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Corned beef insurance

 

November 30, 2018

Photo by Bret Baker

It’s always good to have a can of corned beef hash in case the fish aren’t biting.

I welcomed the early morning help from my oldest brother Bob in preparing my own shore lunch pack. It was my first day as a fishing guide, and I had enough to worry about. A guide’s shore lunch pack is as individual as each guide. Some are heavy packers, prepared to cook a seven-course meal to impress guests. The rest are light packers, relying on their fishing skills to make the day memorable. I had no interest in becoming a shore lunch chef — I would be a light packer, come hell or high water.

I had no idea the importance of that can of corned beef hash. I first noticed it tucked into the far recesses of my brother’s shore lunch pack — a solitary can of corned beef hash. The hash, I would learn, was guide insurance, meant to be opened only in case of emergency. Not diving into that simple can of hash meant you again had caught fresh fish for shore lunch. It was a badge of honor, another day without being skunked before noon. Both the heavy- and the light packers leaned on the hash as the main course when the fish made themselves scarce. If you ever had to break into that can of hash, the other guides were sure to find out about it ... tireless hazing would be your reward. Whispers among the other guides suggested that hash deep down in Bob’s pack was expired: it hadn’t been cracked open in years.

I finished my preparations and motored down Gunflint Lake on that cool June morning. First spot, first drop, first walleye flopping in the cooler — stashed away for lunch. On cue, a cow moose splashed into the channel, her young calf close behind. The pair were intent on filling their bellies with the young-of-the-year lily pads dotting the shoreline. My guests had plenty of time to snap some pictures and enjoy the moment. The lake trout proved equally cooperative the last half of the morning. By noon, there was plenty of fish for shore lunch. I unloaded my pack: a cast iron pan, utensils, pound of lard, bacon, potatoes, and fish batter. Proudly, the hash wouldn’t see the light of day. My first shore lunch. I had guided my group to Chipmunk Point, North Lake. I was 16. Enjoying a Northwoods shore lunch ranks high on most visitors’ lists; I was intent on not ruining the experience. If I was nervous, it didn’t show. Above a roaring fire, I managed to perfectly prepare the bacon, potatoes, trout, and walleye fillets. It seemed like everything was right with the world. The fishing, the well-timed moose visit, the shore lunch, all went off without a hitch.

Based on the morning, I began to think guiding would be easy. I was wrong. If Bob’s legendary corn beef hash had been stowed away for years, mine didn’t last a week. Problem was, my mentor never taught me how to cook it. Maybe because he never had to make it himself, or perhaps he thought it was self-explanatory. Evidently it’s supposed to be spread out and fried in the lard and bacon grease. Missing this information, I plopped the whole can directly into the fire.

The main course of my third shore lunch was a concoction of burnt hash that had once lived around the edges of the can, and cold hash that once called the center home. My guests, two brash guys from Chicago, picked at their plates. They were not impressed. After being skunked, and exposed to my culinary skills, they concluded the hash chef may not know what he’s doing.

Now gray hairs dot my beard and streak around my ears. My daughter is older than I was that day on Chipmunk Point. Today, nobody asks who’s going to cook the fish. I’m glad to do it. It’s late November, and my “fresh” shore lunch is thawed from a day in August when the walleyes were snapping. My cast iron guide pan has now been replaced by an electric fryer. I plug it into the outside of the garage; my wife prefers the smell of rolling grease be kept outdoors. The smell fills my nostrils and brings me back. With my boots ankle-deep in the fresh snow, I can still feel the sunshine from that perfect North Lake day, the same day Bob took his little brother under his wing. I stand in the cold realizing those days become more distant with each passing of the seasons, but with age comes experience.

I haven’t cracked open my hash for years.

Bret Baker is a lifetime resident of Cloquet. He is a proud husband, father, educator and outdoorsman. Bret began guiding fishing trips when he was 16 years old. Today, in his 40s, his passion is to introduce people to the tremendous outdoor adventures available in our region.

 
 

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