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Ellis is a minnow man; Experience has taught Ellis when and where to find the minnows

For more than 50 years, Donnie Ellis of Cass Lake has been carrying and dragging minnow traps from area lakes; catching and selling minnows to area bait shops. Pat Miller | Bemidji Pioneer

CASS LAKE -- Donnie Ellis of Cass Lake lives by a simple philosophy.

"A body at rest stays at rest and a body in motion stays in motion," Ellis said. "And that is why I try to stay active."

Ellis' way of remaining active includes heading to the area lakes in search of minnows and leeches. Born and raised in Cass Lake, Ellis has launched his boat into every lake and pothole from Andrusia to Winnie and has examined every likely looking minnow haunt in the Mississippi Chain.

He can tell you where the shiners, fatheads, chubs and redtails swim. And he can pinpoint the best days to go after them.

"I'm 67 years old now and I've been carrying and dragging minnow traps since I was strong enough to do it," Ellis said. "I started out with my dad (LeRoy) when I was 10. When I was a kid there were times when dad needed help but when I was old enough he didn't need anyone else because I was around. And I'm still doing it because trapping minnows is in my blood. It is something I love to do.

"I guess somebody has to do the awful job of breathing fresh, clean air every day and listening to the sounds of loons and eagles on the water," Ellis continued. "And I volunteered to be that guy."

Experience has taught Ellis when and where to find the minnows. The trick, however, is to actually catch the bait and deliver the minnows to the retailers.

"There are some tricks of the trade that I've learned along the way," Ellis said. "I usually work solo and I have had to turn a two- or three-man job into a one-man job. I've had to invent some things and adapt some things to make the operation run smoother but through the years I've figured out what to do."

The spottail shiner is the live-bait of choice for the area walleye anglers, especially early in the season. This spring, however, Ellis hasn't bothered to look for them because experience tells him that the effort would not be worth the reward.

"Mille Lacs and Winnie are the two top lakes to trap spottails," Ellis said, "And Winnie is one of the few lakes in Minnesota with the smaller spottails. Those are the ones that everyone around here wants but I know that the average day for them to spawn is May 29. Weather also can make the minnows spawn later and in some years, like this year, when the temperature isn't right at the shorelines, some of the spottails will spawn somewhere else where you can't trap them.

"There are still millions of spottails in the Winnie system but I think that in some years more and more of them are spawning away from the shoreline, especially in years like this that have a late spring," Ellis continued. "And I also think that spottails could be like salmon and go back to the areas where they were spawned. And if that area is away from the shoreline, you won't be able to catch them."

Ellis admits that minnow trapping is not for everyone and each year the added regulations governing the business side of the job makes gathering a gallon of bait even tougher.

"You have to have permits, you have to have special equipment and every year there seems to be new restrictions, especially now because of the invasive species," Ellis said. "Leech Lake has Eurasian watermilfoil and Winnie has faucet snails and is supposed to have zebra mussels. When you get an invasive into a lake the DNR puts all types of restrictions on trappers and right now, because of all of the restrictions, if I was in the business solely for the money, I would quit.

"I really don't want to go into an infested lake because of all the red tape. I'm semi-retired but I can't quit because I'm a lifer."

Throughout most of his career Ellis has worked solo. Now, however, he will often recruit his son, Kevin, for the trapping and rely on his wife, Janice, to help with the operation of D&J Ellis Incorporated.

"It took a long time for me to figure out why the minnows were swimming faster every year," Ellis said. "Then the lightbulb went off and I realized that maybe the minnows weren't getting faster -- maybe I was getting slower.

"Kevin is my right-hand man and I couldn't keep up without him," Ellis said. "And Janice is my support. She's the reason I am who I am today."

Ellis is a minnow man and he will always be a minnow man. Making a living trapping minnows, however, is becoming tougher each year.

"I consider myself a professional. I know what is going on and I take pride in my business," Ellis said. "When you set the traps right and you are rewarded there is a feeling of accomplishment. But if you don't catch as many as you were hoping for, you still can find satisfaction in learning more about the lake.

"But my advice to someone thinking about trapping minnows is to do it as a novelty and do it for the experience. Don't do it as a profession. If you break even in a season, consider yourself lucky."

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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