Fishing Minnesota: Angling with the Experts in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

University of Minnesota Press, 2003
© 1993 by Greg Breining

NOTHING QUITE SO AMAZES an angler as watching an electrofishing crew go to work on a stretch of blue-ribbon trout water. Dozens of hefty browns, rainbows and brookies—many far larger than anything the average angler has caught in years of fishing toil and torment—come twirling up from the dark recesses of the stream to the undeniable attraction of an anode charged with several hundred volts of direct current. Mere shadows on the stream bottom offer up a limit of keepers. A single downed branch holds three or four fish that, had they taken a dry fly, would fuel fishing stories enough to fill the off-season. From an inconspicuous cutbank comes a trophy that would win the local fishing contest. A newcomer to the sport will bubble over with enthusiasm at the prospect of being turned loose on a stream nearly brimming over with fourteen-, sixteen- and even twenty-inch trout. But a veteran knows better; he has fished over all these trout without even seeing them, much less feeling their heft on his line.

Following Jay Bunke up a trout stream can be nearly as revealing. As Bunke marches upstream, plying the water before him with a fly rod, trout succumb to his nymphs and leap into the air like popcorn. I had the privilege of watching Bunke at work on the South Branch of the Root River last June. I had tried that stretch once before and quite honestly decided it held few trout. The episode was every bit as educational as following an electrofishing crew-but with a difference. Watching Bunke pull fish after fish from the Root's racing waters, I knew these fish could be caught on a fly rod. Thankfully, he left a few for me to catch as I followed in his wake.

I used to agonize," says Bunke, providing running commentary as yet another fish bends his rod and circles his legs. "If I caught forty trout in a night, I'd wonder why I couldn't catch sixty. If I got a sixteen-incher, why didn't I get an eighteen. But I'm mellowing. It's like my father always told me, "Geez, Jay, if you want to catch them all, let's just bring the net, scoop them out, and then we're done with it."

It's impossible to chat with Bunke for very long before encountering the rock-solid presence of his father, who shaped the course of his son's life as unmistakably as a sheer limestone bluff guides the path of a stream. Bunke grew up in Rushford, within a quarter mile of Rush Creek. "I remember catching trout in the twenty-inch range on cane poles in town, he says. As a teenager twenty years ago, he and his brother and father would roam the wooded valleys of southeastern Minnesota, hunting turkeys in the spring and fishing trout the rest of the year. His father remains one of his most constant fishing partners and mentors. "I still learn a lot from him," Bunke says. Sometimes the two take turns as they fish, offering advice and encouragement as they share a single rod that Bunke built for his dad.

Bunke's long acquaintance with the coulee country of southeastern Minnesota is perhaps the reason he catches so many fish. As we work up through that first riffle on the South Branch, even as a steady parade of ten- and twelve-inch trout inhale Bunke's fly, he casually mentions, "I still feel I haven't gotten the fish out of here I wanted." Incredibly, just minutes later, without having taken a step, Bunke announces, "There he is, there he is," and nets a thirteen-inch brown.

As we wade up through another run and riffle, Bunke points to the slick but swift water just upstream and explains that large trout that rest in the pools often slide downstream into these tailouts," or "slicks, to feed. In fact, between two large rocks lies a fourteen-inch brown, Bunke says, as the trout bulges the smooth surface of the slick as it takes a drifting insect. He points out three smaller fish taking insects nearer a cutbank on the left.

"Do you want to catch them?" he asks.

Stupid question.

"You've got to use your noggin to get a drift in here," he adds. "That's what makes it kind of charming." Since the biggest of the fish lay just upstream of the riffle, the fast water would rip the fly line—and consequently the fly—much faster than the slower water passing over the trout. The result would be to drag the fly through the water—a dead giveaway to wary fish. "I usually come in from the side and do a good sneak on them," Bunke says, as we tiptoe through the riffle and move cautiously by the stream bank. Because the water is a bit cloudy from recent rains, he observes, "the fish aren't really spooky. To take those fish in August, you'll have to get down on your knees."

He hands me a number 12 Sparkle Dun, a stripped-down style he uses for much of his dry fly fishing. Unlike a standard mayfly imitation, with a bushy collar of hackles at the head to float the fly, the Sparkle Dun consists simply of tail, body, and an upright wing. It's not as buoyant as other dry flies, but works better on discerning trout in slow water where they take a long look. This fly also had this twist: Its tail isn't the standard two or three fibers meant to imitate the tail of a mayfly. Instead, it has a body-length piece of Z-lon, a bright, filamentous nylon. On the water the fly looks like an emerging mayfly dun struggling to escape from its nymphal skin. Trout, like other predators, have an unsporting fondness for disadvantaged victims. I tie the fly on. "How should we attack this?" 

"Hook your cast," he says. That will keep the line and leader off to the side, away from the fish. "The take will be really deliberate. Don't pull it away from him." 

I make a dozen casts or more, each time afraid of casting too far and dropping the heavy fly line over the fish. Finally, I cast just far enough. As the fly passes over the spot where we last saw the rising trout, an olive form appears, turns and slowly takes the fly. I lift the rod tip, bear down on the light leader, and follow the fish downstream through the riffle. Bunke circles behind me and nets the fish in an eddy. He holds it alongside the ruler marked on his own fly rod: fourteen inches, just as he said, not an eighth of an inch more or less. He lets the fish go and then points me back upstream, to the three fish still rising near the bank. Taking much the same approach from the side and a bit downstream, I hook one after another. "Catching all four of them," Bunke says. "We should feel almost smug by now."

As effective as it was, the dry fly experiment was simply an interesting interlude for Bunke; he's soon back at work with his nymphs. "I dearly love nymph fishing more than anything else," he says. "I think what excites me most is how effective it is."

The reason it's so effective, as any experienced trout fisherman knows, is that rainbow trout of nearly all sizes and all but the very largest brown trout dine on insects. (Large browns eat primarily other fish.) And the overwhelming majority of these insects are immature stages, living beneath the surface. To emphasize the point, Bunke fetches a rock out of the riffly water and turns it over. "These are immature Stenonema, " he says, referring to a genus of abundant mayfly in southeastern creeks. "One is perhaps the smaller Gray Fox, the other the larger March Brown. Here comes a caddis," he adds, as a greenish wormlike insect wriggles out of a tubelike shelter of organic material and crawls across the underside of the rock. "Lots of flat-bodied, clinging-type mayflies. This guy's about ready to go. Look at his wing case-it's starting to separate here.

"The first thing I would do on any water I don't know very well would be to grab for rocks," Bunke says. "There's an amazing amount to be learned by not fishing.

When he does begin to fish, Bunke uses an 8-1/2-foot, five-weight fly rod with a double-taper line and a ten-foot leader. He uses a 5X tippet today because of the murky water and relatively big nymphs we are using. If the water were clear and low, or if he were using small flies, he'd drop to 6X. He uses nymphs that are slightly weighed with lead wire on the body. If the water is fast, as it is here, he pinches a tiny split shot (B or smaller) onto the leader, about a foot to eighteen inches above the fly.

Bunke uses a standard nymphing technique of casting upstream and drifting the nymph straight downstream. The biggest failing of novice nymphers is to detect the easy take of a trout intercepting the fly. To help see the take, Bunke pinches a small adhesive foam strike indicator onto the leader, near the knot to the fly line. "That way I don't have to change it when I want to fish a deeper run," he says. 

(For those of us who still have trouble noticing the subtle twitch of an indicator located that far up the leader, I'd recommend a tiny Styrofoam ice-fishing bobber, smaller than your little fingernail, which slides onto the leader and is pegged in place with a piece of toothpick. Slide it down near the fly in shallow water and back toward the fly line in a deep run or pool. The distance from the fly to the float should be about 1-1/2 times the depth of the water.)

Bunke fishes with an economy of effort few fly fishermen match. He avoids excessive backcasts (the sin of many trout fly anglers) and keeps the fly in the water. After laying out a cast about forty feet upstream and slightly across the current, he keeps his rod tip low, hooks the fly line over his right index finger and begins stripping in line to take in slack as the line, leader and fly drift back toward him. When the indicator gets to within about ten feet, he gradually raises his rod tip to lift the fly line from the water and keep it from "bellying out" in the current and causing the nymph to swing too fast through the water. As the fly passes downstream, he gradually lowers his rod. Finally, he points the rod toward the fly and, as if he were a fencer, thrusts in slow motion, to extend his drift by several feet. Thus, with a forty-foot cast, Bunke gets a drag-free float of nearly seventy feet. As the fly reaches the end of the drift, he lets the line tighten and slowly lifts the rod tip. "The first technique Dad taught me was the Leisenring Lift." The lift, named for Pennsylvania angler James Leisenring who popularized it fifty years ago, causes the nymph to swing upward as though it were a real insect swimming to the surface to emerge as a flying adult mayfly. Often, trout that ignore a drifting nymph viciously strike at one about to escape.

In clear water, Bunke often fishes to visible trout. But in the cloudy water we are fishing today, we spot few trout, and Bunke doesn't waste time fishing in peripheral areas. "When it's murky, I like to go for the throat to see if they've got the feed bag on."

The "throat," in Bunke's parlance, is the sweet spot, the prime lie that often gives up the largest fish. It is the very head of the run, where the shallow food-producing riffle makes the transition into deeper, sheltering water. Here the largest fish in a pool will take up position when they're feeding, intercepting caddis fly larvae and mayfly and stonefly nymphs that tumble out of the riffle.

Typically, Bunke wades up the side of a stream, staying as close to shore as practical. He'll even stay on the bank if a stream is narrow and the banks are low and clear of brush. He'll begin peppering the run with casts, drifting nymphs down the middle of the run, along the edges, and even in the slack water or eddies that tend to form on either side of the run near the bank.

Bunke, however, pays special attention to the current "seams," the turbulent boundaries that forms between the downstream-flowing run and the slack or upstream-flowing eddy current along the bank. Trout lie along these boundaries, taking shelter in the slower current while watching the faster current for drifting food as though it were a check-out line at a supermarket. So Bunke lays casts to the current side of the seams, to the bank side and right down the seam itself. When fishing so many currents of varying speeds, you must learn how to "mend" line to keep the line, leader and nymph traveling downstream together. If one lags behind—if, for example, the fly line catches fast downstream current while the leader and fly are in slower water—the line will drag the fly along, lifting it to the surface and making it appear as suspect as a powerboat in a yacht race. Line mending has become second nature to Bunke over the years. In fact, he talks of "using the current to get down into the sweet spots," meaning he is mending line to feed slack to the fly and split shot, allowing them to sink as deep as possible. As if to punctuate the remark, he sets the hook and leads another brown trout to his net. "Oh, life is good, huh?"

One run in particular proves challenging for a drag-free drift. The South Branch tumbles down through a swift riffle and turns a broad corner, carving a steep cutbank along the outside of the run, while leaving a big, sand-filled eddy on the inside. The main part of the run and the current seam nearest us are easy enough to fish. In fact, Bunke and I catch several trout as we stand knee deep in the eddy. But drifting a nymph down the current seam on the far side of the river prove nearly impossible. Surely some good fish are tucked up along the wall, but when I cast, the current grabs the belly of the line and rips the fly out of the slow water. I soon give up and concentrate on the easier-to-reach water in front of me. 

"Does the term 'stack mending' mean anything to you?" Bunke calls out over the rush of water. He lobs his nymph into the seam on the far side of the stream. Then he roll casts several times. The casts are made at half-throttle—not vigorously enough to lift the fly from the water; just hard enough to stack several feet of loose fly line in a pile, right next to his strike indicator and above the sinking nymph. With all this slack line, the nymph can sink, even though the current may tug at the belly of the fly line. Hopefully, you've got no drag," he says. "Everything's hanging straight down." After giving the fly several seconds to get down, Bunke takes up some of the slack line and fishes out his cast. The technique works; he pulls out several foot-long browns and rainbows from the bank I had given up on. 

In larger streams, such as the South Branch, where delicacy and pinpoint presentation are not essential, Bunke often fishes two nymphs to speed up the process of learning what the fish are taking. But even if the fish vote solidly in favor or one fly, Bunke often continues to use both, in the hopes of appealing to a few nonconformists. 

Throughout the day, he has fished a nymph called a Matt's Fur. Bunke uses it as a Stenonema mayfly imitation. He flattens the body by wrapping the bare hook with lead wire and then mashing it with a pliers before dubbing a body of tan otter and cream seal fur. He finishes the fly with gold rib on the body and a wing case of mallard or wood duck breast feather fibers (which also are used for a sparse tail). The tips of the feather fibers are splayed to the sides to form legs. The Stenonema has proved a favorite, but Bunke continually changes the second fly in hopes of finding something that works even better. So far he hasn't.

We work upstream through one last run. This time it's Bunke's turn to "go for the throat," so I cast to some fish rising in the tailout while he sticks close to the bank and heads upstream. As he begins working the head of the run, I watch as he sets his hook. Expecting to see a foot-long brown rocket out of the stream, I'm surprised to see that nothing seems to happen at all. Whatever is on the other end of the line doesn't move at all. Then Bunke's rod tip, already bent over in a hard arc, jerks down as a big fish shakes its head, like a dog tugging on a stick. It begins to move around the pool. I can't see it from where I stand, but Bunke calls out: "Oh, yeah, I saw him. It is a good fish." In a moment I see a flash. He's right, it is a good one. Moments later, he leads it into the net, scoops it up and tapes it: 17 inches, with big black and red spots, buttery sides and broad olive back.

I notice the Stenonema handing free on its dropper. "The other fly," I say. "What was it?"

And suddenly Bunke's face goes pale, as though he's been caught in a horrible lie, and he looks down at the trout, wondering perhaps if there is yet time to cut the line and let the fish swim free.

"I've got to talk to you about this pattern," he says, unhooking the fish and letting it swim into a quiet eddy to recover. The fly he pulled from its lip looks like nothing more than a small ball of black lint. "It's a pattern that an old-timer used to fish on Trout Run. He was like a grandfather. He actually passed it on to Tom Dornack." Bunke shakes his head. "Boy. I don't know if Tom would take exception to our talking about this or not. He tells other people himself, but he's one of those guys that He's one of those guys."

"Not much there, is there?" I observe. 

"Black fur and two wraps of black hackle" he says. "There comes a time in our season - about now - when it's damn near all you need." 

All excerpts are protected by copyright and must not be reproduced or distributed without the written permission of Greg Breining.