The rainbow trout glistens as its pectoral fins froth the water in a dive for the deep. Fooled by a royal coachman streamer fly, now caught in its lower lip, the big fish flashes all the colors of its name in radiant glory. One way to experience this heart-pounding scene would be with a fly rod, standing knee-deep in the ice-cold waters of the Temperance or Devil Track rivers along the North Shore. Another would be to visit Louis Raymer’s art studio near downtown Minneapolis, where much of his lifelike artwork is displayed, including the rainbow trout painting that won the Minnesota DNR’s trout stamp competition in 2002.
Raymer had been submitting entries in trout and waterfowl stamp competitions through the years, winning second place several times. But this time his trout painting was judged best in class. Finally, his extraordinary ability to bring fish, birds and animals of all stripes to life using acrylic and casein paints was formally recognized. And since he painted the winner when he was 72 years old, more than six decades after launching his art career, he also deserved an honorable mention for persistence.
Rainbow trout and royal coachman streamer flies are no strangers to Raymer. He’s been wading in rainbow streams since he was a teenager living in Duluth.
“If my dad was too busy to drive me up the North Shore, I’d just grab my fly rod, stick out my thumb and hitchhike up Hwy. 61,” remembered Raymer. “During World War II, when gas rationing was on, there would be long waits just to see a car,” he recalled.
“I always had a couple of Royal Coachman flies with me because they were the most productive. But when they didn’t work I’d try a Pass Lake streamer or a McGinty. The McGinty looks like a bee,” Raymer explained.
His favorite North Shore streams were the Sucker, Manitou and Knife. “But as a hitchhiker I’d just have to fish where my ride took me,” he said.
In more recent years, Raymer has fished Bass Lake in Maplewood State Park, always catching enough rainbow trout for a meal.
Birth of a wildlife artist
Raymer’s vocation as an artist started during his high school years.
“I was asked to contribute some cartoons to the 1946 yearbook at Duluth Central High,” he recalled. “The book’s art director was very supportive,” he said. Unbeknown to Raymer at the time, that support would continue for decades.
“I went home after meeting Louie for the first time and wrote in my diary ‘I just met the boy I’m going to marry,’ ” remembered Fran Raymer. The two just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Raymer continued his art training at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he honed his drawing and painting skills under the tutelage of visiting instructors Fletcher Martin, Don Andrews and Dong Kingman, all nationally renowned artists at the time. But it was an exhibit of wildlife art at the Duluth Public Library that inspired Raymer to meld his passion for the outdoors with his artistic talent.
“I was mesmerized by the work of Francis Lee Jaques. When I saw how he could bring the beauty of nature and wildlife to canvas or scratchboard, I thought this is what I want to do with my life,” Raymer said.
Nature-lovers and aspiring wildlife artists can still be inspired by Jacques’ work in the dioramas at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus.
Success in wildlife art
What a life it has been so far for Raymer and his wildlife art. Nearly 88,000 anglers bought the trout stamp depicting his rainbow. In 2002 more than 100,000 others bought another print of Raymer’s and then stuck it to the inside of their windshields. It was his Lone Eagle painting showing aviator Charles Lindbergh watching a soaring bald eagle, and it graced the state park permit that year. Raymer’s painting of Canada geese flying over Lac qui Parle was featured on the 2006 state park decal.
But it was in the 1970s and 80s when Raymer’s wildlife art was displayed in thousands of homes and offices across the country. Promotional product giants Shedd-Brown and Brown & Bigelow featured his ducks, deer, pheasants and songbirds on their top-selling calendars. And Raymer’s engaging realism style always made it look like those wood ducks were going to swim right off the September page or the December chickadee would somewhat flit onto an office desk.