Finding fish can take bushwhacking

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004

COOK COUNTY, Minn. Bill Tormondsen's Toyota pickup bounces along an old logging road in second gear. The farther he goes, the closer the new growth of popple and Norway pine encroaches on the truck.

Suddenly, Tormondsen downshifts and turns onto an even more obscure trail. Weeds choke the path, most of them taller than the truck's hood. Tormondsen eases the truck ahead.

It's before 6 a.m. on a cool August morning. Tormondsen, a longtime band director, is going brook trout fishing at a little stream he knows of in Cook County, Minn.

Now 60, he has been making trips like this since long before he could drive. Growing up in Lutsen, he would tag along with his father to some of the same streams he fishes today. This is brook trout fishing in the tradition of all the old-timers on the North Shore a spinning rod, a few hooks, some split-shot sinkers and a couple dozen night crawlers.

Tormondsen disappears under a 16-foot canoe, and he's off at a near-trot for the river. Needless to say, we are alone. We've seen no sign of humans since the last tire tracks on the main road. In fact, the number of stream anglers is declining, Tormondsen contends.

''It's tough going,'' he says. ''To be a trout fisherman, you have to be little masochistic. People want to sit in a boat and have a beer and watch the fish locator.''

The stream, in the first light of morning, could not be lovelier. The sun has just cleared the treetops. A heavy mist rises from the warm water and is backlit by gold light. Yellow water lilies lie like place mats on the water.

We slip the canoe in the water and within seconds, Tormondsen has a piece of fat night crawler on a hook.

''It's a good day,'' he says.

That is Tormondsen's way of saying he has hooked a brook trout on his first cast. An 8- or 10-incher, it is insane with fight. Tormondsen swings it into the air, quickly releases it and casts again.

I recall him driving to another stream the evening before, both hands off the wheel momentarily, gesturing with intensity.

''Those brook trout!'' he was saying. ''Pound for pound, they can fight.''

We catch several more brookies at another hole, but Tormondsen promises that the best spot is yet to come. At that place, a wide pool bordered by rocks and rushes, we pull the canoe onto a bog and fish from shore.

On our first four casts, we land four brook trout, all in the 9- to 10-inch class. We proceed to catch one after another. A cast without a bite is unusual. The fish come in a variety of sizes, from about 7 inches up to a couple of 12-inchers. All of the fish are resplendent with their speckled sides and mottled green backs.

It's hard to say how many we catch in the half-hour we work the hole. Tormondsen seems pleased about this, but he is not giddy about it. Nor is he greedy. We throw all of the fish back.

''I'm a little disappointed we didn't get some bigger ones,'' he would say later.

But we both know it is a great morning to be a brook trout angler.

For almost as long as Tormondsen has been a brook trout angler, he has also been a pilot. He learned to fly in Alaska when he worked there as a young man. He no longer owns a plane, but he flies regularly to keep his hours up and to prospect more brook trout fishing spots.

The day before, Tormondsen picked me up in a Cessna 170 a four-seat plane to fly over some of the spots we would fish and to check out some new ones.

''Yeah, this must be it.''

Tormondsen's voice crackles into my headphones. He has banked the plane over on one wing, and he's staring down at a stream someone has told him about. He rolls the plane over to the other side and comes back on the spot.

''That's worth checking out,'' he says.

And he files it away for future reference. Then we fly on to the Grand Marais airport, where we pile into the Toyota and head for a nearby river. It's another bouncy ride, and another brush-crashing walk to the river.

''It's just a couple of blocks,'' Tormondsen keeps saying.

Slender and graying, Tormondsen moves easily through the woods. He never wears a hat. Along the way, he checks his compass to make sure he knows how to get out of the woods. We have only about an hour before dusk.

It takes us just 20 minutes to walk the ''couple of blocks,'' and we emerge where the river fans over an 8-foot cascade. The water re-gathers in a black pool surrounded by maroon rocks. We catch a few fish, but nothing of any size. We try worms, spinners and small spoons.

Working hard for sometimes unproductive fishing doesn't bother Tormondsen.

''It's just like music. There are people who don't understand this,'' he says. ''There are some people, music doesn't touch them. Some people think you have to catch fish. It's great just to be in here.''

Sometimes, he says, he casts out a worm and lets it sit. Then he finds a comfortable rock and drinks a cup of coffee.

Tormondsen will have more time to fish in another year. This fall will be his 34th at East High School, his 39th in teaching. He says he'll retire when the year is over.

He could spend more time fishing in his favorite time of year.

''What I love is the fall,'' he says. ''The color of those fish oh, man. You take the shotgun along and hunt partridge.''

Tormondsen has seen good fishing come and go on various streams, but overall, he thinks stream fishing is good.

''I'm catching more fish and bigger fish than ever,'' he says.

Maybe that's why he doesn't mind bushwhacking to get to these streams.

Jerry Klun, retired band director at Denfeld High School, has fished with Tormondsen for years.

''He's nuts, man,'' Klun says. ''He leaves me behind all the time. He's an explorer. And he has a tendency to get me lost once in a while.''

Tormondsen acknowledges that he gets turned around sometimes, but he hasn't spent an unplanned night in the woods recently.

Klun again: ''One time, we were trying to make it to (this) creek. I think he had fished it as a kid. We kept going and going. I was half-dead with my hip boots on. He says, 'It's 50 more feet.' I sat down. He went on ahead. I hear him whistle. He says, 'It's 50 more feet.' We never found the creek.''

But Klun keeps following Tormondsen.

''He's so much fun. I just go and laugh,'' Klun says.

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