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Trophy trout thrills more than lucky angler

Luke Schwitzer of St. Paul holds up a 24-inch brown trout before releasing it back into the Kinnickinnic River near the foot of the lower dam last Monday evening, Aug. 22. Schwitzer caught the trophy trout on a 4-weight fly rod and estimated its weight at four to five pounds. <i>Photo courtesy Jim Ashbach </i>

Luke Schwitzer was still thinking about the teenagers in the canoes when the strike indicator on his fly line paused in the current. He had no idea there was a once-in-a-lifetime fish on the other end.

Schwitzer had brought a few trout to his net on the lower Kinnickinnic River that Monday evening, Aug. 22. But the fishing had generally been slow, and the teenager-steered canoes that floated by him around 7:30 p.m. didn't help any.

"That's when I figured I'd throw flies right below the froth of the dam," the St. Paul resident said. "I'd always heard some stories of big fish that lurk below the dam, but I actually never fish there because I prefer the long hike to the pool people rarely fish."

Schwitzer hiked up the trail to the dam, waded out a bit and began casting his fly into some slow, deep runs.

"I was a little frustrated with the lack of consistency in the fishing to that point and probably somewhat irritated with the canoes, and wondering how the hell they're going to navigate as the sun was setting," he said.

About that same time, Jim Ashbach of River Falls, his wife Mary, and their kids Ben, age 7, Evelyn, 5, and Josh, 3, had reached the bottom of the stairs that descend from Glen Park to the dam while out for an "adventure walk." They sat and watched Schwitzer for a few minutes before heading further down the trail to continue their hike.

"He had a nibble while we were there but the fish escaped," Ashbach said.

That's when Schwitzer saw his strike indicator pause in the current. Instead of setting the hook, he said for some reason he waited until it started to sink. He knew right away this was not a typical 9-inch Kinni trout.

"I figured I got into a good 15-incher," he said. "I thought, cool! That's why people fish the dam!"

The fish stayed deep on the other end of Schwitzer's line, rolling with an occasional slow, strong head shake.

"I start to think that maybe, just maybe, this is bigger than a 15-incher," he said. "I start praying that my hook set is solid and that I don't get a break off."

At this point Ashbach and his family looked back to see Schwitzer's fly rod nearly doubled over.

"The kids wanted to see what he caught so we headed in his direction," Ashbach said.

Schwitzer was battling to keep the fish out of the river's vegetation and praying that his line would hold. When he finally got the fish to roll close to the surface he couldn't believe his eyes.

"Right away, I try and reason with it -- you know, there's no way he's a trout -- that's got to be a pike or something," he said. "But I've never seen a pike in the Kinni -- and why would a pike eat a No. 16 nymph fly?"

Despite the fish's size, Schwitzer said it wasn't a long fight. As he brought the fish closer he got out his net and the fish let him pull his open mouth and head out of the water. He said he knew right away this trout wasn't fitting in the landing net he typically used for small, unruly brookies.

"I laughed out loud and then quickly tried to put some light side pressure on this guy and walk him to the sandy bank with me," he said. That's when he spotted Ashbach and his family watching from the shore.

"I was grinning like a little girl," said Schwitzer, who had welcomed a niece, Emma, into the world just the day before. "I looked up at Jim and asked the million dollar question: Please tell me you have a camera?"

Ashbach pulled out his camera phone and began snapping pictures. Schwitzer didn't have a tape measure with him so he marked the fish's length on his 4-weight fly rod and held it under water until it could swim away on its own.

"You could tell he didn't get caught much," he said. "He took what felt like a good five minutes or so to recuperate before he could finally muster the strength to swim away from my grip."

Schwitzer let Ben, Evelyn and Josh pet the fish while it was recovering. Ashbach said his oldest, Ben, named the fish Squiggles.

"The fish was jumping and splashing around each time the kids tried to touch it," Ashbach said. "The kids thought Squiggles was one of the coolest things they had ever seen. It was fun to see the kids laugh or squeal when Squiggles would jump."

When Schwitzer got home he measured the marks on his fly rod at 23 3/4-inches. But like all fishermen, he's rounding up.

"I'm calling him a two-footer for the rest of my life," he said.

He estimated its weight at at least four pounds, possibly pushing five.

"He had a very girthy 'old man of the river' shape about him with a huge taper growing up throughout his body," he said. "His back end was kind of average for his size, but his front end was huge and his head was just massive."

Schwitzer said he's never been a big fish hunter. He just enjoys getting out on the river. But he said this beast will haunt him every time he ties on a fly.

"I will walk up to every pool, run, and riffle now with my imagination running wild wondering who exactly is hanging out under the surface," he said. "Either way, I realize I may never catch something like that again."

Ashbach said he and his family will never forget the experience either.

"As a parent it was everything you could ask for," he said. "Going on an adventure walk as a family, seeing a once in a lifetime trout, and having your son, as he is holding your hand walking down a path, ask you, "Dad, when are we going fishing next?"

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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