A lake in North Dakota has been named in honor of Jay Nelson, the well-regarded former Lake Park Police Chief who was killed last fall in a hunting-related accident that shocked and saddened the community.
Nelson's family members say the naming of Jay Nelson Lake, near Jamestown, is a touching and apt memorial for a man who loved the Great Outdoors as much as Nelson did.
"I think it's a great compliment," said Lisa Nelson, Jay's sister. "He loved fishing and hunting and was an outdoorsman. I think it's a great honor to have something like this, especially where he started his law enforcement career, in the Jamestown area."
Nelson was once a deputy sheriff in Stutsman County, of which Jamestown is the county seat. A Detroit Lakes native, he held various positions at law enforcement agencies in North Dakota and Minnesota over the span of his 30-plus year career. Most recently, he worked as a deputy at the Becker County Sheriff's Department before taking on the role of Chief of Police in Lake Park. He retired in 2015.
Nelson's uncle, Dwaine Heinrich, who is the mayor of Jamestown and played a key role in the naming of Jay Nelson Lake, said his nephew's only career ambition, from the time he was very young, was to be a police officer.
"He was always a thoughtful, considerate type of person," said Heinrich. "I think he truly wanted to help people, and I think he did that."
Even after retiring, Nelson continued to be very active in his community. He worked for the Rolling R Bison Ranch in Cormorant, volunteered with the Lake Park Fire Department, and served for nearly a year on the Lake Park City Council. He was respected and well liked by those who knew him.
His namesake lake is a roughly 1,000-acre, 25-foot-deep lake located a few miles south of the tiny town of Medina, just west of Jamestown. Previously unnamed and undeveloped, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is currently in the process of stocking the lake with walleye to turn it into a fishery.
Heinrich owns land along the southeast shore of the lake and had already been working with the Game and Fish Department in its walleye stocking efforts when the naming opportunity knocked. Lakes like this one are often named after the local landowner who grants public access to the lake, explained BJ Kratz, the Southeast District Fisheries manager for the department; or, the landowner can suggest a name.
In this case, Heinrich was that landowner, and he suggested the name Jay Nelson Lake. He had signed the public access agreement with the Game and Fish Department just four days before Nelson's death, and he thought naming the lake after his nephew would be a fitting tribute. Other nearby property owners, as well as the local sportsmen's club, were supportive of the idea, so Kratz and the department gave 'Jay Nelson Lake' the official approval.
"I thought it would be a good thing to do," Kratz said, adding that, "We thought it was a good way to honor Heinrich's suggestion, and also Mr. Nelson, too."
If all goes well with the walleye stocking efforts, as is expected, then Jay Nelson Lake will be classified and added to the state's database within the next few years. At that point, the lake will likely be further developed with a boat ramp. Right now, it's mainly used for ice fishing, Kratz said.
Once Jay Nelson Lake is more accessible and ready for walleye fishing, it should be "a very nice edition to Medina and Stutsman County," said Heinrich.
His hope is that the lake will become a place where Nelson's two sons, Jacob and Jon, bring their children to enjoy the outdoors "and remember their grandpa." He believes his nephew would be "pleased to be remembered this way."
"We're just very honored," said Sheila 'Toots' Nelson, Jay's widow. She and other family members plan to visit the lake sometime this spring or summer, after the weather warms up.
Jay Nelson was hunting near Little Flat Lake, on the White Earth Reservation in Becker County, when he was killed by a gunshot wound. A stray bullet hit his vehicle while he was driving on a logging trail on Nov. 10, 2018. He was 53 years old.
An Ogema man, Morris Silas Dodd, Jr., was later arrested in connection with Nelson's death and charged with second degree manslaughter and a felon in possession of a firearm. He told authorities he fired a shot toward a fawn to try and scare it, and did not see Nelson's vehicle nor did he purposefully shoot at it or Nelson. Dodd's next court appearance is scheduled for March 11 at the Becker County Courthouse.
"Obviously, it's a tragedy," said Heinrich of Nelson's death. "And there's nothing we can do about it, so you have to look at it as, 'How do we draw some good out of this?' ...Well, maybe by remembering him, and that's one of the things that we're doing here. Also, by remembering not just him, but how he lived his life. By learning from his example."