First in an occasional series profiling Minnesotans whose lives, lifestyles and in some cases, livelihoods are defined by the state's natural resources.
Jay Johnson probably would have been an outdoorsman even if his dad hadn't taken him hunting and fishing as a kid. But his father's influence certainly helped.
"As a kid, your primary interest outdoors is usually what the primary interest is of a parent or mentor,'' Johnson said. "My dad really liked to hunt ducks. He took me trout fishing and grouse and pheasant hunting. But he really liked duck hunting.''
Born in Minneapolis but raised in Brooklyn Park, Jay Johnson was hired as a teenager by Ted and Bud Burger at their Burger Brothers sporting goods store at 44th and France in Edina.
In 1985, Johnson won the Minnesota state duck calling contest. He was the state champ the next year also.
In the 35 years since — he's 61 now — Johnson has worked in wildlife-art distribution, land and water conservation, outdoor education, hunter recruitment and, most recently, land acquisition for the Department of Natural Resources, from which he retired Nov. 2 after 14 years with the agency.
Johnson is one of some 2.3 million Minnesotans who hunt, fish or do both, a number that generally has held steady, despite significant losses in these activities in other states.
Nurturing these interests are Minnesota's wildly diverse landscape, vast swaths of public land, 10,000 lakes and 92,000 miles of rivers.
These resources and — importantly — access to them by the public contribute to a $9.1 billion annual outdoor recreation economy, or about 2.4% of the state's gross domestic product.
From this, one could reasonably conclude that among politicians' and policymakers' hierarchy of action items, public land acquisition and conservation should be at the top.
From a lifetime of addressing these and related topics, Johnson offered insights.
Are all people equally capable of being interested in the outdoors, outdoor activities and conservation?
To a degree perhaps. But I have a sister, and while she hunts and fishes, she's not as avid about it as I am. I think interest can vary.
Talk about jobs you've held in the outdoors field.
I studied outdoor recreation at the U. My first job after school was at Voyageur Art, a wildlife and sporting art distributor. Then, from 1986 to 1997, I worked for Pheasants Forever, before joining Deep Portage Learning Center near Hackensack, where my role in addition to youth and adult outdoor education was fundraising. In 2007 I was hired by the DNR as hunter recruitment and retention coordinator, which I did until 2016. In the last five years, I was the DNR land acquisition coordinator.
Through the years you've found many ways to grow as a sportsman.
My dad was a rod builder and a fly tyer, in addition to being a trout fisherman. I learned these aspects of trout fishing from him and others. I've also taken an interest in making bamboo fly rods, and fishing with rods I've built. Dave Norling (davenorling.com) of Minneapolis is an expert at this and has helped me a lot.
Friends and acquaintances you've met along the way also helped develop your long-held interest in pointing dogs and upland bird hunting.
We had Labradors and a springer spaniel when I was a kid. But in the early '80s I was volunteering in a conservation booth at Game Fair when I met Bob Glazer, who worked at the DNR and had setters. About the same time, I met the late Bud Tordoff, who taught at the U and who was an experienced grouse and woodcock hunter and had great setters. I learned a lot from these people and others. My current setter is named Bud. He's 3 years old. I shot two grouse over him Friday.
You also hunt deer with a recurve, or traditional, bow.
I have killed deer with my recurve, which is a challenge. With grouse hunting I'm pretty busy in the fall and I haven't hunted deer much lately.
Can kids who don't have an outdoors-oriented parent become hunters and anglers, or otherwise learn to enjoy hiking, camping and other outdoor activities?
It's hard to become passionate about something you haven't experienced first-hand. If a parent isn't a mentor, another adult will do. But a young person's interest has to be sustained. He or she generally can't go out once and then be left to a family that doesn't have a hunting or fishing culture and expect the youngster's interest to continue.
Minnesota has more large and small conservation groups and sportsmen's clubs than perhaps any state. How important are they to sustaining Minnesota's natural resources?
They're critical. Groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy and many others collectively acquire the majority of land the DNR incorporates into its wildlife management areas and other properties.
What was it like working for the DNR?
I wanted to work for the DNR since I was a kid, and when I got hired it might have been the happiest day of my life. There are so many dedicated, intelligent, salt-of-the-earth people working there. I was honored to work alongside them. But it is a large agency and it can be difficult to get things done quickly. Once I was there for a while and figured things out, it got better.
You ride your bike a lot.
I enjoy it. Plus, I ride to stay in shape so I can hunt and fish.
What's your assessment of Minnesota resources and outdoor opportunities?
Minnesota is unique. It offers so many outdoor opportunities. We all get caught up in our self-interests. There aren't enough ducks or grouse or whatever. But compare what we have to other states. We've got it pretty good, particularly considering our many public lands and waters and the hunting and fishing opportunities they support.