DULUTH, Minn. — Parker Bambenek's 27-foot Tiara angled across Superior Bay just before 6 a.m. on a recent June morning. His was one of six fishing boats headed for the Duluth ship canal to catch the 6 a.m. lift of Duluth's iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.
"Morning rush hour," deadpanned Bambenek, who operates Superior Pursuits charter fishing service.
It's a nice commute. This was another work day for Bambenek, who at 27 is the youngest charter captain working out of Duluth. His clients on this cool and overcast morning were the well-bundled Bruce and Patsy Stengel, up from the Willmar, Minn., farm country. Neither had been on Lake Superior before. Patsy's son had booked the charter for them.
Bambenek's 12-week-old Lab pup, Remi, also was along, sleeping peacefully in a forward berth.
A west wind put a light chop on the big lake. Bambenek ran his boat, "Elixir," three or four miles onto the open lake and began putting out lines over 86 feet of water.
It's transition time for the lake trout, king salmon and coho salmon that charter captains try to find for their clients in late June.
"The fish are spread out anywhere from the surface down to 60 feet," said Bambenek, who grew up in Duluth.
Each angler is permitted two lines, so Bambenek, working alone, began playing out eight lines trailing spoons or minnow-imitation plugs for the four of us on board. Some lines ran just below the surface, some on downriggers as deep as 40 feet.
Patsy Stengel gazed at the verdant Duluth hillside and the Aerial Lift Bridge off our stern.
"So pretty," she said.
A life on the lake
Bambenek may be young, but he does not lack experience on the big lake. This is his second season of chartering on his own boat. Three summers ago, he operated a charter boat in the Optimum Charters fleet owned by John Stieben. That first year gave Bambenek a taste of chartering.
"It was awesome," he said. "It was a big reason why I decided to get my own boat. I loved being on the water every day. I saw the ability to make money and do something I loved."
Now he awakens at 4:30 many mornings. He talks about his desire to always live somewhere near "big water."
Bambenek had a head start fishing Lake Superior. His dad, Duluth's Greg Bambenek, was the creator of Dr. Juice, a scent attractant that he later sold to Rapala.
"I grew up fishing the big lake with my dad," Parker said. "He had a big boat. I kind of already knew how to fish. The biggest learning curve was learning to do it with clients on the boat."
He has an easy way with his guests, asking them about their lives back home and suggesting other Duluth attractions to visit while he seamlessly checks lines, switches lures and watches his electronics.
Early on, Bruce Stengel asked Bambenek a question charter captains probably hear often: "What do you do in the wintertime?"
Bambenek, who already has a degree from Northern Michigan University in biochemistry, is now pursuing a nursing degree with an eye toward becoming a nurse anesthetist one day. He might not have plunged into the charter business so soon had it not been for a twist of fate he suffered during his senior year of college.
A snowmobiler on a Michigan lake ran him down, breaking both of his legs while he was ice-fishing.
"It was the biggest influential thing in my life," Bambenek said.
The snowmobiler had passed close to him once, running over one of Bambenek's tip-up lines. When he raised his arms in protest, the snowmobiler turned around, revved up his engine and ran Bambenek down, he said.
"I missed a week of school, was in a wheelchair for a month and a walker for a while," he said. "I was steelhead fishing that spring."
The snowmobiler eventually was sentenced to 18 months in prison, Bambenek said. The experience changed his outlook.
"Life's too short," he said. "Things can happen too quickly to take anything for granted. It made me have the attitude that I need to jump at things and just go for it."
He earned his captain's license, took out a loan, bought a torn-apart boat and rebuilt it to begin his chartering business last year.
"There's one," Bambenek said, bolting from the driver's seat to a surface line and plucking the rod from its holder.
He handed the rod to Patsy Stengel, who started cranking the big reel. In a minute or so, a 4½-pound lake trout was thrashing in the prop wash behind the Elixir. Bambenek put a net under it and swung it into the boat.
"Welcome aboard," he said to the fish.
He handed it to Patsy so Bruce could get a photo of her. She looked almost like a commercial fisherman in her yellow shell, holding the chunky trout up for Bruce's camera.
Bruce got his turn a little later, reeling in a more modest lake trout that took a spoon trolled 20 feet down. Fishing has been generally good this so far this summer, Bambenek said.
"We're catching a lot of big fish that are clipped (stocked) and a lot of naturally produced fish," he said.
Fishing was generally slow that morning, as it was for other boats, too, Bambenek said. The captains keep in touch on the water by text or cellphone.
Charter captains readily share information with each other, Bambenek said, on and off the water. He has benefited from the overflow business from other charter services.
Tim and Lisa Westerlund of Aitkin happened to book a day with Bambenek this spring and have now been out with him three times already.
"I'll fish with him any day," Tim Westerlund said. "His attitude is outstanding. He's positive, on the ball, always changing lures if things aren't working. He's aggressive. He's so organized and focused, it's crazy."
On one of those trips, high winds prevented Bambenek and the Westerlunds from getting out on Lake Superior, so Bambenek took them walleye fishing in the harbor. They caught plenty trolling the flats.
When fishing is tough, Bambenek rolls with it.
"I'm pretty low-key and easygoing," he said. "I try to have a good time on the water and put people on fish. If the fish aren't biting, there's nothing I can do about it. I don't lose sleep over that. I just get up and try my hardest the next day."
His dad has witnessed Parker's methodical approach to charter fishing.
"He's one serious fisherman. He's better than me," Greg Bambenek said. "He's obsessive about it. He's into the science of fishing, especially on Lake Superior, and he kind of has it figured out."
Back at his slip in the harbor at midday, Parker Bambenek quickly filleted the Stengels' two lake trout for them. He had time for a quick lunch. At 1 p.m., he'd be headed under the lift bridge again, headed out for his afternoon charter.
For more information on Parker Bambenek's Superior Pursuits charter fishing service, visit superiorpursuits.com.