If you’ve spent time fly-fishing on 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.
In the 1980s, Swenson 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. Swenson’s recovery was slow. He couldn’t return to work and was frustrated with a shut-in existence.
Then he went trout fishing with a friend who introduced him to float tubes. Floating in the water ensconced in a tube, Swenson discovered he relaxed and felt much better.
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. While he lives as a lone nomad, Swenson isn’t lonely, because he has many friends who fish with him.
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 to the lake after having a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted. 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.”
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.”
This story was originally published in the June-July 2012 issue of Northern Wilds.