Going from hockey net to landing net
WALKER, Minn. — The bend in Toby Kvalevog’s fishing rod told him the walleye he’d been looking for was down there at the other end of the line.
“That’s a big one,” he said, playing the heavy fish that hit a jig tipped with a shiner minnow in about 10 feet of water. “This is why I like fishing Leech Lake. It sure feels good anyway.”
Then, in the way big walleyes so often do, the fish made the equivalent of a deke, the ice hockey term in which a player with the puck fakes out an opponent and slips it past the goalie.
“Ah, I just lost him,” Kvalevog said. “Oh no — I don’t know how that happened. Darn it!”
Score one for the walleye.
Best known in Grand Forks hockey circles as a goalie for the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team from 1993 to 1997, Kvalevog, 39, now teaches physical education in Brainerd, Minn., and spends his summers as a fishing guide on Leech and other walleye lakes in north-central Minnesota. He guided Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon for this year’s Governor’s Fishing Opener in Brainerd.
As an owner of Leisure Outdoor Adventures, a guide service that partners with Chase on the Lake in Walker to offer fishing packages throughout the year, the Bemidji native has made the successful transition from hockey net to landing net.
“It’s not something you’re going to get rich off of,” Kvalevog said. “In fact, there’s a standing joke that if I ever win the lottery, I’ll guide until I go broke. But I used to work hockey camps, and it’s way more profitable than that, and I’m doing something I like, as opposed to something I was getting burnt out on by the time I was done.”
The game plan
There’s a lot to like about Leech Lake these days, Kvalevog says, and the plan on this cloudy June morning was to show off the walleye fishing that has put the 112,000-acre lake back on the map as one of Minnesota’s top fishing destinations.
“I think the good old days of fishing on Leech Lake are right now,” he said. “This lake is as good as it’s ever been — if not the best it’s ever been, I have to assume — as far as the number of muskies, northern pike, largemouth bass and, of course, the walleyes, and Minnesota’s bread and butter is walleye fishing.”
Kvalevog planned to spend most of the day in Walker Bay, the deep, clear portion of Leech Lake that offers a striking contrast to the shallower, windswept main lake. With a new Lund 208, a 20½-foot fiberglass fishing machine powered by a 300-horse Mercury outboard, he wouldn’t have any trouble covering water if needed.
“It’s kind of crazy to run all across the lake when I think we can catch them right here in Walker Bay,” Kvalevog said.
The walleyes were in transition between spring and summer patterns and locations, Kvalevog said, and he’d serve them a menu of jigs and shiners, live bait rigs tipped with 6- to 8-inch rainbow chubs and perhaps even leeches and nightcrawlers if minnows weren’t producing.
A blob on the radar showing rain and thunderstorms was oozing toward Walker from the west, threatening to cut the day short, and a cold front was due to arrive the next day. Fishing’s often best before a storm, though, and Kvalevog was optimistic about the day’s fishing prospects.
“I always let the fish tell me what they want every day, even though I was here yesterday and we caught 25-30 fish on jigs and shiners,” he said. “We’re going to start with that, but I wouldn’t be surprised today, because it’s a little cloudy now, we’ve got a storm coming, and maybe something else is going to work better.”
Kvalevog says he has a wealth of good memories from his years at UND, despite losing the starting goalie job to Aaron Schweitzer before the hockey team won the national championship in 1997.
He said he’ll never forget starting his first game on the road against Northeastern University in Massachusetts. Or hearing then-UND announcer Scott Hennen, in that trademark booming voice, call out Kvalevog’s name while announcing the starting lineup in the freshman goalie’s first home game.
“I don’t even know how my legs moved because I was so scared and so jacked up and so nervous,” he said. “And it was fine, I was ready to play, but that will always be the No. 1 highlight as far as that goes.”
Kvalevog also holds the record for most games played by a UND goalie — 121, according to the hockeydb.com database — ahead of Karl Goehring (118) and Phil Lamoureux (111).
“Which simply means I was good enough to start, not good enough to leave,” he said with a laugh. “And I also probably hold the record for most games pulled, re-entered and pulled again,” the latter a trademark of Dean Blais, who coached the team through part of Kvalevog’s tenure.
“My biggest downfall for hockey was fishing because in the summer, when I was supposed to be doing what I was supposed to be doing to get better, stronger and faster, I was on the lake,” Kvalevog said.
Living in Bemidji with its abundance of lakes, that was understandable for a person who likes to fish as much as Kvalevog, who bought his first boat and motor as a teenager and hauled it to the boat ramp with an ATV before he was old enough to drive.
That passion also kept him away from his teammates more than he probably should have been, Kvalevog says.
“As soon as I could leave UND at the end of the year, I was gone and didn’t come back, and I was gone on the weekends” outside of hockey season, he said. “I was a suitcase college guy; I was always going home to fish or go hunting. All the time, that was the priority. Going to the bar and parties … last thing on my mind.”
Kvalevog also spent a few summers fishing tournaments on the FLW walleye circuit but now focuses almost exclusively on guiding.
Guiding, like goaltending, offers its lessons in humility, Kvalevog says.
“Fishing is fishing — some days you catch them, some days you don’t, and as a fishing guide, it’s important to have a calm demeanor,” he said.
Fishing rods sometimes end up in the bottom of the lake, and big fish occasionally elude landing nets — in the same way pucks occasionally end up in the back of the net.
“Been there before; done it,” Kvalevog said. “Being able to rebound, put a new minnow on and say, ‘Let’s get another one, a bigger one.’ I would say that’s probably the closest parallel to goalie, to just be able to deflect things a little bit.”
Such was the case with the big walleye that eluded Kvalevog on this cloudy June day. There’d be plenty of walleyes, many in the 22- to 25-inch range, to make up for the one that got away before the storm chased Kvalevog off the water.
“A lot of fishing is confidence,” Kvalevog said. “When you’re not confident in a hockey game, you’re just throwing yourself out there and blocking pucks as opposed to saving pucks, and usually that is not a good thing because the rebounds are right there in the sweet spot in the red zone, and guys bury them.”
When guiding, Kvalevog said, “You can only point out so many eagles before somebody’s like, ‘Whatever. Let’s catch some fish.’ “
Kvalevog says he and his partners in Leisure Outdoor Adventures have ambitious plans for putting Leech Lake, Chase on the Lake and the surrounding area on the map. That includes a webcast, “On the Road with Leisure Outdoor Adventures,” which already includes several short segments on fishing across the region.
A team of eight guides who specialize on several lakes and species across northern Minnesota helps spread out the workload.
“We’re expanding, we’re good and we’re young,” Kvalevog said. “We’re not the older guys that have been doing it forever or are a little crotchety with chew spit running down their face.
“We’re somebody I would hope that you’d be comfortable taking your family and little kids with, and we’re going to take pictures for you, help you have a good time, and we’re going to educate you,” he added. “Educating is a big part of it.”