By BRANDON LACHANCE
MENDOTA – There are fixtures of Lake Mendota.
There is the lake itself, along with parks on the north and south side, the bridge to cross the street, the dam, the geese, ducks, swans, and of course the dock.
And with the dock comes Fred Reutner (Right-ner).
“This little girl was at Ziggie’s and she kept waiving at me. When it got quiet, I heard her ask, ‘Mom, is that the guy that helped me catch my first fish,’” Reutner said. “The mom answered, ‘I don’t know, let me look.’ She picked up her phone and found the picture from nine years ago.
“She showed me the picture. I don’t know her name. I don’t know half of the kids who come out here. Just two days ago, I caught a fish, saw a 4-year old boy and a 5-year old girl, and I let them reel in the fish. I put the little bass back in the water, we talked for a little bit, and they said, ‘Thank you.’
“I’ve done that I don’t know how many times. Anybody that wants to catch a fish or needs help, I’ll set them up.”
Reutner, 76, has been Mendota’s fishing guru, teacher, spokesman for decades.
Born and raised in Dimmick, he began fishing at the Vermillion River when he was 4 years old. He ventured to Lake Mendota when he was 13 and has been coming to the dock ever since.
“I think fishing is really important for people. It gives them an opportunity to just take their mind off of things,” said Reutner. “It’s peaceful out here at the lake. I come out here seven days a week. I’m usually on the dock, but sometimes I’ll go across the lake.
“I used to bring kids from the daycare and residents at the nursing home down to the lake. I had fish fries on Tuesdays. I like to help people and see them happy. I had a person come up and tell me I helped them catch their first fish 26 years ago. Then they asked me, ‘Can you help my 4-year-old daughter catch her first fish. ‘Yeah, bring her over here and let’s catch a fish.’”
Reutner owned Fred’s Bait Shop for 30 years where he helped every kid and person with a fishing license get ready to fish. He threw in tips and advice free of charge.
He is also a large part of many expositions in the area as he again gives pointers and demonstrates how to clean fish.
Reutner performed his cleaning demonstration at the Baker Lake Expo on May 16 in La Salle, was at the Lock 14 Fishing Tournament on June 4 in La Salle and will be at the Mendota Lions Club Kids’ Fishing Rodeo on June 12 at Lake Mendota.
Over the years, he has also helped kids in Ottawa, DePue, Spring Valley, and Cedar Point…to name a few.
“At the Baker Lake Expo, we went through about 300 pounds of fish. We did that in one day. We fry them up right there. I caught some of the fish ahead of time to make sure we had enough,” said Reutner, who estimates he cleans 60,000 fish per year for himself and others. “I always keep a stock. It gives the kids something better to do than doing drugs. I’ve been out here helping little kids since I started. I’ve been helping Lock 14 for a long time. I became a member in 1987.
“I can clean 120 fish in an hour. We were down at Baker Lake when we first started down there. She had a stopwatch. I was showing the kids how to clean fish and it was taking me 45 seconds a fish. She said, ‘Sir, there is no way that you’re going to do two fish per minute by going that way.’
“I said, ‘Mam, I’m not here for show and tell. I’m here to teach the kids how to clean a fish.’ I told her to come back at 4 p.m. and I’ll have 100 Bluegill ready to go and you can put me on your stopwatch. I cleaned 100 Bluegill in 37.98 minutes. One guy asked, ‘Now mam, do you think he can do 20 more fish in the remaining 22 minutes?” I haven’t seen that lady since.”
Many have seen Reutner cast his No. 18 treble hook with either Velveeta cheese, wax worms, trout worms, night crawlers, or artificial tube steak attached.
But no one has been told to watch their bobber by the fisherman than his daughter Alice Reutner McGraw.
“My dad and Terry Ramer had a joke when my son (Tyler Stewart)) was born (he is now 19). My dad would always get Terry’s grandchildren to come to the lake and put a pole in their hand,” Reutner McGraw said. “Terry would always say, ‘Fred, you beat me to it.’ Terry said, ‘When you have a grandchild, I’m going to beat you to it and get them out there with a pole in their hand.’
“Dad made sure that didn’t happen. My son was literally only months old and in a car seat carrier and my dad took him out to the lake and put a pole in his hand. He took a photo and sent it to Terry Ramer and said, ‘Got cha’.”
“Dad does it because he loves fishing. He instilled that in us kids. I was the second born. I had two brothers (Henry and Freddie Reutner, mother of all three is Fred’s ex-wife Kathy Reutner) and both of them have passed away. When we were younger, he would take us fishing. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I do now. We all helped dad in the bait shop. He would give us all different jobs to do.
Her job was to run the numbers in the books for Fred’s Bait Shop.
Reutner McGraw appreciates it now because she was such a wiz, she became a CPA (certified public accountant).
As a child she didn’t get to see her father as much as she would have liked because the Army veteran who served during Vietnam worked long hours at Wayside Press (R.R. Donnelly) and Motor Wheel.
It wasn’t until he approached retirement that Reutner McGraw saw more of her dad and they saw more of the lake.
“He does so much for so many people and doesn’t ask for anything in return. So many people look at him, see he’s a big guy, and think he’s intimidating,” Reutner McGraw said. “He’s really just a big teddy bear. He’s always looking out for the kids. He makes squirrel noises and tries to get the little kids’ attention. He has so many wonderful characteristics. He loves kids and he loves sharing the love that he has for everything, including fishing.”
When Steve Schank moved from La Salle to Mendota 10 years ago, he met Fred Reutner at the dock.
He had never met Schank before, but Fred greeted him like he has everyone else over the last 72 years of fishing; with a handshake, a smile, and love for fishing.
“I saw Fred on the dock and I instantly felt comfortable. He reminds me of my grandfather. My dad’s dad was a fisherman. I was the first-born grandson. Fred and my grandfather were raised on farms in the same area and coincidentally are both German. I could really relate to him.
“In my opinion, he’s an extremely intelligent guy. He’s extremely interesting to talk to. The stories that he tells are extraordinary. You can’t believe the amount of fish that he harvests from Lake Mendota. There are a lot of kids, teenagers, adults who have a story about Fred. Everyone has a story about Fred.
“He’s involved with the lake itself and keeping the lake in balance, which is one of the reasons it’s such a great fishing lake. He’s a wealth of knowledge when it comes to fishing. He’s a real life, along the lines, of a Grizzly Adams. He’s a gift and a beautiful thing to Mendota. The day that I don’t see Fred on the dock will be a hard day for me. I’ll always see Fred on that dock even when he’s no longer with us.”