In the silvery moonlight, Tony Centeno cast his lighted bobber for walleye, just as he had countless times before at Fisherman’s Wharf Resort on Lake Mille Lacs.
For more than 20 years, that was the rhythm of his life on the lakeshore — waking at 4:30 a.m. to drop a line as soon as he could, and fishing again each evening until after dark, when he’d head back in his boat to his travel trailer parked on a channel.
Aug. 8, a Friday night, was the last time Centeno fished on the lake he loved. In a collision that remains under investigation, a runabout slammed into and over the rear of his anchored boat just before 10 p.m. Centeno, of Cottage Grove, drowned. He was 56.
“Tony was a great person and very loyal to family, friends and fishing,” said Daron Stenvold, who with his wife, Lori, owns Fisherman’s Wharf Resort and Toucan’s bar and restaurant on the shoreline near Isle, Minn.
“It would be hard to find a picture of Tony not smiling; he was just that kind of guy.”
John Lyman, of St. Paul, and Centeno were neighbors on Sunset Bay channel, where they kept travel trailers year after year. Lyman said people loved to hang out with Centeno.
“He always had a story to tell,” Lyman said. “He always had a big smile on his face, and he was always so fun to be around.”
A former barber, Centeno had worked as a flooring installer out of Hastings until a layoff a few years ago Since then he’d done odd jobs. It was rare for him to miss a weekend at the lake. His wife, Mary, came up every other weekend to their white trailer with a wooden deck beneath a big shade tree, friends said.
“Tony and his wife, Mary, were very simple people; they were not the big spenders as much as they were big socializers when Tony was not fishing,” Stenvold said. “They were known by many of our 200-plus guests.”
Centeno seemed to always be tending his big kettle grill, cooking up wings, roasts and other fare for which he was known. He was so friendly that the neighbors’ dog, Tank, often slept on Centeno’s deck, refusing to go home.
Centeno’s lot was on a corner where the channel turned, and he had a big fire pit that boaters would pass.
“He was always waving at everybody,” Lyman said. “He talked to everybody as they came through about how they did fishing, and where they went.”
It wasn’t just cheer; Centeno was gathering intelligence for his next walleye mission. If they let on, Centeno might find that spot in his 1985 aluminum boat.
With a love of vintage fishing boats, the Twins and the Vikings, he grew up in the Cottage Grove area and was a 1976 graduate of Park Senior High School.
On the beach, Centeno was the music man, blaring ’70s rock or the Twins games from his big, sturdy radio. He’d hold up his a 64-ounce mug, joking, “I’ll just have one,” Lyman said.
Before she went into a nursing home, Centeno’s mother would come up with him and he did a lot as he cared for her, his friends said.
He ran like clockwork, heading home at 4:30 to fix supper and get on the lake by 7 p.m. Unless it was pouring rain or really windy, he’d be back out by dawn.
“He was a scheduled guy, and he kept us in line to keep us going to what we had to accomplish,” Lyman said.
Centeno’s death came two nights before the supermoon, as the full moon made its closest approach to Earth. With little wind that Friday night, it shone brightly on the glistening lake.
Still, the couple whose 17-foot runabout ran over Centeno’s boat later told the sheriff they never saw him anchored two miles from shore on Shaw’s Reef.
Centeno was known to always turn on his white anchor light, but it couldn’t be found after the crash and it may never be known if it was on at the time, said Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren.
Centeno’s body was recovered the next afternoon.
On many mornings at 5 a.m., channel neighbor Lisa Longerbone would sit on her swing sipping coffee and watching Centeno cruise by to go fishing. She’ll miss that smile most, Longerbone said.
“It will be sad to be up there this weekend and not see him coming around the corner with his smile and his wave,” she said.
In addition to Mary, survivors include children Michael Centeno and Maria Millburn; mother Martina; sister Lee; stepsons Danny and Bryan Elliott; and a grandson.
Next Sunday, Centeno’s friends will hold a benefit from noon to 2 p.m. at Fisherman’s Wharf campground for Mary Centeno. Local businesses and friends in Mille Lacs and the Twin Cities are donating prizes, including Twins tickets, for a silent auction and raffles.