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Story on Jonny P in GF Herald

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Guide proves you can go home again

Brad Dokken Herald Staff Writer

Published Sunday, May 27, 2007

WASKISH, Minn. - When Jonny Petrowske graduated from high school down the road in Kelliher, Minn., in 1993, he and most of his classmates got the same advice:

Leave.

“Just about every parent had their fingers pointed south to the cities,” Petrowske said. "'Save yourself,' they said. It was like getting off a sinking ship. It was like the Titanic.”

Everyone knows that things didn't turn out so well for the Titanic, but no one in 1993 could have predicted the future of Waskish, a small resort community on the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake, would turn out to be a bright one.

At that time, walleye populations on Minnesota's largest inland lake were on the skids from overfishing in state and tribal waters, and the tourism industry that had sustained the area for so long was drying up.

That left few options for making a living, so Petrowske took the common advice and left.

He didn't know it at the time, but the move only would be temporary.

Comeback trail

During the years he was gone, Waskish made the gradual ascendancy from ghost town to boom town. It started in the winter of 1999, when some local anglers stumbled on a school of crappies that would put Upper Red Lake on the map as crappie Mecca. The popular panfish had filled a void left by the collapse of the walleye population.

Anglers - and dollars - started flowing back into town.

That same year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa signed off on an agreement to restore the big lake's legendary walleye fishery.

Today, the walleyes - and those who fish them - are back, and in the fishing world, at least, the Red Lake story is known as a recovery tale of near-epic proportions.

That's why Petrowske decided to come home again last winter. For good.

Family ties

The fourth generation of Petrowskes to make a living on or along Red Lake, Petrowske, 32, has started a guiding business he calls “Outdoors with Jonny P.” It's a way to share his passion for the big lake with others, he says, and at the same time follow in the footsteps of his dad, Kelly; his grandfather, Jim; and his great-grandfather, Fred, who homesteaded on the north shore of Upper Red Lake in 1921.

For Petrowske, it's been a long journey since high school, with stops in the Air Force, working as a heavy-equipment mechanic and part-time muskie guide in Walker, Minn., and later, sales jobs in the Twin Cities.

Then it hit him, Petrowske says, right after Christmas: It was time to abandon the grind and move home.

“I'd go to work early Monday, and then work until 7 or 8 at night,” Petrowske said of working in the Twin Cities. “It came to the point where I said ‘enough is enough,' and here I am.”

Besides guiding, Petrowske works with his dad, Kelly, renting ice shacks and plowing roads on Upper Red Lake in the winter and assists with the family's wild rice-farming operation in the summer. He helps his grandpa Jim, 73, trap shiners, a venture that's done the same way today as it was when the family started the business in 1936.

It's a little bit of everything, this latest career path, but it's brought him home, and for Petrowske, that's exactly where he wants to be.

“It's still a tough living up here, there's no doubt about it,” Petrowske said. “It's like I told Dad, I'll work three times as hard for half the money, but I'll be twice as happy.

“There's a lot of opportunity here for guys who want to do different things.”

It's a simpler life, he says, dictated more by weather and time of year than by a daily schedule. For Petrowske, carrying on the family tradition is something that just feels right at this point in his life.

“It's not even a question of if I should do it; it's, I have to do it,” he said. “It's almost like you're born into that class. Something tells you that's the way you should be.”

Dokken covers the outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572 ext. 148; or by e-mail at bdokken@gfherald.com">bdokken@gfherald.com.

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