BEMIDJI, Minn. — Joe and Mark DeMars stand waist-deep in the waters where the Mississippi first meets Lake Bemidji.
The soft waves reach up to meet the shoreline. The occasional car whisks by on the downtown bridge above. And, when lucky, a fish splashes as it’s hooked out into the midnight air.
The DeMars brothers are standing in Jeff’s spot. It’s tradition.
“Life just gets busy, but you make time for this. It’s what you remember,” Joe said. “There are a lot of traditions, some that have gone by the wayside, but this is one that we’ve always (kept).”
Joe, 42, and Mark, 54, both live in the Twin Cities area, but they return to Bemidji for each fishing opener. Their brother, Jeff, lived in town and hosted family fishing outings in his coveted downtown cove. So, on Saturday, May 11, once midnight passed and the Minnesota fishing season officially opened, Joe and Mark were right where they belonged.
“When my brother moved up here, we started coming up,” Mark said. “… That’s kind of tradition. We always put on the chest waders and try to hit the water as soon as it’s Saturday.”
Jeff was diagnosed with lung cancer and also had multiple brain tumors before passing away on February 27, 2017. He was 55. Jeff is survived by his wife, Lisa, and kept alive through the trek to his spot that Joe and Mark make an annual priority.
“There’s some sibling rivalries and there’s strifing, but we always come together for the weekend to go fishing,” Joe said. “That’s what we’ve done forever, since I was as little as I can remember. … Whatever’s going on, we’re going to drop it. If we can do this, we have to find a way.”
The brothers always pray before casting the first line, and they then spent about three hours in the water early Saturday. They caught 16 fish in their go-to location and kept nine between the two of them.
“It’s extremely peaceful, quiet,” Mark said. “You’re in God’s creation, and it’s just a joy to be a part of what he has put together. As a believer, you have that connection. And we always do pretty good.”
The DeMars grew up outdoorsmen, largely in part to their father, Gene. All four siblings even learned to fish left-handed because that’s how dad taught them. The connection among them still stands today, as Joe and Mark called their brother, Greg (who lives in Louisiana), on the drive up to Bemidji to reminisce about fishing tales in Jeff’s spot.
The downtown waters were filled with dozens of anglers on opening night, populating the area from boats, piers and shores. The DeMars had a late start to the opener — not touching the waters until after the midnight opening — but Jeff’s spot remained unoccupied until they arrived.
Almost as if it was reserved.
“(Fishing here) is my way to remember him,” Joe said. “Families have ups and downs and ins and outs, but we always knew each other best here.”