NEAR SAWYER, Minn. - Just minutes into this particular fishing excursion, Bret Baker started the verbal barbs with a backhanded comment about his son Joseph's first largemouth bass of the day.
"Cute one, Joseph,'' Bret said.
It didn't take long in the Bakers' 20-foot Lund Alaskan to realize that "cute" meant "small."
"Bigger than yours," Joseph, 15, fired back instantly, referring to the fact that his dad still hadn't landed a fish.
And so it went for a few hours on a recent summer's night as the three of us landed bass after bass from under docks, swimming rafts and moored pontoon boats. There was more verbal jousting for errant casts that ended up in trees or wedged in a dock. Even more if the fish caught was a bluegill and not a bass.
"Cute one, Dad,'' Joseph returned when Bret landed a small bass.
"At least mine is the right kind,'' Brett fired back after Joseph caught a bluegill.
The ribbing only stopped when one of us tied-into a decent bass. Then everyone stopped and watched or helped with the net.
There's little in fishing as fun as watching a nice bass tail-dance on the end of a line.
Have boat, will travel
Bret Baker of Cloquet is a fishing fanatic whose unspoken creed is "any time, any lake, any river, anywhere.'' He's passed that zeal on to his kids, too.
Baker, who teaches ninth-grade world history and other classes at Cloquet High School, said he's on the water "at least'' four or five days each week "as soon as summer school is over." Joseph, 15, is close behind.
"We have to work around soccer and baseball, but otherwise we're fishing all we can,'' Bret said between casts. "Joseph bowed out of soccer a little early last summer, in late July, and after that I think we were on the water 40 days in a row."
The Baker's "have boat, will travel" philosophy takes them across the region, with an eye on trying new water and different species whenever they can - from the Gunflint Trail in the north through Leech and Winnie and Carlton County lakes, even south to the "other Pokegama Lake'' by Pine City. The challenges of new water are what make fishing fun for them.
"I get bored catching fish in the same place doing the same thing,'' Bret said. "I like to keep trying new things in new places... We bounce around quite a bit."
That multi-water, multi-species skill set also helps when one type of fish turn off; stop biting.
"Rather than beat our head against a wall when the walleyes won't cooperate, I say, 'Let's go bass fishing. Let's try a different lake. Let's try something different,''' Brett said.
Brett recalled when he was a 12-year-old and his parents would drop off him and a friend off in a "little duck boat with an electric trolling motor and we'd fish Chub Lake all day."
Now, it's Brett who's dropping off Joseph at Chub Lake or Big Lake with his friends in Joseph's own fishing boat that he and his older sister, Hannah, 17, bought together with their own money.
"He's pretty serious,'' Bret said of Joseph, but noted sons Joshua and David, both 12, also are avid anglers.
Wacky-good dock bite
The Bakers were using "soft plastics" on our largemouth fishing afternoon - biodegradable, scented, 6-inch worms in a host of colors. Silver and black is Bret's favorite. Joseph likes "black cherry," "baby bass" and "green pumpkin."
But instead of the traditional jig or Texas-rigged worm, the Bakers were bassing "wacky worm'' style. It looks wacky, but we proved how well it works. A large hook is set through the middle of the worm so it's hanging off on each end.
After the cast, we'd wait for the worm to sink, then twitch it in. It looks like nothing in nature, really - a sideways swimming worm. But the bass gobble it up. So did small pike, rock bass and big bluegills.
"Let's start with the weed line and see what's home,'' Bret said as we pulled up to his first fishing spot.
Amazingly, even on a nice weekday summer afternoon, we had the lake nearly to our ourselves. The only other person fishing was in a kayak.
Mostly, we fished the dozens of docks along the shoreline of Big Lake. Floating docks and swim platforms seemed to hold the most and biggest bass as the predator fish hid in the shadows waiting to ambush their prey.
"Nothing beats a good dock bite," Bret said. "The best docks have access to a little deeper water. But they can all be good."
Big Lake's many pontoon boats tied up to docks made for good bass cover, too, except when an errant cast ended up on a pontoon seat cushion or wrapped around an outboard motor. (The Baker's mercifully didn't make fun of their guest's entanglements, even when he hooked the same tree twice.)
We didn't catch any hogs by bassin' boys' standards. A couple approached 3 pounds, maybe, but no 4s or 5s. Just a few days earlier, though, the Bakers had pulled several hogs out of the same waters, and Bret's smartphone camera captured the action.
"There are some really nice bass in here,'' Bret said. "I don't think most people know how many lakes around here have good bass fishing. Most people focus on walleye."
'Let's go try Chub'
When we had quite literally run out of new docks to try on Big Lake, having circled most of the shoreline, Bret pondered his next move. We could retry some of the more productive spots or try new water.
"Let's go try Chub,'' he said, heading to the boat landing. "I know where some nice ones hang out there."
So we moved to a new lake, but had similar success using the same "wacky worm" system, although the action seemed to slow as afternoon turned to evening. When he ran out of bass spots - two other boats were working his favorite bay - Bret made another executive decision.
"Let's go see if the crappies are where we left them the other day,'' he said.
They were right where he said they'd be. We switched from plastic worms to tiny jigs on lighter rods, throwing them upwind as we drifted over mid-lake weed beds.
On every pass, as the jig fell into the weeds, we'd get a hit. Most of the crappies were small, but some were eating size.
That's exactly what Joseph wanted to see. While we were throwing all of them back that evening, Joseph had plans to bring his friends here the next day and catch a bunch of crappies for a meal.
"I'm hungry," he said. "I want a fish fry."
He must have stayed hungry. Dad reports that Joseph indeed was back on the water fishing with his friends the next day, right after soccer practice.
"The Bakers love to fish,'' Bret said in an understatement. "I guess that's my fault."