Bob Ellis probably didn’t see death looming on Nov. 3, 1989, as a muskie boat motored toward his little skiff on Wisconsin’s Papoose Lake.
Ellis, 71, likely assumed the approaching boat carried fishermen wanting to visit. They’d probably ask how he was faring and imply some band-of-brothers camaraderie for braving the midlake chop and November breeze.
The muskie boat’s prow rode high, deflecting cold air from its two occupants, blocking Ellis’ view of them—and theirs of him. But he knew the scenario well. Other fishermen routinely idled up to talk muskie fishing as Ellis row-trolled his big homemade wooden baits. If nothing else, his visitors could later boast in town of their encounter. “We were fishing today out on Papoose, and who did we talk to but ol’ Bob Ellis in his rowboat!”
Ellis, after all, was a legend among Northwoods fishermen, especially muskie hunters. He was a friendly expert and easily recognized off the water and on. Even if fellow anglers didn’t know his face, they knew Ellis by reputation and often connected the clues to ID him.
Ellis was a big, tall, physically fit old-timer who row-trolled his drab 12-foot Shell Lake Portager for suspended muskies in deep water. Who besides Ellis—a former University of Wisconsin boxer and World War II B-25 pilot—would squeeze between the gunwales of that “Twinkie skiff,” looking like a linebacker shoehorned into the caboose of a kiddy train at an amusement park?
The transom on Ellis’ skiff never held an engine. The skiff’s only accessories, located in the stern, were an electronic fish-finder and two V-notched homemade rod holders for his stumpy 5 ½-foot Eagle Claw muskie rods. Ellis caught at least 1,000 keepers in 50-plus years of muskie fishing. His largest—a 54-inch, 40.5-pounder—struck in late November 1983 while suspended 10 feet down over 35 or 70 feet of water, depending on who you ask.
Ellis row-trolled from May until the last lakes froze shut in late November, which often left the region’s big muskies to him alone. Iced-in boat landings only encouraged him. He pushed his skiff across the sheet while checking its thickness with an ice fishing spud. He hopped aboard when distrusting the ice, and push-poled with the spud to open water. Going out was easy. “The trick is getting back up on the ice at quitting time,” he wrote in an article published posthumously in the June/July 2001 issue of Musky Hunter Magazine.
Ellis’ vast experience on the water likely betrayed him on that gray November day in 1989. Thirty-two years later, Dave Dlobik, Ellis’ nephew, and Duane Harpster, the conservation warden who led the accident investigation, think Ellis realized the danger too late to row from harm’s way.
“People pulled up to him all the time, and he probably thought they’d turn any second,” Dlobik said.
Ellis couldn’t have known the muskie boat’s driver and passenger never saw him. They had fished Papoose all day without seeing another boat, including his as he rowed out from the landing beneath the far hillside. The men thought they were alone on the lake while motoring to another spot, and never realized Ellis was in their path.
The muskie boat hit Ellis dead-center, driving its bow eye into his head above the temple. The impact knocked him into the water unconscious, where he lay face down in his flotation coat. The boat rode over Ellis’ skiff, caving in its starboard side and breaking an oar. The boat’s keel and strakes scratched and gouged the skiff’s gunwales, and the engine’s lower unit capsized the skiff as it passed over.
The men looked back, assuming they had hit a log. Instead, they saw Ellis floating near his overturned skiff. The driver spun the boat around and pulled alongside Ellis’ lifeless body, but the men couldn’t lift the heavily clothed 6-foot man aboard. As they struggled with him and viewed the skiff, they assumed he had capsized earlier and drowned or died of hypothermia.
After concluding Ellis was dead and that they’d never haul him aboard, the men looped a rope under his arms and secured him to the gunwale. One man stayed beside Ellis while the other motored slowly to the landing to contact the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“It was such a tragedy,” said Harpster, now 75 and retired after 20 years as the county’s conservation warden. “I don’t know how many times I motored over to Bob while he rowed, paced alongside him, and shot the breeze. I checked his license the first time, but never asked again. Anyone who rowed as many miles as he did, just to catch a fish he usually released, wouldn’t fish without a license.”
Investigating a Tragedy
In Harpster’s 30-year career, only two times he knew the victims of fatal accidents. Ellis was the first. A sheriff’s deputy approached Harpster when he arrived at the Papoose landing and handed him the victim’s driver’s license.
“I’ll never forget the shock and sadness when I saw Bob’s name,” Harpster said.
When he interviewed the two fishermen, they were sure the skiff was already capsized when they hit it. But while inspecting the skiff that night, Harpster noticed scratches on its gunwales and sides that didn’t match the men’s statements.
Harpster contacted the district attorney along with fellow wardens Gary Scovel and Bob Tucker, who then inspected the muskie boat outside the fishermen’s motel room in Boulder Junction. They interviewed the men again and stored the muskie boat at a nearby marina. A couple days later, the state’s investigative team secured a cable between the boat’s bow and stern and raised it high enough with a forklift to slip the skiff beneath it. After aligning the boat’s keel and strakes with damage to the skiff, investigators knew the skiff was upright when struck.
Harpster drove to Madison for the autopsy, where the coroner concluded Ellis had drowned. “The boat’s bow eye didn’t fracture Bob’s skull, which suggests the boat wasn’t going fast,” Harpster said. “It matched the fishermen’s testimony that the bow was up, blocking the cold air. But the blow incapacitated him. He couldn’t have lifted his head or turned himself over in the water.”
A jury at the subsequent coroner’s inquest ruled the boat’s driver caused Ellis’ death, but found no criminal conduct. The man pleaded guilty to a civil negligence charge and paid a fine, ending the case. Harpster agreed with the outcome.
“Those guys believed in their hearts that they told the truth about the accident,” Harpster said. “They felt awful and didn’t try to cover up anything. They had only one story, and it never changed. But after we laid out all the facts at the inquest, the driver admitted his guilt. He came over to me afterward and said, ‘I ran him over, didn’t I?’ It was so sad.”
A Preferred End
Bob Ellis’ death still haunts his family, but they hesitate to call it “tragic.” Nephew Dick Ellis recalls walking into “Uncle Bobby’s” cabin in Oct. 1987 and finding him frozen in thought.
“He was just standing there,” Dick said. “He had just learned his good friend Ben Bendrick had died up in Canada after shooting a moose. Ben was 61 and hunting with his son-in-law. After gutting the moose, Ben blazed a trail to their boat. When he returned to the moose and his son-in-law, he suddenly died. We all knew Ben really well. I felt bad, but Uncle Bob said: ‘Yeah, but what a way to go. I sure hope I die on the water.’ Two years later, he did.”
Bob Ellis had no children. He was divorced and lived alone for years before his death. Jim Ellis, another nephew, framed a handwritten poem, “Walking Alone,” that Bob wrote. It reads:
Today I awoke to leaden skies and falling snow A lake turned white and pines bent low. I dressed, I washed, I ate alone And gleaned a day to be God’s own. To most, my life is a lonely one But to God and me it’s really fun!
“I don’t feel bad about how he died,” Jim said. “It was his reward to go that way. He wanted to die while doing something he loved. He wasn’t trapped in bed 10 years with a horrible disease.”
Bob Ellis owned a four-cabin resort on Island Lake and he rented the cabins each summer to clients who became lifelong friends. Each cabin held one of his mounted muskies with one of his homemade baits in its mouth. Dlobik said Ellis was a planner, organizer, and list-maker who kept rigid schedules.
That is, until the muskies turned on. “You never saw Uncle Bob unshaven unless the fishing was good,” Dlobik said.
Jim Ellis agreed. “Uncle Bob kept his cabin neat and clean,” he said “He laid out his hairbrush, toothbrush, and razor beside the bathroom sink the same way every day. He planned his chores based on his expectations for fishing. But when the muskies went nuts, he ditched his routines. He fished every minute he was awake, except to eat. His sink filled with dirty dishes. His house became a mess.”
Bob Ellis knew every hump, reef, trench, weed bed, and rocky point on the 35 lakes he fished regularly. He’s most recognized, however, for targeting open-water muskies by keying on suspended cisco schools 5 to 20 feet down over 30 to 90 feet of water in the deeper lakes. GPS technology wasn’t yet available, but Ellis kept at least 500 shoreline checkpoints in his head to triangulate his favorite sites.
When spotting cisco schools on his old Lowrance “Green Box” or an LCR unit later in life, Ellis considered the schools a “moving structure.” In the February/March 1990 issue of Musky Hunter, Joe Bucher, the magazine’s founder, quoted Ellis describing how he row-trolled his baits over, downwind, upwind, crosswind, and alongside each school until something worked. Bucher said Ellis was so good at interpreting baitfish patterns on his screen that he knew if a lake was “on.”
Three years after Ellis died, Bucher found four hours of cassette recordings of his Ellis interviews. Bucher transcribed and edited their talks into three Musky Hunter articles in 1993.
Ellis typically row-trolled perch-colored baits in summer and silvery cisco patterns in autumn. He said he caught more muskies at the edges of baitfish schools than anywhere else. When his screen showed the end of a school, he turned his skiff sharply, often triggering a strike. He said sharp turns in and out along the edge of cisco schools is row-trolling’s version of a boat-side figure 8. He believed muskies typically trailed row-trolled lures to assess them and engulfed them tail-first when striking. In contrast, he said, muskies strike retrieved lures from the side.
Dlobik said his uncle often fished at night, rigging a tiny red light to his rod tip with a wire down the rod to a 9-volt battery. He also rigged a contraption on one oar to give jerkbaits more action. “He made ingenious stuff long before technology made things so simple,” Dlobik said. “Even if he could buy something, he usually made it himself.”
Late in life, Ellis kept an alarm clock in his boat and set it to ring every other hour. “He was losing circulation in his legs, so he hit various checkpoints every two hours,” Dlobik said. “Then he got out, walked around for five minutes, got back in, and rowed his next route.”
Dlobik inherited Ellis’ “Twinkie skiff” the summer after his death. He said he easily repaired the skiff’s damage from the fatal collision, but he finds it unstable compared to most row-trolling boats. In fact, Dlobik said he wouldn’t use it if it weren’t his uncle’s boat. “It carries so much history,” he said. As Bill Gardner reported in his classic book “Time on the Water,” Ellis literally wore out his skiff. He had to redo its fiberglass bottom after years of dragging it up and down gravel landings.
Ellis, after all, never trailered the skiff. He removed his Subaru hatchback’s front passenger seat to fit the skiff halfway in. He could launch it nearly anywhere. When the slope to Papoose Lake or other landings was icy or snow-covered, Ellis didn’t venture downhill in his car. Gardner wrote: “He just parks at the top and pulls his boat down there and back up again.”
Dlobik also replaced his uncle’s V-notched rod-holders in the stern with manufactured adjustable models. After all, he didn’t like Uncle Bob’s method of pressing the rod butts to the skiff’s bottom with his feet. A decade later, he disliked that technique even more.
“Uncle Bob fished so often that his feet nearly wore right through,” Dlobik said. “The skiff’s bottom was always very thin and soft beneath my right foot. One day water started coming in while I rowed. My Uncle Stan is good at fiberglassing, so he reconditioned it for me.”
The Bob Ellis Classic
Dlobik and other Ellis family members often visit the Skyview Lodge in Presque Isle for the annual Bob Ellis Classic Row-Trolling Tournament. The event’s purpose since its 2004 debut is to deliver fun fishing and camaraderie to honor Uncle Bobby.
Therefore, the “tournament” offers no prize money and charges no entry fees. The “biggest fish” winner receives a traveling trophy featuring a Bob Ellis handmade bait. The winner must return the next year to bring back the trophy and re-enter the Classic.
The event attracts 40 to 50 row-trollers on 20 to 25 boats. Participants sign up at Skyview around 8 a.m. and tell the director which of Bob’s favorite lakes they’ll fish: Big, Clear, Crab, Papoose, or Presque Isle. They return at 4 p.m. to eat, drink, ogle each other’s boats, and ponder why few muskies struck.
“My uncle would have loved the Bob Ellis Classic because it’s not all about him,” Jim Ellis said. “He’d want everyone to have fun and catch the biggest fish of their life.”
In “Time on the Water,” Gardner describes Ellis as humble, engaging, and grateful. He considered Ellis’ life comparable to Hemingway’s great fishing story, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
In a letter to Gardner in the late 1980s, Ellis wrote: “I pray that when my Creator puts me on his stringer, he will say, ‘Bobby, I have a dandy lake that never freezes filled with lunker muskies, and a Twinkie skiff you can use and troll for eternity.”
Assuming the Creator answered that prayer, Ellis is still fishing far offshore in 70 feet of water, studying his ol’ Green Box, and zigzagging the edge of a baitfish school 15 feet down. Listen closely. You’ll hear him whispering, “Ciscoes, and at the best depth!”