NISSWA, MINN. – The plan was for 5-year-old Royal Karels to visit his grandparents’ resort near Brainerd, Minnesota, for a couple of days back in the summer of 1942.
But little Royal was instantly hooked on life at the lake.
“I stayed all summer,” he said the other day. “That’s where I learned my love of fishing. I went there every summer until I was 16, fishing every day.”
Karels, a retired Brainerd elementary school teacher, is 76 now, and still fishing. Virtually every day. Under an azure sky on a Saturday at the Governor’s Fishing Opener on Gull Lake, Karels opened his 46th season of full-time guiding, and his 71st year of fishing since that fateful summer of 1942.
It was a slow start to a long-awaited season. Karels boated two small northerns and I landed none by lunch. Other anglers reported similar inaction. But basking in the sun, few complained.
“This is a beautiful opening day,” Karels said as a loon called nearby. “I had my doubts the ice would be gone by now.”
Karels is a local icon. When he’s not guiding anglers on Gull or three dozen other Brainerd-area lakes, he’s out fishing, alone, with his wife, Diane, or with his grown children or 10 grandkids.
“I never get tired of fishing,” he said. “I absolutely love being on the water. It’s in my blood. I find it so relaxing and so much fun. I don’t even have to catch fish.”
But he and his clients usually do. Lots of them.
Karels has been helping people catch fish since he was 10 and anglers showed up at his grandparents’ resort on Shirt Lake, looking for advice.
“It was an excellent bass and panfish lake, and people came from Ruttgers (Bay Lake Lodge) and the Twin Cities and asked where to fish. Grandfather said, ‘Have the kid row you.’ I’d sell them frogs and worms, and I rowed these people all over the lake. There was no fee involved. People would hand me a dollar or two. I thought I was in heaven. It was a lot of fun, and I learned how to deal with people. That came in handy later.”
By the time he was in college, he had a 2 1/2-horsepower Johnson outboard.
Karels started guiding full-time in 1961 on Bay Lake. He is one of the early members of the legendary Nisswa Guides League, formed by Marv Koep. The guides worked out of Koep’s bait shop near Nisswa.
“It was a magical time,” Karels said. “There were so many people coming to the shop. Marv had a fish contest, and big fish in the freezer, and people would come to look at our guide boats. We had Lowrance’s Green Box depth finders and splashguards.”
The price was attractive, too. Two anglers could go out with a guide for a half-day of fishing for less than $20. Now a half-day is about $300.
“A lot of people could afford it,” he said. “We were so busy. I was going every day, twice a day.”
Karels has guided out of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake for the past 26 years and isn’t slowing down.
“I’m getting out all that I want,” he said. “I’m on the water at least five days a week. And when I’m not guiding, I’m fishing. I love to fish.”
He still enjoys teaching. His classroom now is in a boat, though he does weekly fishing seminars at Cragun’s.
Karels has witnessed the big changes that have occurred in fishing. Electronics and modern fishing gear have made anglers more successful. And the catch-and-release ethic – unheard of years ago – has helped fishing, too, he said.
“I’m catching more fish than I used to in the old days,” Karels said. “We have lighter lines, better lures, we’re fishing more and better lakes.”
Karels targets about 35 area lakes, and unlike some guides who focus on walleyes, he’s a bass addict.
He has retired once but has no intention of retiring from his passion.
“I’m going to keep guiding as long as I can get in and out of the boat,” he said.
“I love it. It’s part of my life.”