They Tackled a New Challenge : Fishing: Ken Willingham found a new life running a bait shop at June Lake. He was followed by two more generations of his family.
Ken Willingham was lamenting last weekend how it wasn’t like the good old days because, “I don’t see a lot of family groups coming up to fish.”
At that moment, Ron Kniep and his 10-year-old daughter, Karin, walked through the door of Ernie’s Tackle and Ski Shop carrying heavy stringers of rainbow trout, fresh from Gull Lake.
Willingham’s joy showed that, suddenly, it was the good old days again--just different. The only thing that changes with frequency at June Lake is the weather, which is why Willingham came here in 1962, followed by two more generations of his family.
The village, surrounded by thick conifer pine forest at 7,650 feet, is the anchor of four lakes--June, Gull, Silver and Grant--strung out around a loop road off U.S. 395 in the heart of the Eastern Sierra. At the head of the valley, broad-shouldered Carson Peak guards the trail into the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the back door of Yosemite National Park, and there are days like Monday when visitors don’t know whether to ski or fish.
Locals aren’t sure what movie stars did when they used to come here, but there are tales of rip-roaring times in the big lodge built into Avalanche Slope on the main street, Boulder Drive, long before the place was turned into a time-share complex.
Wallace Beery once had a cabin on an island on Silver Lake. He’d fly in on a pontoon plane, until the cabin burned down. So many other celebrities had lodges on Silver Lake that the locals called it “Millionaires’ Row.”
Producer Frank Capra and cartoonist Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) were regulars, and Walt Disney once wanted to connect June and Mammoth mountains in a ski operation, as Dave McCoy now proposes to do.
Then there was Ernie Felkins, who opened a tackle store in the 40s and sold it to Bud Chelson, who ran it for seven years until Willingham came along.
What brought Willingham to June Lake?
“Ulcers,” he said.
Lives there a city dweller who doesn’t yearn to forsake smog, gridlock, graffiti and garbage in favor of a little tackle store somewhere in the Sierra?
Willingham took the leap in 1962. With the U.S. Infantry, he defended the American dream at the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, then cut his share in a career as a supervisor of two major supermarket chains in Southern California. He was active in the community, once winning a citizen-of-the-year award. He was so successful it was killing him.
Willingham said: “One day, my wife wife said, ‘Let’s go out to dinner. I want to talk to you.’ Then she said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’
“I said, ‘I’m sick.’
“ ‘What are you going to do about it?’
“ ‘What can I do about it?’
“ ‘You can buy that little tackle shop in June Lake.’ ”
Louise was a wise woman. They worked long hours and lived for a time in a room behind the store.
“We were shoestringing it here to make it work,” Willingham said, “but just getting away, I was able to get (the ulcers) under control.”
A large ceiling beam marks where the store was partitioned from the living quarters before the first expansion. Among the trophy fish mounted on the beam are a five-pound seven-ounce golden trout Willingham caught out of nearby Laurel Lake in 1964.
“I thought, boy, I’ve got the record,” Willingham said. “Then the next day, some dentist from Bishop got one eight ounces heavier.”
The fishing was good.
“These lakes have always had big fish in ‘em,” Willingham said.
The Department of Fish and Game planted cutthroat trout in June Lake in 1963, and they have started showing up again the past two years. Willingham recalled limits of lunkers from Grant, when the limit was 15, not five.
But June Mountain was just getting started as a ski resort, so in the winter, Willingham would board up the store and head south to work for Alpha Beta. In the summer, he earned extra money as a guide for visiting anglers, including Lantz, on nearby Crowley Lake and some back-country lakes.
The fishing is still good--just different.
“Fishing has changed with the advent of better tackle . . . things like leaded line (and) Power Bait,” Willingham said. “Really, the poor little fish don’t have a chance. In the early days, you used cat gut for leader material. There is more expertise, too.”
In 1973, although June Lake wasn’t changing much, Willingham grew weary of the business. The Willinghams’ daughter, Elayne, was visiting during the Christmas holidays with her husband, Mike Logue, and their four children. Logue was a captain with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept., in charge of the Carson station.
“It wasn’t really good for our family life,” Elayne Logue said. “Middle-of-the-night phone calls. We lived in Manhattan Beach, and they were doing stuff like mandatory busing.
“We were here for 10 days, and Michael was down at the shop with my dad a lot of the time. After we got home, he said, ‘Did you know your folks were going to sell Ernie’s?’
“I said, ‘No, they hadn’t mentioned that to me.’
“He said, ‘Would you like to buy it and move to June Lake?’ Just like that. My mouth dropped open, and I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘I’m very serious. I’m tired of doing what I’m doing, and it would be better for the kids up there.’
“So, we went to the telephone and called Dad, and he had just taken an offer that afternoon. We went, ‘Oh, no.’ ”
But no papers had been signed, and the prospective buyer understood, so by March 1974, the Logues had themselves a tackle store.
“We sold our house, and he took a deferred retirement,” Elayne said.
Last year, the longtime tackle store next door closed down, so this year the Logues took over the lease, knocked out the wall and expanded into almost twice the space. In the summer, they sell fishing tackle; in the winter, they rent skis. They’re the only tackle and ski store in town--although, granted, it’s a small town.
“As (for) the lifestyle and the experiences we’ve had here, it’s everything that we thought it would be,” Elayne said. “I don’t think we could ever go away from this type of environment.
“There’s not a lot of money in it, but we don’t have a bad lifestyle, and it seems to get a little bit better each year. It’s just a struggle. Some years it’s so frustrating, you just want to pull your hair out. In good (snow) years, the skiing (business) is every bit as good as the tackle, but it’s been four years since we had a good one. You’ve got to deal with droughts, but after 16 years we’re still here and we’re still doing it.”
One day, the third generation will take over. The Logues’ other three children live elsewhere, but John, who majored in business at Chico State, works full time in the store and apparently intends to make it a career.
“Out of four, we got one of ‘em (to stay),” Elayne said. “We tried to talk him out of it. There’s not a lot of social life here, but I guess he got his fill in college. He kept coming back and saying, ‘That’s not what I’m looking for. This is what I want to do.’
“Our long-range plan is to turn over the operation to John, particularly in the winter months. We’ll travel to warmer climates and say, ‘Hey, John, send us the money.’ ”
The Willinghams now live in Bishop, where the winters are milder, but they come back to visit their memories on special occasions, such as the opening of the Eastern Sierra trout season last weekend.
A highlight is the Monster Trout Contest, which at the end of opening day draws a crowd in front of Ernie’s and offers a dozen prizes for catches from the biggest fish to the ugliest fish. By the end of the day, the candidates fill the old freezer case in front of the store.
The freezer jogged one memory for Willingham:
“There are certain fishermen that thrive on catching big fish. This one fella caught a 17-pounder on Silver Lake. We put it in here, and a little later another fella came in. The guy had never fished. We sold him a Rapala (lure) and said, ‘Try trolling this around.’
“Well, he caught one that weighed 22 pounds and was 33 inches long. We had to take the first one out and put the other one in because they both wouldn’t fit. The first fella came back, looked in the case, then looked again and said, ‘Where’s my fish?’
“I told him, ‘We had to take it out. It was too small.’ ”