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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Ron Leys’ Old Stories Keep Teaching Lifelong Lessons

Ron Leys retired over three decades ago as the Milwaukee Journal’s outdoors editor, roughly four years before Wisconsin’s largest newspaper merged with the company’s morning paper in 1995 to become the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Leys, 86, long ago quit writing stories, but he still tells them while fishing with friends on the Mississippi River’s backwater near his home in Prairie du Chien. Better yet, he still tells the stories within each story; all those fun insights and quirky details about people and places that most folks overlook.

Some stories recall happy endings to scary nights, like the time a moose hunter got lost in a cold Canadian forest at dusk, and friends rescued him the next morning on the lakeshore. Leys recounts tragedies, too, like the time a Lake Michigan roller rinsed two fishermen off a Milwaukee breakwater; and how divers found their bodies the next day, the boots of their flooded chest-waders anchoring them to the bottom.

So when Leys tells a funny story about a near-calamity, you know he respects the gravity of what might have been, but luckily wasn't. With a little prompting by me, Leys shared one such tale recently on his backyard patio as we ate Wisconsin surf and turf — walleye and venison backstraps — fixed by Kurt Welke, our mutual Madison friend and retired DNR fisheries biologist.

Younger folks might need a little context for the story’s punchline, so here’s some background. Until smoking bans became common in public places a generation ago, proper etiquette required smokers to ask those nearby if it was OK to light up.

In turn, the question, “Do you mind if I smoke?” inspired some classic retorts. When Ireland’s famed writer Oscar Wilde asked that favor of Sarah Bernhardt, this French actress of the late 1800s and early 1900s replied: “I don’t care if you burn.”

Decades later, actors of the 1950s and ’60s played the question differently in dark comedies. In the TV show “The Addams Family,” Morticia Addams interrupted a card game with her husband and another couple to ask, “Do you mind if I smoke?” When the woman replied, “No, go ahead,” Morticia folded her arms across her chest, and smoke rose from her smoldering body, horrifying her guests.

OK, so back to Leys’ fishing story. Here’s ol’ Ron:

“The way that went, we had a bunch of guys from the Journal newsroom, and we used to fish the Chippewa Flowage on opening weekend every year. Ice conditions always made it nip and tuck whether the flowage would be open by early May. Either way, the water was always ice-cold.

“One year, another guy joined us for the opener. He was friends with one of our guys. I don’t recall his name, but he was a minor functionary of some sort for the city of Milwaukee. He was a big, round guy, and he went fishing one day with a guy in our group named Chris. He was wearing a snowmobile suit, because it was really cold, especially when you’re out in a boat on open water.

“I don’t know how it happened, but somehow this guy fell into the water, and Chris couldn’t get him back in the boat. Finally, Chris got a rope and kind of tied the guy to the gunwale back by the stern. The guy hung on with his hands, and Chris started motoring back very slowly, heading toward the dock at our cottage. This was some distance away. Remember: This is the Chippewa Flowage, and you know how the flowage is. It’s big.

“So, Chris is back there on the tiller, going really slow, and looking down at this poor sap hanging on for dear life on the back of his boat. They’re going and going, and it’s taking forever.

“Finally, Chris looks at the guy and says, ‘Do you mind if I troll?’

“When they got back to our dock and Chris got him back on land, he was numb and drenched, but not seriously harmed. The guy told everyone the story and repeated Chris’ question. The guy was laughing so hard he almost laughed himself warm. That phrase, ‘Do you mind if I troll?’ became a watchword for our group.”

To assure readers we understand the situation’s tragic potential, we’ll share some tips that could save others in similar situations. Mike Neal, a Department of Natural Resources marine conservation warden on Lake Michigan the past 29 years, investigates drownings and boating accidents. Neal, in fact, has recovered the bodies of more drowning victims than he cares to count. He also teaches courses around the country on boating fatalities and accident reconstruction for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Neal said there’s infinite ways to fall from boats, but only a few for climbing back in. Ideally, you clipped yourself to a cut-off switch, which killed the engine when you fell out. Even strong swimmers struggle to catch a boat that’s under power, even at idling speed.

Assuming you’re beside the boat, head for the stern. “The biggest mistake most people make is trying to climb back in from the side,” Neal said. “The only place higher is the bow. The back of the boat is its lowest point, and there’s usually more things to grab.”

Bigger boats might even have a deck or partial ladder on their stern, but most fishing boats lack such accessories. Either way, keep a mooring line or anchor rope back there, and secure it in two places to create a U-shaped step below the boat.

“Getting back into a boat isn’t like climbing over a fence,” Neal said. “Unless it’s shallow, you can’t step onto something, push off and swing your legs up. If you’re just treading water, you need lots of upper body strength to pull yourself back in. And if you can’t get back in, stay with the boat. A person in the water is about the size of a basketball. It’s much easier for rescuers to find a boat than a basketball.”

If any of these tips save you someday, thank Ron Leys and keep telling your story. Wise tales only teach when shared.

Ron Leys, foreground, and Kurt Welke fish the Mississippi River’s backwaters south of Prairie du Chien. Patrick Durkin photo

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