MINNEAPOLIS -- Ray Ruiz synced his phone to a portable speaker and wedged it near the steering wheel of his sleek fishing boat as he prepared for an evening of catching smallmouth bass in the skyline shadows of downtown Minneapolis.
"Ready to rip some lips?" he asked. "What tunes you wanna hear? You like Skynyrd? I think they might be biting on Skynyrd."
The longtime beer salesman motored away from the public docks at Boom Island to his favorite Twin Cities fishing hole: a funky stretch of the Mississippi River between downtown's U.S. Post Office and the Lowry Avenue Bridge in northeast Minneapolis.
The water was 84 degrees, glassy and low. In four hours of tossing soft plastic lures into the shallows, the two of us saw just three other boats. But the action was nonstop. The smallies fought and the shoreline pathways buzzed with joggers, dog walkers, baby strollers, cyclists, skateboarders and a few outdoor yoga practitioners.
The urban surroundings were fitting for Ruiz, an extrovert of high order whose new job for the Department of Natural Resources is to work with diverse metro area community groups to increase participation in fishing.
Before COVID-19, he hosted a successful open house at DNR headquarters in St. Paul to share information about fishing, hunting, licensing and the environment with Twin Cities Latino families. He's also built active fishing programs inside seven or eight groups of people who don't have traditional hunting and fishing backgrounds.
One of those ongoing efforts is at Father Project, a Minneapolis charity that primarily serves low-income, non-custodial fathers. Another group is Casa de Esperanza, a leader in the movement against domestic violence. He's training the leaders of those groups how to incorporate fishing as a lasting activity, sometimes using small grants to help them buy equipment and transportation.
James Burnham, DNR's hunter and fishing recruitment coordinator, said Ruiz brought new energy and perspectives to the agency when he arrived two years ago. He lost his previous job during a workforce reduction at J.J. Taylor Distributing Co., a large Twin Cities beer wholesaler. He found a niche at the DNR when the agency asked him to run the I Can Fish! program.
"Ray was definitely making more money in the beer industry, but this gets him closer to fishing and I don't think that's hard math for Ray," Burnham said.
Burnham quickly bonded with Ruiz because they're both averse to unnecessary "what-if preparations" that can sometimes slow down the DNR and other agencies. He said Ruiz attacks his job with infectious, make-it-happen enthusiasm.