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Weiss: Chatfield's Gomez creates an Outdoors Expo 'for the little guys'

The inaugural Three Rivers Outdoors Expo is scheduled to be held this Saturday, May 14, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Joy Ridge Event Center along Mill Creek in Chatfield.

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Juan Gomez stands next to Mill Creek in Chatfield where he first learned to fish trout. Since then, his passion has expanded into bass fishing and he has also formed a group aimed at promoting fishing.
Contributed / John Weiss
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CHATFIELD — Juan Gomez learned to fish in Mill Creek in Chatfield about 25 years ago and it will be near that small creek from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, May 14, that he hopes to take another step in adding more people to the sport he first met along that little trout stream.

What happened in those 25 years is a story of a young man who could be a face of the future of fishing.

No one knows how well the Three Rivers Outdoors Expo will fare Saturday. Previous attempts at getting outdoors sports shows to this region have not done well. Gomez said this one was not an easy sell either but he has great hopes that it will work out well. “It has been tough and it has been very tough getting vendors,” he admitted. “The reason I do all this is because there aren’t any expos concentrated on the little guys.”

That’s a key.

Most others were in Rochester but this will be at the Joy Ridge Event Center in the former Pope & Young building along Mill Creek in Chatfield. That is part of Gomez’s plan, he wants to focus on families and small towns, he will have some smaller fishing-related businesses there to talk about their products. He hopes people visit Chatfield “and see how beautiful it is,” he said.

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When people walk in, he hopes they will see some excitement; when they leave, “I just want them to know a little more than when they came in” and have questions answered about many facets of the outdoors.

His first step in reaching out to others was several years ago when Gomez, 29, founded Reel Midwest Fishing, now a group of about 16 fishing lovers from the Upper Midwest dedicated to giving more people the skills and a better picture of fishing.

The push to create the group came several years ago when he saw fishing license sales are declining as a proportion of the overall population. “I thought back to Tom taking me,” he said. "I remember that first fish, I remember the rush I had … I had this strong love for fishing.” Fishing shouldn’t only be about catching. “That is what it should be about, the camaraderie and those memories you are making,” he said.

“I created it (the group) back in 2017 … just to get away from the negativity about people boasting on social media,” he said. His goal is to flood social media “with positive posts, of people fishing, smiling, having a good time, trying to get away from any of the fighting that goes on on social media,” Gomez said. It doesn’t have to be all fishing, it could be hiking, hunting, it only has to be about the beautiful. Its motto is: “We are all here to have fun and share our passion for the water.” Each member has a specific skill that they hope to share with those seeing their page.

His journey to avid angler - he fishes regularly in bass-fishing tournaments with anglers in kayaks only - is a testimony to how one shove, one person caring, maybe something seen at an expo, can be the door to an outdoors passion.

Gomez said he was born in Mexico but grew up in Chatfield. No one in his family fished but he had a child’s curiosity about it so he and his mom made a net and tried to catch fish in Mill. That didn’t get him hooked. It was when his mom signed him up for a mentorship with Tom Ober that his passion flared out. “I just started doing things with him, he got me started in fishing,” Gomez said. They fished Chester Woods and other local waters.

His mentor died when Gomez was in the fifth grade but Ober had at least got Gomez’s toes wet. From there, he was pretty much on his own and he has plunged in. “I would go down to Mill Creek by myself and go fishing….I would do that every year when I went to college,” he said.

After college, he continued fishing and now works for Olmsted County in its Family Support Assistance program.

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It was after college that he hit the water much harder, turning into a bass-fishing fanatic, though he still might try fishing trout in Mill. Bass tournaments might require travel or they can be on line, with anglers showing and measuring their biggest fish over a certain amount of time. “I’ve won a few of those tournaments,” he said.

Of course, with a 4-year-old daughter, Violet Gomez, he still might head down to Mill Creek for a few hours, he said.

Benji Kohn likes those small steps Gomez, the expo and the fishing group are taking. He’s the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Mentor Network coordinator and said, “any way that we can introduce people to what whey need to fish is a good thing.” Fishing is huge in Minnesota, it’s a $2.4 billion industry, he said. Fishing licenses pay much of what’s needed to keep fish and fishing strong, but the number of licenses sold has stayed about 1.4 million (with big spikes in the COVID years) so they aren’t going up as a percent of the population, he said.

He’s seeing that social media can be a real boon for angling. For example, he said he went to Pennsylvania and had some time to fish but didn’t know where to go. He posted on social media and found someone to help him. Those wanting to fish now have so many more on-line tools to find where to go and what’s biting, he said.

Three Rivers Outdoors Expo info.

Admission for the Three Rivers Outdoors Expo is $5 for those 14 and older and there will be raffles, a Department of Natural Resources trout tank, talks about taxidermy as well as how and where to fish, food trucks, contests to see who’s best at flipping bass baits and casting flies, information about seasons, and some booths by local angling businesses, including Eggers Spinner Fishing (he makes Super Bow spinners), Mel Hayner of Driftless Fly Fishing Co. of Preston and Cruzer Baits.

Byron Bear Fishing Team members will also be there to talk about what they do. Proceeds will be split between the club and the Lanesboro Fish Hatchery that produces trout for the state.

The events center is in the former Pope & Young building at 273 Mill Creek Road NW (from U.S. 52 in Chatfield, go west on Minnesota State Highway 30 for about a third of a mile; you will cross Mill Creek and the building will be on your upper left).

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss”

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