John Weiss: A good guide makes for a great trout opener
FREEBURG — Dawn was but a faint hint in Crooked Creek Valley on Saturday as Leo Simon and I parked along Houston County Road 249, allowing us to claim a big pool for the regular-season 2016 trout opener.
Weather was perfect. The stream was running well and just a bit stained.
I'm so glad I listened to Simon.
My idea had been to fish Beaver Creek Valley State Park west of Caledonia, a place I've never fished before. I was told that Simon is the man to show you where to go, because he's a big-time trout angler and also works a few days a week in the park.
Simon said he hadn't fished an opener for 40 years because they're so crowded, but he's proud of fishing in the area. He agreed to show me the park.
Then he asked me an interesting question: Did I want to fish in the park, or did I want to catch a lot of fish? Streams in the park are clear and rather hard to fish, he said. Crooked Creek, however, should produce some nice fish.
Since he put it that way, I opted for Crooked Creek.
A slow start
I began fishing with a small, bright spinner but caught nothing. I got out and Simon, who lives several miles east in a wooded area near Caledonia, stepped in with a fly rod.
He caught a few small trout.
When it was my turn again, I tried a brown-trout Rapala, and the trout loved it. I had a strong hit and miss, then caught a nice brown. Unfortunately, trout have soft mouths and don't do well with treble hooks. After struggling to remove the hook, I got out of the stream to switch to my fly rod as Simon took over.
For about an hour, we tag-teamed that pool, catching maybe a dozen fish. I kept a brown and two stocked rainbows.
While we had the pool to ourselves, we weren't alone. Far from it. Anglers began showing up and were everywhere, but there was more than enough room for all of us.
It was that kind of opener, the kind you dream about — warm, light winds at first, streams running well, fish hungry.
Simon said he loves fishing the Caledonia area because it has several top streams but isn't as crowded as the Whitewater River around Elba, or the many streams in the Preston-Lanesboro area.
Oddly, he grew up in the Fairwater area along the North Branch Whitewater, a few miles from Elba, along one of the top streams in the region. He was taught to fly fish by legendary angler-rattlesnake hunter Black Bill Venzol, who lived with Simon's grandparents, Matt and Mary Simon, in winter when he couldn't get to his cabin further up the North Branch.
One day, he told the couple, "I'm going to go out and catch the big one." Sure enough, he caught a 14-pound brown trout that is still the biggest one known to have been caught in the valley. It was a state record for a long time.
Black Bill, being practical, wanted Mary Simon to fry it up, Leo Simon said. Fortunately, Bob Mauer of Mauer Brothers Tavern in Elba got it and had it mounted. It's still on display there.
Simon said he taught wrestling in Goodhue but later moved to Caledonia. It was a paradise. "Trout fishing was really good," he said. "It was 14 miles from the Mississippi."
The Crooked and Winnebago creek systems are the two prime ones, along with Beaver Creek system, all within several branches and a lot of land open to public fishing.
Today, Caledonia touts itself as the Wild Turkey Capital of Minnesota, which is certainly no exaggeration, but oddly, we heard no gobbling and only one shot.
Turkeys gobbled a few weeks ago, he said. Now, they're henned up, he said.
As we caught fish, Austin Broz and his dad, Tim Broz, both of St. Louis Park, drifted crawlers down the Crooked. They drove down that morning, making a lot longer drive than I made, and could have stopped at the Whitewater or Root. But no, they came to Crooked for one reason: "This is where we always catch fish," the son said.
When they left, Jesse Neihart of North Branch helped his son, Oliver Neihart, 5, down the bank and they started catching fish. They had three browns and Oliver caught a nice fourth one that went back into the creek. They came because it's a tradition, the dad said.
Did he use worms?
Oliver, being shy, just nodded yes.
Is it fun?
Again, he nodded.
Who's a better angler, you or your dad?
"Dad," he said, and added, "then me."
Fishing upstream of us were two Winona State University buddies, Jason Rieke and Jack Sackett, with whom I fished in the winter. With them were Dillan Nelson and Mike Nunemacher, also WSU students, and Rieke's dad, Al Rieke.
"We did pretty well, each caught a handful and we kept a couple limits for the grill and smoker," Jason Rieke said. "Al Rieke and Michael Nunemacher were still relatively new to fly fishing, so it was fun to see them have a successful outing."
When it got warm, the fishing slowed so Simon and I called it quits.
We caught fish, I learned more about Black Bill, and Simon got warmed up for the next time he takes a guest trout fishing. That time, the lucky angler will have a much higher profile -- Minnesota Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer.
Simon said some Vikings came to Caledonia recently to honor the town for its winning football tradition. The two men met and decided to trout fish in May in the area.
"I'll take him to Winnebago," Simon said.