The oldest fly shop in the Twin Cities is also its newest. The angling institution that is Bob Mitchell’s in Lake Elmo recently changed hands, as Mike Alwin handed the reins to Robert and Rhea Hawkins, thirty-somethings who, for reasons mystifying to many anglers, moved to Minnesota from Montana last year.
But Robert, who grew up fishing trout in Bozeman and guided anglers in Alaska for seven summers and in Montana for eight, couldn’t be more excited about his new home a thousand miles east. He’s exploring Minnesota’s waters, meeting its anglers, and embracing life as a fly shop proprietor.
The pair are here for family (Rhea grew up in St. Cloud) and fishing. On their first trip to Minnesota to explore the fly shop idea, they headed to northern Wisconsin’s Brule River for fall steelhead fishing. They stayed at a grimy motel favored by fishermen, where Rhea slept in her sleeping bag on the bed.
It was their wedding anniversary.
That adventure in October 2011 led to Robert standing behind the shop’s counter last week, steward of a 35-year-old shop with a rich legacy.
As the third owners of the shop, the Hawkinses inherit a loyal community and a tradition of education. Alwin was a faithful steward of Bob Mitchell’s concept of a Western-style fly shop located in the Twin Cities. He was also regular host to “The Lost Boys,” the group of old fishermen who come to the shop on Saturday mornings to drink coffee, talk trout, shoot the bull, and occasionally buy something.
Bob Mitchell’s name on the door isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed since 1978. Fly fishing has grown from its traditional trout roots. The shop is still focused on trout – and Robert says it always will be – but it will also gradually grow into providing education and gear for other piscine quarries.
Since moving here, Robert has fallen for muskie fishing on local rivers, smallmouth on the upper Mississippi, and steelhead on Lake Superior tributaries.
Last summer, residents on St. Paul’s East Side might have seen Robert riding a motor scooter to Lake Phalen, clad in his waders, fly rod tucked under the seat. There he chased the lake’s tiger muskies, and landed a few bass and northerns.
The muskies were more cooperative on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, he reports. Hailing from Big Sky Country, Robert seems shocked that such fishing is possible in a major metropolitan area.
Spoiled by famous Rocky Mountain rivers, Robert also fished western Wisconsin’s popular trout streams last summer. He says he can’t believe this fishing is dismissed by anyone who thinks the only place to fish trout is east of the Missouri River. He was blown away his first day on the Kinnickinnic, and he compared the fish numbers to the three famous spring creeks which flow into the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana. He had to add that the numbers might be comparable, if the fish size wasn’t quite.
“The shop has always been an educational center, and we’ll keep that as a main focus,” said Rhea. “We want to keep that community of people here, with all the classes.” But it’s also about making the long-time regulars comfortable.
Robert says one of the Lost Boys told him he was worried there might be a “two-fly minimum purchase” to hang around and drink coffee. Robert assured him that wouldn’t happen. While the Lost Boys might never grow up, there is also a new generation entering the sport.
“There are a lot more young people who are fly fishing these days, but many of them think they need to drive several states to find fishing,” Robert said. “We want to get people who only fish out West to get out more around here. If you live a few blocks from Lake Phalen, you can go string up a fly rod and catch fish.”
In the months ahead, the shop will increase its inventory of gear for both warmwater fishing and trout. Robert also hopes to share his knowledge of Montana’s Bighorn River, beloved by many of the shop’s customers, and Alaska’s Bristol Bay, another major fishing destination. He has in-depth knowledge of both fisheries.
But Robert’s bottom line is that neither a road trip nor an airplane ticket are necessary for great fly fishing. If he ever gets a day off from his new gig, he won’t suffer from lack of angling options to explore.
Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop
3459 Lake Elmo Ave N
Lake Elmo, MN 55042