Can fly fishing for brook trout in cold, clear Northeastern Minnesota streams save the world from hatred and prejudice?
Not likely. But maybe it can save a soul.
That’s what Geoff Vukelich said it did for him, over the last decade, as he learned to be an accomplished fly fisherman and a better person while casting on remote stretches of Northland rivers.
“It frees up your mind to think. And if you’re honest, you start thinking about what kind of person you are, and it goes from there,” said Vukelich, 36, who grew up near Rice Lake Reservoir just north of Duluth, where he still lives.
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A bearded and burly former high school football player, Vukelich said fly fishing – particularly for the small, colorful, coldwater brookies – helped him leave a youth of bigotry, hate, bias and prejudice behind.
“I wasn’t a good kid,” he says bluntly, noting he hung around with the wrong crowd at times. He attended Duluth Central High School in the ’90s, a time when race relations at the school were not good. He was part of the “Carhart gang” of townies, boys who lived mostly outside the city limits and who had mostly anger and hatred for people of other colors or creeds.
“I used to be part of a racist culture in Duluth,” Vukelich said. “It was pure ignorance that spurred the hatred. People say it doesn’t exist here. But it does – on a daily basis.”
Nowadays, Vukelich has left that behind. But he had to walk away from fishing for a few years to find himself. He was repeatedly turned off by the snobbiness of some anglers, how veteran anglers would look down their graphite rods at beginners, or at newcomers to a specific river, lake or species.
“It drove me crazy. I couldn’t find the good in fishing any more. It seemed everyone on the water was out for themselves,” he said. “They talk about how it’s a big tent and everyone is welcome, but that’s not always true. It’s not usually true. It’s everyone for themselves to get that big fish photo or to get a limit.”
Eventually, though, Vukelich returned to fishing. And he’s become transformed by, and transfixed on, brookie fishing. He seeks out the most remote stretches of streams in the Arrowhead region and is looking for a new state record brook trout – a Holy Grail, 2-foot long brookie.
Not a coaster brook trout, mind you, the larger cousins (or siblings, they are genetically the same) found in river mouths along Lake Superior. Vukelich is going for a true stream native record trout, a fish that has never seen Lake Superior.
“I think it’s out there. I think there are fish out there that haven’t seen a person or a wooly bugger” fly, he said with an almost maniacal smile.
He says the experience, the locale, the remoteness of the water and the wildness of the fish, are more important than how plentiful or or how big they are.
“Now, it’s all about quality for me, not quantity,” Vukelich said, noting he fishes almost always alone, with no other anglers around, so there is no sense of competition.
“It leaves you alone with your own thoughts, and that will either make you better or destroy you,” Vukelich said.
Passion for fly fishing brought Vukelich together with Duluth filmmaker and fellow avid brook trout angler, David Cowardin. The two connected last spring at a fly fishing expo in the Twin Cities and hit it off from the start, and now Vukelich is the subject of a Cowardin film.
Cowardin, a St. Cloud native who attended UMD, fell in love with the Northland and stayed, has been trying to develop real stories about real fishermen and other real outdoorspeople in the region. He wanted to make a fly fishing film that tells a deeper story, has a moral and leaves people with a message.
Most fly fishing stories stress expensive locales and big fish, the kind of fishing most anglers never get to experience.
“I like trout fishing films. But most of them are pretty much the same. It’s a bunch of bros who go to a place like Patagonia or Iceland, where it’s thousands of dollars just to get there, to catch these giant fish. But that’s not reality to most people. That’s not what fly fishing is to 90 percent of us who do it,” Vukelich said. “Dave gets that. And he is really good at telling real stories with film.”
Fly fishing film festival anchors local event
Last fall Cowardin took three fly anglers out to various fishing locales in the Northland hoping to find stories to tell. He found them, and Vukelich’s story is the first to become a film.
The seven-minute film “Bigotry to Brook Trout: A Watershed Moment” was accepted by the prestigious International Fly Fishing Film Festival – IF4 – to be one of nine short films in this year’s festival that is showing across North America, from Anchorage to Arkansas, this winter and spring.
IF4 comes to Duluth on Friday night at Zinema, and it’s the only place you can see “Bigotry to Brook Trout” at full length anywhere in this area. It will be shown with films about far-flung fishing destinations in the Brazilian jungle, Alberta, Mongolia and Iceland.
Having both a Duluth fisherman and a Duluth filmmaker in the festival is a bit of a big deal in the local trout fishing community.
Cowardin, 30, whose day job is producing films for UMD, does his side work under his own Blue Forest Films title. He describes “Bigotry to Brook Trout” as “one man’s transformation from a life of ignorance and hate to quiet solitude. … Hard truth and honest self-reflection parallel the beauty of fall brook trout in this rare display of vulnerability and acceptance. Geoff Vukelich owns his past and speaks his truth, reminding us that we have the capacity to change our lives.”
The film is all about fishing, yet isn’t. It shows Vukelich traversing some of the Northland’s most scenic and remote trout streams in specialized float tubes, and catching fish in the process. But it’s more about Vukelich speaking truth to his past.
“I really didn’t expect it to get accepted because it’s so different from most trout fishing films,” Cowardin said.
“You aren’t going to see me holding a giant brook trout at the end of this film,” Vukelich noted.
But Vukelich did say the film will show the participants keeping some trout to eat, a scene that might draw gasps from some trout purists.
“Obviously most of what we do is catch-and-release,” Vukelich said. “But it’s very much a part of being a fisherman, to eat fish. It’s an important part of the process of fishing, of our culture.”
The International Fly Fishing Film Festival will be the anchor of the Watershed Arts and Film Festival at Zuinema, featuring local artists in other mediums as well. Other Twin Ports area artists featured include tattoo artist Kyle James, watercolor artist Tim Pearson, musician Ben Weaver, lapidary artist Bob Wright and artist Tiffany Quade.
Vukelich, Cowardin and other organizers hope to make Watershed an annual Duluth event.
“We don’t expect to have IF4 involved in the future, but we are hoping we can have enough films from our own local filmmakers to have our own film festival, with other artists as part of it.” Cowardin said. “We want to celebrate local, outdoor-themed art of all types.”
The organizers are painting “outdoor themed” with a broad brush, to include art that not just depicts the outdoors but also art that is inspired by the outdoors.
Vukelich, a former director of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, is more than the subject of the film, he’s also helping to organize the local event. An artist in his own right – he creates handmade, masterpiece canoe paddles, landing nets and fishing rods – Vukelich sees art as a way to bring people together.
“The arts have been a big part of my life forever,” said Vukelich, who works as a foreman in the City of Duluth’s Public Works Department, including driving a big snow plow truck. “My goal is that we keep this festival going and we can get our own, local filmmakers. We probably aren’t going to get IF4 again. But I think we have enough talent around here to keep this sort of outdoor arts festival going as an annual thing. We’ll see where it goes.”
“We’re giving people an outlet to show their work. That’s something I’ve always struggled with as an artist,” he said. “Let’s celebrate local artists.”
Cowardin’s second film from last autumn’s Northeastern Minnesota trout trip is “Game Changer: A Watershed Moment.” “Game Changer” features Alyssa Nelson, an educator at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth. The story is about her transition from a lifetime of athletics, culminating with a varsity volleyball career at UMD volleyball, to dealing with life post-volleyball by finding community in the fly fishing world.
“Basically, being an athlete was her identity for so long that when she graduated from UMD, she felt like she had to redefine herself,” Cowardin said.
“Game Changer” is showing this weekend at the Great Water Fly Fishing Expo at Hamline University in St. Paul.