Ray Ruiz synced his phone to a portable speaker and wedged it near the steering wheel of his sleek fishing boat as he prepared for an evening of catching smallmouth bass in the skyline shadows of downtown Minneapolis.
“Ready to rip some lips?” he asked. “What tunes you wanna hear? You like Skynyrd? I think they might be biting on Skynyrd.”
The longtime beer salesman motored away from the public docks at Boom Island to his favorite Twin Cities fishing hole: a funky stretch of the Mississippi River between downtown’s U.S. Post Office and the Lowry Avenue Bridge in northeast Minneapolis.
The water was 84 degrees, glassy and low. In four hours of tossing soft plastic lures into the shallows, the two of us saw just three other boats. But the action was nonstop. The smallies fought and the shoreline pathways buzzed with joggers, dog walkers, baby strollers, cyclists, skateboarders and a few outdoor yoga practitioners.
The urban surroundings were fitting for Ruiz, an extrovert of high order whose new job for the Department of Natural Resources is to work with diverse metro area community groups to increase participation in fishing.
Before COVID-19, he hosted a successful open house at DNR headquarters in St. Paul to share information about fishing, hunting, licensing and the environment with Twin Cities Latino families. He’s also built active fishing programs inside seven or eight groups of people who don’t have traditional hunting and fishing backgrounds.
One of those ongoing efforts is at Father Project, a Minneapolis charity that primarily serves low-income, non-custodial fathers. Another group is Casa de Esperanza, a leader in the movement against domestic violence. He’s training the leaders of those groups how to incorporate fishing as a lasting activity, sometimes using small grants to help them buy equipment and transportation.
James Burnham, DNR’s hunter and fishing recruitment coordinator, said Ruiz brought new energy and perspectives to the agency when he arrived two years ago. He lost his previous job during a workforce reduction at J.J. Taylor Distributing Co., a large Twin Cities beer wholesaler. He found a niche at the DNR when the agency asked him to run the I Can Fish! program.
“Ray was definitely making more money in the beer industry, but this gets him closer to fishing and I don’t think that’s hard math for Ray,” Burnham said.
Burnham quickly bonded with Ruiz because they’re both averse to unnecessary “what-if preparations’’ that can sometimes slow down the DNR and other agencies. He said Ruiz attacks his job with infectious, make-it-happen enthusiasm.
“The dude is nuts,’’ Burnham said. “Ray has a sublime combination of skill sets. It doesn’t matter if he’s selling beer or the outdoors.’’
Ruiz prepared two types of lures for Tuesday’s jaunt on the Mighty Miss. One was a Ned rig, a rubbery stick bait threaded straight down the shaft of a long hook. The hook was weighted with a 1/16th-ounce, block-shaped jig head.
The other setup was a modified Texas rig, a large offset hook baited with a soft plastic crawdad instead of a plastic worm. On the fishing line itself was a bullet-shaped weight snugged close to the hook.
Ruiz steered close to the west shoreline, opposite Boom Island, then flipped the Ned jig within a foot of the rocky shoreline. Retrieving it slowly, he caught three bass in his first four casts.
Ruiz slowly maneuvered his aluminum bass boat downstream, close to the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. He’s been fishing the same stretch of river since 1998, and we caught smallies at every stop.
Ruiz promotes the downtown fishery to friends and acquaintances and gladly shares his knowledge of the river. On the way back upstream, we tried a backwater channel that flows under the Boom Island Foot Bridge. Smallies were in there, too.
“A lot of anglers like to keep to themselves. I’m not one of those people,’’ Ruiz said. “I like to share my passion.’’
A gifted conversationalist, Ruiz meanders through fishing tales, beer industry gossip, music talk and movies. He’s obsessed with films directed by Martin Scorsese and has a knack for sprinkling metaphors into his chats. All the while, he can fish intensely and marvel at the strength of nearly every bass he brings to the boat.
Ruiz calls Minneapolis home, but he grew up in a working-class Chicago neighborhood just west of Cabrini-Green, a drug-infested, gang-controlled public housing project that’s now demolished.
As a grade-schooler, Ruiz pedaled his bike past the danger zone to fish for bass, bluegill and crappies in the Lincoln Park Lagoon. His fondest outdoors memories from those days were family trips to the Kankakee River south of Chicago. Relatives kept a trailer there and he’d fish from shore with his dad, a retired Teamster raised in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Mr. Ruiz earned a living in Chicago as a construction foreman erecting commercial buildings. Mrs. Ruiz worked a retail job at Marshall Field’s. They all fished together earlier this month in the Brainerd area.
On the Mississippi, Ray Ruiz paused while fishing at the foot of a towering cottonwood tree. There’d been a temporary halt to the bass bite and he had an idea for new music.
“I think they’re biting on the Allman Brothers,’’ he said.