VIDEO: 50 years on Lake of the WoodsGetting married usually warrants a day off from work, but that wasn’t the case for Kit Beckel. Beckel this year marked his 40th wedding anniversary — “she’s real understanding,” Beckel says of his wife, Peggy — but perhaps even more remarkable, he celebrated 50 years as a charter boat captain on Lake of the Woods.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
BAUDETTE, Minn. — Getting married usually warrants a day off from work, but that wasn’t the case for Kit Beckel.
There were fish to catch that summer day in 1972, and Beckel had a charter boat to helm. By the time he got off Lake of the Woods late that afternoon, the wedding guests already were assembled at Trails End Lodge, the resort his dad, Dwain, had owned since 1959.
“I had fish in the wheelbarrow,” Beckel recalls. “I remember wheeling them up, and then Dad said, ‘Everybody’s here.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got fish to clean.’”
For one of the few times in his career as a charter boat captain and fishing guide, Beckel got out of cleaning fish that afternoon.
“I went and took a shower, and we got married,” he said.
Beckel this year marked his 40th wedding anniversary — “she’s real understanding,” Beckel says of his wife, Peggy — but perhaps even more remarkable, he celebrated 50 years as a charter boat captain on Lake of the Woods.
No one on the big lake can match that kind of record for longevity.
“There’ve been some guides who fished four or five years and left and came back, but I know I’ve driven the longest steady,” Beckel, 63, said.
He didn’t plan to make a career of working on the lake; it just kind of happened.
“I figured I’d do it 15 years or so, and then I’d be done and go on to something else,” Beckel said. “But I’ve enjoyed it so much over the years, and it’s just been fun. The more I do it, the more fun it is.”
Wealth of experience
Beckel is the veteran guide and charter boat captain for Sportman’s Lodge. The Beckel family bought the resort in 1969 and built the present lodge two years later. They owned it until 1993, and Beckel stayed on with the new owners as a charter boat captain.
“Having someone like Kit around with his level of experience and knowledge of the lake and how it reacts to different weather conditions is unbelievable,” said Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge. “He has such a library of experience. There are not too many situations that he has not been in on this lake.”
With an average of 100 days on the water annually, Beckel has steered a charter boat through Lighthouse Gap into the expanse of Big Traverse Bay at least 5,000 times. He started driving launch half-days in 1962 for the family resort, and his dad bought him a 24-foot Chris-Craft — a wooden boat with a six-cylinder Hercules engine — the next year.
“You could rent the whole boat for $45,” Beckel said. “The guide got paid $5 — all day.”
There was one year in the ’70s, Beckel says, when he had four days off from May 10 to Oct. 18.
“Two of those days off, I took the wife fishing,” he said.
Years ago, Beckel landed the nickname “Chopper.” The boat he was driving had the scowling image of a toothy shark painted on its bow — similar to the nose cones of fighter planes — and when Beckel hit rough water, all you’d see was waves and teeth.
He got the nickname in the early 1970s while towing another boat to shore, and it stuck. Everyone who knows Beckel still calls him “Chopper.”
“I can’t believe how it stuck,” he said. “Everyone thinks I drive a motorcycle.”
Last Saturday, Beckel made his final charter boat trip of the season. A stiff northwest wind had stirred the big lake into a churning froth, and the veteran guide tackled waves that flirted with 6 feet.
No big deal, that. He pounded his way north along the Minnesota-Ontario border before cutting his 27-foot Sportcraft west toward the more sheltered shoreline of Stony Point.
The ride took more than two hours, but Beckel made the trip worthwhile. Anchored and jigging in 25 feet of water, the six anglers in Beckel’s boat caught upward of 30 walleyes, saugers and jumbo perch.
Beckel, who hasn’t gotten skunked once in his 50 years, says he approaches the job with this motto:
“If we don’t get a fish today, I’ll pay for your launch trip and I’ll quit,” he said. “You’ve got to catch something — and I’ve never been skunked.”
There’ve been a lot of changes on the big lake in the past 50 years. The biggest change, Beckel said, occurred in the late 1980s, when Ontario imposed restrictions on Minnesota-based charter boats fishing the Canadian side of the lake and its sheltered islands.
The fishing, Beckel says, has gotten better since Minnesota closed the U.S. side of the lake to commercial fishing.
“I would say within the past 10 years, fishing’s definitely improved,” he said. “In the ’80s, it was real bad. It was tough fishing then. It’s pretty regular now to catch anywhere from 23- to 26- or 27-inch walleyes, where back in the ’70s and ’80s, you didn’t catch them. You could catch a 1¾-pound fish or smaller. Anything over that, the nets took them.
“You had a better chance to catch a 9- or 10-pounder than a 4- or 5-pounder.”
Technology also has changed fishing on the lake, Beckel said. Before the advent of GPS technology, guides depended on maps, compasses and experience to navigate or find the sunken rock piles walleyes favor at certain times of the year.
“You had to really rely on a compass. And it worked,” Beckel said. “A lot of the new guys, they don’t pay attention to a compass at all.”
Beckel said the roughest water he ever encountered occurred during a storm in the mid-’70s. The wind on the mainland peaked at more than 100 mph, he said, and returning to the dock from Knight and Bridges islands — normally a 45- to 50-minute trip — took five hours.
He estimates the waves were 15 feet high.
“It was blowing out of one direction and then it switched 180 degrees,” Beckel said. “It seemed you’d go forward one wave and back two.”
That didn’t faze “Chopper,” though, who says he wasn’t scared.
“The people were,” he said. “I’ve found the best thing to do if they’re scared is ask them if they want to drive.”
That usually cures them, Beckel said.
“A launch won’t sink unless you hit a rock,” he said. “You just have to take your time.
“If you want to go fishing, we’ll go. I don’t care if it’s 8-footers, we’ll go.”
With that kind of an outlook, it’s no wonder Chopper is a favorite among the lodge’s other charter boat drivers.
“Chopper, he’s a good guy, man,” said Keith Ayers, 25, a Pittsburgh native who became a charter boat captain two years ago. “He’s one of us. He’s fun to be around. At this point in life, he’s not doing it for the money — it’s the joy of people’s faces when they get a fish.
“The sheer knowledge he has on Lake of the Woods can’t be matched by anybody.”
Troy Brandon, an East Grand Forks native who got his Coast Guard license last year, said the best advice he ever got was to “just follow Chopper.”
“He does know where the fish are,” Brandon said. “He’s amazing.”
Beckel, who recently hosted a party for more than 200 friends to mark his 50 years on the lake, said his grandson, Alex, someday might be carrying on the tradition.
“He’s about 6, and I think he’s going to follow in my footsteps,” Beckel said. “He loves to fish and hunt.”
As for Beckel, he says he plans to work at least another five or six years.
“Some people say, ‘Don’t you get tired of it?’ No,” Beckel said. “It’s fun. It used to be a job; now it’s entertaining.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.