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Bob “Mepp’s” Bertch comes from a long line of fishermen: his father fished, as did his father’s father. Bertch’s father and grandfather taught him to fish at a young age.
In thinking back to his childhood in Indiana, Bertch recalled,“I was probably 12 or so and we’d go down to local creek,” which he pronounced as the Hoosier colloquial, “crick.” He explained how he and his father would “catch crayfish by hand, throw them in a bucket, and then we’d come back to the river and put them on a hook and sinker and pull through all the lines and catch really big smallmouth bass out of the river.”
Out of this simple routine, Bertch’s love of fishing was born.
Bertch’s family moved from Indiana to Ohio when he was 13. There, he transitioned from creek fishing to lake fishing, spending hours out on Lake Erie with his father.
During his senior year of high school, the family began making the long drive up from Ohio to the former Stiloski’s River Bend Resort in Boulder Junction. Though new to the teenager, the road trips were a kind of a long-lost family tradition, as his father had also taken trips to the Northwoods as a kid.
Bertch was quickly captivated by the scenic Northwoods and his love for fishing grew stronger still.
After high school, faced with the realities of adulthood, he was forced to sideline his passion. He took a job with A&P Food stores and later entered the Air Force, where he served tours in Thailand and Vietnam between 1965 and 1970.
Following his military service, he enrolled in the University of Ohio-Toledo and earned a degree in business. His college education helped him secure a career as a salesman back in the food brokerage industry for the next 45 years.
Throughout the decades, Bertch’s enthusiasm for fishing never faded and he always found a way to return to the Northwoods. When he married his wife Laura, the two began taking trips to Stiloski’s, revitalizing the family tradition once more. The trips continued, and even became more frequent, after they had their children, Aaron and Theresa.
Moving to the Northwoods full-time was always a dream.
“I kind of promised myself when I was working in the grocery business that someday, I’m going to retire and be a guide and fish up here,” Bertch said.
And so, when he retired in 2000, Bertch’s dream finally turned into a reality. He and Laura bought a piece of land where their beloved Stiloski’s once stood and moved to Boulder Junction permanently. Shortly thereafter, Bertch became a full-time fishing guide.
The next generation
It was during those family vacations to Stiloski’s that Bertch taught his own children how to fish.
“They grew up on the river. They grew up on the lakes around here,” he said. “Aaron is a fishaholic.”
On the rare occasion Bertch isn’t with clients, the father-son duo still try to get out on the boat together.
It seems the Bertch children were also unable to resist the charm of the Northwoods: Theresa is currently the chamber director in Boulder Junction and Aaron settled in Hazelhurst following his two tours in Iraq.
Now that his children are adults, Bertch’s focus has shifted to his three grandchildren, taking them fishing whenever he can.
But Bertch’s vocation extends further than his own family tree. At one of his fishing shows last year, a gentleman from California asked the guide to take him and his son out on the water. He told Bertch he wanted to share his own love of fishing with his son.
On the first day, the 12-year-old sat and played games on his phone the entire time, paying little attention to the fishing. Bertch remembers him maybe catching only a bluegill.
The next day, Bertch decided he needed to switch things up. He banned the phone and sat the boy next to him in the boat. The new tactic made all the difference.
“He caught a lot of fish,” Bertch said. “He caught a Northern and he caught some bass.”
With success came enthusiasm and Bertch said by the end, the boy “really got into it.”
At the following year’s show, the same man approached Bertch again. Bertch remembers the conversation clearly.
“‘You’ve created a monster,’” the man told him, referencing his son. When Bertch asked him to clarify he said, “‘All he wants to do is go fishing. It’s exactly what I wanted. Thanks.’”
Take a break
Although teaching clients to fish is Bertch’s primary goal, he hopes they take more away from their time out on the water than the ability to cast an open face reel and a trophy fish or two. Ultimately, what Bertch tries to show each client is the value of taking a break.
For kids, it’s about taking a break from technology.
“I love to get them outside and get them away from that a little bit — show them nature and the outside world,” he said. As exemplified by his 12-year-old protege, this lesson can be easily learned once a bit of focus is applied.
Adults are often greater challenges. For them, it’s about taking a break from work — a task that can seem downright daunting in a world of constant communication.
As a rule, Bertch doesn’t allow the use of phones on his boat, the exception being when someone wants to take photos of his or her fish. He remembers one particular client, a CEO from Chicago, who struggled with the rule.
According to Bertch, the client loved fishing and came up each summer to spend a few days with him. While out on the water, the busy businessman was constantly distracted, taking calls throughout the day. He would often get a fish on the line without even noticing.
Finally, Bertch had had enough. He came up with a plan to enforce his no-technology rule and enlisted the help of the CEO’s vice president, who had joined for that particular trip.
It was back in the days of flip phones and Bertch surmised one of his extra phone cases could masquerade as a real phone. He told the VP that while the group were out on the lake, he would mimic a ringtone using his own phone, which would be the cue for the VP to pretend answer the dummy phone.
The plan unfolded perfectly. When the VP pretended to pick up the call, Bertch grabbed the phone case from his hand, and threw it in the lake exclaiming, “‘That’s it! I’ve had it with these doggone cell phones!’”
He turned to the CEO and announced,“‘Yours is next. Put it away!”
The CEO immediately turned his phone off.
The two tricksters came clean to their victim later that evening and endured a few indignant remarks. The following morning, however, when Bertch met him at the hotel, the CEO had a huge smile on his face and asked, “‘My cell phone’s in my briefcase in my room, can we come back at noon and make some calls?’”
“‘You got it,’” Bertch said.
‘A beautiful life’
Bertch has collected hundreds of similar anecdotes throughout his 35 years as a guide. There was the woman who had never fished but somehow caught a 27-inch Northern pike after casting three times and then a 35-inch musky two casts later; there was the man who accidently cast his line over a tree branch, only to hook a giant Northern they had to boat over to release; and then there’s the time Bertch and his friend won a bass fishing competition by strategically fishing within 200 yards of where the bass from the previous day’s competition had been released.
Collectively, these moments are the reason Bertch continues to push off the shore and into the water almost every day from May to November.
When he’s not fishing, Bertch serves as an active member of the community. He joined the Boulder Junction Lions Club in 2010, working his way through the ranks from board member to first vice president to president. Most recently, he was voted the First Vice District Governor, a position he will take over in the coming months. Readers of The Lakeland Times have likely seen Bertch’s bright smile within the paper’s folds for his work with the Lions many times before.
Bertch’s passion for his community is unmistakable. In addition to the people, he loves the Northwoods’ peace and quiet. He especially enjoys keeping an eye out for the wildlife that frequent his backyard, including a few albino deer and bear cubs.
It brings Bertch great joy to know that home and the Northwoods have finally become the same place — and will remain so forevermore.
“It’s a beautiful life. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I really wouldn’t,” he said with a smile.