I remember when we first arrived on the scene years ago, we laughed at what we saw…………

Attached to the backs of some of the anglers who paced the shoreline of the Brule river in Northern Wisconsin were landing nets in a shape and size we had never seen the likes of before. These nets, worn proudly by anglers who appeared competent and seasoned, extended on each side past their shoulders blades and bore handles that in many cases hung down past the knee joint. We laughed at the size of these nets and I remember joking with my friend Jim that these anglers must be wishful thinkers. Many of the nets were made of tubular aluminum with woven cotton bags but a few, just a few, were works of art. The well crafted nets displayed the layered bent-wood hoop of an artist, and the handles were beautifully shaped and grained hardwood extensions. The gleaming satin finish was immaculate. Someone had payed attention to detail in every aspect of the final product. As we took our place among the anglers navigating the well worn trails we too hung our nets from our back. Our nets however were a different shape and size, fit for landing fish from the Kinnickinnic and the other inland trout streams we had cut our trout fishing teeth on. I remember the smile on one angler’s face as we passed on the trail. His eyes were fixed on my net. There was no way for us to know what would happen next. We were newbie kids in a foreign land.

I remember banging the fish on the head two times before the yelling started. Jim had tied into a trout larger than either of us had ever seen before. As hard as he tried, he could not get the fish close enough to land alone, so I volunteered to net the fish. On the third swipe at the angry trout I managed to get the head and the near side pectoral fin into my net bag. At this point we both understood why the men wore the big nets across their shoulders. My net bag was full and no more of the fish would fit in the bag. As I attempted to lift the fish from the water, the recoil of one last tail wag from the enormous steelhead sent the fish skyward. The fish hit the water with a perfect 10 on the cannonball scale and drenched us both with the river’s flow. It was gone. The look on Jim’s face was one of heartfelt anguish. The netter is always at fault. The hook-up and battle between an angler and a steelhead in rapidly moving water unleashes a plethora of small emotional nuclear explosions to the brain which include excitement, apprehension, anxiety, joy, euphoria and exhilaration just to name a few. A steelhead lost before netting can bring on the dark side of emotions. A steelhead banged in the head three times and then sent on a trampoline ride like a cheerleader at a football game is grounds for rare and unusual punishment. We learned a valuable lesson that day about the Brule, its fish and the proper size net. It would take time and the repetition of practice to gain the necessary netting skills. In order to accomplish that goal we would return to this part of the world, again and again. Since that time Jim and I have netted each other’s fish for the most part with good success. Every couple of years though we encounter that same high anxiety situation between angler and nets-men.  Now however, the ending always includes laughter because we both remember that first time.

On Wednesday the above fish(click on the picture to enlarge) ate my size #6 stonefly in one of the big holding pools on the Brule River. My friend Kurtis was on the opposite side of the river. For the first minute of the battle the fish did not show itself. In the second minute the brown trout launched toward the heavens. We both knew I would have my hands full as I would be on my own to net the fish. The river would be too dangerous for Kurtis to cross. As the emotional roller coaster of a fight with a large fish nears the netting stage, a proper moment is picked by the nets-men to make the attempt. As the rod arm is thrust skyward, the net hand smoothly probes the hoop under the water’s surface and the fish’s body taking care not to move to fast and risk aggravating the fish. The cooperation between my left arm and right was flawless. The trout was in the bag. It was in that moment, a connection sparked that had previously gone unrecognised.

As I slid the bow of the net under the giant I saw more than just an angler’s tool at work. I saw the work of the master craftsman who had fashioned this vessel. The net provides safety to each of the flowing water treasures that passes through its halo. A man’s hands, in comparison to a net, are poor devices when it comes to controlling the aggressive behavior of an angry trout. The humble net-crafter works his own set of tools to uncover the stunning wood grains that nature keeps hidden from sight. The final product enables our eyes to see beauty unique to every species of wood. In a similar fashion the colors and patterns of the trout, unique to each species, are concealed from man, hidden by the depths of the life giving water and only revealed by the luck and skill of the angler. I could see that my net was built with the same strength and spirit of the tree, the giant brown trout, and the man who knows that there is value in the harmony of the whole. In the fleeting moments when the three interconnect, beauty goes beyond the written word. When laid across my net, the tip of the nose and the tail of the fish overlapped its length. In that instant I recalled the nets on the backs of the anglers that we laughed so hard about when we first came to the Brule River. I smiled. The only moment that the big brown trout was calm was for the split second that the fish was nestled beside the wood net crafted of the giant trees that are the keepers of his river. My Brule River Steelhead net is 30″ from the top of the hoop to the ring on the handle. For those who fish this water more than I, it may be nothing to write home about. But for me, it was the largest brown trout of my life. Along with it came more than a trout. A message was spawned from the hands of a net maker. The lives of those who inhabit the woods and the water enabled our existence. We must do more than just see its beauty, we must feel and understand the interconnections, before it is too late. For two days I refused to look at the picture because rarely do photographs do justice to the reverence of the moment. This one is an exception. The brown swam off drenching me with one stroke of his giant tail. The cold water not only opened my eyes, it let me feel his message.

Lloyd Hautajarvi of LDH Landing Nets continues his craft more for love than money. His legacy will be known as one who has crafted tools to both honor and protect the fish that have called him to his craft. The Brule River Steelhead model net that was built for me by Lloyd is one of my most treasured pieces of fishing gear. There is magic in the circle of life that is its hoop. There is power in the grains of Maple that is its handle, and there is clarity of vision in its crafting. Thank you Lloyd.