Fish on, forever

John Russell hooks a 32-inch sturgeon just three days before his 91st birthday

By Dan Trujillo, Columbian staff writer

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John Russell loves telling fishing stories.

“I’m an albacore fisherman,” he said. “I could tell you I caught 22 of them in one day, but you probably wouldn’t believe me.”

Russell said he hooked a 115-pound halibut at the tender age of 88. He also caught two, 100-pound tunas during a fishing trip to Hawaii.

“Anybody can fish. My favorite part is catching them,” Russell said. “Whether that’s paying attention to what’s going on, pushing the other guy out of the way or cutting the other guy’s fishing line.”

But recently, Russell has been clinging on to life. A severe heart disease has limited his mobility, but also given Russell an indomitable spirit to live. His doctor told him he could no longer deep sea fish because it is too far away from the shore. All of his old buddies who had boats that he could go fresh water fishing with have passed away.

After three years of hearing “you can’t do this, you can’t do that” from doctors, Russell thought he would never have a new fishing story to tell. Fortunately, somebody was listening.

“Two months ago, I visited Mr. Russell and he told me how much he loved to fish,” said Hospice Southwest nurse practitioner Suzanne Lutts. “He showed me all of his pictures from previous fishing trips and he just glowed. You could see the passion in his eyes and hear the joy in his voice as he reminisced.

“I always ask my patients if there is something more that we can be helping them with,” she added. “Mr. Russell chuckled and said, “well, you could take me fishing.”

Lutts contacted some friends and fellow nurses, one of which was Denise Hood. Denise and her husband Randy turned to their friend Matt Justis, who works at Edward Jones Financial in Camas. Justis volunteered to take Russell out fishing on his boat Thursday, and Hood and her husband came along to supervise.

Russell dressed appropriately for the adventure. He wore a shirt that said, “To fish or not to fish? What a stupid question!”

“I can’t wait,” Russell said. “I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. I haven’t been out fishing in two to three years.

“If I come back empty-handed, I’ll be disappointed but tickled to death,” he added. “The only regret I’ll have is that I couldn’t take my wife with me. We went fishing on our honeymoon. Caught some fish, too.”

Millie Russell held back tears watching her husband get on to the boat to go fishing. As they pulled out of the Port of Camas-Washougal, he blew her a kiss and signaled that he loved her.

“This is very emotional,” Millie said. “I am so proud.”

Hood said Justis took Russell down the Columbia River all the way to Ridgefield, before they turned back. They returned to the port at about 6 p.m., but not before Russell hooked himself a 32-inch sturgeon.

The whole trip was quite a story for Russell to share with his friends and family on his 91st birthday Monday.

“It feels absolutely phenomenal to give John that wish,” Hood said. “I am just so glad that Suzie Lutts started the ball rolling on this wonderful gift.”