'I Yam Who I Yam'
Mike Johnson of ‘Bottom Feeders' comfortable with role as ‘Scrapper'
With his brother Rick looking on, Johnson pulls out a snapping turtle that would make the Turtleman jealous. (Mike Suchan photo)
“I yam what I yam.” – Popeye the Sailor Man
PEPIN, Wis. – Mike Johnson is totally unapologetic with what he does, what he says. He is who he is.
“I’m OK with who I am, and everything I tell you,” said the commercial fisherman.
Caught up with last summer as he brought in a load of fish, Johnson proudly states he “got looped Thursday night.”
The 48-year-old who lives in Pepin and has fished the upper stretches of the Mississippi since his youth enjoys being one of the subjects on Outdoor Channel’s “Bottom Feeders,” even if his best moments are sometimes left on the cutting room floor.
“A lot of the stuff that I think I sound the best at, or when I’m sounding fairly intelligent, they don’t use,” said Johnson, promoted on the show as “The Scrapper.” “They kind of make me look like a hick.”
Not that he has a problem with that.
Click image to see photos of Mike Johnson
“I’m OK with any way they want to play it,” he said.
Contrary to most reality shows these days, Johnson said he’s not once thought up any bit to do on the show. There’s nothing scripted, no rehearsed comic bits, no set up arguments.
“Never,” he said. “It’s all spur of the moment. I never think ahead of what I’m going to say. Honestly, not one thing. It’s just who I am.
“When I do an interview, I’m like maybe I went too far. They need that. They need some spice.”
Johnson has his fans, and says the response from being on the show has been getting back to him, like the Iowans who drove up and ran him down at Pepin nightspot Ralph’s Bar, where he moonlights.
“It’s only just the start, but I got to admit it’s been neat. I guess I like it, but I’m trying not to like it too much,” he said. “I’m trying to just be Mike Johnson the fishermen and the bartender and the guy who tucks his kids into bed every night.”
Wearing one of his signature message T-shirts -- this one advising all to “Paddle Faster. I hear banjo music” -- Johnson unloaded his jon boat filled with close to 1,500 pounds of fish at the Wild Freshwater Fish Company run by Tim Adams, fellow “Bottom Feeders” subject. They had been shooting segments for the second season, which just began airing.
They say the shows haven’t made them rich, but there have been benefits.
“Guess it brought season two,” Johnson said. “They had to film stuff on the ice in the wintertime to have a whole season.”
Folks on both sides of the Mississippi River are gaining knowledge that some of their local fishermen are the subject of a reality TV show.
“We get all kinds of people who recognize us, especially on the river,” said Johnson’s brother and partner, Rick.
The Johnsons spend a lot of time on the water. A typical day consists of checking on nets placed the day before, hauling all the fish into the boat, setting out more nets then taking fish to the processing plant. Rinse, repeat.
“Basically it’s all by hand,” Johnson said “It’s buoyed so you can see where it is and other people can see where it is. It looks like a huge mess and it can kind of be a mess, but for us, it’s like riding a bike.”
The nets have a lead line to sink and a floating buoy line. Johnson said knowing the river helps but picking out a likely spots to set his six 500-foot nets – more than half a mile – can be as easy as finding channels.
"You kind of look around for the fish, and right now the water is high, it’s up in the brush,” he said. “So we’re setting pretty close to brush. It makes it hard to get them. If they stay up in there, we can’t even get a net up in there.
“Normally, you get where you block these little entrances and the water is dropping, but this year it’s been so steadily high that they haven’t went through that phase to push out. I can still hear them back in the brush every morning.”
On his day in Bay City, Johnson netted around 1,000 pounds of carp, a couple hundred pounds of buffalo and maybe 50 pounds of snapping turtles.
“I set the nets last night and then checked them this morning,” he said. “But I ran really late this morning.
Normally I’m out really early and back real early. I didn’t finish this off and get my nets back out because it was getting so hot. I’m not much for the heat.”
With a small tool and blue rubber gloves, he tugged and yanked to free the fish from the net, snapping pieces of the line as he worked them over the fishes’ bodies.
“It doesn’t have any stretch to it like that regular monofilament,” he said. “It’s actually like eight individual webs twisted together. Because it’s twisted together it has no stretch, it has no give.
“It mostly just breaks when the fish is too big. After so long, you’re going to wear the net out. If you’re fishing hard, a year. Maybe half a year if you’re really catching fish, a lot of carp. Carp are tough on nets.”
His crew threw fish into buckets on the loading dock then plant handlers separated the species, weighed and iced them. He then headed home to rest up for a night bartending. Johnson has five children, from 21 to 10, and the oldest fishes with him sometimes.
“They say the more years between them the best off you are for raising a genius,” he said. “I push, and push and push those books. It ain’t for everybody. It wasn’t for me.”
He is who he is.
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