Some of Minnesota’s most interesting people don’t punch a clock, and their “offices” aren’t cubicles in downtown skyscrapers.
Instead, they’re guides, and each morning they climb into boats or canoes and lead people to fish, or to wilderness adventures.
Here are profiles of five Minnesota guides, with their tips about how to catch walleyes, paddle the boundary waters and otherwise enjoy the summer outdoors.
Tom Neustrom, Grand Rapids
At a glance
Neustrom grew up in Chicago, where during one afternoon shift as a Chicago Police Department officer he was shot and seriously wounded and his partner was killed. He was subsequently promoted to detective, but fishing was his passion and he guided part-time on Lake Geneva, Wis. A friend living in Grand Rapids, Minn., invited him to visit, and in 1979 he moved to that northern Minnesota city, hiring on as an Itasca County Sheriff’s deputy. A year later he started guiding anglers in his free time, switching to full time in 2002 when he retired from law enforcement. Neustrom is a Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member.
On walleye fishing in northern Minnesota
“To catch walleyes, pay attention to what’s around you. Electronics are important, but you have to use your brain, too. Water depth and temperature, the wind, location in the lake —these can help you find walleyes. If you’re on a lake with a good walleye population and you’re not catching fish, change locations or presentations. Perhaps switch from a 1/4-ounce to a 1/8-ounce jig. Or maybe your bait is too big. I have clients who have watched a lot of YouTube videos about walleye fishing, and that can help. But there’s no substitute for time on the water. Experience will give you confidence while working through your options to find and catch walleyes.”
“Some smaller lakes around Grand Rapids hold good numbers of walleyes. But often it’s easier to locate walleyes on our bigger lakes that are known walleye producers — including Winnibigoshish, Leech, Cass and Bemidji.”
Ginny Nelson, Ely
At a glance
Nelson grew up in Burnsville, the daughter of longtime Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness visitors Steve and Kathy Nelson. As a girl, she accompanied her parents to the BWCA and by age 16 she was working at Eastern Mountain Sports in Burnsville. “I could manage this place,” she thought soon after starting, and while still in high school was leading BWCA seminars. A UMD graduate, together with her parents in 1999 she bought Spirit of the Wilderness BWCA Outfitters and Outdoor Store in Ely. Ely also is home to her husband Rob’s business, the Ely Fishing Guide Co.
On guiding paddlers into the BWCA
“There are BWCA paddling guides and BWCA fishing guides, and some guides do both. I’ve primarily been a paddling guide, while my husband’s company handles the fishing. On the paddling side, a lot of people just want to get into the BWCA to see what it’s like. I’ve taken them for day trips and overnight trips. Overnights are fun because you get to know the people. I can always tell when people I’m with are letting go of their other lives and enjoying the wilderness. I have a large rock on one lake I call ‘nap rock.’ Sometimes I take clients there and if the sun is shining we’ll stretch out on that rock and if someone says, ‘This is great, I think I’ll take a nap,’ I always say, ‘You go right ahead. Take a nap.’ ”
“Fishing can be a huge part of any BWCA trip. But if you aren’t familiar with fishing from a canoe, going with a guide is a good way to learn.”
elycanoetrips.com and elyfishingguide.com
Jeff Sundin, Grand Rapids
At a glance
A south Minneapolis native, Sundin as a kid fished city lakes from shore “constantly,” and also fished Lake Minnetonka in a rented boat with his parents and grandparents. Targeted species included “anything that bit.” Fleeing the Twin Cities in the early 1980s, he moved to Deer River, Minn. — and, later, Grand Rapids — drawn there by the region’s beauty and its many fertile fishing lakes. “Guiding is not a fishing business, it’s a customer service business,” he said. “You have to figure out who your customer is and what they want to talk about while fishing.” Sundin is a Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member.
On hiring a guide and what to expect
“Some of my clients I fish with 12 times a year. Others say they’ll be in the area and just want to fish for a day. People come from all over the world to fish in Minnesota — Japan, Australia, everywhere. I’ve been doing this 40 years, so during May, June and September I’m pretty booked up a year ahead of time. July and August, less so. People should plan ahead if they can. Sometimes I fish lakes where clients are staying in a cabin. Most times I take them to lakes holding fish they want. Usually this is walleyes. I also have clients who want me to teach them how to fish a particular lake. I do that, too. It’s not hard to teach people to fish. The key is figuring out the particular way different people understand language and directions.”
“Finding a guide on the internet isn’t like buying clothes or another product. If possible, get a recommendation, perhaps from a friend or a bait shop. No matter how many fish bite, you want to be able to talk to your guide and enjoy your day.”
Dick Grzywinski, on the river
At a glance
A noted river fisherman, “Griz” grew up in St. Paul and started fishing with his parents when he was 3 months old. He once said he fishes only 300 days a year “because I hunt the other 65.” For decades his business card said, “Have Boat Will Travel,” and he guided anglers from Warroad to Winona, traveling with Lady, his black Lab, and sleeping in his pickup camper. Now he floats his jonboat primarily on the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, arguing from years of experience that Ol’ Man River — the Mighty Mississippi — is the best place in Minnesota to catch a 10-pound walleye. Griz is a member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
River fishing tricks of the trade
“The first thing to know is that river fish always move. Some clients try to GPS my fishing locations, but it doesn’t do them much good. The next day the walleyes might be 5 miles upriver. Mostly I fish jigs and 3- to 3 1/2-inch fatheads. Boat control in the current is important, so you can keep your line vertical. I use high visibility green line on my reels with a #18 swivel tied to 3 feet of fluorocarbon. Zebra mussels have cleaned up the St. Croix, so walleyes are deeper there now. But Pool 2 of the Mississippi, where I mostly fish in summer, is kept stirred up by barges, so I fish shallower, say 6-12 feet. Look for current breaks caused by logs, bridges and so forth. That’s where you’ll find walleyes.”
“Though shiner minnows can be hard to find, it’s no problem for me because I only use fatheads. Scoop a handful from your minnow bucket and put them in water in a coffee can. When they die they turn silver, just like a shiner. Use them as quickly as possible.”
Marv Koep, near Nisswa
At a glance
For 31 years, before retiring from the bait business, Koep and his wife, Judy, owned Koep’s Nisswa Bait and Tackle, Minnesota’s most famous bait shop. The Koeps purchased the business in 1961, when each was 19 years old, and only a month after they married. Eager to please clients, Marv at first scooped minnows 24/7. Most famously, their shop gave birth to the (still operating) Nisswa Guides League (now headquartered at S&W Bait in Nisswa), where angling greats Al and Ron Lindner, Gary Roach, Harry Van Dorn, Koep and others guided during Minnesota’s walleye heyday. Koep is a Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member.
Brainerd fishing, then and now
“Brainerd wasn’t a big walleye area until the 1960s, when Al and Ron Lindner and Gary Roach and the other notable guides of the area started fishing here in entirely new ways. Lindy Rigs gained popularity, as did fishing with leeches. Soon, everyone was catching fish. Today, fishing pressure, shoreline development, invasive species and higher populations of bass have changed the fishery. In the old days, clients expected to catch limits. Now if they catch dinner, they’re happy. Don’t get me wrong: We still have a lot of walleyes, and a lot of good walleye lakes. The average person can catch them, too. Most important might be having a depth finder. And good bait.”
“Use minnows until the end of June, then switch to nightcrawlers and leeches. In summer months, use your depth finder to find weediness, and troll along their edges with a nightcrawler on a ‘crawler harness with a spinner.”
Marv (218-838-4861) guides only infrequently now. Contact Nisswa Guides League at nisswaguides.com.