Nineteen years pass by quickly when you spend your days talking fishing, selling fishing gear and talking fishing some more. In Mike Alwin’s case “gear” has meant flies, fly lines, tapered leaders, tippet material and fly rods, each needed by anglers who prefer to chase trout, northerns, bass and muskies not with bait or hardware, but feathered hooks.
The owner of Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in Lake Elmo, Alwin, 65, was waiting on customers Thursday in anticipation of Saturday’s Minnesota stream trout opener. Some years ago, when all fishing for trout began on the Saturday nearest April 15, whether catch and release or catch and keep, the event had more pizazz than it does today, when pre-opener catch and release trout opportunities abound.
“Either way, I’ve never seen weather like this a couple days before the opener,” Alwin said.
Nor will he again, at least not as owner of Bob Mitchell’s. In a couple of weeks, he’ll be selling out, retiring, hanging it up — hoping, as does, he’ll spend less time talking about fishing and more time doing it.
“We’ll have a party on April 27, when the new owner, Robert Hawkins, will be here to meet customers,” Alwin said. “That’s also the day the shop will celebrate its 35th anniversary.”
Founded in 1978, Bob Mitchell’s was the brainchild of a pipe-smoking, smooth-casting, easy-talking fly fisherman of the same name. An advertising guy whose last 9-to-5 gig was with 3M, Mitchell followed a 3M engineer named Dick Johnson out the door of that corporate behemoth.
3M was then and remains today the parent enterprise of Scientific Anglers, the fly-fishing specialty company.
Johnson had left 3M to build fly rods in a small Lake Elmo shop for resale under the Scientific Anglers brand. When the rod venture went south, Mitchell bought the overstock and assumed Johnson’s leased space.
“Bob’s was the first fly shop in the Twin Cities,” Alwin said. “Then, in 1994, a year after I bought it, there were three fly shops here. In 1997, there were six, and in 1998, seven.
“They’re all gone today except mine and the Fly Angler in Blaine.”
How that consolidation came to pass is unclear. What is known is that, despite the many pristine creeks, streams and rivers that course among bluffs and pastures in southeast Minnesota, the state remains, fundamentally, a haven for walleye, panfish, bass, muskie and northern pike anglers.
“You can catch virtually any fish on a fly, but fly fishing remains centered around trout,” Alwin said. “And trout in Minnesota come behind walleyes, crappies and other fish.”
With its Mayberry-like feel, Lake Elmo has been the perfect home for Bob Mitchell’s these past 35 years. People there are friendly and the pace is, well, not fast — a reflection of the atmosphere at Alwin’s shop, where a pot of coffee is always on and regular customers often gather around a table to tie flies, chew the fat and talk about fishing, past, present or future.
Alwin, who grew up in Minneapolis, wasn’t exposed to fly fishing until his mid-20s, when he traveled to Montana to backpack and fish with a friend.
“My friend was a fly fisherman, and I remember watching him hide behind rocks and sneak behind bushes to cast to trout,” Alwin said. “The process was so artistic, I was smitten by it.”
Soon a fly angler himself, Alwin became a customer of Bob Mitchell’s, and when Mitchell sold out at age of 73 to realize his dream of moving to Montana, Alwin took over.
“It was the perfect job for me, owning the shop,” Alwin said. “I had been coming in on Saturdays and after work to just hang around, and there were just so many interesting things in the shop to look at.”
That was then. This — 19 years later — is now.