Trout on the Turtle

TURTLE RIVER STATE PARK, N.D. -- The bridge provided a welcome patch of shade from the bright afternoon sun, and it seemed like as good a spot as any to begin our quest on this five-star Tuesday afternoon in late April.

Turtle River fishing
Steve Crandall, Arvilla, N.D., casts a fly into the Turtle River on Tuesday afternoon while fishing for rainbow trout. Crandall, manager of Turtle River State Park, was taking an afternoon off from his park duties to go fishing -- something he rarely does. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department stocks rainbow trout into the Turtle River two or three times each spring before water temperatures get too warm and again in the fall once the water cools. (Brad Dokken photo)

TURTLE RIVER STATE PARK, N.D. -- The bridge provided a welcome patch of shade from the bright afternoon sun, and it seemed like as good a spot as any to begin our quest on this five-star Tuesday afternoon in late April.

Water bubbled through a riffle on the downstream side of the bridge, and our only company, it seemed, was an amorous robin chirping away with the joy of spring somewhere back in the trees.

The spot had rainbow trout written all over it.

Steve Crandall and I had come here for just that reason, to while away an afternoon testing the waters of this little prairie river and to enjoy our surroundings in a park that truly is one of the jewels of eastern North Dakota.

If we managed to hook a trout or two, that would be a bonus.


Crandall, 54, of Ardoch, N.D., is manager of Turtle River State Park, and it's not often he takes an afternoon off from his park duties for the sole purpose of enjoying the place. But he's doing it today.

Casting his fly rod from a small island in the middle of the riffle, Crandall looks every bit the part of a fisherman tourist.

"I always try to do a little bit of fishing," Crandall said. "Usually, it's an hour or two in the evenings after work."

Stocking effort

Rainbow trout aren't native to the Turtle River, but they've provided a unique recreational outlet for this part of the state since the late 1990s. That's when the North Dakota Game and Fish Department began stocking Shasta-strain rainbows into the Turtle River.

The river's too shallow, too warm to sustain trout year-round so the department typically stocks the Turtle with "catchable-size" rainbows two or three times in the spring and then again toward fall. The fall stocking, Crandall says, features larger rainbows that are fat and sassy after a summer bulking up in the hatchery.

It's not uncommon, he says, to encounter rainbows weighing 1½- to 2 pounds in the fall.

"September and October are really nice," Crandall said. "That's the time to fish."


Even on a "put-and-take" fishery such as the Turtle, fishing offers no guarantees, and the only thing we're assured of is a quiet afternoon on the river as we begin to test the waters near the shade of the bridge. The park had received its first stocking of 700 rainbows less than a week earlier, though, so the potential certainly exists.

Two more stockings are planned before Memorial Day.

"We know they're there," Crandall said. "It's just a matter of whether they're biting."

Pellet-colored fly

While Crandall sticks with fly-fishing gear, tying on a brownish-colored fly that he says might resemble the pellets the trout were used to eating in the hatchery -- so much for "matching the hatch" -- I opt for spinning gear and begin casting a small gold spinner into the shaded waters below the bridge.

I hook my first rainbow less than a dozen casts into the afternoon. Sleek and silver, the small trout twists and turns in the clear water and I marvel at how a fish that size can put up such a scrap.

The rainbow shakes the hook and darts to freedom just as I'm lifting it out of the water.

Crandall follows up with a creek chub, a species native to the Turtle that often grows as large as the trout we're trying to catch. A few casts later, he hooks a rainbow that darts out from beneath a tangle of branches to hit the pellet-colored fly.


Like the first rainbow of the afternoon, the trout shakes the hook.

Still, two fish in the first 20 minutes is not a bad start.

"It's amazing how just a little thing like that will hold a fish," Crandall says of the branches. "It doesn't take much structure."

We resume casting, thinking about nothing in particular as we soak in the surroundings. Somehow, I can't help but think there's another trout hiding somewhere in the shade.

My suspicions are confirmed minutes later, when I hook another rainbow that shoots out from the shade to hit my spinner. This time, the fish doesn't escape, and we put it on the stringer. The small rainbow will taste great later that night grilled in aluminum foil.

Variety of anglers

According to Crandall, the trout on the Turtle attract a variety of anglers, from parents who bring their kids to dunk a nightcrawler below a bobber while shore fishing, to serious fly anglers who'll wade from pool to pool and test every "trouty"-looking spot along the way.

And there are lots of "trouty"-looking spots on this small river.


"I know 15-18 guys that come pretty regularly who are fly fishermen, and I'm sure there are some I don't know, Crandall said.

Many, he said, are fly fishing fanatics from Minnesota who prefer the proximity of the Turtle River to more distant haunts such as the Straight River near Park Rapids, Minn., or any number of designated trout waters near Bemidji.

The fishing, Crandall said, is a perfect fit for what he calls the "shoulder seasons," when fewer people are camping, hiking or enjoying other park offerings.

"It's a perfect for us because normally, the best fishing is in the spring and the fall," Crandall said.

The hunt continues

We fish three other spots on this sunny afternoon, but none can match the shady bridge. We cast deep pools and shallow riffles, hooking only a handful of creek chubs for our efforts. We test the fast waters below the CCC dam, and while the trout remain elusive, Crandall hooks a perch that likely escaped into the river from Larimore Dam.

The sun is casting longer shadows now, and more fishermen are showing up to make a few casts after work as we reel up our lines to call it a day.

"Now is the time we should be starting to fish," Crandall said.


He expected to catch more trout, he admits. Still, it's hard to complain about being outside on a sunny April afternoon surrounded by the basswood, green ash and burr oak trees that line the banks of the Turtle. It's hard to complain about the soothing sounds of the Turtle as it gurgles its way toward the Red River.

At times like this, it's easy to forget we're less than half an hour from Grand Forks.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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