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A fishing pioneer: J.R. Cooper to be inducted in Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame

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J.R. Cooper examines a freshly caught northern pike Friday, Feb. 22, before releasing it through the ice on White Sand Lake. Cooper was fishing with a group of students from Pillager Area Charter School. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service2 / 4
Joe Beach, left, student at Pillager Area Charter School, holds his ice fishing rig while J.R. Cooper opens a tin of meal worms. Nominated for the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame, Cooper dedicated his life to helping people learn to fish. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service3 / 4
A family photo shows 5-year-old J.R. Cooper getting into his uncle Cliff Bahma’s wooden guide boat in 1952. On the right is Cooper’s brother Herb, who was too young to go fishing that day. Coop considered it an honor to row the boat all day for his uncle or grandfather. Submitted photo4 / 4

BAXTER, Minn. — J.R. “Coop” Cooper loves to share his knowledge of fishing with anyone who asks.

On Friday, Feb. 22, Cooper and Cindy Gibbs, his wife and fishing partner, were on the ice on White Sand Lake in Baxter teaching students from the Pillager Area Charter School how to fish and most of all how to enjoy a day on the lake.

Cooper recalls times fishing when other anglers have come up to him on the ice and asked why is he catching so many fish and they are not.

Cooper will usually pull his line out of his hole, insert the angler’s line and proceed to show the individual how to consistently catch fish. It is this attitude that has endeared him to such fishing legends at Al and Ron Lindner, Royal Karels, Babe Winkelman and other greats.

Cooper will be inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in March. He was nominated by Jim Kalkofen, member of the National Freshwater Hall of Fame and longtime outdoor journalist.

According to Kalkofen, Cooper is one of the all-time greats when it comes to Minnesota fishing.

Cooper has been a fishing guide his whole life, starting out by rowing the cedar-strip boat for his grandfather on North Long Lake as a child.

“I was just a young kid and feel honored to have learned many of my grandpa's fish tips during our fishing times together," Coop said. “You learn so much from the anglers you take out, especially the elders. They always have a tip that sticks with me,”

Other than being a lure developer, he’s won over 75 bass and pike tournaments and conducted thousands of seminars at area resorts in the summer and sport shows in the winter. His company connections are Clam, Northland Tackle, Soturi Custom Tackle and Vexilar.

Cooper worked for BNSF Railway for 25 years and periodically returned to college to update his industry knowledge, as well as taking courses in fish biology.

In his early guiding years, Cooper booked many trips with the numerous resorts and bait shops. In 1982, the experienced guide started the Area Guide Service, with five full-time guides and 18 on-call guides. He specialized in bass, pike and muskies, with walleye on request during the nine years operating Area Guide Service.

Cooper started and co-owned Impact Lure Co. with the late Jeff Wrobel, designing and marketing hand-tooled hard baits, as well as heaver spinner baits for 16 years. He appeared in a number of TV productions and at multiple Minnesota governor's fishing openers.

Cooper’s tournament schedule now includes charitable fishing events for Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, Nick Adams Memorial Fishing Classic, Fishing Has No Boundaries, Confidence Learning Center, and the Coop’s Classic, named in Cooper’s honor. He also works with Wounded Warrior Fishing.

In 2009, Cooper helped start the Brainerd lakes area chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, which provides fishing opportunities for older adults, veterans, youths and those who are disabled on Gull, Bay, Rice and Pelican lakes. In the 1970s, Cooper, Brian Ray and several others began Brainerd’s Take a Kid Fishing Day. Over the years, the kids’ events became popular across Minnesota.

Still fishing competitively, in 2018 Cooper and Gibbs placed first in the Nor-Son Pike Division of the Minnesota Fishing Challenge multi-species tournament on Gull Lake. The pair was among 127 teams that helped raise nearly $300,000 for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

He also won in the pike division of the 34th Annual Nick Adams Memorial Fishing Classic for Confidence Learning Center at Madden’s on Gull Lake. In keeping with those Confidence Learning Center roots, Cooper was honored with the Everett Lassig Award given to the Fishing Classic Ambassador of the Year.

Even though his humble demeanor does not reflect it, Cooper is very proud to be part of the fishing history as a pioneering legend.

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