DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Nearly everyone who gathers here to fish for Kamloops rainbow trout knows Jerry Brunette. That’s him, watching his 9-foot rod anchored near the mouth of the French River on Wednesday morning. A Marlboro in his lips. An eye on his rod tip.
Brunette, 70, is a regular in the fraternity of Kamloops rainbow anglers. He’s the lean guy in the camouflage jacket with gray hair trying to escape from under his camouflage cap.
Brunette has been a regular on the North Shore for decades. An uncle would bring him up from the Twin Cities when he was 6 or 7. His dad had died in the Pearl Harbor attack when Brunette was just 1.
“I caught my first lake trout when I was 8,” Brunette said. “Out of Bluebird Landing, in a rented boat. Fifty cents for a half-day rental.”
It’s hard say how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of days Brunette has fished on the North Shore since then. After a few years on a helicopter crew in Vietnam, he settled in Stillwater, where he worked for the Rock Island Railroad and later Anderson Windows.
He would come north in his motor home, a brand called “Born Free,” that he bought new in 1969. He moved up to Duluth in 1999 and traveled up and down the shore in the motor home until he sold it last year.
“I’m not a traveling man anymore,” he said.
There is no sadness in the statement. Merely fact. Brunette isn’t given much to reflection. He is philosophical about the changes in his life that have been brought on by three bouts with cancer. He’s had a couple of go-arounds with colon cancer, another with prostate cancer. Radiation. Chemotherapy. The whole deal. He was down to 110 pounds at one time, but there he is, in the old snapshot, gaunt in the face but holding a nice pair of Kamloops rainbows.
“I didn’t think I’d make it past 60,” Brunette said. “But I’m still going.”
Mainly, that means going fishing. He fishes the North Shore from Duluth to the Arrowhead Trail near Hovland. Kamloops rainbows. Cohos from the Duluth ship canal. Lake trout up and down the shore. Walleyes on inland lakes.
He rents a small cottage near Duluth in the winter. He keeps an ice-fishing house on Fish Lake, shuttling back and forth in a vintage Toyota truck with a flatbed rear end. At the end of May, he’ll migrate to a cottage near Silver Bay.
Brunette remembers the first few stocked rainbow trout he caught on Lake Superior in the early 1970s.
“We got `em casting for lake trout on Sucker Bay,” Brunette said. “We knew they were rainbows, but we didn’t know much about `em. Nobody was talking about `em.”
Once the DNR began stocking the Kamloops strain in earnest in 1976, the near-shore fishery took off. Each spring, anglers like Brunette line the shores near the Lester River, the French River and the Sucker River to catch the big bruisers that come back to spawn. It has been one of the DNR’s most successful fishery programs, though limited in geographical scope to a few river mouths near Duluth.
Brunette has been a presence on the Kamloops scene for more than three decades. Primarily a fly fisher, he happily switches to bottom-fishing with a half-ounce weight and a spawn bag laced with garlic. He catches his share of Kamloops rainbows each winter and spring.
Tom Hultquist of Duluth, originator of the original “Looper bug,” swings by to visit with Brunette on a brisk morning this past week. He has known Brunette for years.
“He’s always happy-go-lucky,” Hultquist said. “And he seems to get the fish.”
Andy Jonas of Cloquet has been Kamloops fishing for just three years. He remembers trying to break into the Kamloops angling clan when he was just learning. Brunette gave him a few tips.
“He was very helpful,” said Jonas, 43. “I don’t think I ever would have caught a fish if I hadn’t met Jerry. He taught me where to cast, where the fish were going to be.”
As he watches his line, tight to the bottom, Brunette talks about events that have defined his years of fishing on the North Shore.
“I’ve lost three friends,” he said, meaning fellow anglers. “Norm died right there.”
Brunette points to a spot just down the beach.
“Remember when that semi ran off the Lester River Bridge?” he asks. “I was fishing the Lester that day.”
And he understands well the risks that come with Kamloops fishing.
“I’ve been through the ice twice,” he said.
A casual observer might think that this river-mouth fishery is all about the fishing. And, clearly, these anglers take it seriously, putting in eight or 10 hours a day in hopes they’ll be there when the bite turns on.
But for Brunette and many others, the experience surpasses the mere harvesting of fish. Often, before they begin fishing, anglers will stand in the parking lot above or on the cobblestones below, just visiting. They’re trying to get a feel for the day, what’s happening, how the wind is working.
They also are apt to tell a story or two, share something they saw on TV or remark on the general state of the world. Coffee is poured from camouflage Thermos bottles and sipped in the breeze.
In many cases, last names of their fellow anglers are unknown or long-forgotten. But the accumulation of all those days on the shore, and all those fish taken in each other’s company, seems to create an unspoken bond.
Some people have Facebook. These guys have the French and the Lester and Bluebird Landing. Certainly, it’s a significant place in Brunette’s world. In a morning at the French, nearly everyone who comes to fish acknowledges his presence. Most come by to talk.
When it’s time to fish, some anglers fish for Kamloops rainbows by casting bobbers into Lake Superior. Others fish by using weights on the bottom with bait suspended above. Both methods work, but Brunette never uses a bobber. It is not that he doesn’t believe in them.
“I can’t see the bobber,” he said.
Glaucoma is claiming his vision, he explained.
“I probably won’t be able to drive after August,” he said.
And how will he get to the North Shore then?
“I’ll have to get the guys to chauffeur me around,” he said.
He means it.
“But the guys will,” he said. “They all know me. I’ll say, `Take me fishing,’ and they will.”
By SAM COOK
Duluth News Tribune
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