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Minn. man turns fishing passion into tourism job

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) -- Some of the best moments of Joe Henry's life have come at one end or the other of a fishing line.

There was the time when he was 12 years old and landed a 12½-pound northern out of Lake George (of all places) and got his picture splashed all across the newspaper.

Then a couple of years ago he proposed to his wife, Leah, by secretly tying her engagement ring to the hook of her ice fishing rig while they were on a trip to Lake of the Woods.

It might be hard to top that, but Henry is going to try to create memorable moments for a lot of other anglers on the same body of water.

In November, Henry, a 44-year-old St. Cloud native, landed what could be his dream job. He's the new executive director of the nonprofit Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau. Best of all, he'll get plenty of opportunity to experience an area he has fished for more than 20 years -- and yet he'll also work from his home in St. Cloud.

"How many people get to work in their passion?" Henry asked rhetorically in his office, which occupies a front room in his house and has all the trappings you might expect from someone who has fished professional tournaments and even has a Coast Guard charter captain's license.

"One of the reasons I was drawn to this job is because of that chance to work in something I'd be interested in even if it wasn't what I was getting paid to do," said Henry, with a 51½-inch muskie mounted along a wall near his desk. "With my background, hopefully I can take what they have up there and make it better."

He'll have a staff of two people in Baudette to answer phones and handle immediate needs. Otherwise, he's in charge of the bureau, which is paid for by each of the 53 resorts and hotels in Lake of the Woods County through a small percentage of their room revenue.

"I want to run it like a business and try to create a world-class tourism bureau," said Henry, who played football at St. Cloud Technical High School and St. John's University. "I've been up there so much and I feel like I know so many of those people that I already feel extremely responsible to support them, mostly small business owners, because to me they're like the salt of the earth."

Henry's connection to fishing began before he was born. In his family, it was more than a hobby. His uncle Ed was a former St. Cloud mayor, and his older brother, Tom, hosted routine family get-togethers at his cabin during the walleye opener every year. Joe Henry's history with Lake of the Woods began when he was in college and another of his older brothers, Jim, took him on a trip. They "pounded" the walleyes and Henry has been hooked ever since.

On one of his many return trips, he met Mike Kinsella, owner of Borderview Lodge. Kinsella said he's always kept Henry in mind if they could ever match an opening to run their tourism bureau with a break in the latter's work history.

"We talked about hiring him at one point for our lodge," Kinsella said. "It didn't work out then, but I've known Joe for a long time. He fishes tourneys. He's guided. He comes up here in the winter. We've had people in this position before who did a good job, but we've never had anyone qualified like this. He sees it differently because of what he does and who he is."

Henry's work history is as important in his new job as his fishing background. During college, he went to work for the Kirby Co. He sold home care systems ("Never call them just vacuums when you're trying to show someone how they're better at getting the dirt out of their carpet," he said). The experience took him to Ohio and brought him out of his shell. It also exposed him to fishing on Lake Erie, where he later supplemented his income running a boat for a charter service.

"You'd go out at 5 a.m. and be in the hot sun all day," said Henry, who earned an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. "You'd come home tired, and then you had to clean all the fish. Those were some long dang days, but when I look back on them, they were some of the best I ever had."

Meanwhile, by the time he was 27, he was Kirby's director of education and training. That led to a couple of years as director of international sales for Creative Memories, then a job as vice president of sales and marketing for a firm in Philadelphia. He ran his own consulting business for nine years in St. Cloud, and most recently worked with RWD Technologies in Baltimore. It was then he learned the benefits of working a regional territory from his home office.

"Ten years ago, there's no way I'd be able to do this," Henry said, gesturing toward his desktop monitor and the email and Internet communication he uses to connect to the needs of his Lake of the Woods clientele. "I'd have had to have been in Baudette. Now, I'll be there as needed, but I'll be able to go to meetings and seminars and trade shows. I'll be out there speaking to the people I want to reach."

Paul Arnesen, owner of Arnesen's Rocky Point and chairman of the board that oversees the bureau, says it's important to have Henry working in points south.

"Our biggest draw comes from the metropolitan area in Minnesota, basically the area from St. Cloud to Rochester," Arnesen said. "That's our most important market, and he's well-positioned to reach that or go somewhere else we need him. (Henry) has a vast amount of experience with marketing and, using the Internet and television, he'll help us get the word out. We've got a fantastic fishery. We just need to let people know about it."

Henry says Lake of the Woods has the highest catch rate for walleyes in the state. It also features sauger, perch, northern, smallmouth bass, crappies and sturgeon -- some in record sizes because of the vastness of the lake and the fact it doesn't get quite as much fishing pressure as lakes near larger population centers.

Henry can attest to that, too. He has a photo of himself holding a sturgeon he caught while ice fishing. It's almost as big as he is.

Lake of the Woods, which is about a 4½-hour drive north from St. Cloud, has more than 65,000 miles of shoreline and 14,000 islands. The area also has a reputation for hunting, snowmobiling and camping.

"I'm not sure if this is really what Joe wants to do or if he was just looking for the excuse to get up here more often," said Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman's Lodge. "He's been a guest of almost all the places he'll represent."

Hennum said Henry will be a resource for each resort owner with advice on using social media, for example, to reach new audiences.

Henry keeps a sleeper fish house at Lake of the Woods and says he enjoys disconnecting from his cellphone for a few days there each winter. That's sure to continue.

"I've always had the hankering to get into the fishing industry and a long time ago I was thinking about going pro," said Henry, who fished for a while on the Professional Walleye Trail and still fishes tournaments in Minnesota. "Thank goodness I listened to some of those guys I met when I first started. I was fishing real well, but they told me that it was so unstable and that with my business background I should go to work and just do it in my spare time.

"My career has prepared me for this," he added. "What makes a person rich? You've got to have enough money to live on, but it's really about your family and your faith and your life being in balance."

Henry thinks that's what he's found in northern Minnesota, and he might keep this one on the line for a long time.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.