WATSON — Here’s how much a youth growing up in Eden Prairie came to love hunting and fishing in the Lac qui Parle area of western Minnesota, thanks to the good fortune of having grandparents with a farm there.
Chuck Ellingson was no more than 14 years old, toting a 20-gauge shotgun while walking along railroad tracks near his grandparents' farm when he tossed a shotgun shell in a pond of water and made a wish: “I want to live here someday.”
“And it came true,” said Ellingson, now 43. Today, he makes hunting and fishing his full-time vocation as the owner of the Watson Hunting Camp near the shores of Lac qui Parle Lake. The Hunting Camp’s signature barn, originally built in 1911 and remodeled with a Northwoods ambience to hold a restaurant and bar as well as lodging, is found only two miles from the farm of his late grandparents.
No different than three decades earlier, all of the hunting and fishing adventures anyone with a penchant for the outdoors would enjoy are found right here.
It’s all made possible with the help of Ellingson and a team of four seasonal guides. He started his guiding service at his grandparents’ farm shortly after graduating from Eden Prairie High School in 1996. In 2003, his father co-signed a loan that allowed him to purchase the barn and adjoining property from a group of hunters and open up the Watson Hunting Camp.
“When it rained outside, it rained inside here,” laughed Ellingson as he chatted in the barn he converted into a restaurant.
Things have improved here ever since: Over a year ago he added an event center on the grounds to hold weddings and large gatherings, and he’s added more lodging opportunities on the property since the original purchase. The Hunting Camp has hosted two Governor Pheasant Openers, including the state’s first in 2011.
Ellingson said the restaurant, bar and entertainment venue are all important for the business from a financial standpoint, but the focus remains one thing: His customers come from far and near to enjoy the hunting and fishing that had hooked Ellingson as a youth.
Many of his customers make longer trips to reach this destination than the Canada geese and other waterfowl they seek. This season’s guest list includes hunters from Florida to California, and many of the states in between. Just the other week, a group from Bozeman, Montana, rolled in for a three-day hunt. Another group of buddies from Colorado decided to make the Hunting Camp their base for a week of freelance hunting in western Minnesota.
It’s like this from September through December. It’s “very, very busy” with parties of hunters, Ellingson said. Many come as families, others are groups of buddies, and yet others are co-workers who participate in corporate-sponsored getaways.
With more than $150,000 invested in waterfowl hunting equipment, Ellingson said he can offer quality hunts for both experienced hunters as well as those new to the sport and lacking equipment of any sort.
The camp is on track to host 275 or more guided hunting parties this waterfowl season, Ellingson said. This is a busy season, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The closing of Canada to U.S. visitors has brought more business his way, Ellingson said.
The busy pace for Ellingson continues through the winter months as well. He keeps Ice Castle fishing houses on Lac qui Parle Lake for customers who keep them filled.
“Everybody seems to know Lac qui Parle and what kind of crappies and walleye are in it,” he said.
Along with the waterfowl hunting and fishing, he also guides spring turkey hunts.
The business also offers a shooting preserve for pheasants. Ellingson said it is used often by experienced hunters introducing young people to pheasant hunting.
Ellingson said he discovered right from the start that the Lac qui Parle area enjoys a strong reputation for waterfowl hunting and fishing, and his business has benefited from it.
While in high school he thought of possibly guiding in northern Minnesota or Canada, but decided that Lac qui Parle was the place for him. He said he’s drawn to Lac qui Parle for its people as much as its outdoor resources.
“It’s how nice all the people are,” he said.
When he would ask permission as a youth to hunt a property, he needed only to mention his grandparents' names.
“Oh, OK, so you’re his grandson, so go out there and hunt then,” said Ellingson of the responses he received.
Those connections are important to his business today. Ellingson has access to roughly 20,000 acres of private lands in the Lac qui Parle area for his customers, thanks to his relationships with area landowners. The area also features more than 8,000 acres of public lands, making it one of the state’s most popular outdoor destinations.
Yet gone are the days when Lac qui Parle was the only show in town when it came to goose hunting. Geese are widely distributed throughout the state these days, though the Lac qui Parle area remains a major migration route.
Ellingson said he and his guides devote the end of every day to scouting the locations of migrating flocks of geese and waterfowl. The next morning they’re ready to bring clients to the locations offering the best locations for success, with decoys and blinds ready to go.
It’s the same story for fishing. Ellingson spends countless hours in a portable shelter scouting out the best locations for his ice-fishing houses.
His customers enjoy the rewards of the hard work and the success stories get told. The Watson Hunting Camp has been featured on television shows including Rod Schara’s "Minnesota Bound" and "Midwest Outdoors" to Tennessee-based Nick Hoffman’s "Nick’s Wild Rides."
Ellingson said word of mouth and social media also bring many customers, but nothing is more important than the experience itself. A large portion of his customers are repeat visitors.
There is a downside to it for Ellingson.
“I work every weekend. I don’t get a break,” he said.
His wife, Malea, helps with the bookwork and Ellingson devotes time to introducing his sons, ages 5 and 7, to the outdoor life.
Ellingson said it’s all more than he ever dreamt possible when he tossed that shotgun shell into the water all those years ago.
“I thoroughly enjoy, love being in the outdoors doing what I do,” he said.