Inexplicably, the screen on the fish-finder went blank. For a solid two hours, the screen had been bursting with greens and yellows and reds.
Fish, and lots of them.
Then, nothing. And it didn’t appear that was going to change anytime soon. The fish had moved on, and it was time to do the same.
Then, along came Gary Roach. Nonchalantly, he walked across the frozen lake, fish-finder in one hand, ice-fishing rod in the other. And, suddenly, the fish finder sprung back to life, dancing with those bright, vivid colors.
The fish were back.
So who is this guy? The Pied Piper of Fish?
Pretty much. Wherever Roach goes, the fish follow, and vice versa, it seems. He was in the middle of the action again on this balmy late-winter day, bouncing from fishing hole to fishing hole. He had cut about a dozen holes through the ice on this central Minnesota lake and fished them all, some multiple times.
The human fish-finder.
In these parts — well, pretty much all parts — Roach affectionately is known as “Mr. Walleye” for his success with the popular fish species, both as a legendary fishing guide and tournament angler.
Roach still occasionally guides, and still fishes tournaments every now and then. And even at 78, his tenacity for finding and catching fish hasn’t wavered.
These days, that’s bad news for crappies. Open water or hard water, doesn’t matter, he can’t get enough of them. And what these members of the sunfish family lack in size, they make up for in numbers. You can catch them one after another after another, and Roach has done just that since he was a child. Nickname aside, they’ve remained his go-to fish most all of his life.
Still, with the highly touted Minnesota fishing opener here, thoughts inevitably turn to walleyes and open-water fishing.
And a time when Roach and the boys of summer ruled.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
An avid angler from the beginning, Roach said he started guiding near his Merrifield, Minn., home when he was just a child — 10 or 11 years old — in the late 1940s. But, soon after, he started a whirlwind journey that would see him drop out of high school, work countless jobs, join the Navy, then return to central Minnesota and get right back on that employment carousel. Anything to make a living.
Then, in the late 1960s, at the urging of a friend who knew of his special fishing skills, Roach hooked up with Marv Koep of nearby Brainerd, Minn. Koep had started what quickly would become the guiding service: the Nisswa Guides League. It was a who’s who of guiding greatness, filled with eventual fishing hall-of-famers, including Al and Ron Lindner.
Early on, Roach worked other jobs to make ends meet, too, including playing in a country band. But before long, he was fishing in and winning tournaments and doing fishing shows and seminars across the country. No more job merry-go-round.
But, for many years, the fishing life was a whirlwind, particularly for a devoted family man and father of three young children. He credits his wife of more than 55 years, Bev, for keeping it all together all those years.
“I’ve fished more walleye waters than anyone, really,” he said matter of factly. “Just think of the miles I’ve put on. I used to put on 80,000 to 90,000 a year.”
He’s fished most every lake in Minnesota and, in particular, around Merrifield, where he also grew up. His current home of about 50 years is just down the road from his childhood home. He’s fished nearly every state, too, and about every species, especially in those early years on the job. Countless photos of Roach with colleagues and clients occupy almost every corner of his home and property, loads of fish in tow: bass in Florida, big muskies in Wisconsin and nearly every species of fish possible from West Virginia to Washington state.
And, of course, there are the walleyes.
MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
Yes, Roach has caught countless walleyes through the years. The species has long been hugely popular in his home state, and well beyond, too. And Roach has been there from the start, during the heyday of walleye fishing and the golden era of walleye-tournament fishing. And, during this time, Roach was among the most prolific of all walleye anglers in the country.
So it’s easy to see how the “Mr. Walleye” nickname came to be.
But there is a story to it.
“I was fishing a tournament in Michigan in the 1970s,” Roach recalled. “I was going up to weigh my fish. Ron Lindner was there; he wasn’t fishing. He must have been a spectator. So when I was going up the stairs with a big bag of fish, (the tournament director) looked down and said, ‘Here comes Mr. Walleye.’ So then, when I was going back down (after weighing the fish), Ron Lindner grabbed me and said, ‘You get that trademarked.’ So I did.”
If there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being synonymous with the popular game fish, Roach has embraced it wholeheartedly, a true walleye ambassador.
He won countless walleye tournaments at a time when those contests were all the rage, much like bass tournaments are today. Walleye fishing trophies and awards are everywhere at his expansive rural Merrifield property.
But his pride and joy is a best-of “stringer” that occupies a massive trophy case in his large pole barn, which is more trophy house than barn. There, six of the biggest walleyes of his illustrious career are mounted: The smallest is a 13.2-pounder that he caught in Minnesota, on Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids. The rest are all in the 14-pound range, mostly taken from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, with the largest a 14-and-a-half-pounder, Roach said.
Other mounts of the furry variety complement the trophy walleyes in the barn, including a massive caribou that he bagged in Canada.
“I like to hunt everything,” said Roach, who has compiled about 700 acres of hunting land not far from his home. “Every time I’d win a (fishing) tournament, I’d put a downpayment on another (plot of land).”
Next door, in the garage, is the last remnant of what was once an affinity and small collection of classic cars: A red late-1960s Mustang, the car his mother drove when she moved to Arizona, he said. It’s still in excellent condition, and Roach said he and Bev still occasionally take it out, mostly to the Dairy Queen just down the road in Crosslake, Minn.
His inventive and entrepreneurial side is also on display: Dozens of “Mr. Walleye” fishing poles stand near the walleye trophy case, and boxes of his “Mr. Walleye” batter mix are piled here and there. He loves eating fish nearly as much as catching them, and he has dedicated decades to finding just the right combination of spices and the like.
FISHING FOR MR. WALLEYE
Roach also has had long-lasting relationships with a number of well-known fishing-related giants, including Northland Tackle, Lowrance marine electronics, the Lund Boat Company and Mercury Marine. Those relationships continue today.
With his trademark white beard — he used to just grow a beard in the fall for hunting, but has kept it for about four decades now — his picture adorns those packages of batter and scores of brochures and literature from all those companies.
Yes, Roach very much remains a face of fishing. And while he’s not on the water as much as he used to be, he’s still a fixture in the fishing community.
“I still do a little guiding,” said Roach, who also oversaw and competed in the Gary Roach Walleye Classic in Ontario for 34 years. (The event was discontinued in recent years due to a change in regulations there, Roach said.)
“I’m doing a lot of free stuff now: Wounded Warriors, the Fishing Hall of Fame. I still spend a lot (of days on the water),” added Roach, who like the Lindners and many of the Nisswa Guide League pioneers, is a member of that Minnesota Fishing Hall.
Unlike others Roach’s age who head to warmer climates during the wintertime, Roach still embraces the season here, or at least the ice-fishing side of winter. For Roach, few things are better than catching a limit of decent-sized crappies through the ice. With each catch, it seems, he examines the fish like it’s his first.
For the last decade-plus, though, Roach has enjoyed a quick respite from winter, gathering friends and family for an annual trip to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
Ah, sunshine, warm temps and sandy beaches.
And saltwater fishing, not surprisingly, is what this trip is all about. One year, not much more than 24 hours after he was targeting marlin and other saltwater giants in the ocean, he was on the ice, fishing crappies back on one of his favorite little central Minnesota lakes.
“It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re biting,” he said of his fish species preference.
But, with the opener, tradition dictated a return to chasing his namesake. For years, the Roach family owned a cabin on Lake Winnibigoshish in north-central Minnesota. They sold it to a friend years ago, Roach said, but still visit that friend and fish “Winni” each opener. Roach and his two sons, Danny and Rick, were to be there again this year for their traditional steak feed.
And to fish the opener. Probably catch a few perch, Roach said. Maybe even some walleyes, he added.
Yes, that would be a pretty safe bet.