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home : outdoors : outdoors August 21, 2017

7/3/2009 8:47:00 AM
Landing a 38-inch muskie a birthday highlight for Lapotka
Ninety-three-year-old has been fishing Vilas County lakes since 1935
John Lapotka (left) of Madison, with his son, Gary Lapotka of Prairie du Sac, show off this 38-inch muskie caught on Johnís 93rd birthday. John has been fishing in Vilas County since 1935.
Contributed photo
John Lapotka (left) of Madison, with his son, Gary Lapotka of Prairie du Sac, show off this 38-inch muskie caught on Johnís 93rd birthday. John has been fishing in Vilas County since 1935. Contributed photo
By Gary Lapotka
Special to The Lakeland Times

It was the summer of 1935. My father, John Lapotka, was 20 years old.  He couldn't find work. He had no money, and it was hot in Kenosha.

So he and a friend decided to drive up to Vilas County. Another friend of theirs  worked in a logging camp and had been telling them stories of incredible fishing.  

It took all day to make the drive, and they fixed six flat tires along the way.  They camped on the bank of the Manitowish River near the Fishtrap Dam and slept on newspaper laid on the ground.  

Dad says they caught a muskie on every cast and they caught all the smallmouth they wanted using berries for bait.  

That summer marked the beginning of a lifetime love for fishing and Vilas County.

Six years later, he graduated from Ripon College and joined the Army as a lieutenant. He served in the 82nd Airborne where he participated in the Normandy invasion in June 1944.  

The best part was that he met and married my mother, Mary, in Nottingham, England. They'll celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary this October. He also fought in Korea, where he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

He enjoyed a 21-year career in the Army that took him all over the world.  Yet he made the most of every opportunity to grab a fishing pole and return to Vilas County. When he retired from the Army in 1963, he got a job with the State of Wisconsin and we settled in Madison.  For several weeks every summer we would camp at North Trout Lake.  

Then Mom and Dad ended up buying a cottage on Lynx Lake in 1973. During that time, it seemed as though we fished nearly every lake in the county. And Dad liked them all. But his favorite was Escanaba Lake. Even now, the DNR staff at the fisheries research station refer to him as "a legend."  

They'll tell you he caught more walleyes out of that lake than anyone.

Mom and Dad haven't been able to come up north for the last two years.  But this summer, they decided to celebrate his 93rd birthday at Lynx Lake.  Dad said he didn't need to go fishing - that he was content just to listen to the loons watch the eagle and check out the blueberry bushes.

But in the end, it really was, and always has been, all about the fishing.

So we headed out for what was supposed to be an hour of walleye fishing.    We didn't have to wait too long before Dad set the hook on the first fish of the evening. It was a small Walleye - too small to keep. But it was fun watching Dad carefully reel him in on his five-foot, ultra-lite rod and six-pound test line. He brought him halfway to the boat when the little walleye started to pull with increasing strength. By the time Dad got the walleye to the boat, he was fighting so hard he swam right under the boat and headed off, at full speed, toward the middle of the lake.  

Very fortunately, Dad was sitting in a swivel chair. He turned around and patiently struggled to bring the fish back to the boat.

This time we could see what really happened.

A muskie had grabbed the walleye and simply would not let go.  After about 20 minutes of careful give and take, I finally netted him.  

When I tried to lift the fish out of the water, he tore right through the net, landed back in the lake and swam away. But he absolutely refused to let go of the walleye!  

Now Dad had to fight him all over again, only this time with his line passing through the landing net. Another 10 minutes passed before Dad got the stubborn muskie close enough to try the net again.  

With my cousin Tom holding on the back of my belt, I stretched as far as I could over the side of the boat and wrapped the net around him for the second time. Only this time, I scooped him quickly into the boat before he could fight his way out.  

I don't know who was more tired - the muskie or Dad. We were all giddy with excitement. After a photograph, we quickly measured the muskie at 38 inches, then slipped him back into the lake.   Now we're already making plans to celebrate his 94th birthday.

Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Article comment by: Hilary Stafford

John married my Dad's cousin Mary here in Nottingham, so Garys and my grandfathers were brothers - his Frank Stafford, mine Samuel Stafford. This is such a lovely article, John and Mary must have a wonderful son in Gary. I have a brother Paul born 1945, me being 1950, and we are still going, if not going strong!
A copy of this article willl be added to my file. Thank you very much, Hilary

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