April 2009

The fly fishing rigs mentioned in the blog-entry “Big Green River – Day Trip (April 23rd, 2009)” are some of my favorites. There was an inquiry for some illustrations to help clarify how these rigs are built so I am adding those here. I am repeating the formulas for easy reference.

Before we look at those, let’s get some basic terms defined:

  •  Fly Line: the colored stuff on your reel that you throw around to carry your flies out to where the fish are.
  • Leader: The clear, tapered line that attaches to your fly line on one and and your flies on the other. The leader needs to be tapered to allow it to “unroll” as your flies are delivered to their landing spot.
  • Tippet: As you change your fly from time to time, you are clipping away precious inches from the end of your leader. At some point, you need to add some line back to the end (tip) to extend it back out. This is called tippet material and it is used to both extend the leader and to add a second fly to a tandem rig (called a dropper).
  • Top Fly: The first fly tied on to the end of the leader.
  • Dropper: Any fly tied off the top fly. Some rigs use a single dropper and some use two. Some droppers are tied to tippet material extending from the bend of the top fly while others are extended from the hookeye of that same fly.
  • Point Fly: This is the term applied to the fly out on the point. If a single fly is being used, then it is the point fly. If a dropper is at the end of your rig, then that is the point fly.
  • Fly Sizes: #16, #14, #12, #10, etc. – these numbers are part of a system that is used to guage the size of the flies that we fish with. They are actually the guage for the hooks that the flies are tied on. A larger number correlates to a finer/smaller hook size. So a #10 fly is larger tha a #16.
  • Tippet Sizes: 6x, 5x, 4x, 3x, etc. – these numbers are part of a system that is used to guage the diameter of the tippet material (both the very end of the tapered leader and the spools of extra material used to extend the leader and to add flies to a rig). The larger number correlates to a finer/smaller diameter material. So 3x tippet is much fatter and 6x tippet is much finer. This is similar to the lb breaking strength we were used to when using monofilament to spin fish. In fact, each tippet size has a correlating breaking strength as well. For example 3x correlates to about 8 lb test strength.
  • Florocarbon: This is just the type of material that the leader and tippets can be made of. It is a little more expensive, but posesses properties that make it less visible to the fish.

So now let’s get back to those favorite rigs that I described in my last post:

Tandem Nymph Rig:

  • 15-foot leader end-to-end (that includes the leader and tippets all the way through to the dropper).
  • The dropper (point fly) is a #16 tan scud that was separated from the top fly by about 18 to 36-inches of 5x florocarbon tippet. Other droppers can be used as noted below and depending on the insects available in the river you are fishing.
  • The top fly was a #10 caddis larva (hydropsyche) attached to 24” of 4x florocarbon tippet attached to a 10’ 3x leader.
  • A strike-indicator is placed anywhere from 6 feet to 10 feet above the top fly depending on depth of water being fished.
  • A micro-splitshot (or two) is occassionally used 8-10 inches above the top fly to help get down faster.
Fly Rig: Tandem Nymphs (Color Coded)

Fly Rig: Tandem Nymphs (Color Coded)

Caddis Fly with Dropper Rig:

  •  10 and 15 foot leaders are used here.
  • One fly combination is a #14 Goddard Caddis for the top fly with a #16 bead-head prince nymph dropper trailing by 3 to 5 feet. This is the rig that my brother-in-law chcuk used to extract his fish this past week.
  • Another combination is a #10 Elk-hair Caddis top fly with a #10 hydropsyche caddis larva dropper  trailing by 36-inches of 5x florocarbon.
  • The dry fly served as a strike indicator and as fly in both of these combinations.
Fly Rigging: Caddis Dry with Caddis Larva Dropper (Color Coded)

Fly Rigging: Caddis Dry with Caddis Larva Dropper (Color Coded)

These most favored of setups are used when plummeting the pools of almost any of our Wisconsin Rivers. The two caddis larva (hydropsyche and Rhyacophilla) are very common. I often use a small olive or black mayfly nymph for the dropper fly on the tandem nymph rig – there are a tremendous number of mayfly nymphs available in all of our streams as well.

Of course there is no single, perfect formula for setting these up – that is why the lengths for the leaders and tippets are shown to vary. You will need to learn to adjust the length on those droppers based on both depth of water and behavior of fish.



Hope this helps you in your trout outings this year!


The forecast for Fennimore was sunny and 70-degrees today, so my brother-in-law Chuck and I high-tailed it back over the to Big Green River for one last foray before the regular season. We drove through some rain in Madison, but Fennimore did not disappoint us. The weather was nice with varied cloud cover and the sun peaking through on a regular basis.  We arrived at the river at about 11 a.m. and were greeted by strong winds. That made casting a bit difficult, so we moved in close and worked short casts with a combination of rigs:

Tandem Nymph Rig:

  • 15-foot leader end-to-end
  • The dropper or “point fly” was a #16 tan scud that was separated from the top fly by about 18-inches of 5x florocarbon tippet
  • The top fly was a #10 caddis larva (hydropsyche) on 4x florocarbon
  • A strike-indicator was placed anywhere from 6 feet to 10 feet above the top fly
  • A micro-splitshot was occassionally used 8-10 inches above the top fly to help get down faster

Caddis Dry With a Dropper:

  • 10 and 15 foot leaders were used
  • One fly combination was a #14 Goddard Caddis with a #16 bead-head prince nymph trailing by 3 to 5 feet
  • Another combination was a #10 Elk-hair Caddis with a #10 hydropsyche caddis larva trailing by 36-inches of 5x florocarbon
  • The dry fly served as a strike indicator and a fly. All fish took the droppers with only an occassional slash at the dry fly.

Streamer Rig:

  • 10 to 12-foot leader
  • A #10 soft-hackle, black crystal bugger was cast down and across stream and then allowed to swing to the near bank before being stripped back upstream.

There were some caddis on the water and whenever the wind died down, we did see fish rising.  The caddis looked to be about a #14. We both caught some respectable brown trout. Chuck’s Goddard Caddis rig worked its magic in more than one hole in the river.

The Author's Brother-in-law Fights and Lands a Nice Brown Trout

The Author’s Brother-in-law Fights and Lands a Nice Brown Trout

I fished rigs that ran a little deeper and was rewarded with a beautiful 19-inch rainbow: a truly remarkable fish. The back of this trout was a deep, rich green and its flank was well marked including the pronounced rainbow marking. This fish gave away its size as soon as it was hooked. The battle was short-lived as it ran close by and was quickly netted.

A 19-inch Rainbow Trout Taken on a Hydropsyche Larva Fished Czech Nymph Style

A 19-inch Rainbow Trout Taken on a Hydropsyche Larva Fished Czech Nymph Style

We had a chance to look over the water from a high bank and marked some good holes. One small stretch showed well over 100 fish in two nice slots that did not span more than 100 feet of river! We rested that spot by breaking for lunch and we were rewarded with a couple of more nice Browns for Chuck upon our return.

The Author's Brother-in-law, Chuck, with a Big Green River Brown Trout

The Author’s Brother-in-law, Chuck, with a Big Green River Brown Trout

The Big Green is a great fishery and we are not the only ones fishing it. Check out this monster snapping turtle that was cruising the river hunting for fish, frogs and anything else that it could find. You don’t get this big without ample food!

Paul's Other Catch!

We Did Not Fish Alone!

There probably is not a more varied stream in SW Wisconsin than the Big Green River. Pasture Land with open room to cast. Wooded sections with overhanging limbs, downed timber and under cut banks. Fast and tumbling. Slow and silty. Deep and boulder strewn. Sandy in spots. Browns and Rainbows are the fare here and they do not dissatisfy. From the big rainbows down around Cty Tk K and Cty Tk T to the leaping browns at Collins Road, Spring Valley Road and Big Green River Road, this is stream that never disappoints us.

It is no surprise then that we are headed to the Big Green for the first trout trip of 2009. It is Saturday, April 18th. My daughter Caitlin and I drove into Fennimore last night so that we could be here to make an early morning of it. We are here to look over the Big Green River and either confirm or dispel reports that seasonal spring torrents have blown out the Big Green rendering it less than fishable.

This should be a nice father-daughter outing. The usual antics that attend our outings are left behind with my brother Joe who is not able to pull himself away to join us. Or so I think. You can imagine my complete surprise this morning when I wandered outside to discover an empty parking lot. Where is my truck? I had just hopped out to run back inside and retrieve my digital voice recorder. Caitlin knew I was coming right back. I was literally gone for less than a minute. What the hell. I left the keys in the car. Now I think the worst – has Caitlin been abducted right here on Highway 18? In fact, Caitlin pulled a fast one by hustling the FJ Cruiser well out of view leaving me to stand there to wonder what just happened. The little prankster! She rolls with laughter as we head up Cty Tk K.

Big Green River - Map 1

Big Green River – Map 1

We arrive at the bridge on Collins Road at 9 a.m. It’s a little later than we intended since Caitlin slept in a bit. The red-wing black birds call out as we walk toward the bridge to examine the water. Our shadows cut through the deep, green pool right below the bridge. The water is glassy smooth with a course of foamy bubbles breaking the surface. There are a few trout finning behind some rocks here.

About 40 feet below the bridge, the river takes a 45 degree bend to the right as it goes through a very shallow riffle. Another 100 feet below that, and it bends back to the left at a small tree (more of a bush) that is leaning over the river. As the river turns this corner, it makes a beautiful seam, pushing water into the far bank. There is a squared-off boulder sitting well above the water just before the river gets to the next tree. There is a beautiful seam from the tail of that riffle to that squared-off boulder and fish can be taken on both sides of this seam. Further downstream I see that the river takes a sweeping bend to the right before disappearing from view.

Looking Down Stream From Bridge at Collins Road

Looking Down Stream From Bridge at Collins Road

Upstream of the bridge, there is a shallow mud flat that gives way to that deep pool filling up the gorged out space below the bridge. Directly below the bridge and to the right, there are some nice sized rocks with several respectable trout sitting along the rock ledge. They quietly drift into the dark water perhaps sensing our presence. There is a nice foam line leading right to the spot that they just vacated – I will remember that. About 50 yards upstream, the river bends to the left and I can just see the first shallow riffle at the top of the bend dumping into a small bathtub-sized pool. I have fished this stretch many times. I remember near the beginning of my fly fishing days back in the early 90’s, walking along this bank above the bridge and stepping on a spot where a gargantuan trout – a 20-inch class brown trout – drifted out from below the undercut bank and disappeared beneath the bridge. That fish has always fascinated me about this spot and it is part of the charm in returning here now.

We decide to head downstream to that first nice seam just below the riffle water. On the way, we stop and spend a good hour in the riffle examining the insects. We turned over various rocks and saw lots of cress bugs – some going from as big as #10 and all the way down to #16. There were mayflies writhing about by the hundreds under some rocks and most of those were in the #18 size and smaller. We did find some caddis larva including both rhyacophilla (aka green rock worm) and hydropsyche. These last two bugs are some of my favorites to tie and we spent some time photographing them. They were consistently in the size 14 range. Caitlin found one particularly nice specimen of rhyacophilla and we got some exceptionally nice photos as it came out of its pebble/rock case when we turned the rock over to examine it.

Examining Insects in Riffle below Collins Road Bridge

Examining Insects in Riffle below Collins Road Bridge

Cress Bug

Cress Bug

Rhyacophilla (aka Green Rock Worms) in Cases

Rhyacophilla (aka Green Rock Worms) in Cases

Matching the Hatch - Hydropsyche Larva

Matching the Hatch – Hydropsyche Larva

We wrappep up in the riffle with a short video that shows how rich this river is in terms of aquatic insects:

Once we completed our little acquatic study, we headed down stream and fished that nice piece of water below the riffle. We hooked a few and landed one here. The smaller trout are more difficult to land: they don’t have much weight to them and when they dart all over the river, they slip off.

Another Big Green River Brown

Another Big Green River Brown

Next, we moved down to Cty Tk K and T to one of our favorite spots. The map below breaks this section into several pieces. I will cover this entire section as part of this blog, but only a couple of spots today. As always, this stretch was pretty good to us.

Big Green River - Map 2

Big Green River – Map 2

The big ones got off today: barbless hooks and I pulled a line trying to keep one big monster out of the weeds and rocks. So a couple of 15-inch or larger fish got away on us. One of these  larger fish jumped right out of the water when I did not expect it to. In such a case, you need to drop your rod to get the tension off the leader or else it will break from the weight of the fish. The risk though is that when you drop your rod tip to reduce the pressure and avoid the break, that the fish will be able to throw the hook more easily – especially if it is barbless and can just slip out. There are many things that can go wrong out here and we have seen them all! We did get a couple of very satisfactorily fat 13-inch fish and one 14-incher. We used a #10 hydropsyche larva with a #16 cress bug trailing it. Fish took both bugs about 50/50. We got pushed off the river around 2 p.m. by a little wind and rain – gave us an excuse to go get lunch and then look over another stretch of river.

Big Green River - Fish On!

Big Green River – Fish On!

Big Green River Brown Trout

Big Green River Brown Trout

We had lunch at Frederick’s on the corner of T and Hwy 18 in Fennimore. If you go there, try the turkey club sandwich – it is fantastic and we bought an extra one to split between us. After lunch, we head to the bridge at the junction of Cty Tk K and Cty Tk T. Looking upstream, we can see that a significant embankment on the left fell away due to spring’s high water – not uncommon. There is a smaller creek coming in here as well and we plan to extricate a couple of browns from that water before heading up into the woods upstream. This is a spot that we are familiar with from past years as well. This is section ‘b’ in the Map 2 above.

We have two different rods rigged up for this section. The first is a 5-weight rigged up with a 10 foot leader terminated in a #10 hydropsyche larva. Trailing behind this by about 15-inches is a #16 olive mayfly nymph. The other rod is a 4W rod rigged up with a 10 foot leader and a #16 elk hair caddis. We work our way up through the woods taking a few smaller trout before wrapping up the day and heading into Fennimore for a fish-fry and beers.


Rivers talk to us. Early in our fishing careers, the sound is faint and we can only make out some of the words. As the river miles stretch out across our lives, the  message becomes clearer. Listen closely. Watch intently. By observing a river’s characteristics, we find intimations that affect our approach, our rigging, our fly selection, and our presentation. Characteristics like size – is it a full blown river, a stream or just a small creek? And what about speed? Nothing as technical as CFS, but rather things like a run, a riffle, a rapids, a pool, a meadow section.  Next there is bottom type – sandy, muddy or silted, cobblestone, freestone, pebble strewn.  There are other characteristics too, like temperature and water clarity. Even the aquatic insects that we find in the first couple of shallow riffles tell us something about the water and how to come within reach of our prey. Each one of these characteristics evokes some past knowledge, some inherent insight that strikes a chord and affects our method.

This scale – these attributes – they’re familiar to most people who fly fish. However most of us dont’t realize that as time passes, our fly fishing becomes more emotive – filling out the edges of the scale with smells, feelings and remembrances. Emotion. Is this a scale that can be applied to the waters that we fish? Well, there are “rivers.” That evokes one emotion. Then there are “trout rivers”: a completely different feeling emerges. And then there are “holy waters”. These are those rivers of legend that induce pilgrimages over the course of our lives. Rivers like the Madison, the Battenkill, the Ausable and the Henry’s Fork. And Finally, there are the “home waters” that reside in our own backyard. For me here in Wisconsin, this includes rivers like the Big Green, the West Fork Kickapoo, the West Branch White River,  the Timber Coulee and the wonderful Bois Brule River – the Bois Brule being a holy water that I am fortunate enough to call my home water as well.

The Bois Brule river has stood out singularly in my life and it defines the pinnacle of the emotional scale for a piece of water. I am intimate with this river. This means that the experiences that I have realized there are so treasured, so affecting, that they defy labeling altogether.

How does a piece of water ascend to this standing? Well it’s a journey of sorts. A number of things have to come together: rich history, beautiful trout, prolific hatches, pure waters, secret places and some extraordinary experiences. All of these came together for me over twelve years ago when my brother Joe and I first discovered the Bois Brule River for ourselves. And we poured our souls into that water: annual pilgrimages, aquatic studies, historical research, and 18-hour river days. We even created our own, personal river map noting every spring, hatch and relevant abundance of trout. Twelve years ago. Twelve whole years, and just now do I discover another river of intimate proportions. Just a short distance northwest of Green Bay, I find myself near the town of Breed on a stretch of water that truly stuns me, leaving me haunted as I lay in bed each night reliving what I experienced there: the South Branch Oconto River.

Amazingly, this area of the Oconto River was the focus of some of our earliest fly fishing excursions – all the way back to 1992. We began by exploring the Wolf River, the North Branch Oconto and the East Branch Eau Claire Rivers. All three of these rivers are right in this area. It is a memory from these earliest days that drew me back here. As we were working our way along a particular stretch of the North Branch Oconto, we ran into a fisherman with a spinning reel and rod who had just caught and killed a legitimate 18-inch brook trout (yes, we measured it). I say a “particular location” because although I can see the location in my mind, I did not keep the fastidious notes back then that I do now. I do remember that the pullout was deep enough for the fisherman to park his pickup truck perpendicular to the road. The river ran fast just across the road and down a very steep, woody embankment. The water was strewn with boulders and wading was challenging, but not impossible. What was impossible was mending the line on the fast and varied currents – a fruitless effort for me back then.

That trophy-sized brook trout is burned into my memory. I can see it now, lying on a bed of ice in the fisherman’s cooler in the back of his truck. He had rigged his line with a large float. Heavy split shot swung below to deliver a worm as he snaked his rig around various boulders to take his quarry. That trout amazed me and is part of what drew me back.

I am also drawn here because the South Branch Oconto River is currently marked as a catch-and-release fishery and I have learned what that means over the years as well – protected waters mean challenging fishing for larger trout. After searching the banks of the North Branch in vain for my memoried location, I head for the South Branch to check it out. The river strikes me as exceptional – the water is tannin colored with some nice seems visible upstream.

South Branch Octonto River

South Branch Octonto River

As I put on my waders, a black-and-white point-setter approaches. His is a nice dog and I befriend him with a bit of beef jerky. The land between the river and the road is heavily posted as private property. I take care to enter the stream close to the bridge and then move slowly up the right bank. The point-setter follows me through the hole just above the bridge – swimming right through it! He turns back and disappears as I move upstream.

Point Setter That I Befriended

Point Setter That I Befriended

I am moving up the right bank toward the first hard bend in the river when a trout rises in the bend. A #12 elk hair caddis brings a plump 10-inch brown trout to hand. I continue on slowly and carefully. There are no more rises, so I switch to a nymph rig with a strike indicator. I move at a snail’s pace and cover the water completely – nothing.

That first trout keeps me focused. As I continue on, an older man steps out of the woods and addresses me. “Catch anything?” he inquires. “Yes” I reply, “a plump 10-incher”. He acts surprised and says that the river has not been fishing well and that its hatches have been declining in recent years. “Where did you get in?” he asks. I tell him that I got in at the bridge. “Get out at all along the way?” he asks. I tell him that I have not – which is true. He presses me for how I managed to get around the large snag now behind me. I tell him that I climbed over it – also true. Clearly these are the questions of a private land owner.

He goes on to offer that there is better fishing downstream, below the bridge. He wants me to leave this stretch. I feel uncomfortable – just a little – but I thank him and press on. He turns away and heads back into the woods telling me that there is a path here that leads to the road and that I can use it if I want to. Maybe it’s not the land that he is protecting. Maybe it’s some favored fishing hole. Now I am intrigued – what lies ahead? He looks back and sees that I am clearly continuing upstream. “There might just be a big brown or two upstream as well” he says and I catch a glimpse of a little grin as he disappears from view. I creep forward with anticipation.

The river curves to the right here and greets a series of large, sub-surface boulders – big ones – the two largest cutting the water’s surface to mark their position. Above the boulders the river makes a large ‘hole’ as it pours into the bank on the down-side of the next bend above me. This is a magic place. The water is dark here. Deep too. There is ample cover for large trout including a well-shaded bank.

A Magic Place

A Magic Place

As I creep forward, a fish rises to take a mayfly – a hatch is trailing. I mark the time – it is 11 a.m. Moving forward, I am now stunned by the evidence of the super-hatch that is left in the streamside cobwebs. Spiders have created intricate networks of webs among the branches that reach well over the river. They are literally choked with mayflies. Some spiders have even bundled a dozen or more mayflies into ¾ inch diameter balls – preserving them for later. Just fantastic! Another trout rises . . .

"Super Hatch"

“Super Hatch”

"All Balled Up!"

“All Balled Up!”

This last rise is pronounced and it is immediately followed by another. The black water throws off light from the wavy ripples as concentric circles emanate outward and disappear into the disturbance made by the boulders just above me. That rise was right between those two boulders. I examine the flies in the bush once more and then switch to a #14 March Brown. Another rise. I work out some line and cast it up to the right of the trout to help gauge the distance. The current is more varied here and I realize that my fly starts to drag as soon as it hits the water. I adjust my position so that my fly line will fall to slower current and reduce the chance of drag. A 14-inch brown trout runs into the bend below me where I play him out. This is a great setup – I can hook fish above me and play the down below without overly disturbing ‘the hole’.

The next trout is much larger and I lose him as he runs to wood and I force the hook out trying to turn him. My pulse quickens as yet another large trout rises. This one is pinned against the right bank, deep in the bend. This presents a more challenging casting and mending situation. I size up my approach. At this point, I have advanced all the way up to the boulders. There are actually three of them. The first and closest is massive, breaking the surface while leaving a good half-ton of rock below. The second boulder is to the right and is about half of the size of the first. The third boulder is hidden below the surface and slightly upstream of the first one. It is between the biggest boulder and this smaller upstream one that I situate myself to cast to the next rise. I put him down. I wait. Five minutes and he rises again. This time, I get the job done – all 16 inches of it! This trout’s back is dark, dark brown and its flank is a rich, corn yellow. It is speckled with pronounced red and black spots – beautiful.

A South Branch Oconto Brown Trout

A South Branch Oconto Brown Trout

Unfortunately, this last trout stayed up in the deep pool to fight. I wait for some time hoping for another rise, but none appear. I change out my rig and nymph the hole before breaking for lunch. I take the old man up on his offer and use the path through the woods to get back to the road. Along the way I spot some pink trillium. I pause to admire its beauty. I can hear the sound of water bubbling along in the distance – I have found a new river to love.

Pink Trillium

Pink Trillium


Cecil Fireside Inn: http://www.cecilfiresideinn.com/. This Inn is at the corner of Highways 22 & R just east of Shawano Lake and right in the town of Cecil. The rooms are nice and the little bars and pubs in this town are alive with entertainment at this time of year.

Another Choice  is the Village Haus Motor Lodge in Shawano: (715) 526-9595 or toll free at (800) 533-4479. The lodge is just off the corner of Highways 22 & 47 on Airport road and offers great convenience in terms of restaurants and shopping right in Shawano. There is even a restaraunt that is part of the Lodge.

– Paul.

To Be Continued . . .