Bear Lake residents work with professional fisherman Mark Martin

BEAR LAKE — Anyone who has ever dropped a fishing line into a lake or stream understands those prophetic words by country singer Brad Paisley in his classic song, “I’m Gonna Miss Her.”

Jenny Olsen of "Michigan Outdoors" interviews Bear Lake resident Dan Zatarga for a segment on the show about Mark Martin's ice fishing school. Zatarga and fellow Bear Lake resident Pat Bentley serve as pro staffers for Martin's schools.

Jenny Olsen of “Michigan Outdoors” interviews Bear Lake resident Dan Zatarga for a segment on the show about Mark Martin’s ice fishing school. Zatarga and fellow Bear Lake resident Pat Bentley serve as pro staffers for Martin’s schools.

It is a song about a man who has to choose between fishing and his wife. When she issues him an ultimatum he responds “I’m gonna miss her, lookie there, I got a bite.” Yes, it is obvious that fishermen love their sport.

One other common trait among fishermen is they also love to talk about their sport, and most of them are constantly looking for ways to learn how to catch more and bigger fish. Put any five fishermen together and in mere minutes they are all talking about “the big one that got away,” or what lures the fish are hitting on at that time.

Two Bear Lake residents, Pat Bentley and Dan Zatarga are living “the fisherman’s dream” in that respect. For the past several years the pair have been serving as pro staffers for acclaimed professional walleye fisherman Mark Martin fishing schools which he holds around the state.

Anyone who fishes on a regular basis is aware of the name Mark Martin, and what it means to the sport. Martin who hails from the Twin Lakes area near Muskegon, draws people from all over the Midwest to his fishing schools.

Those ice fishing schools are what started off the friendship between Zatarga, Bentley and Martin and eventually led the two Bear Lake men to become pro staffers for Martin’s fishing schools.

During the week, Bentley works for the Spicer Group as a surveyor and also is the Manistee County surveyor. He adds with a laugh that the credit for his becoming a pro staffer may actually belong to his wife.

“Five years ago for my birthday, my wife bought me a seat at one of Mark Martin’s schools at Cadillac,” said Bentley. “Actually, before that even happened Dan and I had gone over to the Carl T. Johnson Nature Center in Cadillac where Martin, Mark  Braumbauh and Mike Gofron, who are professional walleye fisherman, were putting on a seminar. We went and listened to those guys and that got the seed planted.”

Bentley said he was intrigued to learn more about ice fishing, and that is what sparked the interest in the school.

“That is what led to my wife getting me the seat at the school,” he said. “With my background as a charter boat captain who grew up on the lakes, I have always loved fishing. However, the ice fishing had been a struggle for me.”

Bentley said he understood the strategy, but he just couldn’t catch any fish.

“I went to the school thinking I would learn one or two things that would change all of that and I would be so much better,” he said. “So I asked a ton of questions. The other staff still laugh at it today, because I was constantly asking questions.”

Bentley said they were fishing on Lake Mitchell the first day of the school and the television “Show Michigan Out of Doors” was there filming it, but no one seemed to be catching many fish that day. However, he saw something else come from the experience that helped him even more.

“About the middle of the day I realized that fishing wasn’t important as learning, so I sat with Mark Brumbaugh and picked his brain and then later at dinner did the same with Mark Martin,” said Bentley. “The next morning I caught a walleye that was captured by Jenny Olsen of ‘Michigan Out of Doors’ and that was pretty cool.”

Bentley said the school is set up in such a manner where anglers are getting a lot of different tips on what they can do to better catch fish. He said Martin touches on everything from hooks, leaders, lures,  swivels and how to tie knots and so much more. It’s all the small things that make a successful fisherman.

“I came home and was talking to Dan about it and shared a little of the information,” said Bentley.

Zatarga is a retired school teacher and also an avid fisherman. He lives near Bentley in Bear Lake and also shares a love for fishing.

“Pat actually called me from the school, as he was all excited about these new lures and I told him to buy me some,” said Zatarga. “I went out to use them right away and he couldn’t go out because it was his daughter’s birthday, but I caught eight walleye that day including the biggest one I ever caught.”

However, Bentley also had some surprising news for Zatarga. Bentley told him that he had been speaking to Martin, and the famed angler wanted to come up to Bear Lake to do some fishing for fun.

“The next thing you know Mark is staying with me and my wife, Cindy, at my house and we are fishing together,” said Zartaga with a laugh. “He enjoys coming around us because even though he is a celebrity there isn’t all the fanfare up here. We molded a good friendship and it has just taken off from there.”

The next year Bentley attended another school of Martin’s in Cadillac. It was when Martin asked a question that surprised and pleased Bentley.

“When I got there he pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to be part of his pro staff,” said Bentley. “I asked him what that meant, and he said you get to come to all these schools without paying and you will be part of the teaching staff. We don’t get money, but at a lot of the places we go our rooms are taken care of and so are our meals.”

Bentley said that would mean going to fish and teach in these great locations around the state at minimal cost. The position also came with the opportunity to meet some great people. It wasn’t long before Zatarga followed him into the fold.

Zatarga said one of the reasons he retired from teaching middle school was to have more time to hunt and fish. So it was only natural that he went along with Bentley as a guest to one of Martin’s schools. The friendship he had also forged with Martin made it an easy transition to join the 20 other members of the staff.

“Pat mentioned to Mark that I might be interested in being on the pro staff and I did,” he said. ” I really enjoy doing the schools, but we have even become even better friends with Mark. He now comes up here to visit at least once a year.”

Bentley said they have gone fishing with Martin on  Platte, Bear, Portage and Crystal lakes as well as other locations over the last several years.

“It has just been a great friendship and for a couple of days he can come up here without the fanfare and just be one of the guys,” said Bentley.

Zatarga agreed saying one of the many great things about Martin is how humble he is despite his celebrity status in the fishing world. He said they have come to meet people who have told them that Martin is completely unchanged in his personality from the time before he became known throughout the fishing world.

One of the things that goes hand-in-hand with the schools is the media. At most of the the schools there will be 30-35 outdoor writers and television stations doing stories. It was what led both Bentley and Zatarga to be on an episode of “Michigan Out of Doors” with Jenny Olsen that aired two weeks ago on PBS.

The fishing schools also promote certain areas of Michigan for tourism, and they said Martin works closely with local chamber of commerce offices, businesses and others who may be impacted by holding a fishing school in their area.

Both men say they enjoy working the schools and meeting an incredible number of nice people in the world of fishing. They also have had the opportunity to incorporate other family members into their trips, making it even more fun for them. They hope continue doing it well into the future.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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