I keep coming back.”

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Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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