In “North Country” few outings are so fair as on a warm day in late September and early October. One season is ending and another is beginning. The North Woods are expressing their grandeur and draw people to view spectacular colored maples, oak, birch, and aspens. Paired with that and sheltered in the cold flowing streams swims secluded natural treasure: wild brook trout on the move to spawn a new generation.
For me this twofold prescription of woods and water delivers a therapeutic remedy both inside and out that restores my deep affection for the autumn woods. From an early age this has always been so. It’s my favorite time of year and a recent trip to one of my desired locations did not disappoint.
On my mind that day was brook trout, wild fish born in the cold, clear, spring-fed waters of a mostly hidden stream that winds through a tangle of tag alders. Not exactly water friendly to a caster of dry flies, but a water-daring one to traverse. It’s a type of fishing not for everyone. The pace is slow and obstructed, snags are plenty but the rewards realized can become much more than expected.
Brook trout are native to eastern North America but have been introduced to the streams of Minnesota and the western states. These trout are also known as speckled trout, brookies, or squaretails and are actually in the char family of fish. They have a distinctive marbled pattern on their back. In the fall when spawning takes place the male’s belly and lower fins become reddish in color with a bright white fringe along their leading edges. Most don’t live beyond six or seven years.
A spattering of yellow dots and scarlet specs encased within a blue halo adorn the flanks of these fish. On this particular outing I netted perhaps my most beautiful example ever — a 13-inch male in full breeding color. When I flipped my bait into the shadow of a bank hugging white spruce I saw the impressive fish come out of the dark and take hold. I could see the fish was special and a real trophy from any water. Not in terms of poundage but in sheer beauty.
When I was a very young boy growing up near Duluth catching a speckled trout of any size was considered a badge of honor by my brothers and friends. In our neighborhood of Kenwood there lived a kind bachelor named Elmer Wilson. During the 1920s Elmer spent some time in the white pine logging camps and forests that were often fractured by low-lying trout streams.
I remember him telling me that one time he came upon a clear pool filled with trout. He said he later went and found the horse with the longest tail, tied a hook with a grasshopper onto one of the hairs and caught several wide shouldered fish. If his story told to me wasn’t exactly true it ought to be.
Back then my 10 block walk to grade school passed by Elmer’s driveway and large garden. On more than one occasion Elmer, then in his 60s, would intercept me. We usually wound up somewhere along Chester Creek catching minnows and creek chubs and only very rarely a juvenile trout. My mother must have known but our secret was never challenged by her to my recollection. This was my first exposure to this awe-inspiring small fish.
In haphazard locations along this stream I fished that day and rooted along the streambank amongst the jewelweed and green sedges and rising between the alders were bushes laden with ripe highbush cranberries. Well-known wildlife-naturalist, Aldo Leopold, once coined the phrase “red lanterns” referring to red blackberry leaves of the October woods in Wisconsin where he frequently hunted ruffed grouse. He said find these lanterns and you will find the grouse.
I like to use the same term and hunting technique for the highbush cranberries found in areas like this creek meadow. It works. I actually flushed one of these explosive savory birds near one of the bushes as I sloshed along in my chest waders.
Like in Wisconsin and blackberries, when hunting the lowlands simply amble from one clump of berries to the next and a bird will eventually wind up in your bag. By the way, the fruit also makes a great-tasting, tart, clear, red jelly.
So of such things as these is my simple joy annually met in the land of the raven and white throated sparrow. Here the welcomed sounds, sights and smells of the autumn woods have long filled the senses. And for the ensuing 10 months of my absence there, the awesomely created gifts of the shaded water, the painted leaves, and the red lanterns of the grouse woods will glow only in recollection. Then, the business of life in the other months will fill my time as a passing interlude between Octobers.