Fly fishing is a contemplative sport. I often come back from an outing having explored thoughts “that often lie too deep for words.”1 This week’s outing is a father-daughter excursion. My daughter Caitlin has a single week off between now and the end of August and we’re spending it together. I couldn’t be more delighted. She is working toward her Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree at Marquette University and spare moments are a rarity these days. She didn’t get out here at all last year – a shame considering her upbringing on these waters! To have an entire week is simply unheard of. The week is filled with great trout and good times, making me reflect on my relationship with my daughter: the little girl who grew up to be my friend.

1 Normal MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It”

Friday, May 13, 2011 – Timber Coulee Cottage

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up, walk out the front door of a small cottage, waltz over to a trout stream less than 30 yards away, and spot a rising fish. We’re headed for Timber Coulee Cottage which sits on its name-sake creek.

The drive out here is via a 4-lane stretch of highway that is temporarily down to only two lanes – one in each direction. We crawl along for some time adding almost two additional hours to the usual drive. But no worries: we have some new books on tape form audible.com (Grave Peril by Jim Butcher); we have our music (Caitlin is into Jazz right now); and we have each other (neither of us shy about filling any dead air with conversation).

We arrive with a smidge of daylight left and waste no time in going down to examine the creek. There’s a light rain falling, but that won’t put us off. It’s been too long since Caitlin has approached any trout water. We throw on our Filson jackets and grab a single fly rod, a box of flies, and a pair of hemostats. As we approach the water, we see that a few fish are rising.  Caddis. No words are spoken. I tie on a #16 Elk Hair Caddis and hand Caitlin the rod. She moves down below a steady riser. The water’s surface is dappled with rain, but the bugs keep coming. Her form is excellent as she leans into to her cast to eke out an extra bit of distance. It’s just enough. The brown trout is wild, colorful, beautiful.

So we’ve kicked off what is going to be a week-long sojourn wandering around the West Fork Kickapoo River, Timber Coulee Creek, and exploring some new water. We have a few interruptions planned as we shuttle back to Milwaukee for a couple of events: a first communion and a company marketing event. Caitlin has a Jury Duty obligation every morning as well and we’re hoping that she doesn’t get pulled back. We won’t let those interruptions dampen our spirits. We are in one of our favorite places on Earth about to spend no small amount of time in pursuit of that most ethereal of fish: the trout.

Saturday, May 14, 2011 – Kicking up a few on the Kickapoo

We spend a gratifying day on the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. Every time we come out here, the local fly shops tell us the river is not fishing very well; and every time we come out here we have an absolutely spectacular outing. Perhaps they’re helping to frame our psyche! If this is what the river fishes like when it’s “off”, I can’t imagine what it’s like when it’s “on”. We don’t see any of the truly large brown trout that we’ve had here in the past; however, we experience steady action over the entire course river that we fish.

It’s chillier than it was last week: mid to upper 40’s right now. The air temperature reaches about 50-degrees and holds there throughout the day. There are heavy, intermittent clouds with sunshine poking through now and again. In fact, it’s going to be cool and overcast for the next several days. And we know what that means: good hatches and good fishing. When we get to the river, we get an added bonus. The water is a bit off color – just enough to  conceal us a tad more. That also means we’ll be using darker nymphs today until we figure out what the trout are taking. “Dark day, dark flies” is an old adage that has proved its worth over the years. The idea is that bright, artificial materials look unusual or out of place on a low-light day whereas a darker fly fits better with the darker, stained waters and darker light conditions. Light colored flies are generally better in clearer water and brighter conditions because those conditions light up naturals equally in that fully-lighted water world.

We are on one of our favorite stretches (we won’t say where) and it does not disappoint us. We rig up our 5W and 4W Sage fly rods. I fish the 5W using larger #12 or #10 bead head nymphs with much smaller dropper flies below like a #16 scud or hydropsyche larva. Most trout today take the dropper fly. Caitlin fishes the 4W with a single #14 bead-head fly (various patterns). Caitlin lands 4 nice trout with the largest pushing 14 inches. I land 8 notable fish, the two largest going 14-inches and 16-inches.

There are a couple of scenarios worth noting here. First, there is a spot where a very large tree overshadows the river along one of the wider stretches. Just upstream, a fast riffle gives way to a deep pool as the water slides beneath that tree. Look for spots like this on any river: a change in water depth; an insect factory fueled by the shallower upstream water; plenty of cover from an over-handing tree. I fish a #12 BH prince nymph and a #14 pass lake wet through this water, picking up a few brook trout with their splashy rises. These mini “streamers” are skirted just below the surface and sometimes I can see the wake of a brookie coming up stream to catch that fly.

Another spot presents a scene where the river rushes beneath a dead fall as it gives way to a deep tongue at the head of a pool below. The water barely slows down to form a pool before entering the next run. The trick here is to cast my heavier nymph rig all the way up to that dead fall and mend it into the seam on either side of that tongue. A few on-target casts allow that suspended rig to ride right into the deepest trough of the pool delivering a number of fish including this 16-incher.

Another bit of erudition comes when we get to the last two big bends of this stretch. We each take one of the holes following through from one of the bends – Caitlin upstream with me just below her.  I lean against a tree to adjust my rigging and decide to just watch Caitlin for a bit.  She sits down just about half way through the length of the pool, tucked low, obscured by the brush and high bank. She casts her single-fly, bead-head nymph up stream to the head of the pool and then guides it back down through to the end of the bend. She typically makes only one adjustment (some might call it a mend) while the fly is still in the upper half of the hole. Then she repeats with another cast up to the head. She is fishing Czech Nymph style and doesn’t even know it. She gets several hook ups and lands a few nice browns.

So the key take away here is not the style of fishing so much as the fact that we have the ability to nymph a hole continuously despite catches, misses, and lost fish – and continue to have success. We are not resting these holes more than a minute or two before fish are back on again. We are using some of our favorite rigs.

We wrap up the day just before 6 p.m.  I wouldn’t mind hanging around to see what kind of evening hatch is in the making; however we’ve both had a good number of fish and Caitlin has been in the field with me for a very long time – something that might be unbearable on its own merits let alone the after effects of final exams wearing her down. At one point she tells me that 7 hours of sleep just isn’t enough to go out and spend a long day in the field like this – ah youth!

So now we’re headed back to the cottage where Caitlin prepares a special chicken dish that she’s mastered. Where am I? Scavenging a couple of pools on the Timber Coulee Creek behind the cottage!

Monday, May 16, 2011 – Birding & Brown Trout

We make a late start today, planning to have more time on the water later in the day. The morning is spent carefully approaching the myriad of birds flitting about the trees near the creek and cabin:

Spring Cardinal

Red-breasted Gross Beak

Purple Finch

Red Bellied Woodpecker

With breakfast, birds, and coffee behind us, we decide to pick out a new piece of water that we have never fished before – an entirely new creek. We enter the river off of a County Trunk Road and work our way up through several small pools catching some 10 to 12 inch brown trout. This is “visible fishing”.  I can see the target trout very clearly. I lean on a downed tree in front of me to steady myself before casting to a specific fish. That fish disappears in a cloud of silt. Extra care is needed to avoid bumping into any of the timber that I am climbing over or leaning on as I cast to these small pools.

Eventually, I take a nice brown trout or two giving me the chance to record a couple of underwater movies as I release them. I have a new, small, water-proof camera and it works nicely. It’s a Pentax Optio Wg-1. Here’s one of the videos we shot.

Caitlin is downstream fishing off of a small island below the bridge. I stand above her on the bridge like a sentinel – just to observe. She works out more line as she gauges the distance to the head of the pool. Her eyes never leave the water. Concentration. Her intensity is a true reflection of my own. The first cast produces a slash, but she misses. She sits back, fly line coiled by her side. She is resting her back as much as the pool. After a few minutes she is up again. The fly lands softly in the quiet pool. The water is deep and slow. She draws in the extra line as the fly moves back. A sudden wrist action. She’s twitched the caddis to incite a rise. It works. She catches a remarkably beautiful brook trout and insists that I come down to photograph the little jewel. She wants the picture to capture in a drawing.

Caitlin makes beautiful works of art to reflect trout and the things that they eat.  She wants to replicate this little char in colored pencils. Here are some examples of her recent work:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 – Kickapoo Valley Reserve

Tuesday is one of those days that we have to scoot back to Milwaukee again – work related. We decide to stop by the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,000 acre tract of land located between the villages of La Farge and Ontario in SW Wisconsin. There are several groomed trails here that run along marshy areas. We see more colorful birds (finches, orioles, etc.) and traipse across a couple of bridges as we explore the place.

On the way out, the attendant asks us if we captured any good photos. We show her my camera replete with a left over grizzly photo from last year’s Yellowstone trip. She gasps at the sight of it and we laugh and tell her a story or two.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 – Timber Coulee Creek

We head back to our trout sanctuary in SW Wisconsin this morning, scouting a few rivers on the way back from Milwaukee. Pine Creek and Willow Creek among others. We cut through the back-country as we get closer to Fennimore, climbing small ridge lines and descending into deep valleys. These aren’t Blue Ridge Mountains, but the effect is the same. Morning mist drifts across the landscape painting a picture of rolling hills in the distance.

The cottage makes for a relaxing retreat as we let the day warm up – still hopeful for a mid-afternoon or evening hatch. We eventually head for Timber Coulee Creek: a stretch that we have fished often. There is an older gentleman walking off the river just as we begin to head downstream, compelling us to hike a good 20 bends down river before fishing our way back to the FJ.

We see some small mayflies and caddis coming off. A handful of trout fall to dry flies with some nicer fish taking our nymphs. The best fish, of course, gets away. There’s a tree on the east bank here just below the 2nd island in this stretch. I’m fishing a tandem rig. The anchor fly is a big, poxy-back green drake nymph. The dropper fly is a #16 BH prince nymph. I toss this rig up into the water above the tree and watch the suspender glide down into the water below the tree. Wham! A nice brown smacks the nymph. I lift the rod to set the hook, turning him over in a magnificent, gold-bellied flop. He throws the hook and disappears into the depths. What a fish! We know bigger ones are in here – and now we know where to probe for one the next time that we come.

Another day with over ten good fish landed. I’m quite satisfied with this outing and stretch of water. Working through twenty bends of river with different hatches and water depths means a lot of fly changes and other adjustments to our rigging. We’ll need to retie our rigs in the morning and set out to fish the West Fork once more and then head back here again in the afternoon.

Thursday, May 19, 2011 – West Fork Kickapoo River

This morning finds us back on the West Fork.  Countless trout are landed with two larger ones working their way off again. Caitlin lands a very nice 15-inch brown trout. She’s very proud of herself!

We’re hungry for some lunch so we stop off at the grocery store in La Farge. The deli there will make you a sandwich and wrap it to go. We head down to Hwy 82 intending to fish upstream; however, there are other anglers here. We head downstream instead to a section that is outside of the catch-and-release water. The water here looks just as good as the water upstream. And of course the trout no nothing of the artificial barrier that classifies this stretch differently than the one above. Nor do the Bald Eagles. No sooner are we near the river than we see one take off, ascending to an incredible height and then soaring in circles above us.

The first couple of holes produce browns between 9” and 11”.  The next fish is a shockingly large chub. Some of water here is very, very deep and probably requires probing with a sink-tip line or much longer leader to get the flies down deeper for a longer drift.

Caitlin climbs the high bank. I wade the river channel. From her vantage above, she spots a couple of large shadows moving up stream in the water. At first she think they’re monster fish (trout on the brain), bit then realizes they are big old beavers.

This section merits more attention in the coming years. The water is a bit degraded compared to upstream, but that just tells us that it’s big brown trout water. Something has to eat those over-sized chubs!

We reach the Highway 82 Bridge by 7 p.m. and decide to venture upstream to examine that water as well. There are more big runs and wide bends up here and we note that this section merits a full day to explore as well.

 

Friday, May 20, 2011 – Transition to Fennimore area – Fenway Hills Motel

It’s our last day on the West Fork Kickapoo before heading down to Fennimore for the weekend. The weekend’s arrival is marked by numerous anglers coming out to enjoy the river! We sneak off to a couple of hidden spots for some solitude – fishing only three or four holes for our entire time morning. We’re nymphing these holes up close with Czech Nymph rigs and techniques. We learn that the fish can be rested very quickly, returning to rise after only a handful of minutes; and this despite the fact that we hover on the edge of a somewhat tapered bank taking trout after trout. We take several brown trout from each hole, trading positions from time to time.

We hop back on the road and scoot over to the Bishop’s Branch for a look. Enticing. Nonetheless we decide to get an early start for Fennimore, stopping by another treasured, small creek on the way down. When we arrive at our treasured creek, there is a tree that has fallen into one of my favorite holes. That small stretch of creek is ruined for the time being – at least from a fly fisherman’s perspective.

Father and Daughter – The Early Years

Down in Fennimore, Waukesha Stillmanks drive in to meet us for the weekend: my brother Joe, his wife Brenda and my nephew and niece Nicholas and Violet. We all stop in at the Cottonwood Club on Highway 61 for some pizza and beers. We play around with some pool cues and chat about life.  Brenda reminds me that Nick is 8 years old now – the same age that Caitlin was when we indoctrinated her to these waters. That’s a lot of water under the proverbial bridge. I recall very well that year. Brenda took an iconic picture of “father and daughter fly fishing for trout” along the Blue River near Bowers Road. Caitlin is 24 now so that was 16 years ago. All those years ago. 16 years! We’ve all enjoyed every minute of it.

Back at the motel, we check in on the weather for tomorrow. There is a possibility of electrical storms. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. My weather radar shows most of the rough weather pushing through well north of us. It’s definitely going to be overcast. Hopefully it will treat us well and Joe & Brenda can help their own “young of the year” get a trout tomorrow.

Trouty Stillmanks

Saturday & Sunday, May 21 & 22, 2011 – Big Green River – RJ and Waukesha Stillmanks Join the expedition

My good friend RJ Reimers arrives from Chicago today to get some of his first schooling on a fly rod. He is one of those fellows that are so adept with map and compass (and GPS) and are able to navigate just about anywhere. And so RJ meets us at a remote spot out on the river.

By the end weekend, my piscatorial progeny, Caitlin, has had what can only be described as the best outing of her life. On Saturday, she catches a 17-inch+ rainbow trout on a #14 elk hair caddis while fishing in “Daniel’s Hole”. We’re pretty much out of that #14 caddis now, having burned through the few that we had between the trout and the trees. We still have some of every other size between #18’s and #12, so we’ll make due.

And then today, Sunday, she puts together two additional trout gems. First she catches a really nice 14-inch brown from a piece of water that we typically pass over to get to more familiar spots. She replicates the Czech Nymph style approach that she apparently mastered on the West Fork Kickapoo. She is using a tandem nymph rig with a larger cress bug on top with a #16 black nymph trailing (black GRHE Nymph with a PT nymph style tail). The brown trout took that

Later on, she replicates that technique further upstream near “Daniel’s Hole” again. This time she’s using a single fly: #12 BH PT Nymph. She’s well below the tree that marks the that hole and right where the water deepens as it bounces off the rip-rap to form a long pool. She is using the 4W with a strike indicator and tossing the rig up along the current line and letting it drift down. When it swings below her, she tugs it back upstream and repeats the ritual.  On about her 4th cast, she is suddenly up on her feet and shouting for the net – she has knocked down another size-able rainbow. I hustle to her side and she battles the brute to the net three times before I am finally able to nab it. My God! Just beautiful colors. Congratulations Katy Molly – well done!

 

I take a couple of nice browns in Hole #1, suspending a cress bug drifted behind a Hydropsyche larva.

RJ gets some of his technique down, landing a couple of smaller trout. Those are big trout as well – because they are first trout. The beginning of something special. He is a quieter more reserved man, but I can tell he is excited to be out here. No doubt! I think RJ is hooked enough (pun intended) to join me for part of the Bois Brule trip coming up here in June.

 

 

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