LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH — After he landed a 16-inch walleye and slipped it into a livewell, Tom Neustrom's cell phone rang.
"We're whacking 'em," he said with a grin.
And we were.
Neustrom and I had caught eight walleyes in about an hour, trolling spinners with crawlers in weed beds on sparkling Lake Winnibigoshish. And the action -- like the weather -- stayed hot.
Under a blazing sun cooled by a gentle breeze, we consistently caught 15- to 20-inch walleyes all morning and early afternoon -- maybe 30 all told, most released.
"That's about as good as it gets," Neustrom said. "That's excellent fishing."
There's a reason why we found hot walleye action on a hot July day: Neustrom. A longtime Grand Rapids fishing guide, Neustrom, 63, knew where to find the fish -- and how to catch them.
That comes from experience: 100 days or so on the water yearly, for more than half his life.
"This is what I love to do," he said.
A former Chicago cop and Itasca County sheriff's deputy, Neustrom is one of the most recognizable and influential guides in a state full of good fishing guides. He has hosted a fishing show, "Guides Corner," on a local radio station for 20 years. And he is one of just a half-dozen Minnesota guides inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis.
"He's in an elite group," said Emmett Brown, Hall of Fame executive director.
But Neustrom's interest in fishing doesn't stop at the boat landing.
He is a longtime activist who has served on numerous citizen advisory committees for the Department of Natural Resources -- often involving controversies such as bag limits, walleye stocking and the Leech Lake fishery.
He has been a regular at the DNR's annual "Roundtable" meetings, offering input and opinions to DNR officials. And he's a familiar face at the Legislature, where he testifies on fisheries issues.
He's plainspoken when it comes to protecting or improving the state's fisheries.
"We have to be stewards of the resources, we can't just be takers," Neustrom said. "It's not always just catching fish but how to help make fishing better. I thought there was something I could do to help."
That sometimes has meant clashes with DNR officials.
"I felt it was necessary to go up against the DNR on some issues and explain from the public side what we wanted to see, and not be afraid to voice our opinions," he said.
For the most part, the DNR has listened. "We have a better understanding with the DNR than we ever have had," Neustrom said.
DNR officials say he has been a strong but fair voice for anglers.
"Tom cares passionately about fishing in Minnesota and its importance to our economy and people," said Jason Moeckel of the DNR, former fisheries operation manager. "He has his own opinions, but he's always been genuinely interested in other perspectives."
The seemingly endless hours of meetings and discussions over the years have been worth it, Neustrom said: "I think fishing right now is as good as it's been in 30 years. The opportunities right now to catch walleyes are unbelievable. And our muskie fishing probably is the best in the country."
Neustrom grew up in Chicago in a fishing family. "When I was a kid I rode my bike down to Belmont Harbor to fish for perch," he said.
He started his law enforcement career as a cop in Chicago but jumped at the chance to move to northern Minnesota's lake country for a job as Itasca County sheriff's deputy. He retired in 2004 after 24 years.
Does he miss it?
"Never," he said.
Still, fishing for a living isn't as easy as it sounds. "You have to work hard and fish hard and make a lot of sacrifices," he said. "It's not for everyone."
And earning a living is difficult, he said. He charges $375 for a day of fishing. But it's his promotional contracts with numerous companies -- including such biggies as Lund, Mercury, Humminbird and Rapala -- that earn the income so he can live his dream.
Even after 34 years of guiding, going out on the water still doesn't feel like a job.
"Am I living the dream?" he said. "I think so. You go out and catch fish, and your customers are catching fish and you're getting paid to do what you love to do. I don't look at it as a job.
"I have fun every day."
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dougsmithstrib
LEARN MORE: Information about Tom Neustrom's guide service can be found at mnfishingconnections.com.