By Dave Zueg
At the starting gate of this outdoor life we embrace, there were signposts for the turns that lead us to where we are today. For me, a trout fishing trip with Dad back when the Brule was too intimidating for a school boy, but a small stream filled with brook trout wasn’t. On that day I passed a signpost leading to my devotion to public land, water, and the trout of those waters.
We entered the stream running through private land legally, only to be met by a cascade of rocks thrown from a high bank above the stream. Dad wasn’t one to walk away from situations like that, but with a 10-year-old in tow, he elected to do the right thing. We went home, one of us mad and the other disappointed and confused.
Ever since that day, trout streams have been my passion, an escape from the stress of everyday life like the pandemic we’re enduring. The other day a trout stream seemed like a good short-term remedy. I could give my mind a break from the depressing 24-hour news cycle and, better yet, I could leave my mask at home since I hadn’t seen anyone on these waters in years.
The overnight rain had quickened the stream’s pulse, giving her a slightly cloudy look. From years of experience, I knew the trout would be more willing to stay in the exposed runs feeding now than tucked under the banks. I grabbed an alder for support, stepped into the river and a cascade of water from wet leaves reminded me my rain gear needed upgrading. It held back water with the efficiency of a sieve, but I left it on knowing it would provide some protection from the maze of alders while moving upstream.
Compared to the lower river that runs through low lands bordered by reed canary grass, nettles and hummocks, this stretch was wooded. Actually, that’s an understatement. The undercut alders along with a few massive trees felled by recent floods made passage through airport security seem like a walk in the park by comparison. About 100 yards later, after bobbing and weaving like a running back through the nearly impenetrable cover – well, not really, but you get the idea – I came to a corner hole that gave me a chance.
In these tight quarters, my 5-foot spinning rod was the tool of choice since a fly rod would have been as useful as a catcher’s mask at a coronavirus conference. A No. 2 spinner hit the upper end of the pool on the first cast. With the rain and colored water, the goal was big fish, not numbers of fish. I’d enjoyed a couple meals of fresh trout and garden vegetables earlier this summer, so that itch had already been scratched.
Two spunky brook trout and a brown pushing a foot long snapped at the spinner on the first cast. Only the brown was briefly hooked before escaping. Two small brookies kept darting at the spinner all the way to my waders without being hooked. Even a spinner that size was more than they could tackle. It was clear the trout had the post-rain feedbag on. I expected good things further upstream and wasn’t disappointed.
After stumbling through knee-deep water pocked with weeds and softball-sized rocks for another 100 yards, I came to the next pool that simply reeked of fish. My first cast missed and landed on the tip of an alder leaning over the pool. I knew wading to it would put down trout, so I gently twitched the rod tip and got lucky. The spinner fell into the stream where apparently the big brown had been watching the jiggling spinner above its head, because when it hit the water he jumped on it like a Lab on a doggie treat.
This was a real fish. It tore upstream, working the drag hard, threatening to get into a maze of flood debris that taxed the ultra-light equipment to the limit. Good 6-pound line and a more than a little luck eventually led the 20-inch fish onto a sandbar.
I wasn’t surprised to see the beginning of a hooked jaw on the big male. What I saw next was a surprise, although knowing what meat-eaters browns are, I shouldn’t have been. He began to regurgitate partially digested frogs that had strayed too close to his hunting grounds. After a quick picture, it felt good to put him back, along with what was left of his last frog meal.
After catching another brown nearly the size of the frog-eater, along with a few smaller trout, I headed home. It had been a good day on a good trout stream. Better yet, for a few hours the pandemic never even crossed my mind.
The next morning I e-mailed Craig Roberts, the DNRs local fish biologist, and asked if any trout stamp dollars are available for brushing streams.
“We’re budgeting money for brushing, beaver control, and maintenance on the stream. The last two years we spent a good deal of time inventorying the areas that needed work. The main problem we’re having is staff to do the work. We lost two (part-time) employees who had been brushing. One moved and another got promoted,” wrote Roberts.
“Add the field work restrictions caused by the coronavirus into the mix and a lot of our work was put on hold. The issue hasn’t been lack of trout stamp money, it’s having staff to do the work.”
He also knew the stream.