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Outdoors commentary: McCormick enjoys life on the water

Outdoors commentary: McCormick enjoys life on the water

From the COLLECTION: Jeff Brown's outdoors commentaries series
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Mike McCormick had an inkling he might be a fishing guide on the mighty Mississippi River someday, perhaps in his retirement years.

He’s always loved the challenge of catching fish and everything that accompanies being in the great outdoors each day, every day. What he didn’t know is that he would be a full-time fishing guide -- and on the water, or ice, 320 days a year -- 30 some years before typical retirement age.

Talk about a dream job, right?

“I never thought I would be doing this, not until I was older,” said McCormick, owner of McCormick’s River Guide Service, and a full-time fishing guide since 2014. “It is interesting, as now it’s, ‘Am I ever going to retire?’ I will still be fishing when I’m 75.”

That seems like a long time from now for the 40-year-old McCormick, but likely not long enough as this guy has a genuine passion for fishing, and teaching others how to fish. And he’s pretty darn good at both.

Remember who won the 2018 Cabela’s National Team Championship, a prestigious walleye event on the Mississippi River that drew 197 of the top teams from 21 states to La Crosse?

Yes, it was McCormick and Marty Kirchner, but more on that later.

It takes a number of things in order to be a successful fishing guide, however, in addition to the obvious: knowing how, and where, to catch fish.

Patience, for one, as McCormick said he takes out a significant number of first-timers. Yes, if you are a rookie angler, it doesn’t matter as this man -- who still fishes the pro walleye circuit during the spring and summer -- will teach you the basics, and more, if you want.

And McCormick is a multi-species guide, meaning he knows where walleye, perch, northern, bass and panfish are biting and when. If you’re like me, you like to catch fish regardless of the species, so if the walleye aren’t biting, let’s try bass, or northern.

Just being on the water is great, but being on the water and catching fish? It’s a win-win.

“One thing is you’ve got to get your client base established. That’s the part that people (in the guide business) struggle with," McCormick said. “You have to have the right personality to do it, too. If you don’t get repeat clients, it’s a hard way to make a living.

“I have guys I have guided for, and now I have watched their kids grow up.”

Speaking of kids, how many of you want to be a fishing guide when you grow up? Thought so, as it may not be at the top of the list for a lot of kids. It wasn’t for McCormick either, until he purchased his first boat at age 12.

Yes, 12.

“I kind of grew up fishing. It is one of those things where you get hooked on it when you are young,” said McCormick, who grew up in Holmen and now lives on French Island. “I started ice fishing with my dad (Mark) when I was probably 5 years old. We did some shore fishing and stuff like that, too. My dad never had a boat, so when I was around 12 I bought a boat.”

OK, that’s a serious commitment to fishing, but how does a 12-year-old go about buying a boat?

“I would work doing odd jobs. I milked some cows and did other things,” McCormick said. “It was a 14-foot v-hull with a 9.9 (horsepower outboard). That was a big boat when you are that age. Anything that floats is better than nothing.”

A boat is a game-changer, period.

Stop for a minute and think back to your first boat. It probably wasn’t new; it probably wasn’t big. And more than likely, it had an old Evinrude, Johnson or Mercury hanging from the transom that you had to tug a number of times in order to it to sputter, then chug.

“I still didn’t have a car or a way to pull it,” McCormick said of his first boat. “It was, ‘Hey Dad, let’s go fishing over there. Or let’s try it over here.’”

It was a great way to grow up, McCormick recalled, and when he reached his late teens, he was pulling his boat himself to tournaments in Stoddard, Genoa and La Crosse. Longstanding tournaments like the Stoddard Fire Department spring walleye tournament, or the Stoddard Lions Club tournament, is where he learned how to tournament fish.

“It was 30 bucks to get into it, or something like that, and made 50 bucks, maybe,” McCormick said. “You put your money into it and get a little back. It gets the ball rolling.”

Working full-time during the week, then fishing tournaments on the weekend was setting the foundation for a fishing career that he really didn’t see coming. McCormick simply reveled in the fact he was on the water, having fun, and sometimes pocketing a little cash.

“It was just to see if you could compete against them, against the river,” McCormick said. “The guys who continue to do the tournaments are the guys who have success. It is hard to compete against the good river sticks.”

Hard, but doable.

When McCormick wasn’t working third shift as a welder at Chart Industries or tournament fishing, he was working as a fishing guide. His world was one big cast, catch, and release until he realized he had to make a choice.

“I was working third shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.), burning the candle at both ends,” McCormick said. “I had to choose one or the other. I would get done at my job at 7 (a.m.), start guiding at 7:30. I would fish until 3:30, then crawl into bed and get a few hours of sleep.

“I was guiding four or five trips a week. I was doing walleye, and showing people what an amazing perch fishery we have here,” McCormick said. “Whatever anybody wanted, I would do.”

His mind said one thing, but his body kept telling him something else. So with the blessing his wife, Theresa, he went into the full-time fishing guide business in 2014.

Seven years later, he can look back and say it’s been a good move. In the winter and spring, McCormick’s working six days a week, taking clients out ice fishing as they pursue walleye, perch, northern and panfish.

He said he covers about 40 miles of the Mississippi River with his airboat, which can hold up to five clients. In the summer, he takes his fishing boat with the latest electronics (light years more advanced than his first 14-foot v-hull) and takes clients fishing on 120 Mississippi River miles from Red Wing, Minn., to Lansing, Iowa.

“I take a lot of clientele from the east side of the state, the Fox Valley, Appleton area. Some days you have to move a few times before you catch something,” McCormick said.

“Being on the river, there is so much water you can catch so many different species. I have never went out and got skunked. You are still going to catching something. Maybe the bite window is only half hour, or 45 minutes, for walleye, and they are done for the day, so you go catch something else.”

In the winter, and now in the spring, he fires up his airboat and skims across open water and ice to fish at those hard-to-reach places.

“Most of the time the boat landing is on the wrong side of the river. Crossing the river channel (by walking on ice) is not the safest thing to do,” McCormick said, hence the airboat. “I might go across open water to get to some ice. Once we get on the good ice, we’re out of the airboat and fish on the ice. Everybody wants to do something different.”

And, McCormick said, everybody has a different skill level. Some are beginners, some have fished before, but maybe not the river. And others may have had a boat, sold it, and now only want to go out three or four times a summer.

“In May you get a lot of snowbirds who come back, a lot of the older gentlemen who sold their boats but still want to get out,” McCormick said. “I take out some of the local guys in their 70s and 80s. It is cheaper to hire me for a couple of days than to have a boat, maintain a boat, store a boat.”

And for those who are just learning to fish, hiring McCormick is more of an all-around experience as he supplies the boat, the road and reel, the tackle and the bait.

All you need to do is make a reservation, then show up.

“I have had some clients that never cast a fishing pole before. You have to spend some time teaching them to cast the fishing pole, or you might troll some. You don’t know what you are getting into until you start fishing,” McCormick said.

“You can put the people on the fish, but they still have to have the feel to catch them. I am not going to catch them for them out there. You have to let them to catch the fish.”

Which he does, usually wearing as big of a smile as they are.

While guiding is fun and worth the effort in multiple ways, McCormick still fishes professionally. He plans to fish the six-event, Head2Head Fishing Pro Walleye Series (PWS) this spring and summer.

The Head2Head PWS begins with a tournament at the Detroit River in Michigan on April 9-16. It also includes stops at Lake Wisconsin, Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota, Mississippi River Pool 2, as well as events in Nebraska and New York.

“I like the challenge of something new, something different,” McCormick said. “You see what you can do.”

Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at


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