Fish of a Fin

July 10, 2023 By: Richard Donnelly

Photo by Kent Sanders

The other day two kids walked by the porch with cane poles and a two-pound goldfish. You heard right. Someone threw a mess of goldfish into Lake Pepin where they mixed with carp. Birds of a feather, as they say. Or fish of a fin, in this case.

With nothing to limit growth the fish just got bigger and bigger. One boy carried the goldfish by the mouth. It was bright orange with long ornamental fins. “What are you going to do with it?” I called.

“Put him in Mrs. Hulber’s pool,” he called back. Sounds like a good idea.

I sat on a wicker chair sweating out Happy Hour, which these days means lemonade. I thought about that outsized goldfish. It made sense fish grew bigger in bigger water. Size is no advantage in an aquarium. But give them room, say the Pacific Ocean, and you see what happens.

My current passion is the little brook trout. In Minnesota bluff country these live in the coldest, cleanest creeks. They often have to compete with brown trout, a bigger and more aggressive fish. Browns chase them off spawning beds and hog the best runs. Brookies are found upstream in even smaller pools. In small water they stay small.

That’s the theory, but only a theory. What would happen if, under the right circumstances, they have extra room to grow? In Lake Superior brook trout act like steelhead rainbows. Called “coasters,” they fatten in the big lake then return to rivers to spawn. Occasionally an angler hooks one of these monsters. An eight-pound brook trout is a sight to behold, and internet photos are the angler’s equivalent of XXX porn. Not to be indelicate.

I have a little creek hidden away. I’m not going to tell you where, but it’s in the vicinity of Long Creek, close to Middle Creek, and not far from Short Creek (we’re not big on names around here). Walking the upper reaches I have been catching and releasing many small, brightly-colored brook trout. Our only native trout, and not technically a trout but a char, they are always a pleasure to behold.

Somehow brook trout held on right through the ice ages, which missed, for unknown reasons, our Midwest bluff country. These fish are a remnant of an earlier, ancient era, like the limestone bluffs and misty, fragrant, mossy, spruce and cottonwood filled valleys.

No one else fishes my little stream. Not that I can tell. Following deer paths I walked down-creek the other day, determined to fish the lower reach. I knew there were big pools down there. Big water means big fish.

I heard falling water and cut in. Big pools lay ahead, wide and deep, bisected by steep plunges.

As I watched, the surface of the first pool “popped” with feeding fish. I opened a fly box and promptly fumbled the #18 Blue Wing into the water. That happens when your hands shake. I chased the fly downstream, then quit. Tying on another I threw a hurried cast. It splashed down hard and the water went silent. You can’t rush in fly fishing. This ain’t New York City. You walk slow and think fast. Actually, you walk slow and think slow, too.

I walked to the next pool. Slowly. More trout dimpled the surface. I found a lane between towering cottonwoods and threw line, aiming high, letting the fly fall gently onto the water. This resulted in an instant, splashing take.

I would like to say the trout in this pool, true to its size, were bigger. I would like to say a lot of things. I reached with the net and dipped up a six-incher.

Fly anglers don’t measure experience by the pound. If we did we would sell our whippy rods, move to Key West, strap ourselves into a chair and drag some awful behemoth, stone dead from exhaustion, from the depths. I sent another ten-foot cast at a feeding brookie and had a splashing take.

This fish was a bit bigger. I marveled as always at the color, the incredible, flaming orange of under-fins, tipped white and pure black. Green-blue mottling covered the fish’s back, the very photograph of running water. In a shallow run, even when you can see every rock, they are invisible.

A brook trout will occasionally breed with a brown, and my next fish looked, well, fishy. It had the deep green mottling of a brook trout, but the fins were gold. What the parents saw in each other is the mystery of love itself. I placed him back in the water.

The next pool was deep, wide, and spooky. The depths in a spring creek are typically dark green. This pool was black. As I climbed over a beaver dam I saw a big, lazy take twenty-five feet away.

My hands were shaking again.

I typically don’t false cast (which can frighten feeding fish) but wanted to get this one right. Stripping line, I kept the fly in the air, measuring distance. Then I let the fly fly, so to speak.

The surface hardly rippled, but the Blue Wing vanished in a swirl. Thinking I needed more floatant, I brought the rod tip up. Something pulled back. Hard.

I had a fish on, and no six-incher. I splashed along the bank as fast as I could. Did I say you have to move slow? Not now. I found good footing at the top of the pool and held the rod out. Gripping line with one hand I reeled up slack with the other. The fish bulled down, and stayed down.

Landing a big trout with a fly rod is unlike any other fishing. Too little pressure and they run you under a log. Too much and they panic, breaking you off. You have to fool the fish into thinking it’s not so bad. Let him tire in measured runs.

The fish slowed. I stepped ahead with the net, a bit too early, and he dove. I gave him room, following with the rod. The biggest brook trout ever, a voice told me. A dream brook trout. Left alone, fat and happy in this deepwater pool, he came grudgingly to the surface. I had the nose up and let him swim to me. Then netted an eighteen-inch…

Brown trout.

That’s right. A big, yellow, leopard-spotted brown. Maybe five pounds.

Am I complaining? Not really. He’d given me the fight of my life, and for a few minutes, the thrill of my brook trout-fishing life. I lowered the net and let him breathe. But didn’t release him. Then I started walking.

I carried him downstream. Every so often I lowered the net into the water, letting the gills work. The creek widened and grew too deep to wade. Brown trout water. I released him into a big long flat and watched him power away. This is where he belonged. Far from my pretty, peace-loving brookies. I walked back to the truck.

Maybe I did something wrong. You’re supposed to release them where you catch them. Well, if the game warden reads this he has my address. But I have a back door, and if I see him ringing I’m jumping the fence and dashing to the billiard hall, three blocks away.

He should give me a break. At least I didn’t throw the fish in Mrs. Hulber’s pool.