While fishing on West Lake Okoboji, Gene Baker set his tackle box on the edge of the boat so he could reach the items inside to rig up his rod.
What happened next is a matter of point of view.
Gene said fishing buddy Tim Roth was flailing around and “boom” the tackle box full of about $300 worth of equipment was knocked over.
“That’s not how I recall it at all,” Tim said.
His version of the story is Gene needed pliers to get the hook out of a fish that he caught. Tim reached for the pliers, and the teetering tackle box just happened to fall in.
“I don’t know if it was the wind or what,” Tim said.
Someone grabbed a net, and the men in the boat tried to grab whatever they could before the tackle box fell to the bottom of the lake, never to be recovered.
The accident happened years ago, but the group of men won’t forget it, and they tell the story year after year when they come up for a men’s retreat at Camp Okoboji in Milford. Each time the story is a little different, but it always brings about the same hardy laughs.
The fishing trips actually started in the 1960s, when Gene would bring up his wife and six sons from Fort Dodge to spend a week in the Iowa Great Lakes area. When the sons grew, they started to bring their wives and children.
Then in 1999, the trip turned into a males-only escapade, with some of Gene’s son Denny’s brothers-in-law joining in as well.
“The best part is we get to do what we want. We all have common interests. We don’t have to entertain anyone but ourselves,” Tim said.
With a men-only trip that means they get to be slobs, to let their stubble grow and to make some bodily noises.
The tradition now is to stay at Camp Okoboji, in the Ecclesiates cabin on Breezy Point of West Lake Okoboji.
The men spend their days fishing — although they’ve never caught enough to actually make a meal with, as well as cooking traditional meals — spaghetti, chicken and noodles and steak. They spend their evenings playing cards, or sometimes with fireworks, and they just enjoy the camaraderie.
And each year they bring home plenty of stories.
One of Gene’s son Gordon’s stories involves his uncle, the late Harry “Bronc” Mahaffey of Fort Dodge. Bronc used to be a regular on the fishing trips until he passed away about 10 years ago.
Gordon drove down to Iowa from his home in Minneapolis, and when he arrived at West Lake, he saw Gene and Bronc sitting on a dock.
“What are you doing?” Gordon asked them.
“What’s it look like? We’re fishing,” Bronc said, with his usual orneriness.
“It would help if you had a fishing pole,” Gordon said.
He remembers his uncle giving him a look and then looking around with a puzzled expression. Apparently Bronc had caught a fish, but he hadn’t noticed, and his brand new rod and reel was pulled into the lake.
Another favorite story of the group involves Bronc.
One year the Bakers heard that the fish were biting on Silver Lake, near Lake Park. They loaded up the boat and headed west, but they didn’t catch a thing.
When pulling the boat out of the water, Gene and Bronc had a system. Gene would back the truck up, and Bronc would drive the boat into the trailer. When he gave a wave, Gene would pull the boat, trailer and Bronc out of the water.
This time though, Gene got a little excited — according to all but him — and he started to pull the boat out before he got the wave from Bronc. The boat fell off the trailer, and when Gene noticed he started to back up again, which tipped the boat up into the air.
Finally, with Bronc still sitting at the wheel, white-knuckled, the Baker boys had to pick the boat up and carry it back into the water to start the process over again.
But who was at fault was hotly debated. Did Bronc give the wave or not?
“That’s been an argument until the day Bronc died,” Gordon said.
“It was better when Bronc was here and could defend himself,” Tim said.
On one trip, a batch of fog made for an interesting experience.
“We saw it coming, because we’re fishermen,” said another of Gene’s sons, Doug.
Doug’s boat went back to shore, but Denny’s boat of fishermen got lost in the deep haze. At a time when cell phone calls were expensive, Doug connected with Denny for a short call. Doug told his brother he would go back on the water and honk so the second boat could find camp.
Doug honked and honked, but Denny was too far away and couldn’t hear.
On a call, Denny said that he saw a white cross, and Doug deduced that the lost boat was at the Presbyterian Camp on Okoboji.
He told his brother to find 18 feet of water and stay on that depth until reaching Camp Okoboji.
A half hour later, they connected by phone again.
“What do you see?” Doug asked.
“We see a white cross,” Denny said.
Doug was convinced the fishermen were going in circles, whereas Denny just thought there were multiple white crosses on shore.
“It was eerie,” said Tim, who was also on the boat Denny was captaining.
It took two hours until the second group finally made it back to camp. And one of those fishermen, Denny’s brother-in-law Mike Harvey, has not been back since.
The fishing trips have been going on for a long time, and the men have created a lot of memories.
How long will they keep coming to West Lake Okoboji?
“As long as Dad keeps paying for the cabin,” Doug said.
From the September/October issue of Okoboji Magazine.