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Row-trolling for trout
Patrick Durkin unhooks a brown trout caught while row-trolling on a Waupaca County lake.

Row-trolling isn't the simplest way to fish for "catchable-size trout," which is how the Department of Natural Resources defines the thousands of brook, brown and rainbow trout it stocks each spring in lakes and streams across Wisconsin.

Maybe that extra little degree of difficulty explains why my wife, Penny, and I chose minnows and cow-bell spinner rigs recently when our schedules and the weather allowed us to chase a Friday dinner. We would have chosen worms and slip-bobbers if we just wanted to fish quickly and efficiently.

The trouble is, our consciences work overtime whenever we fish one of the several Waupaca-area lakes that receive hatchery-raised trout. Even though the DNR raises and releases these 10- to 11-inch fish for people to catch and eat, experienced anglers tend to think this is more intended for kids and beginners.

That's part of it, of course. The DNR stocks many publicly accessible ponds, lakes and streams where trout don't reproduce on their own. In fact, fish in some of these waters die off when oxygen levels plunge each winter. Without stocking, Wisconsin would have fewer fishing clinics, family outings and kids' fishing days.

To avoid feeling like adults crashing an Easter egg hunt, Penny and I wait until trout season is about two weeks old before dusting off the rowboat. Her schedule doesn't allow weekend fishing anyway, so we seldom see other anglers of any age when fishing weeknights.

Even so, the topic came up again Thursday after we rowed to the middle of a favorite lake near home. Not that Penny asked, but I justified our presence while threading a minnow onto a snelled treble-hook and attaching it behind the cow-bell rig. I reminded her that we never feel guilty when I bring home trout or salmon from Lake Michigan, so why apologize for turning these trout into dinner?

After all, they all spent their adolescence in similar cement-lined spillways and ate the same food pellets. Some of them probably even rode the same tanker-truck from hatchery to release site.

Besides, only brook trout are native to Wisconsin. The salmon, as well as our beloved browns and rainbows, are all invasive aliens. Time can't undo their history, right?

Hmm. Maybe I should blame the DNR for my runaway conscience. Maybe the agency is stocking guilt-seeds along with the trout. Consider this press statement: "The majority of Wisconsin's 10,000 miles of trout streams are self-sustaining, and fish managers are predicting a banner year for wild trout in many waters. But the DNR stocks some waters that cannot naturally sustain fish populations overwinter to provide additional fishing opportunities, and these have traditionally been popular fisheries."

See, even when the DNR tries to educate the public while expanding its recreation, we blame it for our self-doubts.

The lake Penny and I fished offers an additional enticement, however. Its stocked trout usually survive winter, which means some grow into lunkers over the years. But once they spend much time in the wild, they start acting the part. That is, they're tough to fool and catch.

These big trout smack bugs on the surface just enough on calm nights and quiet dawns to tempt our return. And so there we were once more, me slowly rowing our boat, and both of us watching our rod-tips thump in rhythm with the churning cow-bells 15 to 20 yards behind.

During our two-hour effort, we landed only two of the DNR's freshly stocked brown trout, but we lost four others while trying to lift them aboard without a net. To further ensure we didn't have an easy time, southwesterly winds blasted across the small lake all evening. When riding with the waves, I used the oars as brakes. When heading into the wind, I feathered the oars and kept the bow as small as possible.

When completing each circuit and turning for another run, the wind caught us broadside and drove us toward shore. Penny ignored me as I cursed the gusts and pulled hard on the oars to keep our lines from reaching the shallows' snags.

She knows that's just part of the plan when making things more complicated than they need be.

Locating stocked trout

To see where the Department of Natural Resources stocked inland trout this spring, visit . The fish were raised at the DNR's Nevin Fish Hatchery, Osceola Fish Hatchery and St. Croix Falls Hatchery.

These trout are 16 to 18 months old, and are typically at least 9 inches long. The DNR tries to make sure 80 to 90 percent of them are legal size or longer.

Contact Patrick Durkin, a free-lance outdoors columnist, at or write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981.