My Outdoor Life: Justin Watkins on fly fishing

  • Article by: AS TOLD TO LYNN KEILLOR SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: April 3, 2014 - 5:42 PM

In our occasional series about outdoor lifestyles, this fly angler and writer discusses how passion and poetry flow as one.

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Justin Watkins fishes Whitewater State Park with son Danny.

 

April is a special month in southeast Minnesota. You get some sun on your face, the snow gives way to easy walking on streams and bugs and trout become active.

I fish April as hard as I can manage, although sometimes I skip the catch-and-keep opener weekend. It’s an exciting day and people are ready to fish, so it can get a little crowded for a guy who is generally reclusive. I like to find trout later in the week when there are not as many people out.

Fishing is at the center of what I love to do — it’s an important means of experiencing planet Earth. I grew up in Hill City in an outdoors family. It seemed like we did two things on weekends: skiing in the winter and fishing in the other seasons. My dad would stack us three boys into a rowboat and we’d just fish. I think of that small boat and all those hooks flying around; I give him credit for keeping his sanity.

My college roommate taught me to fly fish. He kept urging me to keep at it and finally after graduation he mailed me a fly rod. He told me, “I know you, and if I send this to you, you will feel guilty if you don’t use it.” He was right.

I remember his explicit and good direction: Forget dry flies and use nymphs because trout eat nearly all their food underwater, not on top — and use two nymphs at a time, not one.

After those basics he closed with, “There’s no more instruction. Just go whip it out there.” So I did. It didn’t take long before I sold all my spinning gear.

The allure of fly fishing is multifaceted: It’s an interesting, deep, graceful mode of fishing. It’s a course of study. To learn it and do it well is challenging. I like it because it can be more difficult. There is important tradition, both sporting and literary. Plus you can tie your own flies, which I really appreciate. It’s very cool to understand the fish you pursue, calibrate your gear accordingly and go down to the basement and make the flies you’ll use the next day.

I primarily fish for trout in the cold water streams near my home in Rochester. There’s so much available trout water here in southeastern Minnesota that I could never fish it all. The public lands and the fishing easements are a centerpiece of our landscape and we’re very fortunate to have that access. There are a half-dozen great trout waters that I frequent within 20 minutes of my home. And, since the groundwater flows freely all year, I can fish during the winter catch-and-release season.

I also like fly fishing for bass, northern pike and carp. I could talk about carp for a long time. They are remarkably challenging, pinnacle athletes and really available to the angler. The most addicting thing about it is that it’s all sight fishing. I’m spotting the fish, stalking it and presenting a fly. Carp typically don’t strike; they eat. I have to figure out when it eats the fly and then set the hook. That’s all before fighting and landing it. They can tear through your backing in a hurry.

I studied mathematics and environmental studies, and after working for a northern county assessing lake water quality and then for a watershed nonprofit and another county down south, I got a job working for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. My unit works to understand and improve water quality in southeastern Minnesota. For work, I’m charged with looking in-depth at our streams. I gain some credibility in those discussions if I’ve walked the waters and seen some of the watershed. Often I feel I’m working while fishing because I’m always making notes and taking pictures. And when at work, I’m studying some of the waters I fish. The lines blur in a good way.

Around 10 years ago I started posting fishing reports, stories, pictures and rants on a blog. Some of what I wrote was prose poetry. I continue to read and study poetry, trying to capture some of this special landscape and fishery in various forms.

I’ve been inspired by a handful of poets, one of whom is Larry Gavin, a veteran trout angler down in Faribault who has published a nice library of poems, many of which describe fish or fishing.

I’ve had poems published in some regional and Minnesota anthologies, a carp magazine and a few other journals. Two of my poems were chosen for the Poet Artist Collaboration sponsored by The Crossings Art Center in Zumbrota. Last year artist Mike Schad created a painting based on a poem I wrote that captured a June fishing night as it might have been experienced by a Chinese poet born in year 701. I was blown away by the artwork. It’s beautiful. I hope to buy it some day. [Editor’s note: This year’s event is May 10. Preview the poem and the painting at www.crossings atcarnegie.com.]

I keep a notebook with me almost all the time, and I take jottings on observations and experiences. Later I try to shape them into poems. Many, but not all, are about fishing or this landscape. Lately I’ve been pursuing this fantasy of taking Chinese poets like Li Bai or Du Fu and placing them on our trout streams or in the old prairie grass hunting pheasants.

Mostly, I think I have an urge to describe things that I think are remarkable or special to this place. I want to capture the uniqueness of this area. The landscape is stunning. It’s old. It’s beautiful. It’s rugged. And there are endless opportunities to explore.

 

Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
 

 

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