LANESBORO, MINN. – To make the trip here, fishing had to be a priority Saturday, opening day of the trout season. Morning broke with the thermometer barely touching the mid-20s and snow flying. Also the breeze was stiff. Even old-timers who never miss a season’s first day hit the snooze button.
Still, I angled the truck out of the farmyard well before dawn, more interested than eager to see just how high and muddy streams in the southeast might be. Catching trout is one thing, fishing for them another. You can’t do either without pulling on waders. Besides, some streams are like friends, and visits are warranted regardless of conditions. I found a good radio station and settled in.
Others also made the pilgrimage. Brent Rubink of Coon Rapids and his wife, Suzanne, would find themselves along the banks of the Root on Saturday, hoods pulled up and casting to its swift currents. Also Mike Linn of Kimball, Minn., and a couple of buddies braved the elements, as did Fuad Husidic, late, since 1999, of Forest Lake. Before that he lived in his native Bosnia.
“I like fishing here because the river is clean and the fish are healthy,’’ Husidic said. “I fished for grayling in rivers in Bosnia. My son would be here with me. But he had to work today.’’
By the time I bumped into Husidic I had already fished stretches of the South Branch where my sons and I have waded on opening day for 15 seasons straight, give or take. The older boy, Trevor, soon 20, is in college in Montana. The younger, Cole, was taking college entrance exams. The truck seemed empty without them, and I really should have brought a dog.
In Minnesota, walleyes are king, and crappies, bass and muskies. But in ways those fish aren’t, trout are confounding, as are rivers. Day to day, everything changes. Flows vary, as do holding areas, insect hatches and food availability in general. Think you’re smart? Tie on a wooley bugger or a prince nymph or a San Juan worm, as I did Saturday. Try to get a trout to eat it. Or even see it.
Yet the fun is in the puzzle. Add a split shot here, and another. Change flies. Cast to a different lie. Look for current seams.
“It’s just not so good today,’’ Rubink said. And he cast again.
• • •
Over Easter, Cole and I flew to Montana to fish with Trevor. Sap wasn’t flowing yet in the sugar bush and walleye fishing on the Mississippi seemed a cold day’s work. So there was little to hold us at home. Anyway, the skwala hatch was happening on the Bitterroot River and Trevor was taking rainbows, cutthroats and browns on top.
From Missoula, the three of us drove south an hour or so to launch Trevor’s drift boat. This was different from our earliest trout-fishing trips to southeast Minnesota, when the boys, still in grade school, were buckled into the back seat of my truck, asking questions while watching the countryside change from flat to rolling. They knew the Root River or Hay Creek or the Whitewater lay ahead, flowing clear, muddy or something in between, and they wanted their trout.
Now in Montana on a warm late-March day Trevor piloted his pickup on two-lane blacktop, having decided where we would fish and why. Cole was dialed in as well. The old man can feel put out to pasture in these circumstances, and I watched the swales and valleys that gathered alongside the highway give way to snowy mountains. A good day, it seemed, to fish.
Launching the boat in the Bitterroot, Trevor went quickly to the oars as the river’s middle currents swept us downstream. Cole cast from the front of the boat, and I, the back. This was late morning and already the temperature neared 60.
“Cast as near as you can to the bank,’’ Trevor said.
Only minutes passed before Cole said there and his line straightened, a dandy brown trout pulling his long rod into a deep bend, the fish’s flanks refracting sunlight through the clear river.
Just how trout conspire with moving water to exact so much attention and, ultimately, inspiration from anglers remains a mystery on the order of love and religion. But they do, and after the fish was landed we examined its delicate coloring and the deep resignation with which it considered its predicament. Then we released it among rocks smoothed by eons of rushing water, its freedom as much a gift to us as to the fish.
On and on we drifted, the Bitterroot in spots awash in foam and tumbling over boulders and through tight bends. Sometimes we dropped the anchor in still water and waded upstream or down, fishing skwala imitations on top and occasionally adding a bead-headed dropper. This occurred beneath a warming sun and really not very much river traffic. Sometimes Cole leaned into the oars while Trevor cast from the bow. Otherwise, Trevor rowed. Either way, the boys pinpointed trout that inhaled our flies, the fishes’ noses tipped up in anticipation.
By early evening, as dusk approached, we were back in Trevor’s truck, our wet waders and boots askew in the pickup’s bed, while on the radio a country singer crooned about his gal’s cheatin’ heart, a timeless concern.
Enveloped now in long shadows, the Bitterroot tumbled ever northward, to the Clark Fork River and, in time, to the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean.
• • •
Along Hay Creek not far from Red Wing on Saturday, flies were slung left and right. Trout Unlimited sponsored a mini-bash on the opener, in part for fun and in part to call attention to the threat silica mining poses to the southeast’s fragile streams.
Among a dozen or more gathered anglers were Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Minnesota Trout Unlimited executive director John Lenczewski.
Experts, each. But as was the case in streams farther south, near Lanesboro, few trout were brought to hand near Red Wing. Exactly why is part of the mystery.
Yet when rods were cased and waders stowed, all seemed right with the world. The Hay Creek Campground restaurant serves as a sort of temple where anglers convene on the opener to pay homage, and the Trout Unlimited bunch did just that Saturday afternoon, happy enough to have been fishing, a good stream not far away.
“There’s a fine line,’’ said Steven Wright, “between fishing and standing on shore like an idiot.’’
Surely that line was crossed, back and forth, and forth and back, by all who leapt from bed early Saturday on the trout opener.
Just as surely, each would do it again.