Spring Trout Fever

Hay Creek, Red Wing, Minnesota – April, 2003

The air is chilly but the sun is shining bright in a clear blue sky this early April morning. I toss on a Minnesota Twins cap, slide polarized sunglasses over my prescription glasses and wiggle into my fishing vest, which contains a multitude of pockets holding a minimal amount of equipment—pliers, camera and a little plastic box of barbless spinners and small Rapalas. I pull on my hiking boots and grab my 5½’ ultralight spinning combo before heading out the front door.

Startled robins fly from the front yard. The lawn is still flat and yellowed from the weight and duration of winter’s snow cover and the trees are just beginning to bud. But warm weather and rains are in the forecast and it won’t be long until everything is green. I walk past my friend Steve’s house as I follow the road down a small hill to the bridge over Hay Creek. It’s nice living within a five minute walk of a great stream!

During my high school years April meant two things: baseball and trout fishing!

When I get there I stop to tie on a small Panther Martin spinner—a small lure with a gold blade and black and yellow body. Reflected sunlight shimmers off the swiftly flowing water but through polarized glasses I can see the sandy substrate through the clear, shallow water in most places. But the deepest holes, those hugging outside bends or wrapping around large pieces of submerged wood, give off mysterious teal glow under the direct light of the sun and I can’t see the bottom. These deeper pools are where the big Brown Trout lurk.

I creep to the edge of the stream with an ephemeral facility unique to this season—in a few short weeks the banks will be so overgrown with tall grass, thorny black raspberry bushes, stinging nettle and leafy tree branches that simply accessing this narrow ribbon of water will be a total pain in the ass. The proliferation of vegetation also severely curtails casting opportunities. By summer, my focus will have turned to bigger rivers and the multitude of warm-water species they offer. But right now, I have a strong case of spring trout fever.

I am about 20 feet upstream from a long, narrow hole created by the first bend below the bridge. I flip my lure out, an intentionally short practice cast. The lure shines bright as it cuts across sandy channel. After the long winter, I am excited to be here doing this again!

I pitch the next cast well downstream from the hole, and slowly reel the spinner through the deeper water. I see a blur of yellow and feel a tug as a Brown Trout takes a swipe at the lure, but the fish is gone as quickly as it appeared. I continue reeling, and another fish strikes. This time I hook it. My rod bends and I feel the small fish tugging as it fights hard in the fast water. I reel it upstream and lift it from the water and into my hand. This one is only about seven inches long but it is beautiful, black and red spots scattered over a silver and gold backdrop. I’m fishing the two-week special catch-and-release season so I have to let it go anyway, but this particular fish would not have been a keeper anyway.

A small springtime Brown Trout from Hay Creek.

I make one more cast through the hole but nothing hits. With plenty of other water to cover, I move downstream to the next likely spot, a little scour hole behind the root wad of a fallen tree. I flip the lure past the hole, but it goes too far and tangles on some dead grass on the opposite bank. I yank the lure free and it comes flying back at me. I’m still a bit rusty. I cast again, this time just where I want it, but if there were fish in the hole I’ve probably already spooked them. I continue downstream.

Typical Hay Creek habitat likely to hold a few small Brown Trout.

I’ve been fishing the same set of holes every spring for years. I’ve come to predict which from which spots fish will hit, but changes do occur over time. This next spot used to the have a nice hole caused by a jam of woody debris. Now, that jam is much larger and the hole is far deeper than it used to be. Great habitat for big trout, but there are so many branches I don’t have space to make a decent cast. I flip the lure upstream and the current catches the bow in my slack line, swinging the lure under the overhanging obstacles. It spins nicely across the head of the hole just as anticipated and I hold my breath in expectation of a fish. Surprisingly, nothing hits. I try another cast, but this time my line hooks over a branch and the lure spins around and around, become hopelessly entangled. In shallower water I’d consider removing my shoes and wading in to retrieve the lure but it is stuck over deep water and there are other branches in the way. I give it a hopeful pull but the line snaps. The lure drops into the water and disappears. Four bucks down the drain.

I tie on a new lure, a small chartreuse and white floating Rapala, and move down to the next hole. In a straight section of run there is a fallen tree in the middle of the channel that lies parallel with the flow. There is a nice scour hole upstream from the root wad. I cast the Rapala downstream at about a 45 degree angle and it splashes down along the opposite bank. I close the bail and let the current swing the wobbling lure across the front of the root wad without reeling. I feel a violent tug as a big fish takes the lure and my rod bends deep in thumping rhythm. It even peels off some drag. I walk toward the fish as I reel but unfortunately it heads downstream along the far side of the stream and I find the fallen tree between me and the fish. It’s a big Brown Trout and I really don’t want to lose it, so I jump in the creek (so much for dry feet) and wade to the tree. I reel in the fish and it rolls on the surface, which is often when I lose them. With the barb-less hooks I’m using, I am doubly concerned that it might get off. I wish I had a net, but I don’t, so I grab the bare line with my hand and guide the fish close. Holding the rod between my legs, I use my other hand to grasp the body of the fish like an eagle and manage to hold on as it squirms until I’ve carried it to shore. Yes, yes, yes! Awesome! My legs are shaking and my heart is racing as I take the first picture. The barb-less double treble hooks held fast and it actually takes me a few moments to unhook the fish, then I snap a second photo of the fish without the lure hanging from its mouth. Lucky for this fish, the 2003 catch-and-keep season has not yet begun so I release the fish and it darts away. I imagine it would have been quite delicious butterflied, its cavity stuffed with a lemon wedge, then wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked in the coals of a campfire. That fish, around 15 inches, was among my largest Brown Trout from Hay Creek. But I have caught larger ones.

My largest Brown Trout was this 20″ fish caught in Hay Creek during the early April catch-and-release, barb-less hook only season. I was standing out on a log over a deep, swift hole when I hooked this fish and there was absolutely no way to land it from shore. I had to lay on my back, on the fallen tree, and reach down to grab the fish. My heart was racing – this was an exciting close-quarters catch!

Soggy socks squishing in my boots, I climb over downed trees on my way to the next hole. Here the creek bends sharp, creating a deep and swift chute of water that will be hard to fish well with a floating Rapala. I clip the line with my incisors (I’m sure my dentist would cringe) and replace the lure with a silver and white Rooster Tail spinner. Then I edge cautiously toward the water and flip the lure into the head of the hole. I let the lure sink and reel in just a bit to start it spinning. The current catches the line and the lure swings through the hole. I see two small trout dart out from cover to swipe at the lure but they miss. When the lure reaches the downstream end of the hole and the line tightens I hold the rod still, letting the lure spin in place. A 10 inch fish nabs the lure and I set the hook. The rod pumps as the fish tries to escape. I reel it close but when I try to lift the fish out and over the bank the hooks pull free and the fish drops back in the water. I cast a couple more times but get nothing else from this hole.

The next couple hundred yards are shallow and sandy so I walk up to the bike path that parallels the creek and skip over that marginal water. I pause to draw in a deep breath of the fresh air, relishing the organic smells of springtime. My mind wanders to baseball as I walk toward my next fishing spot. The Twins lost their home opener to the Blue Jays last night, which I witnessed live at the Metrodome. But they’ve got a promising roster and should be competitive this year…

A chunky Brown Trout from Hay Creek.

I reach the last hole before the next road bridge. Years ago someone placed a line of big rocks across the channel and below them are pockets of scour that usually hold quite a few fish. I fish the closest hole first, and pick up a 10-inch fish. On the next cast three or four fish chase the lure but I fail to hook one. I repeat the cast, and get another hit and miss. I keep swinging the silver spinner through the churning water until finally I hook into one last fish. It’s a beautiful 12-inch fish. I take a picture and let it go.

Downstream from here, good holes are fewer and farther apart. I’m quite happy with my outing and I look forward to returning in a few weeks to catch some dinner fish. I head back up the hill, energized by the spring weather and the successful fishing. When I get home I change into shorts and put on dry shoes and socks. I jog over to Steve’s and he answers the door. “Baseball?” I ask. “Yep, let’s do it.” He grabs his stuff and we head to the middle school fields. We take turn hitting pop flies to each other until, several hours later, we are completely worn out and our knees, shins, hips and elbows are smeared with grass stains. We drive to the Kwik Trip gas station and chug some Gatorade. Back at Steve’s place, we devour a pizza and watch the Twins game. Then later, walking home with muscles tight from a long and active day outside, my mind drifts back to Hay Creek and mental images of Brown Trout glistening in my hand. Tomorrow is Sunday. Maybe I’ll set an alarm tonight.

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