Anderson: Fishing buddies savored visits from Mondale, and vice versa

In the end he was a Minnesotan, reminding us in death, as he did in life, what that can mean, if we try.

The son of a farmer-preacher, Walter Mondale worked hard, played by the rules and accomplished much, not least learning that passing a few hours or even a few days in a boat, fishing rod in hand, hoping for a bite, is time well spent, especially when surrounded by good friends.

Jimmy Carter was a fisherman, still is, and perhaps in 1976 when he selected “Fritz” to be his vice presidential candidate, he saw in Mondale a kindred spirit whose angler temperament might come in handy in a pinch.

“Blessing upon all who hate contention and love quietness and virtue and angling,” the intrepid angler-philosopher Izaak Walton penned centuries ago, and Mondale, who died in his Minneapolis home Monday at age 93, earned that blessing and many others during his long life.

Born in 1928 in Ceylon, Minn., in Martin County, and later moving with his family to Heron Lake and then to Elmore in Faribault County, Mondale hunted ducks and pheasants as a boy.

These were lean times, and Mondale’s father, Theodore Sigvaard Mondale, had by then swapped his farmer’s leathered hands for life in a Methodist pulpit, joining Mondale’s mother, Claribel Cowan Mondale, a part-time piano teacher, to raise their young family.

The surprise to many who viewed Mondale from afar during his political career as Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president of the United States, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to Japan was that his recreation of choice was fishing.

Better known were his conservation efforts, particularly the landmark legislation he and Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson authored establishing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which initially among a handful of other rivers protected 230 miles of the St. Croix and its primary tributary, the Namekagon — and now protects 12,700 miles of 209 U.S. waterways.

Not until Mondale ran for the presidency in 1984 did his love of fishing became widely known.

“His office hinted he would be coming to the Gunflint to vacation after the Democratic Convention that year,” recalled Bruce Kerfoot, who until five years ago, with his wife, Sue, owned Gunflint Lodge on Minnesota’s northern border. “This was late summer, and we had people booked into our cabins, so without something definitive that they would be coming, we couldn’t hold the entire resort open.”

Yet the sound of the final gavel had barely echoed through Moscone Center in San Francisco, where the convention was held, when Kerfoot’s phone rang.

“All we could do was make two cabins available for the Mondales and a few others,” Kerfoot said. “Everyone else — the press, the Secret Service and all the others, we booked into nearby resorts.

“I remember clearly someone calling from the New York Times saying they wanted a Cadillac limo to meet their reporters and they wanted copies of their paper, the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times delivered to their cabins every morning. I said, ‘Right.’

“We ended up putting the press at Windigo Lodge. They have a bar there, which seemed to keep them occupied.”

Eager not only to find walleyes but to distance himself from everyone but his wife, Joan, sons Ted and William, and daughter, Eleanor, and a few friends, Mondale each morning, flanked by a Coast Guard boat and a bevy of Secret Service agents, motored to North Lake, which adjoins Gunflint Lake via a watery bottleneck.

“In his later years, Dad would take at least three fishing trips a year,” son Ted Mondale said last week. “Usually he’d take two trips to Canada with friends and also he’d go to Alaska to fish with my brother, William.”

Some of Mondale’s closest fishing buddies were from Duluth, a collection of lawyers, judges, businessmen and assorted others who shared Mondale’s affinity for walleye catching and cooking.

“Our fishing camp in Ontario has no road access. You have to fly in by floatplane,” said Ross Litman, the long-serving St. Louis County sheriff. “My dad, Jack, who built the camp, was an attorney in Duluth who became a judge in 1977. Harry Munger was a friend of his and also an attorney, and the brother of Willard Munger, the longtime state representative. It was through Harry that my dad first invited Fritz to our fishing camp.

“Thereafter, he came up several times when he was a U.S. senator, a few times when he was vice president, and he’s been in camp every year since 2003, with the exception of last year, due to COVID,” Litman said.

Fish-catching was important to Mondale, Litman said, but more important was spending time with people he enjoyed, doing something he enjoyed.

An inveterate reader, Mondale would arrive in camp armed not only with lures and bait but books and briefing papers. Occasionally, politics came up for discussion, whether in a boat, around a campfire or over dinner. Mondale neither dwelled on the subject nor avoided it.

“We would always talk about current events and politics,” Litman said. “It was fun and entertaining listening to Fritz talk about his career, the places he had been and the people he had met.”

Northwest Ontario is also where retired state Sen. Bob Lessard crossed paths with Mondale, kind of.

“This was when Fritz was vice president and the lake was Otukamamoan, where my cabin is,” Lessard said. “You can only get there by floatplane, and I flew in one day only to find that my two boats with their motors were gone. Then I noticed a Norsman, which is a big floatplane, taking off from the lake.

“A few minutes later there was a knock on my door and it was two Secret Service agents, saying that Vice President Mondale had just left in that floatplane, and that while he was on the lake fishing, he needed two good boats. So he borrowed mine, knowing I wouldn’t mind.”

A handful of days before he died, Mondale sent word to Litman and through him to his other fishing buddies that his time was near.

“We had a good last visit,” Litman said. “We talked for about two hours. He was pretty alert. We regretted we didn’t get into camp last year because of COVID but talked about how much we enjoyed all the other trips we had taken together, fishing.”

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