GRAND FORKS — The day will go down as one of the top five days of fishing he’s ever had, Bryan Mason says.

It was Wednesday, May 15, just days after the opening of Minnesota’s 2019 walleye season, and Mason, of Grand Forks, and a buddy were fishing Four-Mile Bay of Lake of the Woods.

They caught multiple walleyes in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot that had to be released, plus three trophy fish over 28 inches and a 30½-inch walleye Mason kept for the wall.

“Definitely a trip for the record books,” Mason, 40, said at the time.

Time was, fishing like that would have gotten the booze flowing. Time was, the booze probably would have flowed no matter what Mason was doing.

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He didn’t need much of an excuse.

“It became like, it had to be involved in everything,” Mason said. “Whether it was going to Sioux hockey games or going to the race track on a Friday night or going to the lake, priority No. 1 was always, ‘How big of a party are we going to have or how much booze do we need?’ ”

Not May 15, not after a day of walleye fishing that ranks among his best ever. Those days are gone, Mason says. He’s been sober since Jan. 31, 2016, and he credits his passion for fishing in helping him get through it.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get into a boat or get into an ice house and not drink,” he said. “But I found out how many more fish I caught when I was actually fishing and not mixing drinks and pouring shots.

“I was like, ‘Man, this is a lot of fun. I should have been more serious about this a long time ago.’”

Addiction and recovery

Mason’s road to drinking — and the alcoholism he says took over his life — followed a familiar course. It started with recreational drinking in college and progressed from there; there also was a 13-year bartending gig that became as much of a lifestyle as a job for the East Grand Forks, Minn., native.

“Some of your good customers would end up buying you a shot while you’re working, or sometimes you drink after work,” Mason said. “Next thing you know, you’ve had five or six.”

That progressed into run-ins with the law — there were a couple of convictions for driving while intoxicated — and a drinking habit that, by the end, was costing up to $400 week.

“I wrecked a couple of vehicles (and) crashed a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle,” Mason said. “That was another thing was just watching the dollar signs. When a person has to put the pen to paper on that, your jaw really hits the floor.

“A guy can buy a graph for his boat for $400 or a lot of jigs or Rapalas. It’s really mind numbing.”

Mason touched on the role fishing played in his recovery back in May, when he emailed photos of some of the big walleyes they caught that memorable day on Lake of the Woods. The walleyes were featured in the Grand Forks Herald’s Nice Fish roundup and online Trophy Room gallery, but I’d wanted to write about that recovery ever since.

The original plan was to share the story in a boat last week on Lake of the Woods — Mason has a place on Rainy River and docks his boat there — but the weather and the wind on our chosen day put that plan on hold. Instead, he followed up in more detail during a recent telephone interview.

On the lake as in life, it’s about accepting the things you can’t change.

“It’s not like I’m a saint and don’t have any bad habits anymore,” Mason said. “I still smoke the stupid cigarettes and eat donuts. It kind of seems like one thing substitutes for another, but my love of the outdoors and my love of fishing, it’s just really taken over a different spot. It means a lot more to me now.”

Mason credits Alcoholics Anonymous, along with the support of family — and those friends who stuck by him, even though his party days were in the rear-view mirror — for helping him get his life back on track.

“Toward the end of my drinking, one of the things that really touched home with me was I disappointed some friends with my behavior and drinking in excess and making (a jerk) out of myself,” Mason said. “I’ve always wanted to make sure everybody else was having a good time, that’s the kind of person I am. But toward the end, I realized I was spending all my time making sure everybody else was having a good time, but how much of a good time was I really having.

“Are these people really my friends or are they just here because I’m buying rounds of drinks?”

Weathering the storm

There have been rough times — his girlfriend died in March 2016 when their son, Jack, was only 2 years old — and Mason has Crohn’s disease, a bowel disorder that has resulted in three major surgeries.

Still, he’s managed to stay the course and juggle his job in the family’s property rental company with the responsibilities and challenges of being a single dad to his son.

“My whole quitting drinking thing happened before his mom passed away, thank God,” Mason said. “Everything happens for a reason. I can’t even imagine how big of a mess that would have been if I still would have been drinking the way I was.

“My son is just a huge part of my life,” he added. “He’s 5 years old, and he loves to fish. He’s to the point where he can catch his own fish now.”

Being able to share and enjoy those moments with his son is difficult to put into words, Mason says.

“Just seeing what I have now compared to what I used to have, there’s just so much more out there,” he said. “Whereas my old brain used to tell me that partying and booze was priority No. 1, now it’s a whole different clarity — it really is.”

Mason attended AA meetings for the first year-and-a-half of his sobriety and says the program helped him “immensely” with changing “the playground, the places and the people” that were part of his life as a drinker.

“One of their things is you should keep going (to meetings) — you should come all the time,” Mason said of AA's philosophy. “I’m not really a rules type of guy, I’m more of the type that if it works for you, then do that.

“I took what I thought I needed from that program, and it helped me immensely. There’s no way I would have been able to do it without the help of those people.”

Today, his love for his son, of fishing and time on the water are constants in his life, Mason says.

In many ways, the lake is his church, he says.

“My love of the outdoors, my love of fishing, it’s just really taken over a different spot,” Mason said. “It means a lot more to me now. I always really enjoyed it, but now I find myself thanking God for everything that I have a lot more when I’m on the lake.”

The key to recovery, Mason says, is wanting to recover.

“It’s taking that first step, admitting you have a problem,” he said. “You know what you’re doing and you know it’s not right. What I always tell my buddies is I’m living proof. As big of a party animal as I used to be, if I can stop it, anybody can.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.