WATSON, Minn. — Some of life’s big decisions aren’t really hard to make.
Growing up on a farm near the Lac qui Parle dam, Steve and his brother Dave Mitlyng did a lot of fishing there. During winter, they helped Dusty Wagner trap minnows for the bait shop he owned by the dam since 1952.
One day in 1974, Wagner said to the brothers: “Why don’t you buy me out?”
At age 69, Steve is still tending to the well-known shop and the wholesale minnow business. He has no designs on retiring anytime soon, either.
What made it a good idea to operate a bait shop here in the '70s still holds true. The federal recreation area below the dam and the lake remain popular destinations for anglers, as does the Lac qui Parle State Park also located on the lake's southern shore.
Back in the '70s, Mitlyng said fishing below the dam was always a family affair. Local families from towns in the area would line up along the shore or drop lines from the bridge, enjoy picnic meals and bring home their catch to fry up.
Most of the families fishing below the dam in the '70s were white. Today, they’re mostly Hispanic. Just like in the '70s, they live and work in local communities from Willmar to Montevideo to Appleton, and are very family-oriented, said Steve. His customers today remain loyal to the bait shop and are his friends. He feels he’d be letting them down by closing the shop.
And, he confesses: “I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
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The bait shop is busy only on the weekends. Summer is best, but also whenever word gets out that there is a bite on the lake or below the dam.
Ice fishing on Lac qui Parle Lake has been picking up in recent years. Ice fishing on the lake was long considered “a guy thing,” said Steve, but not so much anymore.
It’s changed everything, said Steve. It’s brought families out on the lake’s ice like never before, he said.
The fishing has been good, too. Good crappie and walleye bites were enjoyed this past winter and brought many to the lake.
Yet it’s really not the bait shop that makes this business work. From the start, minnow harvesting has represented the real income.
It’s a year-around activity and hard work. Mitlyng has a crew trapping minnows and raising perch and walleye for stocking in ponds throughout the region, from near Worthington to north of Ortonville.
Mitlyng’s son, Joe, and another worker tend to the minnow trapping today. They could could use more help. It’s been a four-person crew when the help is available, said Steve. Two drivers are kept on the go transporting the minnows to dealers in the Dakotas and to the east, as far as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
Steve watches the shop and the minnow tanks in the morning. He keeps a seven-day-a-week schedule for the most part. Though they are now separated, spouse Kim still helps tag team. She tends to the shop in the afternoons.
Fishing is every bit as good today at the dam and on the lake as it was when he first got into this business, said Steve. He’s helped customers plop walleyes in the 10-, 11- and 12-pound range on the scale at the shop. The largest ever lugged into the shop weighed 14 pounds. Northern pike measuring more than 40 inches and a channel catfish weighing 20 pounds have been hauled through the doors as well.
The biggest change has been the decline in the popularity of goose hunting here as opportunities to hunt the birds have expanded dramatically across the state. The Lac qui Parle-controlled hunt area was once the only place to hunt geese in Minnesota, with the exception of the Rochester area. As many as 150,000 geese could be counted in the refuge at the peak of the fall migration. Hunters came from all over the state for the opportunity to take shots at them.
At the peak, the shop cleaned as many as 2,000 geese for hunters during what was then only a 20-day season. Steve said the shop would sell as many as 20 cases worth of shotgun shells during that brief season. Last year, he didn’t empty out a full case.
But last year wasn’t all bad. Steve said that without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic really helped get more people back outdoors and into fishing. He’s confident that trend will continue and that’s a good thing. He’s expecting a good year ahead.