BEMIDJI -- Fishing guide Paul Nelson made sure his clients caught fish, and he passed on his vast knowledge of the sport to others through his columns in the Bemidji Pioneer and on local television.
But he always made time for children. That includes his own two daughters and young boys and girls from Camp Thunderbird.
Nelson died on Oct. 19 at the age of 63, due to complications related to cancer. He guided on area lakes for 38 years and wrote his weekly newspaper column for 20 years. He leaves behind daughters Shivan and Erica and granddaughter Kyleigh. Paul’s wife, Sandy, died in 2017.
“It breaks my heart that he has passed away,” said Michael Rawitscher, co-director of Camp Thunderbird. “Paul is not only someone we worked with for over 20 years, he was a friend. He made fishing for young boys and young girls not just something they tolerated, but something they learned to love. This is a professional fisherman with the nicest equipment on the planet and he’s letting 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kids who’ve never fished before use his equipment. His patience with them would have melted your heart.”
Shivan Nelson remembers her early experiences when she and her sister, Erica, joined their father on the lakes.
“He’d pack up our bottles and here we’d go, we’d be out on the water or out on the ice,” Shivan said. “When I was really little as soon as the ice was gone he taught me to say, ‘Open water, need a boat.’ He loved the sport and he wanted other people to love the sport, too.”
Longtime friends and fellow fishing enthusiasts Chris Haley and Brian Brosdahl remember Nelson for his sense of humor as well as his angling skills.
“Paul was the most reliable person around,” said Brosdahl, owner of Bro’s Guide Service. “If he said he was going to be somewhere he would be there.”
Brosdahl became Nelson’s tournament fishing partner about 20 years ago after he spotted Brosdahl having a successful day on Lake Bemidji.
“We were both fishing on a spot, and I was doing pretty good,” Brosdahl said. “He met me later that day and asked if I wanted to fish a tournament together. We’ve been tournament partners on and off ever since.”
Haley said he and Nelson got off to a rocky start when they met in the 1990s. “Paul and I really didn’t like each other very much,” he said. “People know a lot of great friendships grow out of that exact situation.” A mutual friend suggested they get to know each other better, and “it’s been 26, 27 years of great friendship ever since,” Haley said.
At Camp Thunderbird, Nelson is remembered for his patience with and commitment to the young campers.
“Every year, even during his peak fishing time, he would always save blocks of three days for both our boys camp and our girls camp,” Rawitscher said. “I know he didn’t charge us as much as he would charge for a private client, and I know he could have booked those days.”
After a long day of fishing, Rawitscher said Nelson would fillet and fry the fish for campers, and often would come back in the evening to share stories with them around the campfire.
“He was a fishing guide, but he was so much more than that to many of our campers,” Rawitscher said.
A memorial is in the works for next summer as part of a youth fishing tournament to be held in Nelson’s memory.