HAZEL GREEN, Wis. — Leaning on his cane, an elderly gentleman walked slowly off the boat, carefully navigating a series of rickety wooden planks toward the shore.
His fishing days might be behind him, but Ed Kunkel still spends most mornings at the Eagle Point Fishing Barge playing cards, usually rummy, with a group of fellow early birds in their 70s and 80s.
“The first four who come get to play,” Kunkel said matter-of-factly as he reached the top of the sandy hill, overlooking the Mississippi River. As for the late-arrivals, they shoot the breeze over coffee.
In the afternoons and evenings, the floating green hangout positioned just south of Lock and Dam 11, and across the water from Dubuque, draws anglers and beer drinkers alike.
For 25 years, barkeeper Carlton Hanson has charged anglers $3 per day and $25 per year, the same usage fees since he took over the 24-hour establishment in 1992. Beer costs $2.25 and soda, water, chips and candy bars sell for $1.
Out with the old
In 2018, the daily and yearly covers for fishing will jump to $5 and $50, respectively, to help pay for a replacement barge. The food and drink prices will not change.
“It’s got a lot of old memories — some good, some bad,” Hanson said of the 100-plus-year-old vessel, which had been docked here since the mid-1950s.
A group of investors partnered with Hanson to bring the new, blue, 100-by-30-foot barge to the area. Newt Marine Services of Dubuque transported it from St. Paul and delivered it Nov. 3 to its final destination.
“It’s going to make the area look a lot nicer,” Hanson said.
But Kunkel, the rummy player, did not seem to mind the old dusty bar and bait shop, covered in cobwebs and photographs of memorable catches.
“It don’t make any difference to me,” he said. "It's pretty along here."
The clutter and the holes in the hull of the old barge contributed to its authentic decor.
Hanson’s regulars, not the money, have kept him engaged and involved over the years. He knows many of his customers by name or the town they call home.
“I just like being here,” Hanson said of the job. “I ain’t got nothing else to do.”
On a quiet Friday afternoon in September, after the card players cleared out, he greeted “the boys from Galena.”
The father-son duo of Wayne and Kevin Wasmund come here most Friday afternoons for cheap beer, the scenery and conversation.
“It’s one of a kind,” Kevin said between gulps of Busch Light.
“Carl’s always got a good story for us,” Wayne said.
A 'different world'
The somewhat hidden destination also attracts traveling anglers.
For their vacation in early August, a couple from Gurnee, Illinois, visited the barge, a favorite fishing spot of theirs about three hours west of their home.
“It’s always a guarantee to catch a lot of fish here,” said Paul Chen.
Before "accidentally" stumbling upon Eagle Point Fishing Barge online, the couple would drive farther north to the Mississippi River town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, to escape the hustle and bustle of life in suburbia.
“It’s a totally different world,” Chen said, referring to the barge, and other river towns in the region. “The drive is part of the fun.”
When it comes to fishing, Hanson, a former commercial fisherman, who now walks with a limp, is known here as “the king.”
“I can go out there and catch a fish when nobody else can,” he said from inside the old barge, explaining the title.
Hanson's friend and business partner, Ed Bossert, refuted his pal's fishing tale, offering an alternative explanation.
“I think he ties it on his hook and throws it in the water," Bossert said.
During their outing on the barge, the Chens reeled in several sizable sheepshead they planned to take home with them and cook. The experience gives them “peace of mind.”
“It’s very good for your body and soul,” Chen said, noting another major benefit. “After you taste this fish, you don’t want to buy it in a store anymore.”