PRESTON, MINN. – Even now, aided by a walker, Mel Haugstad is surrounded by fish and fishing. Eighty-two years old and struggling with cancer since 2006, the retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager sat in the basement of his home here on a recent day, in the heart of the state’s bluff country, a smallmouth bass and a walleye mounted on one wall, a few trout there as well, and his vast photographic diaries of more than 30,000 fish caught and released spread like playing cards on a nearby table.
“I had 42 radiation treatments at Mayo,” Mel said, “then chemotherapy for a year, then hormone therapy, then a new type of chemotherapy they came up with, which I took here and twice in Florida.
“Now I’m waiting for an experimental drug out of Norway.”
A onetime farm boy, and always a fighter, Mel has been downsized by the years of doctoring and is much slimmer now than his once-imposing self.
A lesser man might have given up the cancer fight by now, were he not, like Mel, so fascinated by fish and fishing, and by record-keeping: Since 1959, Mel has completed an angling report for every one of his fishing trips.
And he’s fished a lot.“From 1959 to 2012, I caught 32,795 trout,” he will tell you. “More than 27,000 of them on flies.”
It was years ago, maybe 30, when Mel and I first bumped into one another in the southeast, in Forestville State Park, both of us angling for browns and the odd brookie.
At the time, Mel was the DNR’s point man in the region for all things trout, working out of the Lanesboro office, and I was a two-bit timewaster in a pair of patched waders, fly rod swinging.
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Mel, of course, when I met him that day, already had slew a bucketful of trout; slew them, that is, had he kept them. But the fish that fell to his steady hand on flies he tied were released.
In the years since, Mel has forever fought for trout and their well-being, even if it meant, at times, fighting his employer, the DNR, or fighting big agriculture, or occasionally, fighting fancy pants fly fishermen who look askance at their bait-slinging brethren.
All the while, he’s caught fish. And more fish. And still more.
“My wife and I started going south for the winter in 2001, to Gulf Shores, Alabama,” Mel said. “I wanted to go to a place where I could catch fish in warmer weather, and for the first year I surf-fished, because I wasn’t aware of the local pier, which I would learn to fish later, and wasn’t aware also that you need to watch the water temperature and the tide down there to understand how fish move.”
Raised in southeast Minnesota near Spring Grove, Mel as a kid always was short of cash. But he could trap gophers that invaded the family farm and surrounding area, and the local authorities at the time had a bounty on the little tunnel diggers. So Mel trapped and saved, trapped and saved, until he had enough funds to lay down for a fly rod.
“My boyhood stream was Bee Creek,” he said. “Its proper name is Waterloo Creek.”
With no mentors to teach him how to cast a fly, or fish one, Mel figured it out by himself.
During that process, one day on Bee Creek he bumped into a passel of fly anglers from Chicago. Decked out as they were in their finery, they, Mel figured, must know how to catch fish, fooling one riser after another as they did.
“So I walked over and asked, ‘Do you think I could try one of your flies on the end of my line?’ ” Mel said. “But they looked at me and my rod and said, ‘You can’t fish a fly on your type of equipment.’
“It was so insulting. I’ll never forget it.”
Which might explain when Mel and I met long ago on Canfield Creek in Forestville State Park why he was so kind to me, and why also he was so proud — as he remains now — of the region’s trout fishery.”
“It wasn’t always that way,” Mel said. “When I worked in St. Paul for the DNR in the early 1960s, if you lived in the Twin Cities and fished trout, you didn’t come to the southeast. You went north. Most of the native trout fishery down here was lost due to logging, burning, clearing the land for agriculture and other poor land practices. Habitat work and education of landowners helped bring it back.”
So did the DNR’s trout hatchery at Lanesboro, which supplied non-native brown trout for stocking in streams throughout the southeast. Also helping was a growing awareness among Minnesota anglers of the picturesque, New England-style trout and trout fishing in the southeast.
Through it all, Mel kept records, recording not only trout he caught in the southeast (he also photographed every fish longer than 16 inches) but also his Alabama fish.
And cancer or not, he’s never stopped working.
Recently, he and Vaughn Snook, assistant area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro, published an intricately detailed compendium of Minnesota trout fishing in the years 1958 to ’63. “It’s valuable historical data,” Mel said.
So it is.
But so is Mel, whether decades ago on Canfield Creek, spry as the gophers he once trapped, or in his basement these many years later, his walker nearby and a smallmouth bass and walleye on one wall, a few trout there as well.