FORESTVILLE, MINN. – Trout were rising to dry flies along the South Branch of the Root River on a winding stretch of water dappled in sunlight and framed by green grass, limestone bluffs and accents of blue and yellow wildflowers.
With his trusty fly rod in hand, 83-year-old Bob “Sandy” Sanderson reached back. Not to cast, mind you, but to tell another fishing tale. The moment reminded him of a legendary 1940s prom dance. It ended — unpredictably for his date — on the banks of the South Branch.
Sanderson grew up in LeRoy, a small town in eastern Mower County just north of the Iowa line.
On a recent two-day homecoming to old fishing holes around Forestville, Preston and Lanesboro, the former teacher, wrestling coach and outdoors shop owner drew cultural and ecological comparisons to the past.
Landowners were friendlier to trout anglers back in the day, he said, but the fishing hasn’t suffered. Yes, the streams now carry more water thanks to man-made farm runoff. Consequently, the rock-bottomed creeks of Sanderson’s youth have become laden with muck and silt.
Still, decades of grooming by state fisheries managers has lifted the overall fly fishing experience in Minnesota’s “Driftless” region, he said. Most noticeably, miles of stream bank restorations and other projects have enhanced natural reproduction of fish populations.
“I think the quality of fishing is better,” Sanderson said.
LeRoy was home to a cooperative creamery where Sanderson’s father worked seven days a week as the town’s butter maker. Team sports such as football and baseball were local devotions, but jaunts to the South Branch during fishing season had a way of taking priority on some days, Sanderson said.
Back then, before he bought a used Ford Model A with cash he earned trapping mink and muskrats, he would trade night crawlers for rides to what is now Forestville Mystery Cave State Park. It’s an area that’s held up over the years as one of the state’s finest cold-water gems — a personal favorite of Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
“To us, it was just ‘the trout stream,’ ” Sanderson said. “I’d tell my parents we were going to the trout stream.”
Kids fishing with crawlers could generally whack a lot of trout in the spring, he said. And there wasn’t a fly fisherman in the bunch who didn’t carry a few worms in his creel. But when water levels dropped and clarity improved, the youngsters envied the elders who were casting artificial flies.
“They’d bang fish out of our favorite spots … so we had to learn,” he said.
Sanderson donned a pair of rubber hip boots and handed me a box of home-made flies. There were dry flies and beaded nymphs, including a classic pheasant tail that he recommended for our first casts. Joined by University of Minnesota journalism professor Chris Ison, we were on a fast-moving stretch of water near Etna that contained wild brown trout.
“I’m amazed you remember all these spots,” Ison told Sanderson.
“We spent a lot of time here when we were kids,” he replied.
We couldn’t see it from where we stood, but Sanderson assured us that upstream around a bend was the “spring hole.” It’s where he and his pals from LeRoy could see spring water flowing out of limestone at stream level. The fish would bite there in the shadows of “the pulpit,” a rock formation true to its name, but only in appearance.
About half a mile downstream was the “quarry hole,” a large pool that historically attracted so many trout anglers on opening day that you would have to fish shoulder to shoulder, Sanderson said. Though greatly reduced in size during the intervening decades by soil runoff, riffles above and below the quarry were still producing.
Sanderson quickly put his mark on a 10-inch brown trout just downstream from the quarry, his second catch-and-release of the morning.
Ison caught and released three or four similar-sized fish from the spring hole to the quarry hole in about 90 minutes. His tiny lures of choice were a Pink Squirrel nymph fly and a floating, Parachute Adams dry fly.
For our host, the action rekindled memories of a big-bellied, 20-inch brown trout he once caught near the quarry hole. To this day he’s certain the female fish grew up in the DNR hatchery in Lanesboro as part of the brood stock for rearing trout. He and a friend surmised it was released after serving the hatchery for years. “We swore it was close to 8 pounds,” he said.
After Sanderson turned 20, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served for four years. He returned to Minnesota and settled in Buffalo with his wife, Reti, also a school teacher. But Sanderson’s love of fishing and the outdoors diverted him to the retail business. From 1975 to 1985, he operated Sandy Sports, an independent shop in Buffalo that carried everything from live bait to outdoor clothing. The shop specialized in fishing during summers and skiing during winters.
“That was a bad mistake,” he said.
Interest rates were high and competition was intense. To dig himself out of debt, he dropped the store and sold school textbooks and world geography maps. But all along, he kept fishing, and he still honors a once-a-year tradition of casting flies on Montana’s Bighorn River — now with three grandsons.
He is less agile now, limited by sore hips that keep him from climbing steep banks or wading into strong currents. But he still casts and mends with pinpoint accuracy and stops his vehicle on every trout stream bridge to read the water.
The main branch of the Whitewater River was too cloudy to fish. But Sanderson led us to promising, walkable stretches of trout waters on Forestville Creek, Trout Run Creek and Camp Creek. The fishing never got better than it was on the South Branch on Day 1 of the trip.
Post-war stream fishing outings in southeastern Minnesota were enjoyed with the cooperation of farmers and other private landowners who carved out parking areas and created access to potential hotspots. All they asked for in return was for visitors to drop a quarter or two into a coffee can at the site.
Nowadays, Sanderson said, the DNR pays for many of the easements. So it angered him late last month when he pulled up to an old fishing spot on the South Branch governed by such an easement. Foreboding road signs posted by the property owner said “No Trespassing” in large print. You had to read closely in small print to understand that visitors were allowed (but obviously not welcomed) from April through September.
“It never used to be this way,” he said.
As a senior at LeRoy High School, Sanderson felt so at ease on the banks of the South Branch that he ventured there late at night to be alone with his prom date. The wee hours turned to dawn, illuminating a school of trout jumping and rolling at the stream’s surface in a feeding frenzy.
He grabbed his fly rod and promised to be right back. Sanderson said he casted away until an older man from town stepped down to the creek in the full light of day. The man had seen Sanderson’s prom date asleep inside the car.
“Bobby,” the gentleman said. “Someone is waiting for you in your car.”