Serendipitous is a word Tom Helgeson would have liked, and probably did. A newspaperman who had more poet in him than ink-stained wretch, and more fly fisherman in him than either, Helgeson, were he alive, would have considered the enthusiasm that will unfold this weekend at Hamline University, site of the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo, and thought ... serendipitous.
A onetime deputy managing editor of the old Minneapolis Star, Helgeson up and quit in 1982. He might not have told his bosses exactly why he was leaving, but the truth was, as he said privately, “I just couldn’t play the game anymore.” Also he had a new love: moving water. Or, more specifically, moving water and fly fishing.
Helgeson died in 2010, having had quite a run in the game he did want to play. He owned a fly shop in south Minneapolis. He founded a fly-fishing magazine. And he started the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo, the latest iteration of which, sponsored by Trout Unlimited, runs Friday through Sunday at Hamline.
Almost all of it was ... serendipitous.
Growing up in Redwood Falls in southwest Minnesota, Helgeson was taught to fish by an uncle. This was bobber-and-worm angling, and plenty of fun. But years afterward, as a St. Olaf student, and later still while in the Marine Corps, and during a string of newspaper jobs leading to his career at the Star, fishing fell by the wayside.
“I pretty much had lost all of my outdoor connections,” he would recall.
Then one day a newsroom pal invited him to fish for trout in Wisconsin’s Kinnickinnic River.
“He used to berate me for beer drinking after work and suggested I’d be a better human being if I went over and fished with him,” Helgeson would say. “Well, I did fish with him. I didn’t become a better human being, but I loved it.
“It’s hard to explain. It was so outrageously romantic. The first time I stepped into the river, it felt like I had come home. I’ve been grateful ever since.”
Helgeson had no idea what he was doing, career-wise. He wasn’t trained in business. He wasn’t even a skilled fly angler. So there was no reasonable chance in the near term he could make a living with a rod, reel and pair of waders.
“I didn’t think about it,” he said of the job switch. “It seemed to me at the time to be a good lifestyle that would allow me to explore the outdoors in a more intimate way.”
If there’s a lesson here, and there is, it’s that the drumbeat of bad news that punctuates the cadence of modern life needn’t define the days ahead. As the great philosopher Willie Nelson once said, “One you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
Neither soothsayer nor prophet, Helgeson couldn’t have known that his enchantment with flowing water and the many life-forms it supports, fish especially, would, in time, enjoin him with a community of others who, similarly smitten, gathered enthusiastically to share his reverence for these resources and their common desire to protect them.
Which is one definition of what will happen this weekend at Hamline.
But it wasn’t always so. In the 1980s, when Helgeson swapped his editor’s pen for a fly rod, the notion that fly fishing in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan — broadly speaking, the Midwest — was worthy of celebrating was rarely uttered.
Instead, as a fly angler, out West is where you aspired to be. That’s where big trout swam in big rivers flowing from mountain to plain.
Or so the thinking went.
As manifested by this weekend’s expo, that notion has radically changed.
Others played key roles in this still-evolving appreciation of the warm- and cold-water fly fishing opportunities that abound regionally, not least Tom Waters, Mel Haugstad, Bob Mitchell and others. But it was Helgeson’s magazine, Midwest Fly Fishing, that crystallized this perception when it was founded in 1994.
So if you find yourself at Hamline this weekend, and you take in a fly-tying seminar offered by Skip Morris; a Mississippi-River-smallmouth-bass-on-a-fly discussion led by Kip Vieth; a Brule River workshop taught by Damian Wilmot; a chat with Mel Hayner about fishing the Driftless Area of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa; or listen while any of the other two dozen or so experts detail their insights, expertise and experiences about Midwest fly fishing, listen to what is said.
But be open also to something “outrageously romantic.”
Because nearly every day hereabout, May through September, a brown trout sips a size 18 Adams from the surface of a mirrored stream, a muskie gobbles a streamer adrift in swift current and a smallmouth bass catapults itself skyward for a popper slung to the shallows.
Figuring out a way to be there when they do is a positive thing. From which, as Helgeson demonstrated, however serendipitously, more positive things will follow.