COONEY RESERVOIR – For longer than many of us have been alive, Margaret Renner has enjoyed fishing and eating what she’s caught.
“My husband was a fisherman, and I love it. I just love it,” she said. “It’s so peaceful. There’s nobody gabbing at you. The birds are singing. The sun is shining.”
Even now, at 102 years old, the Laurel great-grandmother likes to spend a couple of fall days on the beach at Cooney Reservoir casting out her own line in hopes of hooking a fat rainbow trout for the frying pan.
“When we caught all those big ones last Friday, it was so much fun.”
“She catches them when no one else does,” said her daughter, Sheri Rausch, of Billings. “I think she talks to them.”
“I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for you,” Margaret told her daughter. “I’m lucky.”
Still spry of spirit and sharp enough to pay her own bills and play a competitive game of cribbage or pinochle, Margaret said her longevity may be partly due to the outdoor pursuit and consumption of wild fish.
“That’s why I think I’m living so long, is because I’ve ate a lot of fish,” she said.
Never mind that she prefers to eat them after they’ve been rolled in flour and cornmeal and then fried in oil with a bit of butter for flavor.
“Real crispy and nice," she said.
“And onions, you’ve never fried anything without onions,” Sheri added.
Back in the old days, though, Sheri noted that the fish were often fried in bacon grease – not exactly a cardiologist’s recommendation for a long life. But it’s hard to argue with success, especially when it’s sitting across from you, all bright-eyed.
“I can’t believe I’m still here,” Margaret said, noting that she now cautiously counts her age by the month.
Margaret’s love of fish and eating them makes her a bit suspicious of fly anglers who practice catch and release, even her own granddaughter – Bozeman artist Lisa Rausch.
“My grandmother is an inspiration to me in many ways, and I'm forever grateful for the gift of spending time in nature that she passed on to me and our entire extended family,” Lisa wrote in an email. “Visiting her as a child meant spending time on the river – learning to watch for rattlers, searching for morels, choosing a good wading stick and practicing safely crossing a stream – in addition to catching fish. I fly fish now and am so lucky to still be able to swap fish stories with her – though she chides me for letting the fish go!"
Maybe that’s because her grandmother is a bit competitive when it comes to fishing.
“She's usually intent on catching the most and/or biggest fish!” Lisa said.
Margaret grew up on a farm outside the small North Dakota town of Center, northwest of Bismarck.
“That’s where I learned hard work,” she said.
The sixth-oldest of 10 children, her German-Catholic parents were first-generation immigrants to the United States, her father crossing the ocean from Odessa – a port city on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine – when he was about 24 years old.
In 1934, Margaret moved to Billings to work in the home of a doctor before getting a job at St. Vincent Hospital. It was there that she met her first husband, Art, who would eventually introduce her to another love – fishing – when they moved to Columbus in 1950.
“I’ve walked every foot of that Stillwater River,” she said, and given her diminutive size, that was a lot of steps.
When she first took up the sport, there wasn’t a lot of instruction involved.
“Dad taught you how to tie your hook on and said, ‘You’re on your own,’ ” Sheri said.
“I kind of watched a little bit,” Margaret added, to get a feel for what to do. And if Art was nearby when Margaret hooked a fish, he would loudly remind her to keep her line tight and not give the fish any slack.
More often Art would go upstream and Margaret would wade down. They didn’t even bother to set a time for meeting back at the car, which Margaret now realizes was a bit foolish – but things were different back then. Now she’s limited to what she calls “the soft spots” where she can take her walker, set up a lawn chair and wait for a bite. Sheri’s main job is to “Get the net!”
Having four daughters didn’t seem to limit the couple’s fishing trips.
“They would take us along,” Sheri said. “We would go out to the East Rosebud. They would go downstream and leave us, and we would just play there. It was a fun time to play.”
For fresh bait, Margaret would encourage her children to search under the river rocks for salmonfly larvae. When available, grasshoppers were also a choice bait for the Renner anglers.
The family didn’t limit itself only to fishing for trout. Margaret has caught a 4-pound bass, more crappie than she cared to fillet, tasty walleye and – the largest fish she ever reeled in – an 8-pound burbot, also known as ling.
“I’ve fished a lot of places,” she said, recalling one time the whole family got lost in the woods for a day near Cooke City while trying to find Kersey Lake.
Her favorite place to fish is always the last place she had success – so right now that is Cooney Reservoir.
“Because the fish are biting.”
Rivers weren’t just places to fish, though. Lisa said that many of her grandmother’s birthday celebrations took place along the banks of the Yellowstone River.
“She loves fishing so much that she insisted on teaching me,” Sheri said. “I didn’t like the feel of worms. She taught my kids to fish, too.”
“I’m teaching you to keep your tip up,” Margaret said, in a tone that’s as close as her quiet voice can get to stern. “If you keep it straight he’s going to break your line.
“If I’m gone, you remember.”
And losing a fish, that’s like a cardinal sin in Margaret’s world – a world filled with sun-kissed memories of walking along the rough, round cobble banks of a rushing, shushing river while absorbed in thoughts about fish, how to catch them and how tasty they will be when eaten fresh and firm from the cold mountain water.
“I was having a ball, I tell you. I was really enjoying my life. When there was a ridge to go up, I climbed it. There wasn’t anywhere I wouldn’t go to catch fish.”
Having lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the nuclear age, manned travel to outer space, the women’s movement and computer age, a person would be correct in expecting Margaret to be the bearer of some sage advice. Her final admonishment to a visitor as she held his hand in both of hers and looked directly into his eyes was: “You need to go out and fish.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!