Some people are almost giddy when they talk about the things they love. Then there’s Joel Nelson. To say he enjoys fishing is like saying water is important to a lake, or trees are vital parts of a forest.
Nelson is kind of a nerd, too. He loves maps and the smile on his face when he talks about geographic information systems probably wouldn’t be much bigger had he learned he won the lottery. Which he already has, given how he’s been able to marry all his passions in life.
By day, Nelson, who lives in Cannon Falls with his wife, Chrissy, and their two boys (Isaac, 12, and Micah, 9), manages a geographic information systems research lab in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. Many of his projects aim to improve conservation. He spends much of the rest of his life thinking about fishing or, more specifically, figuring out how his nerd side can inform his sportsman side. Some anglers are tight-lipped. Not Nelson. He’s a regular on the seminar circuit, active on social media, and maintains a website (joelnelsonoutdoors.com) that is devoted to helping people enjoy the outdoors.
“I come from a family of teachers,” said Nelson, 38, whose responsibilities at the university include teaching. “I really think the best way to add value to anything is to teach somebody how to do something. Fishing can build confidence and self-esteem. It’s a puzzle, and when you solve that puzzle, it feels good. If I can inform that, or make it easier for people, I think that’s pretty cool.
“My childhood fishing heroes, like Al Lindner (who, along with his brother Ron, built their careers on helping people catch fish), struck a cord with me because they taught me something.”
During a recent conversation, Nelson shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, including the proliferation of ice fishing and how anglers can find unlikely success by tapping into public information. Following are edited excerpts.
On pursuing big bluegills and crappies
My favorite thing to do is find remote bodies of water and catch big bluegills and crappies in the middle of nowhere. Bluegills and crappies, which most anglers look at as a food resource, are becoming the most rare trophy resource we have. I can think of a ton of places to go and catch a trophy walleye in Minnesota, and with all the stocking efforts and focus on walleyes they get a ton of attention. But nobody is really looking out for trophy bluegills and crappies in the same manner, and remote waters are the most reliable places to find them anymore.
On his approach to remote waters
Knowing how to use maps, mapping resources and aerial photography really aids in the process, and defines me as an angler. There are digital hints sprinkled all across the internet. It really is a detective game. I sleuth a bunch of data sets. Sometimes, it’s Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys or lake classification information. Some lakes haven’t been surveyed for many years, but a survey from the 1960s, for example, might show good numbers of big bluegills. That gets me wondering if they’re still there, or if perhaps there was a winter kill on the lake at some point. Then I might find information from the Pollution Control Agency that shows the maximum depth of the lake is 18 feet, which would tell me winterkill is unlikely. Then I’ll keep digging. I like lakes with lots of forage but a poor public access, if it has one at all. A lot of these lakes have mostly private property around them, but I might be able to locate tax-forfeit or other types of public property I can use to legally access the lake. Often, I’ll use a snowmobile or ATV, but sometimes the only way to access them is to walk. Aerial photographs can also be really helpful in discovering pieces of offshore structure that might not be marked on maps. These tend to be smaller lakes. When you do find one of these gems, it tends to be yours and yours alone and you can fish it for many years relatively unfettered.
On his personal rule
I release anything that’s longer than 9 inches. To me, that’s the start of a trophy and a 10-incher is a true trophy. I release a lot of the smaller fish I catch, too. Personally, I think it’s amazing how far a couple of bluegills or crappies will go for a meal. The way most people eat fish as part of a meal, you just don’t need that much. I can fillet five crappies that are between 6½ and 7 inches and feed my whole family fish tacos.
On the popularity of ice fishing
There’s been a real revolution in about the last decade. In the late 1990s, I started doing some work with fishing companies and ice fishing seriously. At that time, boats started pulling away in terms of cost — a modest fishing boat might cost $20,000 — but ice-fishing equipment and technology started to get better, at a price that offers good value. You can spend $1,500 for a power auger, electronics and a shelter, and then buy a little bit of bait, and fish all winter.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at email@example.com