Trout fishing may fall easily into most outdoor writers’ wheelhouses, but not mine.
Fishing tales often appear in the Outdoors section of the Quad-City Times, but I've never owned a rod and reel. Bicycle rides and nature hikes played more of a role in my southern Wisconsin upbringing.
But what better way to learn about a subject than experiencing it firsthand? This recent desire to test the waters led me to Tim Albrecht, head coach of the Moline High School Bass Fishing team, who referred me to junior Phelps Bohlman, one of the squad’s top anglers.
To celebrate opening day of Illinois’ spring trout fishing season last Saturday, I met Phelps and his teammate, Brock Larson, at Moline’s Prospect Park. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources on March 27 stocked the two-acre Echo Lake with 550 pounds of rainbow trout, said Dan Stephenson, the agency’s chief of fisheries.
Phelps brought along the necessities, except for the $14.50 fishing license and $6 Inland Trout Stamp required to fish at Prospect. Stamp fees fund Illinois’ trout program, which supplies 54 ponds, lakes and streams throughout the state with about 80,000 rainbow trout each spring and fall.
While chilly conditions may have deterred some Quad-City anglers, those eager to launch the spring fishing season parked themselves in sunny spots along the bank of the pond.
"Everybody said I was crazy, but there were a lot of us out here," said Lyle Behne of Milan, a veteran fisherman who arrived about 6 a.m. for his first of two outings on opening day.
“We’re catching them left and right,” said JT Madison, a John Deere Middle School student itching to go out this fall for the high school’s Bass Fishing squad.
Everyone in JT's group, which included his father, John, and two of their friends, caught their daily limit of five trout. "We're allowed to come here tomorrow, right dad?" an excited J.T. asked.
“We’re eating like kings tonight,” said Allen Weidner, John’s friend, who noted trout at the grocery store cost close to $5 per pound.
They planned to clean the fish, coat the “good white meat” in butter and seasoning and wrap them in aluminum foil on the grill, John said.
Unlike the majority of others there, we had no intention of bringing home any trout. But Brock, one of my instructors, did hand-deliver at least one fish to a grateful angler across the pond. I approached the experience as a private lesson, following coach Albrecht's advice: "Take their lead," he said in a text message. "You'll catch fish."
And we did, using small Mepps spinners — French-made lures that imitate minnows — commonly used for hauling trout, which have smaller mouths than bass, Phelps said.
I lost my first fish before the boys chimed in with tips.
"Keep the pressure on," Blake said as we sensed bites at the end of our lines.
"Steady retrieve," Phelps added as we traded turns with his fishing rod. "They're fighting just as hard as a bass would."
The rush and satisfaction of reeling in two fish, which were not whoppers or lunkers, made the venture worthwhile. Phelps agreed. "It feels good to get away from bass fishing," he said.
There still were trout to be caught this week at Echo Lake, said Greg Johnson, Moline Parks Operations Manager. "I was there today (Thursday), and a lot of people were there fishing."
Illinois' spring trout fishing season does not have an end date, but the DNR's Stephenson said any trout not caught will die when the water temperature reaches about 70 degrees.
Phelps encouraged me at the end of the lesson to fish on my own sometime. "It's relaxing," he said. "There's not much that can really bother you."
A few more lessons — and proper gear — will be vital for fishing tales in my future.