MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. – Elisa Bernstein was surrounded by familiar faces and people she knew and loved. All were enjoying lunch, their final meal together perhaps, to honor her pending retirement from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
There were gifts in boxes scattered about and well wishes aplenty. There were tears too. After 30 years of service in Canada’s world-renowned law enforcement brigade, Elisa was leaving.
It was a Thursday afternoon, Nov. 30 to be exact, and though she may have wanted to hang back in Ottawa and swap memories with her Mountie colleagues, Elisa had new horizons ahead.
She and her eldest son Sam Lauzon left Ottawa directly from the farewell party and headed south in the family’s Toyota Rav4. Their old Triton bass boat was trailing behind it.
That’s a lot of weight to carry behind a vehicle that small, but Elisa is used to heavy loads.
An admitted tomboy as a girl in northern Ontario, Elisa didn’t flinch when she signed up to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – a historically dedicated police force if there ever was one. She worked her way through the ranks and by the time she retired a couple weeks ago at age 53, she was director of the RCMP’s National Operations Center.
She’s also a single mother of three boys, which any single parent can tell you is no easy feat.
And as proof she really likes a challenge, Elisa is an avid scuba diver.
“There’s no scuba diving in Canada,” she said. “But I go places where I can scuba.”
There is bass fishing in Canada, however, and both mother and son are proficient in their sport. Since 2014, they’ve fished competitively on the Renegade Bass Team Trail which is one of the premier bass fishing organizations in Canada. Elisa and Sam didn’t have the best showing on the 2017 Renegade circuit, but a few teams ahead of them in the season standings couldn’t make the trip to Mountain Home, Ark., to represent the trail in the Toyota Bonus Bucks Bassmaster Team Championship which was held Dec. 6-9 on Norfork Lake.
Elisa and Sam could however. After all, Elisa had just retired and had nothing but time in front of her. And Sam, 24 years old and recently graduated from the University of Ottawa with a bachelor of science degree in psychology, had some free time too.
So south they drove, for 1,308 miles and nearly 24 hours.
When Elisa and Sam travel throughout Canada for tournaments, the driver always gets control of the radio dial. Elisa opts for the 1970s and 80s classic rock she grew up listening to – Billy Joel, Styx, REO Speedwagon.
Sam likes country music. He and his mom’s tastes don’t always align.
Elisa and Sam stopped someplace in Indiana the night before arriving in the heart of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains for 2 1/2 days of practice. When the team championship began on Dec. 6, they sported jerseys they designed. The shirts featured the B.A.S.S. shield and a Bassmaster Team Championship logo, as well as the bright red letters “RBT” which signified the duo’s allegiance to Renegade.
And on the hemline of each shirt sleeve, a single maple leaf.
Elisa and Sam were proud to represent their home country in the U.S.A. – where B.A.S.S. and millions of bass fishing dreams were born.
Make it big
When Elisa Bernstein’s three boys were younger, they each showed an interest in fishing. She recalls making trips to her parents’ winter home near Lake Okeechobee in Florida. When the boys weren’t begging to wet a line in one of the area’s golf course ponds, they were hounding a local bass fishing guide for tips.
Back in Canada, Elisa bought a 14-foot aluminum skiff with a small 20-horsepower outboard on back to entertain the boys. She started driving north much more often where she’d enter the boys in local bass tournaments. Because the boys were so young (Sam was only 14 at the time), they all could fit in the skiff. And because the tournaments were small-scale, organizers didn’t care if there were three sticks on the boat rather than two.
Elisa played the role of “Bass Mom” – cheering from the shorelines and snapping pictures of her boys at each weigh-in. But when the two younger boys couldn’t make it to a tournament one time in 2011, Sam had no partner.
Elisa jumped into the skiff, and she and 16-year-old Sam won the tournament.
“We caught 3-pounders for two hours straight,” she recalled of that day on Lake Timiskaming which lies on the border between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. “It was incredible.”
If Sam wasn’t hooked on bass fishing by that point, he certainly was now. Mom was pretty excited too. Soon, Elisa bought the Triton and the duo was entering bigger tournaments, and eventually Renegade Bass Trail events. Those experiences paved their path to the 2017 Team Championship in Arkansas. It was the first American tournament the Elisa and Sam entered, and it made a big impression on them both.
The first thing Sam noticed was the emphasis on production that B.A.S.S. put into each competition. He noted the music pumped through the PA before launch (“The Eminem definitely woke me up,” he said.) as well as inspirational talks from anglers that further roused his desire to do well in his most important tournament to date.
Sam was particularly impressed by the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before launch and weigh-in each day. He said he’s going to recommend to Renegade officials they begin playing “O Canada,” which is the Canadian national anthem, before that tour’s events.
“They really make you feel special here,” Sam said after weigh-in one day.
“I haven’t been the same since we found out we were coming,” Elisa said. “It really makes me emotional. It’s such an honor.”
Taking all takers
Elisa and Sam are used to the cold, so they weren’t fazed by the freezing temperatures that greeted the 162 team trail tandems on Norfork Lake. Under particularly difficult conditions, they finished Day 1 with a five-bass limit that weighed 10 pounds, 12 ounces, which put them in a tie for 15th place.
Day 2 wasn’t as kind, however. Mother and son caught only three bass, one of which was an undersized largemouth they thought was a spotted bass. The weight didn’t count, and the team slipped to 57th overall with a two-day total of 14 pounds, 4 ounces.
There was no disappointment the next morning however, when they could sleep in and grab a warm breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Mountain Home. The hotel expense, like every other thing about their trip to the team championship, came on their own dime.
“We don’t have any sponsors,” Elisa said. “Not one. It was a conflict of interest being a Mountie.”
“She’s been our sponsor since Day 1,” Sam said.
Now that Elisa is retired, she said they may seek out a few sponsors to help defray the costs of participating not only on the Renegade Bass Trail, but also on any future U.S. tournaments they may enter.
Sam also is considering fishing some individual events in the U.S., though he said his primary dedication is to Renegade and his mom.
“You can make a living fishing for bass in the States,” he said. “It’s something to consider.”
“Sam really has a knack for finding fish,” Elisa said. “His dad is an excellent fly fisherman, though he likes to fish for trout. Sam’s a great fly fisherman too. He really has a talent, and I always know he’ll put me on fish, no matter where we are or what we’re fishing for.”
With the 2017 bass fishing season complete and Canada’s waterways soon to be frozen over for the winter, Sam will focus on the things typical 23 year olds do. He currently works for an outdoors supply store back in Ontario, where he uses his employee discount to score great deals on fishing gear. Sam also has a girlfriend – a young woman named Jessica Pearson who is a talented musician with a new Christmas song out titled “O Children Come.” He directs friends to her Facebook page and says she’s going to be the next big thing in music.
Perhaps Elisa and Sam will listen to that tune on the Rav4 stereo sometime during the 1,308-mile drive back home to Ottawa. Jessica’s music is, after all, one thing they both enjoy.
That and bass fishing, of course.