Sometime in the middle of the previous century, a little boy went fishing. That’s when it started.
“There is a picture of me sitting in my father’s lap as a toddler, holding a fishing rod. I remember catching a brook trout in McVicar Creek when I was maybe 2,” says Gord Ellis of Thunder Bay, Ont.
Thus began a career in fishing that culminated in March with Ellis’ induction to the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. It was an honor well-deserved.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Ellis for more than 25 years and have fished and hunted with him. In addition to being good company in the field, he is among the best multi-species anglers I’ve met. He comes by his skill honestly.
“I spent a lot of my childhood fishing,” says Ellis, who grew up in Thunder Bay. “I had a bike, a fishing rod and a little container with my hooks and sinkers. I’d turn over rocks to find worms for bait.”
Much of his fishing was for brook trout that lived in creeks flowing through the city. This kindled a lifelong passion for brookies or, as Canadians call them, “specs.” While he gained experience with pike, walleyes, smallmouth and perch as a child, it wasn’t until a spring trip to the Jackpine River with his father at age 12 that he discovered steelhead.
“That took care of the rest of my teens. If I wasn’t in school, I was steelhead fishing,” he says.
He and a couple of buddies roamed Lake Superior’s North Shore, staying in the car and sleeping in their waders so they could hit the rivers at first light. In winter, he went ice fishing with another early mentor, his grandfather, Ora Ellis. The two last fished for lake trout through the ice a month before his grandfather’s death at age 89.
“He and my father (Gord, Sr.) had a passion for fishing. It’s in our genetic make-up,” he says.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone who so enjoys fishing would become a new outdoor communicator, but Ellis says he more or less just fell into it. When someone began publishing an outdoor magazine in the 1980s, his friends suggested he should apply for the editor position. Even though he didn’t know anything about magazines or editing, he got the job. Although the magazine failed, he began writing for other publications. When an editor called and told him that he liked his photography, Ellis started selling photos, too. Now he was going fishing and getting paid for it. Soon he was contacted by CBC Radio and the local newspaper to begin submitting material about the outdoors. His career as a writer and broadcaster was born.
The newspaper column lasted 23 years, until a new owner severed ties with the paper’s paid contributors. Ellis’ radio presence has continued to grow. He is a familiar voice across northwest Ontario and beyond. He is the senior editor of Ontario Out-of-Doors magazine and has been a longtime contributor to the Minnesota publications Outdoor News and Northern Wilds.
“When Ontario’s spring bear hunt was cancelled in the late 90s, I was writing about it weekly for Outdoor News,” he says.
It hasn’t been all fishing. Ellis and his wife, Cheryl, have two grown sons, Devin and Austin. (He also has a story about leaving for a fishing tournament just after Cheryl gave birth to one of them.) He plays guitar and performs rock, reggae and blues with a couple of Thunder Bay bands.
Ellis has also been active in fisheries conservation. He has served as a board member and president of the North Shore Steelhead Association. In that role, he helped popularize catch and release, as well as to serve on a committee that helped reduce the daily bag limit for steelhead from five fish to one.
“That’s not what I grew up with,” he says of catch and release. “Back then, five steelhead went home on every trip.”
He also played a strong role in the restoration of trophy brook trout in the Nipigon River system and Lake Superior. Source of the 14.5-pound world record brook trout in 1915, when Ellis began fishing the Nipigon in the 1980s, he was excited to catch a 13-inch brookie. Together with now-retired Ministry of Natural Resource biologist Rob Swainson, Ellis began publicizing the plight of the once-famous fishery. Habitat improvements, such as the elimination of winter drawdowns by hydro-electric dams on the river, plus restrictive bag limits and widespread adoption of a catch-and-release ethic, has allowed the brook trout fishery in the river and Lake Superior to flourish. It is fair to say Ellis has enjoyed the fruits of his labors, spending numerous days fishing the Nipigon system each year.
All of this work is commendable, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to becoming a hall-of-famer. For that, Ellis credits Jay Dampier, a native of the town of Nipigon who lived in Thunder Bay for many years before moving to Wisconsin. There he visited the Freshwater Fish Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward. He thought Ellis should be included there and submitted an application in his name.
Although he was notified of the induction several months ago, he received official recognition, along with Anne “Bobber Annie” Orth at the Northwest Sport Show. He says the event was “very surreal.”
“It’s like looking at Mount Rushmore with Al Lindner, Roland Martin…and this guy from Thunder Bay,” he says with characteristic humor.
At 55, Ellis isn’t ready to retire from fishing or outdoor writing to rest on his laurels. He’ll be on the water as often as ever. About the only places he hasn’t fished in Canada are Newfoundland-Labrador and the Yukon, although these days he prefers to spend time on his home waters. While he’s caught an array of fish species, still on his bucket list are aurora trout, subspecies of brook trout found in a few Ontario lakes, and tiger trout, a hybrid of brook and brown trout.
“I still really love fishing for brook trout, lake trout and even perch,” he says.
While he’s honored to be a hall-of-famer, the distinction hasn’t changed his life.
“I’m not getting treated any differently around here,” he says while talking on the phone from home. “I’m still washing the dishes and taking the garbage out.”
By Shawn Perich