Stories about fish that got away are an atrocious cliché, but for some reason I feel obligated to tell this one.
When I was growing up I saw the Brule River as a fisherman’s Garden of Eden.
I read Gordon MacQuarrie obsessively and his stories of the Brule gave me this idyllic, fantastical vision of a river where trout as big as your leg fought over who had the honor of being caught first.
To be fair, his stories are actually filled with hardships. He wrote more about ripping holes in his waders, freezing half to death and tipping over canoes than he did about actually catching fish, but my 15-year-old brain latched on to the idea of the Brule as a holy land, and that idea held on well into my adult life.
When I was young we visited the river several times on the way home from vacation in Northern Minnesota, but I never actually fished the Brule until I moved up here.
I was also thoroughly ignorant to the concept of steelhead until I moved here and didn’t understand the large rainbows MacQuarrie often described were lake run fish, as were the giant browns he wrote about catching at night during the deep summer months.
The first time I fished the Brule was in early October. I’d read a couple of articles about steelhead earlier that fall and drove up from St. Paul to try my hand. It was very exciting to think about finally getting to fish the river I’d read so much about.
I took along a fly rod and a baitcaster with some good-sized inline spinners. I put in the river at country road FF, and walked less than a hundred yards downstream to a point where the north-running river makes an almost 90 degree turn to the west, creating a very deep, blue green hole on the outside bank.
It was raining but rather warm for October, so I didn’t mind that I hadn’t brought a raincoat. I leaned the fly rod up against a tree, figuring I’d have better luck off the bat with the baitcaster, and flung a spinner across the other side of the hole. I think I made three casts.
You ever see that old WWII footage of the Royal Navy depth charging German U-Boats in the North Atlantic? When the charges go off there’s that low, circular rumble of water, then a second later a geyser shoots a hundred feet in the air. In my head, that’s what happened on the third cast. I felt two massive hits, set the hook, and the hole exploded.
If you’re ranking the excitement level of catching any particular fish, I think one of the main criteria is the size of the fish, relative to the size of the body of water it comes out of. A 30-inch lake trout caught on a charter boat in Lake Superior is awesome, a 30-inch steelhead caught out of a six-foot deep hole in a wadable river is unbelievable — I was almost scared of it.
As the fish broke the surface I could see a massive red stripe down its side, which I now know means it’d been in the river for a while. I fought it for maybe four or five minutes before it started to ease up into the shallower water in front of the pool. Just as I began to realize I had no net, nor a decent place to land any fish, let alone this fish, I horsed the rod just a touch too hard as he cut to the right across the shallow water in full view. He turned his head back to the left, snapped the leader just below the knot and was gone forever.
It’s funny how shaken up we can get over something we’ve done countless times before. This was a particularly intense example, but it happens all the time to anyone who hunts or fishes. I suppose it’s in large part what keeps us coming back.
As I walked back to the bank my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold on to the rod.
Sometimes when I lose a fish, especially a big one, I have this absurd fantasy that if I can just get my bait/lure/fly back into the water fast enough, he might still be there. It’s the kind of thought process you might expect from an 8-year-old, not a grown man who’s been fishing his entire life, but my brain was in full shutdown mode at that point. I’m not sure I could’ve told you who George Washington was if you’d have asked. All I could see was the gorgeous red stripe down that fish’s side as it flipped me the bird and disappeared.
I grabbed another spinner from my box and started tying it directly onto the braded line, I wasn’t messing around with leaders this time. During the fight, as if on cue to heighten the drama, the rain had intensified significantly, and it was still coming down in buckets as I tried to tie on. As I slid my knot down onto the eye of the spinner, my hands still shaking like Charlie Sheen after three days sober, my hand slipped and I sank two of the three points on the treble hook deep into my left thumb. One of them sort of glanced into the side of the thumb and I was able to take it out on my own, but the other found solid meat. I spent the rest of the morning at the doctor in Superior waiting to have them remove the hook.
Now, a treble hook in the hand isn’t really that noteworthy. It happens all the time. But that incident in particular has become more significant as time goes by.
I’ve fished the Brule River every year since that happened. In that time I’ve gone over my waders twice, ran another hook in the dog’s lip, lost my favorite thermos AND tipped a kayak over on a summer trip to the upper Brule.
Through all those trips and all those disasters, I’ve never once laid eyes on another steelhead, let alone caught one.