Over the past year, I have introduced you to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, people lending a hand to others so that they can continue experiencing the outdoors, as well as people who have had amazing hunts.
Never have I opened this column door to someone like Tony Lemieux. Many of you will say it’s about time.
Tony, you see, is a 62-year-old recently retired roofer who has managed to raise three daughters, celebrate 31 wedding anniversaries with his wife, Kay, and still spend considerable time — not enough time, if you ask him — in the outdoors. He’s the definition of an outdoorsman, as he doesn’t take selfies, prefers to remain out of any spotlight except for the one on his head used for coon hunting, and hunts and fishes for food and a little extra cash.
Darn little, he says. Cash, that is.
This guy, who lives on 40 acres near Rollingstone, Minn., was destined to be an outdoors guy, a river rat, a hunter of all things. He grew up a stone’s throw (literally) from the mighty Mississippi River at Prairie Island. If you’re from Winona, or the area, you know where Prairie Island is. Google it; Tony won’t, that I can guarantee you.
Anyway, Tony says he was meant to be a fisherman, a trapper, a hunter, from the start. You can’t argue with him, especially when you start to hear his stories.
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“We lived right on the Mississippi River. We lived right there, right outside my door was everything I needed for trapping, fishing,” Tony said. “I walked across the road to check my traps.”
And to fish, starting at a young age. Tony, it seems, had a business side to him starting at a young age as he not only fished, trapped and hunted because of his passion for it, but it helped fill the piggy bank.
“I was commercial fishing when I was 8 years old. I wanted to set out some set lines, a line with some drop hooks on swivels. You’ve got to have a license to put those out,” Tony said. “I rode my bike, five miles or so, to the old Hot Fish Shop and sold catfish.”
Seems like a good deal, except someone was swiping the merchandise while he was gone.
“I had a holding cage to hold them alive until I would skin them,” Tony said of the catfish. “I made the ride (on this bike) one day and had seven when I left. There was only five left when I returned, so two were missing. There was a couple missing every day.”
Tony surmised a snapping turtle had found his holding pen, and wanted to devour some fresh catfish without paying the bill. Never did he see the thief in action, Tony said.
Tony moved on from the catfish business after three years, and took up some serious trapping when he was 11. His late grandpa, Curtis Corey, who lived between Galesville and Ettrick, took him out a few times, gave him some pointers, then set him free.
“Trapping, once I got by bit by the trapping bug, I think I was 11, it never stopped. It (place to trap) was right there, right outside my door. He (Grandpa Corey) took me out and showed me how and gave me a couple of tips. The first day I got one muskrat and the second day I got another muskrat,” Tony said.
“Then I got 14 in one day that week. I walked across the road to check the traps. I had like 20 back then. I ended up with 77 muskrats that year, as 11 year-old. And my mom let me skip church (to check traps).”
Tony said the muskrat, or “rat hides,” were worth four or five bucks back in the 1970s, and are not worth much more than that today.
So much for getting rich from trapping, but that’s not the point. Tony will tell you that in a heartbeat.
“Being out there, in the swamp and the woods, by myself, that’s why. I got all my buddies hooked, too. That was a good thing, as trapping keeps you out of trouble,” he said. “We expanded into everything — mink, coon, beaver, fox. I remember my first job, I would take two weeks off in the fall just to fox trap. When I started they were $60 for red fox; now they are $20. A good one you might get you $30.
He had some interesting encounters while trapping, too, as it seems a fish story — you know, the one that got away — doesn’t always have to pertain to, well, fish.
“I know one time around Christmas, I was going to go sell some hides and made a late coon trap check under a bridge. It (river) was frozen. I had this one trap to check on the way to the fur buyer, Charlie Miller, in Winona,” Tony said.
“There was a good old premium coon in the trap. I come with a stick to whack him and hit his foot instead. It knocked his foot out of the trap. Fifty 50 bucks just ran away. Fifty bucks when I was 17 was a lot of money. And he ran away …”
Tony never ran away from hard work, spending 33 years as a union roofer (Local 96 out of Winona) with Winona Heating and Ventilating, then worked for several Twin Cities companies after that, including the last five years with North Tech Construction.
“I did a lot of driving, you know, the last five years. They work hard; I worked 19 days in-a-row at one stretch. That was just taking too much of my time. No time to hunt, or mow the lawn,” he said.
But it paid the bills, Tony said, and allowed him and Kay to raise their daughters, Megan 30, Olivia, 26, and Chloe 19. Daughters who grew up hunting, fishing, trapping. Daughters that still do those things.
“I carried them with me a lot of times. I remember carrying Megan around for hours scouting for turkeys,” Tony said. “And once the boys started coming around, they would show the boys how to hunt.”
Tony and Kay gave each of the girls a present of sorts when they were nearing the end of high school. They could choose a trip of their liking, within reason.
“When our daughters were juniors and seniors, we offered them a trip of some sort. Two of my daughters chose Alaska,” said Tony, who has been to Alaska five times, and has a brother who lives in Valdez, Alaska. “The last trip we took, I looked at a map and went to a river I had heard about and never fished. My wife, no, she doesn’t go but she does support me, though.”
It was Kay, in fact, who sent a note about her husband and his outdoor adventures. Part of the note was about Tony’s love of digging ginseng. Ginseng, if you don’t know, is a highly sought after plant (actually, its roots) that is used for medicinal purposes. It is commonly touted for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and, according to a little Google research, could help regulate blood sugar levels and has benefits for some cancer treatment.
In other words, it has significant value in the medical world, and can bring a good price. But to get a price, you pay a price.
“The ginseng season is going on right now; it started Sept. 1. I started (digging it) when I was 19, when my buddies and I were doing it. I just never stopped,” said Tony, who proudly states he is a member of Winona Sportsmen’s Club, Pheasants Forever, the Wild Turkey Federation and the NRA. “I live next to 77,000 acres of state forest land, just over the hill. Over the years I have been getting a lot of it.
“Good spots? Don’t go on trails or roads. Don’t go where the land is soft and light brush. Look for the steepest, rockiest, most brush-infested places where nobody would ever walk. That’s where you go.”
And if you find some roots, it can pay off. Tony said he sells green or “wet” ginseng roots for $200 a pound, and dry roots for $600 a pound. He tries to average a pound of ginseng every time he goes out, but admits that some days he comes home with nothing.
Well, that’s not totally true.
“I am all skinned up. I have destroyed three pairs of hunting pants so far, and the mosquitos are horrible. I got poison ivy on both hands. I got poison oak,” Tony said. “These things are called ginseng’s revenge.”
And, just like selling catfish or hides, he added: “Nobody’s getting rich doing it.”
Before you head out looking for ginseng, however, check what regulations and licenses are needed. There is a ginseng season, and it is regulated by the DNR.
Whether it’s hunting, trapping, fishing or pounding the woods searching for ginseng, there’s not much that ever has, or will, slow Tony down. And now, in retirement, he will get to do those things more often. A true outdoorsman from start to finish.
“I would just like to continue to do more of what I already do,” Tony said of his retirement plans. “I would like to duck hunt again this year. I’ll do that, except if my wife has got something for me to do.”
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at email@example.com