If you’ve spent time fly-fishing on the trout lakes of the Gunflint Trail, maybe you’ve met Reuben Swenson. For nearly 25 years, he’s fished and camped along the Trail every summer for weeks or months at a time. For Swenson, age 67, fly fishing is life. But there is more to the story.
In the 1980s, Swenson had a run of bad luck. He divorced and subsequently sold the restaurant he owned and operated. After moving back to his hometown of Mahtowa, he had a heart attack. He was 41. Heart trouble runs in the family and Swenson’s recovery was slow. He couldn’t return to work and was frustrated with a shut-in existence. Going fishing, something he’d always enjoyed, provided a non stressful way to get outside.
“I went fishing because it was the only thing I could do,” he says. “It was that or sit at home and die.”
Then he went trout fishing with his lifelong friend, David Asproth of Grand Marais, who introduced him to float tubes. Floating in the water ensconced in a tube, Swenson discovered he relaxed and felt much better. Asproth, a noted fly tier, was instrumental in Swenson’s development as a fly fisher, but the transformation was completed in Arkansas, after his doctor suggested he go south for the winter. There in a campground, he met an elderly man named Louis Rock, or “Rocky,” a fly tier and fishing guide from upstate New York. Over the course of several winters, Rocky, who was in his 80s, taught Swenson how to tie flies and how to fly fish.
“He wasn’t generous with his compliments,” Swenson recalls. “He used to watch me fish through binoculars and then critique me afterward.”
In 1987, Swenson started fishing full time. A fly-fishing nomad, he spends his summers along the North Shore and winters by the great trout rivers of Arkansas. Living on a meager Social Security income, his Toyota pickup is his home. He carries everything he needs in the truck and, during the warm months, sleeps in the back. For the winter, he has a small travel trailer in Arkansas, as well as another trailer at his home base in Mahtowa. He travels with a screen tent that he can set up in a campsite when friends come to visit.
While he lives as a lone nomad, Swenson isn’t lonely, because he has many fishing companions, among them his son, Eric and his friends in the Arrowhead Flyfishers, a club based in Duluth. He also teaches a couple of fly fishing classes and some of his students have become fishing friends. A few of his friends travel to Arkansas to fish with him during the winter.
If spring is the start of a fly-fisher’s year, Swenson’s annual routine goes something like this. In April, he heads north from Arkansas to spend a week or two fishing in the bluff country trout streams of southeast Minnesota. From there he heads to Mahtowa for a few weeks. In mid May, he travels the North Shore looking for steelhead. Sometimes he gets to the Gunflint in May, though he occasionally waits until the middle of June to avoid the black flies. Once on the Gunflint, he fishes daily through the insect hatches of June and July, eventually taking a short hiatus around the beginning of August to pick blueberries. Then it is back to Mahtowa.
Some years, he’ll head out to the Rockies for a couple of weeks in late summer with Eric or other friends. Otherwise, he likes to fish the Mississippi River between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities for smallmouth bass. He’ll also make an autumn run up the North Shore to see if he can tangle with a Chinook salmon in a river. Then it is time to get ready for Arkansas.
“The best time to fish for big browns on the Little Red River is from mid October through November,” he says.
How big is big? Swenson caught two, line-class world records in 1995, a year when he landed eight brown trout over 12 pounds. He hopes to someday catch a 20-pounder with a size 20 fly, which is about as big as an ant. He has landed a 25-pounder on a size 16 fly, which is not much bigger.
In February, he heads to Florida to fish saltwater with a friend who shares gas expenses and has a place to stay when they get there. While most of his fishing has been from shore, he’s managed to catch several species. In March, it is back to Arkansas for the caddis hatch on the White River, which can provide some of his best trout fishing action of the year.
Although he maintains a busy fishing schedule, Swenson’s health still restricts what he can do. All of his fishing occurs in places where he can easily get to the water. At one of his favorite trout lakes, a steep stairway leads from the parking lot to the water. He stopped fishing there for several years, because he could no longer climb the stairs. He returned the lake after having a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted six years ago. The device can restore his heartbeat with a jolt of electrical current.
“I’m a hybrid,” he quips. “I run on electricity half of the time.”
Presently, he takes at least 10 prescription medications daily, but Swenson doesn’t dwell on his health. Instead, he takes precautions and does what he wants to do. He gets by on his Social Security income and what he calls “the generosity of friends.” Raised on Mahtowa dairy farm, he is used to fixing things when thy break down and making do with what he has. Nearly all of his tackle and camping gear is purchased on the cheap, scrounged or given to him by friends. He’s completely taken apart the engine on his Toyota using a campground picnic table as a work bench.
While he remains passionate about fly fishing, catching fish has become less important. He is happy to be on the water, fishing with friends and seeing them catch fish. And he plans to keep fishing as long as he can.
“I don’t think you are ever too old or decrepit to fly fish,” he says. “It’s a lifetime pursuit. I don’t see me retiring from fishing.”