Fishin' for a livin': Jim Larson to retire after lifetime of seining

FULDA -- The term "commercial fisherman" conjures up images of well-weathered guys wearing yellow slickers on the Eastern seaboard or perhaps a scene from the Discovery Channel's popular "Deadliest Catch" series, filmed in Alaska. It's not an occ...

FULDA -- The term "commercial fisherman" conjures up images of well-weathered guys wearing yellow slickers on the Eastern seaboard or perhaps a scene from the Discovery Channel's popular "Deadliest Catch" series, filmed in Alaska. It's not an occupation associated with the prairies of the Upper Midwest.

But for 40 years, southwest Minnesota has boasted its very own commercial fisherman -- Jim Larson of Fulda. Jim, 73, is currently preparing for retirement and getting ready to turn the fishing enterprise over to nephew Scott Deslauriers.

"Don't you think it's time?" queried wife Lois as they sat at their kitchen table. "He'd go until he dropped."

"I'll still be involved," countered Jim. "I can go out anytime I want."

"You've done it all your life," added Lois. "We're going to have to talk about something other than fish."


Occupation origins

Jim was born and raised in Dundee and at age 17 was recruited to work on a state fishing crew at Lake Shetek. During that employment stint, he met Lois' dad, a Currie area farmer, who eventually introduced Jim to his daughter at a dance. They were married in 1957 and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last fall.

Following a two-year service in the U.S. Army during which he helped train allied personnel to fire guided missiles, Jim applied for a job at the Worthington Power Plant. When the job was given to a Navy veteran, he took a fisheries job, and they moved to Waterville, where Jim and Lois lived in an apartment with "23 steps," Jim recalled. They had barely gotten settled when he received a call saying the job at the power plant was his after all. So everything was moved back down the steps. Lois was nine months pregnant at the time they moved to Worthington.

"In '68, the guy I worked for, the boss up in Waterville, called and asked if I wanted to get back into the fishing business," Jim recalled, explaining that a commercial fisherman had died and his widow was selling out the business. "So I bought 'er up."

That first year was an especially lean one for fishing; there was an abundance of snow and ensuing flooding, and Jim's fishing territory was limited to Talcott Lake and some of the smaller lakes in the region. When he wasn't fishing, he worked construction for many years to make ends meet.

"We had a lot of tough years," reflected Lois. "... Through all the struggles, we've prevailed. God has provided."

The Larsons bought a piece of land north of Fulda, and Jim helped build their house. They moved there in 1973, and both their children, Brenda and Walter, attended Fulda schools. Brenda now lives in Kansas City, and Walter in Chicago; they have three grandchildren.

He's done some open-water seining and trapping, but the bulk of Jim's fishing occurs during the cold-weather months, when a thick layer of ice covers area lakes. While sport fisherman prefer species such as walleye, northern, perch and bluegills, Jim's goal is to catch the ones that are considered trash -- carp, buffalo, suckers and bullheads.


"We just kind of try to keep the rough fish, the undesirable fish, down to a minimum so the other fish have a chance," he explained. "Our lakes around here are known as freeze-up lakes, so we try to get those fish out so they don't use up all the oxygen."

Aerator systems employed on area lakes also help with the oxygen problem, Jim added, and make his prey grow even bigger, reaping bigger dividends when they are caught and sent to market.

Jim's fishing territory encompasses most of extreme southwest Minnesota, from the double lakes near Westbrook to the Iowa border and over to the Watonwan County border.

Chilly endeavor

So how does Jim go about catching fish that are swimming beneath a large sheet of ice?

It's a well-choreographed seining process -- often a bone-chilling, get-wet-in-the-frigid-water process --that involves a crew of about 10 men. Jim begins by locating the fish with sonar. Fish are somewhat dormant during the winter -- "the later the winter, the slower they get," Jim said -- and they tend to stay grouped. Larson's equipment can "see" the fish in a 1,200-foot area.

A large hole -- 4- by 6-foot -- is drilled in the ice, along with a series of smaller outlying holes.

"We used to chisel all those holes by hand," Jim remembered. "We finally graduated to a gas auger."


The holes are used to position the net -- more than 2,000 feet of it that can go 15 feet deep -- around the oblivious fish. Two small, remote-controlled submarines are sent under the ice to expedite that mission, and the men can keep track of their location by a rattling noise made by the turning propellers. Eventually, the net is drawn up through the large take-out hole, and the fish are scooped out and sorted.

The game fish are quickly released; the ones suitable for sale can be held in live nets or are immediately trucked off for sale in other places, sometimes in live tankers. The carp most often go to Stoller Fisheries in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Jim also sells directly to a restaurant, Joe Tess Place in Omaha, Neb., that has deep-fried carp as a specialty on its menu. The buffalo fish bring the best price and are usually trucked out to New York, where they are considered prime eating.

This method of fishing is a gamble, Jim admits, and the take isn't always enough to pay the bills. But there can also be some big payoffs that make up for the lean times. His two largest single hauls were each 170,000 pounds -- one from Heron Lake and one from Talcott. This year, he's harvested more than 200,000 pounds of fish each out of West Graham Lake and Talcott.

"It's kind of like being a farmer. When that bag comes in full of fish, you forget the hard times," Larson reflected. "... I always say the carp are like the corn, and the buffalo are like the soybeans. The carp can pay a lot of expenses, but the buffalo will make you some money, because of the price difference."

Retirement time

Although she doesn't help with the actual catch, Lois has been Jim's partner in the business, doing the bookwork and payroll. On fishing days, she shows up at the site at noon with hot soup, coffee and sandwiches -- sustenance well appreciated by the often chilled-to-the-bone crew, Jim noted.

"She found out lately that they really appreciated that," he said.

Lois has suffered some medical problems -- heart and rheumatoid arthritis -- and although he hasn't had any major health issues, Jim figures it's just time to slow down. They anticipate the possibility of heading someplace warmer next winter and having more time to spend with their family. Antiques -- many of which fill their house -- have been a joint passion, with Jim doing much of the refinishing.


And even after 40 years of it, he's not tired of fishing.

"I still like to hook-and-line fish," he said. "Maybe I'll get a nice warm fish house."

What To Read Next
Get Local