John Carlson: A Guy You Don’t Forget

Doug Krabacher loved the life of a Lake Erie charter captain. Photo by: John PinckneyDoug Krabacher loved the life of a Lake Erie charter captain. Photo by: John Pinckney

By: John Carlson—

There is a world of difference between growing up near big water and being on big water.

This came to mind over a couple beers the other day, when my buddy John Pinckney and I began reminiscing about Doug Krabacher.

Since Pinckney and his wife, Carol, are landlocked Munsonians like the rest of us, I don’t know the details of how Krabacher, a charter fishing captain on Lake Erie, came into their lives. Come into their lives he did, though, with his unforgettable presence.

On the surface a somewhat taciturn fellow, Krabacher was a banker’s son who fought in Vietnam, then spent years on the job as a United Auto Workers member while employed by General Motors in Ohio. But when that gig ended, he made his dream of becoming a Great Lakes charter-boat captain come true.

Perch and walleye were the fish that folks paid him to find. Without doubt, I can eat myself some walleye, but deep-fried Lake Erie perch? To me, that’s the best-tasting fish that can possibly land on a hungry person’s plate.

It was years ago that the Pinckneys began hiring Krabacher to find them such fish, his boat scooting through the swells under power from a noisy, beefy, inboard motor. Sometimes, they would even invite their friends to tag along to fish and meet the captain.

“He was a real-life Old Man and the Sea,” Pinckney warmly recalled, conjuring up Ernest Hemingway’s beloved fictional fisherman from his novel of the same name. “He knew Lake Erie like nobody’s business.”

Uncanny seems the best word to describe Krabacher’s skill at finding desirable fish. At least it was the day Nancy and I went out on his boat. As previously noted, I’d grown up just off the lake, but my  perspective of it had been fixed from shore, a landlubber looking out. On his boat, the air perfumed by sea scents and internal-combustion smells, the lake was just one mass of anonymous waves and water. After Krabacher’s mate dropped anchor, we bobbed there for ten minutes with nary a nibble. So the captain hauled up and chugged a mile or two away, all through that same mass of seemingly anonymous waves and water.

“Try here,” he may have told us, or maybe not.

Either way, though this place looked exactly like the place we’d just abandoned, we suddenly couldn’t keep the perch from hungrily snatching the silvery shiners that were our bait. Using hanger lures with multiple hooks, the four of us effortlessly hauled in two or three at a time. The limit was something like 60 perch each, and within a couple hours the four of us had 240 of them securely stored in his cooling tank. Expertly cleaned, then vacuum packed and frozen, they fed us well for weeks.

A pail of Lake Erie perch, ready for cleaning. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

A pail of Lake Erie perch, ready for cleaning. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

When it came to fish, though, Krabacher could be a man of unforgiving discretion. When our late friend Randy Bergs joined the Pinckneys on the lake, he hauled in a huge catfish.

“It had to be a twenty-pounder,” Pinckney recalled.

Bergsie, as he was called, was overjoyed by his large if somewhat grotesque-looking catch, at least until Krabacher got a look at it himself. A catfish among his pristine perch or walleye?

“That ain’t coming in my boat!” he declared, and it didn’t.

That was Krabacher, Pinckney said. An exterior of steel. But also, a heart of gold.

In the course of a few hours on the lake, you could sense that rough-edged kindness in him. You could also tell that the captain had been through a lot, physically. The back of his head bore the evidence of major surgeries. The fact is, he had suffered a brain aneurysm that might have killed a lesser man. That it didn’t kill Krabacher was proof of his toughness, and his determination to get back in the captain’s seat.

If you don’t know much about the Great Lakes, you should know that of them all, Erie is the shallowest. You might reason, somehow, that makes it the tamest, but just the opposite is true. The lake’s lack of depth means that, when stormy conditions kick up, which they tend do with little warning and alarming frequency, its hellacious conditions are unlike any other’s. Over the years, plenty of boats and larger craft have gone under to emphasize that point.

Spend enough hours skippering fishing parties, and some of that toughness is bound to work its way into a man or woman’s flesh and blood.

Some things, though, no amount of toughness can overcome.

It was a few years ago when Pinckney called Krabacher to set up yet another fishing trip.

“So how you doing?” he asked.

“Not good,” came the captain’s matter-of-fact reply. “I got bone cancer.”

Krabacher died in the spring of 2015, near as Pinckney can recall. Thinking about that, for some reason I naturally flash on images of sailors being buried at sea. Of course, it’s one thing to commit a body to the depths of an ocean, as in wartime. It’d be something else entirely – and out of the question, actually – to do so in Lake Erie. But sitting around talking about Krabacher, it’s not hard to believe it’s in those waves and swells that his sailor’s spirit lingers.

“He loved that lake,” Pinckney said.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.