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Al Libera of Nisswa's Viking Rod and Reel Repair holds up a bamboo fishing rod he restored in front of his wall of fishing tournament awards. Photo by Travis Grimler

Libera was born to be a duck on water

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Al Libera of Nisswa was born for a life on the water.

Libera's parents even had a photo of him wrapped in a baby blanket at the front of their fishing boat. He was born for all things fishing.

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Libera started in North Minneapolis. His father ran three restaurants, The Hen House, The Launching Pad and Road Buddies. Being a child of rather insistent parents (in fishing and in work ethic) Libera worked in the back of one of these restaurants starting at age 12.

"That was back in the days you didn't have all this stuff pre-packaged. You peeled potatoes, you chopped coleslaw. Everything was made from scratch. Nothing came in a bag," Libera said.

He was not meant to stay put for long.

"I got tired of washing dishes, so when I turned 17, I joined the Navy," Libera said. "It (washing dishes) gets tiresome after a while. Besides, my dad didn't pay that well."

Libera worked with the U.S. Navy for six years in engineering, serving four of those years on the USS Iowa battleship. There was a time he was away from his home country for 18 months. He said living on the ship was like living on a floating island.

"There were 5,600 guys on it. It was 880 feet long and 80 some feet wide and 17 stories high," Libera said.

When his contract ran out, Libera returned to Minnesota, but found there were virtually no jobs to be had. By this time he was married to his first wife, and his father-in-law was an official for a railroad company in Toledo. He pulled some strings to get Libera hired.

"He told me to go back there and he gave me a job. I went back there and I was the first guy to get hired there in 15 years. I worked there 10 years and moved back to Minnesota," Libera said.

In Minnesota, Libera worked for the Great Northern, the predecessor to the BNSF, from 1959 until retirement in 1989. It was with the railroad that Libera found lots of time to fish.

The company Libera worked for was bought out, and he found himself with a few options. He could either quit his job, spend eight hours a day in the lunch room getting paid to play cribbage, transfer to a new district or take 80 percent of his salary and not come into work at all. He took the last option. Libera was virtually paid to competitively fish.

Libera fished all over the United States during that time. In an 11-week period, he fished in New York, Florida, Texas and Georgia before returning home. He kept up regular fishing tournaments for nine years, and has almost 30 plaques and two trophies at his shop to show for it. He quit fishing in tournaments in the 1980s because of cost, but kept fishing for fun.

At one time, Libera was immersed in fishing culture on many levels. He was a local fishing guide, a member of the Baxter Bass Club, a one-time president of the Minnesota State Bass Federation, and winner of the Bassmaster Classic's President's Tournament. Libera once owned a custom rod shop in Brainerd.

Today, Libera is not a tournament angler, he is not a member of the bass club, and he stopped guiding two years ago.

"One of the reasons I quit guiding is I hated walleye fishing. To me that's like watching paint dry. Everybody who comes up and hires a guide wants to fish walleyes, and you can't explain to them that in July and August on Gull Lake you aren't catching any walleyes. Bass, you can catch any time of the year, anywhere you go. They're just more fun to catch and more predictable," Libera said.

Libera still does work on rods and reels in a shop on the back of his home. His business is Viking Rod and Reel Repair. His services, however, have changed a little. He still makes custom rods, but he avoids them because there is a low profit margin. Libera's business still includes rod repairs, where applicable.

"If they break it off near the handle, it's an easy fix. If they break it near the middle you can add a ferrule and make a two-piece rod out of it. If they break it within a foot or two of the tip there's no fixing it, because you've lost all your action. I've tried splicing it and everything else but they just break in the same place," Libera said.

Libera restores antique bamboo rods, but they aren't as in demand as they were when the film "A River Runs Through It" came out.

"Everyone wanted a bamboo rod. I sold every one I had," Libera said. "They want them fixed up. They hang them in their cabins, or they belonged to their grandfathers or they want them restored. I did a lot of them for the fishing place in Little Falls. I did 20-30 of them for them," Libera said.

Most of the time, Libera is repairing reels, one of the most challenging and enjoyable parts of his job.

"Keeping up with the new reels (is the most difficult part of the job). You work on certain ones for years, then they come up with something new. Every once in a while you get one in here that you can't figure out how to take it apart," Libera said. "Otherwise, 90 percent of the reels are basically all the same, except for maybe the outside shape or whatever. Once you get used to taking one apart and putting it together, there's nothing to it."

Libera said everyone waits until just before fishing season opener to get their reels repaired.

"The real busy part is about three days before opening. It gets real hectic around here," Libera said.

Whether he's doing rod building, rod repair or reel repair, Libera is self taught. There are tables and chart to determine fishing line guide placement on the rods he builds, but he doesn't even use them anymore.

"I go by feel," Libera said.

Like fishing, Libera's interest in reel repair is attributed to his parents.

"My dad always had a saying when I was a kid. 'If it's worth having, it's worth taking care of.' Anything that went wrong with anything - bicycles, rods, reels, whatever - we learned to fix them ourselves, because if we didn't , he'd take them away from us," Libera said.

When he's not tending to his shop or at home with his wife, Diane, Libera can still be found on the lake two to three days a week year-round enjoying his free time on the water.

"The ideal part of being around here is I can hook up my boat and go to 20 different lakes within five minutes. That's the beauty of it," Libera said.

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