PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Even the dreadfully novice fly angler has a chance at landing a jaw-dropping brown trout for about 10 days of June on the Straight River.
“You don't have to be skilled at all to catch fish,” according to Bill Evarts, who’s been fishing the river 18 years since moving here from Vermont. “For wild brown trout, they don't spook easy.”
Yet the dedicated anglers that gather on that small stretch of river southwest of Park Rapids are extremely skilled at the craft. You have to be if you want to succeed in and out of the peak seasons. Most nights during the much anticipated hex hatch, you could catch some amazing trout, but even the most seasoned anglers can go home without a bite.
The month of June is a good one for anglers of most fish species in Minnesota but during the hatch of the Hexagenia limbata mayfly, a brown trout fishing frenzy can be witnessed on this protected corridor of the Straight River.
During this period, the hex fly, one of the largest of American mayflies, rises as a nymph from the silt and muck that line edges of this wetland. At the surface, the fly emerges, opens its wings to dry and then heads for the surrounding pines. About a day later, the fly sheds another exoskeleton and enters into the “spinner” stage, according to Evarts, a Minnesota DNR fisheries specialist out of Walker. In this stage, the male and female mayfly mate over the river. As the fertilized eggs drop into the water, so do the mayflies. It’s there they die, either swept downstream or into the waiting mouths of voracious brown trout. It’s as if the mayfly’s entire existence is for this one brief moment of feeding fish in the dark.
As the mayfly must know how to operate in the dark, so must the fly fisherman chasing after them. That’s why preparations for that moment of frenzied feeding start earlier in the day for anglers like Evarts, Dallas Hudson and Ron Miller.
Miller, a retired pediatrician from Fargo who resides on Lake Belle Taine in the summer, has been fishing this stretch of river for over 40 years. Others that stake claims on this stretch of river have even been doing it longer than that. It’s obvious that there is an allure to this place. Some nights the main access points can become crowded with anglers. None of the diehards would be caught elsewhere during the sacred hex hatch. Miller joked that unfortunately there are so many weddings in June, if he’s invited to one during the hex hatch, there’s a good chance he’ll have to pass.
What makes this time of year so special on this piece of water is the abundance of brown trout in the upper teens and even longer. Evarts showed off pictures of some pushing 24 inches. He often won’t even cast towards the smaller splashing fish, those 12 to 15 inches, if he thinks there’s a larger one nearby. By most trout fishing standards in Minnesota, any of these would be a good fish.
Much of the group enters the river by 7:30 p.m., nearly three hours before they’ll actually cast a fly. Paddling up or down by canoe, they can slip in quietly. Those hours of waiting are often focused on birding as the marshy lowlands are filled with the songs of red-winged blackbirds, warbler, vireo and cat birds.
It’s times like those the trout angler becomes accustomed to his or her surroundings on the curvy confines of the Straight River. These anglers have almost supernatural senses able to spot a rising fish at 40 feet and know what caused the waters to part for a moment. Even bugs zipping through the air are identified for their part in the food chain. And each bird flitting through the thick reeds can be named by it’s voice. These aren’t just anglers. These are people deeply connected to the natural world around them.
“It’s very intriguing fishing,” Evarts said. “You’ve gotta be observant. You’ve got common shiners or creek chub rising, too. You have to figure out whether you are casting to a trout or just a minnow.”
While all that observing in the hours before dark is relaxing, those fishing are also carefully recording the scene for when the sun goes down. When the fishing starts, it's dark. They rely solely on sounds of feeding fish to know where to place a fly.
Evarts admits the first few years took considerable work to find fish. Another one of the regulars out in mid-June, Dallas Hudson, said it took him three years before he got in on the hex hatch.
“Nobody would give me any information,” Hudson said. Evarts said he wasn’t one to fish for information, so he had to figure a lot out on his own, too.
As Evarts talks about the life cycle of the mayfly he’s waiting for, the first splash of the water is heard. Not just a little minnow, but a real wallop on the water. The ever observant Evarts not only hears the splash but sees the fish as if he knew just where to watch.
“Did you see that?!” he said excitedly. He figures the brown was at least 17 inches. He’s soon ready to move into position at about 10:15 p.m. and the mosquitoes are now so thick most would miss that the mayfly spinners are now dropping into the water. It’s the moment these few souls have waited for.
Evarts steps out from the canoe and begins making his way to the middle of the flow. He starts ripping line from his fly reel and begins to cast upstream towards another and another loud splash. He knows this one is big.
After several casts over the trout, the yellow hex fly he’s tied to the end of his leader is snatched into the dark waters below and the fight is on.
Evarts plays the fish out of a deeper pool and wrestles for his net as the fish comes closer. Once in the net he sees he’s landed a fine trout, about 21 inches in length. This is what he’s after. A moment later, the fish is back in the water again. He returns to casting into the dark. He's directed only by the sound of feeding trout at the surface.
Back on land
These anglers know how fragile this fishery is and how rare it is to have a sustainable wild trout fishery surrounded by agricultural fields. Records of trophy browns have been in place since the 1950s out here and since 1991, the river trout have been wild. No stocking has taken place since then.
While this place had good bones for trout production, it had help in more recent years to strengthen its potential. Logging is said to have widened the river and sediment was not easily flushed, causing the water temperatures to rise, according to an article from Minnesota Trout Unlimited.
Trout Unlimited worked with the Minnesota DNR to narrow the channel by placing mature jack pines in the river by helicopter. This work, in a process of years, was done to capture sediment, narrow the channel, increase depth and decrease water temperatures.
These structures are not meant to last long, instead they help establish vegetation that should last, according to Park Rapids area fisheries supervisor Doug Kingsley. Kingsley said conservation work on this river has been ongoing since the 1970s thanks to numerous devoted fans of trout fishing.
Standing near the bridge where they all shove off, the anglers described this special place and talked about the fish they had caught that night and released. They are able to keep coming back here and catching these fish because, by their choice, they don’t keep the fish.
Those that fish the Straight say climate change, overuse of groundwater for irrigation, excessive chemical use or loss of habitat has the ability to destroy this precious fishery. Kingsley shared that numerous studies have been done since 1989 and still today by numerous groups, including the DNR and the U.S. Geological Survey, to determine what impacts the water flow and temperature.
"You have to understand that those evaluations are confounded by other things like climate change and development or land use changes that are affecting the stream as well," Kingsley said.
The fishermen had little concern about the amount of anglers that keep trout. Many that do this do so in the spring between ice fishing and fishing opener. Most of the fly anglers practice catch-and-release only as a means to preserve the large fish.
An abundance of fly fishermen tend to show up for the hex hatch, but beyond that the river is relatively left for the few that really enjoy its company whether the fishing is incredible or not during the remainder of open water.
“Once the hex hatch is over, I don’t see anybody,” Evarts said.
Much of the river is accessible. Anglers can fish from shore on more than two-thirds of the Straight River without having to get permission from landowners. Close to 8 of the 18 miles of the river below Straight Lake dam have angler access easements on one or both sides of the stream. Most float or wade into the river.
For someone like Evarts, who spends over 40 days a year on this river, there is immense value here.
As long as there are healthy trout, there will be people lining up for a chance to catch one. Few may be successful, but for a few days out of the year, anglers have a chance at the fish of a lifetime.