Faces of the Boom: Teacher and fishing guide gives newcomers lessons on Lake Sakakawea

Matt Liebel, owner of Liebel’s Guide Service, poses onboard his Lund 2010 Predator on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota on Wednesday, July 10, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Matt Liebel may be a fish whisperer.

The Watford City native started fishing before age 5, and like any savvy fish whisperer-in-training, his mantra proved prescient.

“Let’s go fishing, let’s go fishing” — words his dad, an avid fisherman, remembers Liebel saying often.

As an eighth-grade earth science teacher at Williston Middle School, he finds opportunities to weave his passion for the sport into his teaching and in building relationships with his students.

Two years ago he achieved a longtime dream: Liebel’s Guide Service.

“I probably wanted to guide before I wanted to teach. Part of guiding is being able to teach people to fish. I thought it would be cool to take people fishing,” said Liebel, 28.

Under Wednesday’s hazy skies, he, along with friend and fellow teacher Jeff Winslow, backed Liebel’s Lund 2010 Predator down the boat ramp at Van Hook Recreation Area into the silvery waters of Lake Sakakawea.

Megan and John Mack of Everett, Wash., friends of Winslow and used to “fishing trout and salmon,” were excited about catching walleye.

“We wanted to see what North Dakota has to offer, and part of that’s fishing. My buddy Jeff said this is the guy to go — he’s a Governor’s Cup winner,” John said.

Liebel and teammate Tory Hill, a friend since kindergarten, snagged first place ($10,000) in the North Dakota Governor’s Walleye Cup in 2011 with 10 fish for a total of 31.95 pounds. Other wins have included the Catch for a Cure Ice Fishing Tournament in 2010 and 2012 and the 4 Bears Casino Walleye Cup in 2009.

“It’s kind of a Ricky Bobbie (from the movie “Talladega Nights”): If you’re not first, you’re last,” Liebel said. “You get the taste, you can’t get rid of it. It sounds cliche — you want to win them all.”

Getting away from the traffic that has come with western North Dakota’s oil boom is just one of the appeals of fishing.

“Some will argue (oil) hasn’t impacted wildlife, but it has. I understand energy development is necessary, but I wish it was a little bit more controlled,” Liebel said.

But the boom has been a boon to his guide service.

Liebel estimates that only 10 percent of his clients are locals, 10 percent are on vacation or traveling through the area and 80 percent are people who have come to North Dakota to work in the oilfields.

And men between the ages of 20 and 45 account for 90 percent of his business. Only about 50 percent have fished walleye, he added.

Clients come to Liebel with a wide range of experience, and some, like Megan and her husband, are veterans. But fishing walleye for the first time can excite even the most seasoned angler.

“She was just screaming, excited. She had the biggest one (at 26¾ inches, just over 6 pounds). That made my day, biggest walleye we’ve caught in the boat this year,” Liebel said.

Winslow, who also teaches at Williston Middle School, caught a 12-pound walleye during his first time walleye fishing with Liebel in 2010. He credits Liebel’s expertise and skills with his ability to reel in both fish and customers.

“He’s taught me everything I know about walleye fishing. Aside from all his knowledge, he’s a schoolteacher, so his patience for people is better than most,” he said.

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