News story turns into fish story as least likely angler reels one in

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Reflections from my Notebook

I walked out the office door last Wednesday morning with a camera bag and notebook, off to cover a news story. I walked back in before noon with my own story — a fish story, of all things. As a journalist, I usually try to stay out of the stories we report in our newspaper, but sometimes I just can’t help it, especially since my newspaper is in a small town where staff members are often asked to take on many roles.

My intent last Wednesday was to report on the University of Minnesota Extension Service crew that was in Spring Valley to get photographs to go along with a story highlighting the city’s participation in the Making it Home program in the Extension magazine called Source. This is a new program in southeastern Minnesota open to small communities.

When I showed up at the first scene at Spring Valley Creek to take some of my own photographs of the crew capturing images of families fishing in downtown Spring Valley, the photographer asked me to jump in to balance the shot. So, I grabbed an extra fishing rod and dropped a line in the stream.

After a few minutes, I decided I better make it a little more realistic, so I asked the true fisherman, Jerry Wolf, who set up the agenda for the group, how to work his reel in order to cast the line farther into the water. A few minutes after that, I felt a tug and soon I reeled in a foot-long rainbow trout.

I didn’t keep the fish, but it sure provided some entertainment for the crew and the other “models” who all were experienced fishing enthusiasts. I didn’t want to admit to them that one reason I didn’t keep it is because I wouldn’t know what to do with it since my fishing background is very limited and happened a long time ago.

Also, I felt a little self-conscious since I, the novice who snagged a trout, was among this group of fishing devotees who were exchanging recommendations of bait — definitely not anything like the lure on my line — and prime trout locations — my place was determined by photographic aesthetics, not habitat.

Although I call myself a novice, I do have some experience with fishing, mainly in lakes in northern Minnesota.

Growing up, I lived in Wisconsin while I was in elementary school when my family often traveled to Bay Lake in Minnesota for summer vacation. My father and two older brothers were avid fishing enthusiasts. However, they got up at sunrise and went out in a boat to do some serious fishing, leaving me and my younger brother in bed. So, when we got up, our experience consisted of fishing off the dock near our cabin at the resort.

Remarkably, we caught some fish, but I don’t really recall fond memories of that experience. Seeing an old photograph of the two of us youngest Phillips boys posing with a line of fish probably shows why those memories aren’t foremost in my mind. In the photograph, I had my arm outstretched with the line as far away from me as possible and a forced smile, or grimace, on my face. That pose showed fishing wouldn’t become a big part of my life.

When we did get to go out for some more serious fishing, I also recall the few fish we caught were always cleaned by my older brothers since we were quite little and they didn’t trust us around sharp tools. That meant that not only did we not learn the intricacies of fishing, we also never learned how to prepare them for meals.

Before I hit the teens, my family moved out East to an area much like southeastern Minnesota with many rivers, but few lakes. My father seemed to lose interest in fishing since he had always lake fished and it appeared my fishing would be relegated to a short history notation.

After my son was born, I took him fishing in a commercial lake in Colorado when he was just a toddler or slightly older. He used corn on a line to catch a nice perch, something everyone was able to do at this tourist spot. Even better, the staff prepared the fish so you could eat them at the attached restaurant.

Our son was so proud of the fish he caught. However, when we sat down at the table and they brought the fish filet out on a plate, he started bawling, crying “Where’s my fish.” He thought he was going to be able to take it home as a pet and refused to eat the meal.

That didn’t turn him off from fishing, though, as I took him out several times when he was older. His first real fish was in Lake Pepin where he caught a northern. We were fishing off a dock, something I was quite familiar with, and he reeled it in just before sunset.

We decided the best thing would be to get photographs of him with his fish and throw it back in. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable task of figuring out how to clean it in darkness.

The next time he caught fish with me, I lucked out. We were up north and a group was in the fish cleaning shelter when we showed up with our fish. The guys volunteered to clean our fish and even threw in several of theirs because they had so many, giving us a lot of fish for our campfire meal that night.

For my last true fishing experience with him, I decided to splurge since I knew my son would be going away to college and we may not have another vacation together. We took a charter on Lake Superior off of the north shore, where we loved to camp.

Not only would this trip allow us to actually get on a boat out into the water, which I thought was more enjoyable than the fishing, if we caught anything, the people running the charter would clean them. Not much was biting at first, but toward the end of the guided trip, our son caught a huge salmon.

When the guide presented the cleaned salmon in a large plastic bag to him, there were no tears — just a big smile.

That would have been a good way to end my lifetime of fishing — with a big smile.

But that all changed last Wednesday when I snagged my first trout while modeling for a photographer. Rather than ending with a smile, I guess my fishing experience will have to end with a good laugh.