By Shawn Perich
Once a week, during the summer, a bunch of folks meet at the end of a dead-end road in Finland to go fishing. They arrive in a motley collection of pickup trucks and by bus. The men who get off the bus are the reason everyone is here. They are residents of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay.
The fishing hole is a trout pond built and maintained by Larry Schanno, the owner of Our Place Restaurant in Finland. For five years, he has hosted disabled veterans from the home to go fishing and, in the fall, to hunt deer on the 40-acre property called Legacy Homestead.
“This is a totally opposite environment from where they live,” he says. “Coming here to fish gives them an opportunity to do something they may have thought they’d never do again.”
Schanno is not a veteran—he drew a high number during the first lottery for the Vietnam War. His father, however, served in World War II and was in the battle to take Okinawa. At the age of 47 his father was determined to have 100 percent service-related disability. He died at the age of 51. The sacrifices made by folks like his father has given Schanno a reverential appreciation for America’s veterans, as well as for the soldiers who didn’t come home.
He’s not alone. Every week a group of volunteers shows up at the trout pond to assist the vets with fishing. All of volunteers are veterans, too. Fishing together gives them a chance to get to know the vets from the home and to develop a rapport.
“It’s rewarding for both the volunteers and the vets,” Schanno says.
The fishing pond is well-designed for handicapped use. The vets home bus can pull right up to the bank. The level ground is wheelchair-accessible. Sturdy wooden beams form rails at two levels—lower, so someone in a wheelchair can rest their fishing rod on it and higher, so a helper can lean against it while helping a wheelchair-bound angler fish.
Spring-fed with water depths of 12-14 feet, the pond remains cold and well-oxygenated year-round, making it capable of supporting trout, as well as the minnows on which they feed. Initially, Schanno stocked it annually with 500 brook trout, but a few rainbows were mixed in with the fish he bought last year. They thrived, growing more quickly than the brookies, so this year he stocked more of them. To do so, he had to retrofit the pond’s outlet with additional screening so the rainbows can’t escape to the nearby Baptism River.
Schanno says the only problem he’s had with the pond is depredation by fishing-eating river otters, which one year nearly wiped out the trout in the pond. While he was able to get a nuisance permit to trap and remove four otters that year, since then he and his friends keep the local otter population in check by trapping them at the pond and along the Baptism River during the fall trapping season.
When fishing, the volunteers help the vets release trout unharmed. Since they are fishing with bait, some of the fish are fatally injured when they swallow the hook. These fish are placed in a cooler. Schanno cleans them and then cooks and delivers them to the vets home the following day.
The remainder of the property is developed with food plots. In November, Schanno takes the veterans deer hunting. Someone donated a camper that he has placed on a ridge overlooking a food plot, so the vets have a warm and comfortable stand. Several vets have harvested a deer on the property. He is especially proud of a veteran who had only one arm and one leg. He sat in a minivan and used shooting stick to prop up his rifle. Since the vet had only a two-hour window in which to hunt, Schanno wasn’t sure he’d even see a deer. Then two does and a fawn stepped into the opening. The hunter was shooting a .44 magnum caliber, so Schanno coached him to wait until the deer were within 100 yards to ensure accurate shot placement. When the deer came into range, the veteran took the shot and killed one.
While a lot of work has gone into developing and maintaining the property for fishing and hunting, Schanno doesn’t hunt there himself. Instead, he makes it available to others who might not otherwise have an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.
“It’s for old folks and young folks,” he says.
Every year, first graders from the William Kelley Elementary School have a field trip to the pond. They catch and release trout, which they must measure and identify. When they return to school, they undertake an art project where they draw a picture of Jake Lake, as the pond is known. Local Cub Scouts have visited the pond, too.
Schanno’s commitment to the disabled vets doesn’t end with hunting and fishing. Once a week throughout the year, the vets home bus brings a group of residents to his restaurant for lunch. They can order anything on the menu, at no charge. He says most will order a hamburger or the daily special, but adds with a smile that a couple of the old-timers go for the Surf and Turf, the most expensive item on the menu.
“That’s ok, they can order whatever they want,’ he says. “As far as I’m concerned, these vets have already paid for it.”
A year ago, Schanno formed the Legacy Homestead LLC, complete with a board of directors comprised of other volunteers. Their intention is to ensure the property always remains available to the residents of the veterans home. While the costs of maintaining the property and stocking fish are largely borne by Schanno and other local volunteers, they have received donations from folks who became aware of the work they were doing. But Schanno makes no bones about it—far more important the money is the people who devote a morning out of each week to take the veterans fishing.
“My biggest asset is my help,” he says. “I couldn’t do it without them.”