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.’