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  • June 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have an image problem talking among a group of trout anglers. I grew up in Dalton, in Chariton County, Missouri, where a sport fish was a carp and a trash fish was any one you couldn’t catch. The only time I heard the word “trout” was in conjunction with “trout lines” which I found out actually were trot lines and had nothing to do with salmonids.

In fact, I thought salmonella was the study of cold water fishes until I started hanging around with my late best friend Spence Turner. Fly fishing always appeared to us kids as resembling a man fighting off yellowjackets. But I began fly fishing as a young adult and discovered that it is composed largely of esoteric knots. There are blood knots, nail knots and my specialty, the wind knot.

After a serious skirmish with the Boy Scouts, I realized that knots and me were never meant to be. The Outdoor Writers Association used to have a knot tying contest at its annual conference. It was sponsored by Trilene. They gave you a couple of pieces of Trilene and invited you to tie your favorite knot in 20 seconds. My favorite knot was actually the only one I knew with any certainty and that was a square knot, something that most kids learn at least by the second grade.

After my 20 seconds they hooked the mono up to a machine and started pulling. The winner was the one who registered the highest poundage before the line broke. I entered twice and both times the line did not break….because the knot slipped free within the first turn of their machine. I got the impression the second time that the Trilene folks would rather not have me come back.

The first time I encountered the wind knot was on the Brule River in northern Wisconsin. I was fishing with a guide who ran a fly fishing shop and he was clearly gritting his teeth. “You just had a hit!” he snarled. “The line shot at least six inches! Set the hook!”

By the time we got to the takeout the hook had become the “damn hook.” And he also cried in anguish, “You’re tying wind knots!” I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to tie a complex knot in the middle of the air, but he didn’t see it that way.

My first fly rod was leaning against a forgotten counter in a store that was going out of business. I think the business was a buggy whip factory. This thing was bamboo and I thought I’d made a buy. I have read books by legendary fly fisherman and they all seem to use bamboo rods. He I squinted along it and saw several curves that didn’t seem to be there because of superior engineering, but I figured what the heck, for four bucks I could forgive a few quirks.

Well, it was like casting kite string with a CB antenna. Partly it was because I didn’t have the idea of fly fishing down right. I was a refugee from spin casting—actually I began fishing life with a casting rod and reel and 20 pound test nylon line throwing plugs that were bigger than most of the fish in the lake. I still figured you cast the lure, not the fly, so I used such delicate fly fishing terminal tackle as a one-sixteenth ounce jig.

Picking it off the water was like dredging for alligators and it flew through the air like a .22 caliber bullet. It took just one shot upside the head to get my attention and I vowed never again to stand in the way of one of my own casts. I learned a technique that I named “hurl and duck” which I still use to this day. Visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame on the river with a fly rod.

You all know about “matching the hatch.” The first time I heard the phrase I thought they said, “Down the hatch” and I said, “I’ll drink to that!” Spence Turner was a man of infinite patience and tolerance. He’d have had to be to have invited me on a trout fishing trip to the Yellowstone area. He dropped names like Madison and Firehole and Henry’s Fork. The only Henry’s fork I knew was owned by a guy named Hank who used it to pitch manure and eat barbecue (actually, he used two different forks).

I checked the catalogs to see what it would take to outfit me like a real fly fisherman. There was a shirt with a fly pattern embroidered on the pocket for only fifty bucks. I looked in vain for the Jolly Green Giant kernel of corn emblem or at the very least a piece of foam rubber soaked in cheese juice that would represent the lures that I equated with trout fishing.

Finally I donned my ratty jeans and J.C. Penny shirt, scraped the dried mud off the butt of the fly rod (I’d been bank line fishing for catfish with it) and off we went. I knew we were in trouble when we sauntered into a West Yellowstone fly shop and heard the proprietor talking to a customer in a language which either indicated they were using the Latin names of aquatic insects or celebrating a Mass.

It’s one thing to say, “Old chap, I usually fish the No. 4 Hexagenia limbata, but I sense perhaps something a bit more delicate would be appropriate. Pray give me the benefit of your longtime local expertise.” It’s another to show the guy a tattered bug-eyed popper and say, “This here’s what we use for perch back home. Y’all got anything like it fer trouts?”

We left the store with me clutching a little paper sack of flies that weighed perhaps a tenth of an ounce and considering what I paid for them were about three times as valuable as high grade diamonds.

I found that trout on the Firehole were taking something so tiny that the smallest fly I had looked like a road-killed warthog by contrast. I can’t imagine why a fish eats something so small that it takes more calories to eat that there are in it. Then Spence got us a float on the Madison where he said the fishing was so easy even I could do it. Don’t you just love it when someone says something is so easy that “even you could do it”?

I was expecting another No. 55 size Trico, but the guide dragged out a big, ugly bug with rubber legs. It looked like what scuttles off into the kitchen cabinets when you switch on the light real fast.

And then it happened. There was a smashing strike, throbbing rod, line hissing through the water just like a page out of an Ernest Schwiebert book. I worried about my backing, mainly because I didn’t have any. . But I played the fish masterfully and everyone in the boat was openmouthed….one guy was asleep and the other guy was yawning.

I lifted my fish with a vibrant cry of triumph. ‘Huge brown?” I asked. “Trophy rainbow?”
The guide looked at it. ‘It’s a damned old whitefish,” he snarled in disgust. I looked at the bronze fish with its downturned mouth. It looked almost exactly like a good ol’ Missouri Ozark redhorse sucker.

It was just like being at home. You can take the boy out of the country….but you can’t make a trout fisherman out of him. It’s not that I don’t trout fish. Spence could have told you that I do it with great earnestness, though not with great success. Spence was from real trout country where the fish have their babies right in the stream instead of in a hatchery pool. My mother was from Spence’s home country, northwest Wisconsin, and I got started trout fishing up there. Once I went down the Brule River at night, fishing for big brown trout. It was both the most exciting and disappointing trout trip I ever took.

Dark as the inside of a Labrador retriever. Soft July breeze suffing through the spruce and fir trees. No traffic sounds, only the gurgle of the unseen Bois Brule and the pop of a cook fire.
My guide was cooking greasy, indigestible, delectable pan fries while we waited for night. The Brule is Wisconsin’s crown jewel trout stream. It gathers in miles of peat bogs, runs narrow and still with only faint swirls to show its current. Then it picks up speed as it senses lake Superior. Hall’s Rapids winds between a couple of rock walls that can whack an unwary canoeist and wake him out of the nine previous quiet miles.

Once I followed the canoeing guide book which told me to look out for a brown cabin so I wouldn’t stray into May’s Ledges, a Class Four rapids. I rounded a bend and was sucked into a series of roaring, frightening drops before I could react.

They’d painted the damn cabin!

The Brule is called the river of presidents because several fished there, but also Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and others sampled it. Calvin Coolidge, another comic actor, vacationed there while he was president. Mr. Coolidge ticked off the nation’s anglers when he was quoted as saying fishing was for old men and boys. That went over like a can of nightcrawlers at a Trout Unlimited banquet.

His advisors told Mr. Coolidge he’d better take up fishing and quick. So he did…with worms. Fly anglers were enraged. The man known as Silent Cal must have wondered how someone who never said anything could get in trouble so much for shooting off his mouth. Well, Mr. Coolidge finally recognized which way the wind was blowing and got himself a fly rod.

A fellow Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was unimpressed. He said, “President Coolidge apparently had not fished before election. Being a fundamentalist in religion, economics and fishing, he began his fish career for common trout with worms. Ten million fly fishermen at once evidenced disturbed minds. Then Mr. Coolidge took to a fly. He gave the Secret Service guards great excitement in dodging his back cast and rescuing flies from trees.”

By the time Silent Cal got to the Brule he had become so accomplished an angler that he bragged to game wardens at Cedar Island Lodge that he had caught 26 trout. Problem was the limit was 25. A local newspaperman commented, “Not a single word was spoken for several minutes by newspapermen or conservation officers assigned to the president’s security. They stood with bowed heads and all, including the president, appeared to be staring at their shoelaces.” Not surprisingly the president wasn’t ticketed for over the limit.

The first presidential visitor to the Brule was Ulysses Grant in the 1870s. Grover Cleveland did it in the 1880s and then came Coolidge in 1928. Herbert Hoover fished there as a senator and Dwight Eisenhower as a general. Ike’s guide wrote that there were no guards when he drove to the lodge to meet the general. “The only sign of life I encountered was an old male raccoon waddling down the road with his mate,” he wrote.

Ike’s fishing was featured in a 1955 outdoor magazine and they featured his recipe for “Trout Eisenhower” which brings on arteriosclerosis just by reading it. Chunk a pound of bacon and fry it over a hot bed of coals, remove the bacon and drain, mix bacon drippings with a half pound of butter melted in a second frying pan, pouring from skillet to skillet. Shake cleaned trout in a paper bag containing cornmeal, salt and pepper and lay fish in the butter/bacon fat to cook.”

My God, no wonder Mr. Eisenhower died of a heart attack!

I didn’t have any interest in politics that July night and no one was trying to make me run for office, but I did have an interest in the huge brown trout on the Brule. My guide and I were sipping bourbon mixed with springwater from the peat bogs which has a smoky quality to it that turns bourbon into something noble.

John soaked a huge hair mouse in the stream while we waited. There is no subtlety about night fishing for brown trout. You pick the darkest night ever created, tie three feet of 10-pound monofiliment to the end of the fly line, and the hair mouse on the other end. You blind cast and if you hear something that sounds like someone punted a yearling heifer into the river, you set the hook.

Finally we loaded into John’s canoe. It was so dark that I couldn’t see him in the stern. I would no more go down a river at night than I would drive after dark on a freeway without lights. But John knew the Brule. He’d learned a paddle trick from an old river guide. He sculled with two paddles with the shafts under his armpits. At the top of a riffle he’d dig the blades into the gravel and hold the canoe while I fished out of the bow.

At the first riffle he said, “There’s a race coming in here. Cast out at 4 o’clock and give the mouse a swimming action. Follow it with the tip of your rod. You can’t tell, but it’s swinging with the current.” I twitched the rod tip and tried to imagine how the mouse must be angling across the face of the feeder stream. There was a sloshing sound and John shouted, “Hit ‘im!”

I set the hook and felt the fish surge. There were three or four powerful surges and then the mouse came free and swished back and bounced off my chest. I recited an old Anglo-Saxon benediction. John said, “That’s okay—there’ll be more.”

And there were. The next hit was like what a big old largemouth bass does in the springtime. The trout went down the rapids so fast that all I could do was hang on. It was like hooking a passing Peterbilt. Then the line went slack again. By now it was after midnight and cold. But still the fish hit, always with that awesome splash in the black night. And still I couldn’t hold them.

Finally I closed my hand over the mouse after perhaps eight or nine hard strikes….and felt the hook broken off just behind the barb. I could hook them, but the moment they got the right angle they came loose.

The hook came from Herter’s, the Minnesota outdoor store, which possibly explains why Herter’s is out of business today. John didn’t mean to but he rubbed salt in my wound by saying it was the best fishing night on the river that year. It was 3 a.m. before I slid under the covers, cold, fishless and exhausted. I dreamed fitfully about noisy strikes and leaping trout and a hair mouse as big as something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

I have no photos of the big fish on the Brule, nothing really to show for the long night.

Nothing, that is, except a deer hair mouse that hangs over my desk on the broken bend of a Herter’s hook……

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