McDonnell had 'zest for life'

Saturday, January 28, 2012
Jim "The Fishing Professor" McDonnell poses with an early spring walleye from the Missouri River at Chamberlain, S.D. The well-known outdoors-man from Royal passed away early Friday morning. (Photo submitted by Steve Wiesman)

Jim "The Fishing Professor" McDonnell, of Royal, was just like the fish he was trying to catch: a keeper.

That's how those closest to him remember the veteran outdoorsman, who passed away early Friday morning, at the age of 74.

"The minute you met him, he was your friend," said Bob Jensen, who first fished with McDonnell on the Lindy-Little Joe Fishing team in the early 1980s. "He just had a zest for life. Every day was an adventure. ... Above everything, he was just a good guy, the kind of guy you liked to spend time with. ... There aren't a lot of things you can say about him other than that."

Many think of McDonnell as a fisherman, but he was also a coach, a writer and avid hunter and trapper.

"He was just a multifaceted guy," Larry Porter, a retired outdoors writer for the Omaha World-Herald, said.

Clay Central-Everly Athletic Director Paul Wick can attest to that, as he started coaching track with McDonnell in 1986, the first year Clay Central and Everly teams competed together at state track and "won by a landslide."

"We were one of the few teams made up of two collaborating schools," Wick recalled. "No one would talk to us. He said we didn't make any fans that day, and he was right."

Fittingly, one of the first things McDonnell did as a Clay Central coach was establish the coaches' fish fry with his fellow coaches. A tribute to McDonnell is being planned for CC-E's March 16 fish fry.

Steve Weisman, like Wick, first knew McDonnell as a coach, but later forged a friendship centered around their mutual love for conservation.

"I knew him as a coach because he coached girls track and I coached girls track," the former Estherville-Lincoln Central coach said. "I knew him years before we began writing together. And he was very competitive, very demanding of his athletes, but they responded to him very well."

A mutual friend helped the two connect for writing opportunities in northwest Iowa and both men began writing outdoors pieces for The Daily Reporter and Dickinson County News in the early 1990s.

"I got to know him personally and I considered him a friend because we had so many things that we liked together," Weisman said. "I think he was a great conservationist. I think he cared greatly for our Iowa Great Lakes, hence his involvement with the Great Lakes Fishing Club, his involvement in pushing to get the bluegill limit established here, his work with so much of that kind of thing."

When Weisman reflects on who McDonnell was, comparisons to rugged, historic figures come to mind.

"If I were to describe Jim McDonnell, he was the perfect, modern-day Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. I think you could have put him back in that era and he would have fit fine," Weisman said. "And, I think he brought that frontiersman feeling to our environment around here. He was just that way."

"He always said he was born a little too late because he loved to trap and hunt and he said if he'd been born in the day of hunters and trappers, he felt that's where he belonged," Porter added.

McDonnell was also a natural in a boat, and has been serving as a guide for many years in Wisconsin and, most recently, the Iowa Great Lakes region.

"I watched him on the water as he guided individuals, groups, families and I couldn't believe, at his age, he still had that drive and desire to teach people to enjoy our area lakes," Weisman said. "I felt that he was really good -- instead of people just chasing walleyes -- he was good at getting people to enjoy catching bluegills or enjoy catching a northern or enjoy catching a perch and a crappie."

Tom Brown, who was on the Lindy-Little Joe Fishing team with McDonnell, learned a life lesson while fishing with McDonnell.

"He'd be fishing someplace and I'd say, 'I think they're at this rock shelf' and he'd say, 'You don't know, Tom Brown, you just don't know,'" Brown reflected. "Every time I think I know something, that flashes in my mind that I don't know."

"Just like yesterday when he got up, he didn't know that was his last day," Brown continued, his voice cracking.

Porter added that the news of McDonnell's death hit him on a deep level.

"Hearing the news of his death hit me just as hard as when I got a telephone call telling me my dad had died of a heart attack," Porter said. "We were close."

Both Porter and Brown remember McDonnell's laugh, that stuck out even in crowded rooms, and the causes of those laughs. One such example, a trip to Canada, was not humorous when it happened, but Porter and Brown shared a laugh as they retold the anecdote.

Driving in a thunderstorm in Porter's "brand spanking new truck," McDonnell identified a moose, causing Porter to slow to 30 mph. The speed reduction was a blessing as they encountered another moose a few miles down the road.

"Jim was in the front seat and yelled, 'Moose!' again, and stomped his foot to the floor like he was putting the brake's on," Brown said. "The moose's butt hit the passenger side mirror and broke it. The bull moose turned and looked at us and I bet you could see three sets of eyes as big as pie plates. ... We drove 20 mph the rest of the way. When Jim went into the hotel room, his shin almost to his knee was a scraped bloody mess."

On another Canadian fishing trip, McDonnell caught a seagull.

"He did all he could to release it as safely as he could," Jensen said. "He got the seagull to the boat. It was defending itself and flopping around. He got it restrained and let it go. It was one of those weird deals that frequently happened around Mac."

Jensen said those who know McDonnell miss him already.

"He cut a wide trail," he said. "We're all better for having him around."

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