Every passionate angler is eager for that first opportunity to get a fishing rod in the hand, with a lure or a baited hook on the end of the line, and a chance to catch those first fish of the year. It was not more than a day after ice-out here at the family cabin, when a fishing boat was seen throwing up a geyser of spray as its occupant headed—my guess, anyway—for a spot where crappies might be biting. He eventually motored out of sight behind an island on the far side of the lake, his eventual success—or disappointment—known only to him.
The general fishing opener, when walleyes become fair game, is still a week and a half away. But many anglers don’t have the patience to wait, even if walleyes are their preference. There are other fish whose seasons are already open, whose pursuit can release that pent-up passion to feel the first bend in the rod and the throb of a fish vying for escape.
Stream trout present such an early opportunity. While some streams in Southeast Minnesota are open year ’round, inland streams elsewhere in the state open in mid-April. It’s not back-trolling or pitching lures from a boat, or following a depth contour or watching your boat’s electronics for blips that pinpoint fish. Instead, it’s “hoofing it” along a stream’s meandering banks, often wading into the same watery environment with the brook, rainbow, or brown trout.
Some anglers fish these places only until the general fishing opener. Others are drawn to them often during the five-and-one-half month open season, at least when stream flow is good and the prospect of catching fish is fair or better. It’s a nice alternative to the confines of a fishing boat, and—with solitude pretty much guaranteed—a break from the traffic on popular lakes.
Sometimes you can learn new things, and re-learn things you know but sometimes forget. Things like how to handle a good fish that you really want to see in the net, even though it’s a certainty that you will release it once you have caught it and “counted coup.”
Sometimes the learning or re-learning can come from failure. The famous—some might say infamous—college basketball coach Bob Knight of Indiana University was once quoted as saying that “a good loser is probably someone who has had too much practice at it.” A less verifiable version of that quote is that “all you learn from losing is how to lose.”
I’m not convinced that’s true. You can sometimes learn as much or more from failing as from succeeding, from missing as much as from hitting, or from losing as much as from catching. For instance, I’m likely to remember every detail when I miss a shot at a duck—and know just why I missed it—whereas in the adrenaline rush of a successful shot, the details seem to evaporate in the excitement of the moment; for me, at least.
The same can be said of some fishing episodes. On Monday after the trout season’s Saturday, April 18, opener—and expecting to have the stream mostly to myself—I made the short drive to a local trout stream that is both a favorite of mine, and, coincidentally, well within the boundaries of the Stay Home Minnesota pandemic sheltering advice.
After more than seven months, it was good to feel the push of flowing water against my waders, while remembering the caution needed to balance on slippery rocks. The water was clear, its depth just what those of us who fish it find ideal. After some preliminaries, I decided on casting a lure of feathers and deer hair and gold tinsel, designed and tied to resemble a small minnow.
Time’s passage can get lost in angling concentration, but within a relatively short time I had hooked, played and landed a pair of brook trout and a small brown trout. Both are resident here, both reproduce naturally, which provides the very best kind of trout fishing challenge.
I moved farther downstream, casting my minnow imitation across the stream, letting it swing in a crossing arc with the pull of the current. It was almost directly downstream when my rod tip dipped sharply downward. A strong current can fool you into thinking you’ve hooked a good fish, but it was soon evident that this—in fact—was a good fish.
I was not in the best position, with the fish directly downstream.
When you are downstream of—or below—a fish that is trying to pull away from you, your lure is pulled into a stronger hooking position. When the fish is directly downstream, you are potentially pulling your fly or lure out of its mouth. I tried to work carefully but quickly downstream to get below it, while the fish used the current to resist, and seemed intent on breaking over the lip of the pool and into faster water below.
Instead of letting the fish “have its head” and go downstream, eventually into calmer water, I resisted the combined pull of the fish and the current, determined to settle the outcome quickly. The acrobatic fish was contorting nearly into complete circles, showing a broad flank and enough color to confirm that it was a good brown trout; easily a fish worthy of early season bragging.
Then one more convulsion from the fish, and the line pulled free, and went slack. The fish was off, and—though profanity is not a constant in my vocabulary—I just might have cursed. Losing the best fish of the day has a way of diminishing those that came before it, but at the same time posing the question “What can top this?”
Inevitably, you ask yourself “What could I have done differently to avoid losing the fish?” Sometimes nothing. Other times, a better fight plan. Looking back, I might not have resisted the fish so much, adding the current’s muscle to its own. I might not have worried so much about it leaving the pool for the turbulent water below, where there is a broader pool where I might have had more leverage.
You never know, of course. The hold of the hook might have given way no matter what. But I could have handled it better to improve my chances of landing the fish. Some might say “You were going to release it, anyway; what’s the big deal?” A serious angler knows the answer to that question. And just might learn from losing.