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Weiss: Paying tribute to great outdoorsmen lost in the past year

Outdoors columnist John Weiss writes about six friends, all important in their own way to the outdoors in the region, who have died in the past year.

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Randy Bartz, also known as the Flagman, shows an older and newer version of the flag he invented to help lure geese within shotgun range. Bartz died this year after being in hospice a few months.
Post Bulletin file photo / John Weiss

Randy Bartz, Mel Dickie, LaVerne “Shorty” Larson, Bob Mauer, Bob Wallace and Steve Colebeck: How do I write about six friends, all important in their own way to the outdoors in the region, who died last year or in late 2020?

Their obituaries just seemed to pile up, many more than I have ever seen in one year. It made the year of more COVID darker. With each one, it hit me what we were missing without them — wisdom, dedication, service, hunting or fishing tips, friendship and for me, great sources for my outdoors writing. 

At first, I often thought of the “Dies Irae,” (Day of Wrath), a dark, depressing, somber hymn I heard so often when serving Latin Rite funeral Masses many decades ago.

Then it hit me again — while I mourned that they had died, my thoughts should include a thanksgiving for their lives, how the six contributed many good things in many fields for many years. Each made the outdoors better.

Let me tell you a little about them.

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• Bartz was one of the first people I met when I began outdoors writing in 1976. He was a member of the local retriever club but more importantly, he was a godfather of goose hunting around here. He knew where the geese were, how to hunt them. He came up with the idea of using flags to lure geese into shotgun range; he was called “The Flagman.”

We would see each other now and then, bump into each other in the field. The thing I remember most, however, was what a gentleman and a gentle man Randy was. He was always smiling, always willing to chat, to offer his wisdom. And he was full of ideas. We hunted together, even fished together, talked of his many many brainstorms, even tested an improved flag.

He called me in late spring and we chatted because he had some more ideas. Then he casually mentioned he was in hospice. I was stunned and went to Pine Island to see him several times, always bringing fresh baked goodies. And I listened as he talked about the old days, and the future. He never stopped thinking about new ways of doing things. He looked tired, weak, thin but his mind and spirit were still out in the field, setting out decoys, calling, flagging in geese. The best story was how, in the 1980s, he put three squares of black cloth on a cane pole and waved it. Three geese responded; the Flagman was born.

• Dickie was a legend around Rochester, a man of so many talents. Perhaps he was best known as the maker of great fishing rods, ones he tied with love and artistry at the former Wild Goose Sports on North Broadway. It was a delight chatting with him; like Randy, he was always a gentle man. But hundreds of others knew Mel because he was a substitute teacher in his 80s and 90s, and he taught hundreds of high school students how to make fishing rods.

He was so well loved at Mayo High School that he was named homecoming grand marshal one year. Incredible.

I suspect that Mel had something more in mind when teaching a high school student how to make a rod - he was teaching them to be artists, to put their soul and passion into that rod. But he never wanted the students to put the rod with all its colorful wrappings on the wall to admire - use it, he said, use it, get outside. It was another way to introduce youths to the outdoors.

I have a rod he and his buddy Mike Fischer made and I treasure it. It will never be put on display. I fully intend to pass it on to grandchildren.

• Shorty Larson, to me, was the last of the old river rat bait shop owners. His Prairie Bait Shop in Kellogg was known throughout the region - you only had to say “meet you at Shorty’s” and we all knew we needed to stop for wax worms, jigs or to get the latest intel on where the fish were biting.

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When I began outdoors writing, I also had Richard “Slippery” Dick Bach in Wabasha, Gordy Redalen at Camp LaCupolis and Hollace Abraham in Lake City as the go-to sources for what was biting and when. All four were true Mississippi River Rats.

The thing about them was they told the truth — fish weren’t biting? They said it. Their shops weren’t works of art, they were places with minnows, worms, lures and lines, places you felt comfortable in, just chatting or dreaming of fishing.

• Another place needed only one name —- Mauers. That is, Mauer Brothers Taven in Elba. We all knew it, it was a landmark and believed to be the tavern in the country owned longest by one family - this is the 132nd year. And one of the patriarchs of the family was Bob Mauer, a third generation Mauer who, with brother John Mauer, ran the place for decades.

We anglers, outdoors lovers and people interested in honest hometown places to gather need a place like Mauers where you can walk in with muddy pants, waders, camouflage or blaze orange and feel comfortable. In fact, I suspect someone wearing a suit would be suspect.

Bob Mauer was just a nice guy who was happy to answer my questions about where the trout were biting, or how many deer were registered at their place on opening weekend.

• Bob Wallace was a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer for many years, including a lot of years in the Whitewater Valley and Weaver Bottoms, places I dearly love. He  was always willing to fill in some information for me, chat about what he was seeing. 

I went out with him in the last year he was a CO before he retired more than a decade ago. He said he was going to miss the work, but also knew at age 55, it’s harder to do the patrolling. And he looked forward to actually hunting during duck openers instead of checking hunters.

He knew it would be his last opener as a CO. “I’m not feeling melancholy yet,” he said “I don’t think I’m thinking about it very much. Next May, maybe it will sink in.

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• Steve Colebeck was a guy who was infatuated with waterfowl hunting and was really big in the Ducks Unlimited chapter around here. I’d see him at fundraisers and others events, always chipping in, helping. 

His friend and hunting buddy Gordy Scudamore said he has no idea how much money Steve helped raise but I’ll bet it was a lot. Consider that at its peak, their fundraisers would attract up to 900 people; they usually got about 600 at Heritage Hall at the Kahler Grand Hotel in downtown Rochester. And he and his buddies, even after stepping back from so much DU volunteering, would still donate a shotgun to be raffled off.

One thing Gordy does know, “he was an avid duck hunter, absolutely loved duck hunting.” That could be along the Mississippi River in this region or in North Dakota.

There, that’s a short bio on the six and what they did for the outdoors. I know I didn’t write enough; I suppose nothing is ever enough.

But as I reread it, I was also struck by all the good memories of the six. I hunted and fished with several of them, or at least talked about the outdoors with them. It reminded me that there are a lot of good people out there in the outdoors. The thing I remember that joins them, outside of a passion for the outdoors, was their smiles. I remember a lot of smiles. Maybe we outdoors people instinctively smile a lot when talking about goose hunting, fishing, nature, ducks, trout.

And I also thought about those who are taking their places, more young goose hunters and guides who have upped the skill level of hunting and have kept Bartz’s passion aflame, new generations of Mauers in Elba, more young conservation officers, those who chip in to raise money for conservation, younger ones who open bait shops or teach the arts connected with the outdoors.

For them, I am also thankful.

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for 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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