Friday, June 17, 2011 – Back to the North-woods

Each year on the Bois Brule River is a different one. Weather. Water Levels. Hatches. They all vary.  They all combine to create a unique experience here each year. The one constant has been my fishing companion, and brother, Joe. We have explored this fishery together for 14 years:  an unspoken pledge to return here together and discover whatever new secrets the river has to reveal.  And now that part of the equation will be a variable this year as well. Joe is juggling a promising career, a growing family, and a finite amount of vacation. He just doesn’t have the full week available this year. So my good friend RJ will spend a few days here as well – filling out the week with good companionship while I devote a full measure of time here. I’ll break this expedition into two pieces – too many good fish, photos and insights to share…

RJ is relatively new to the sport of fly fishing having just come off of his forays on the Big Green River and Lost Creek. He’ll spend three solid days here before flying back to Chicago from Duluth. As it happens, his plane will fly right over my brother Joe as he works his way up here from Waukesha by Tuesday evening. In fact, Joe was just in the area last week for a family vacation. He nary wet a line in the style that we are accustomed to, so he returns now for our unwavering sortie on this precious water.

This year’s trip begins with the long drive from Milwaukee to the northwest corner of Wisconsin along with RJ. Our conversation wafts from work to fishing as we turn the corner at highways 94/53 to head North. We arrive at the cabin around 1 p.m.  The town of Lake Nebagamon has been host to our excursions for the past several years; however, we keep struggling to find a place that can accommodate that last, precious day beyond a full week – so that we can drive home on the trailing Sunday. This year, we have found a place called At Waters Edge situated right on the lake in the town of Lake Nebagamon. We must have driven by it often in past years. It’s a fairly a large place that can accommodate several people. The street side entrance to the house passes through a rec room (formerly the garage), down a hallway past the three bedrooms and a laundry room as you make your way to a large, eat-in kitchen and a living room – both with abundant glass to show off views of Lake Nebagamon which is just down a flight of steps if you head out the back door. This lake side of the house has a patio, outdoor furniture and grill.

We unpack our gear and assemble two fly tying stations at the kitchen table. I knock off a couple of special ties recalling Joe’s success last year with a fly called The Professor.  In a size #10, this wet fly is surely reminiscent of a brown drake emerging from its shuck. We’ll see how it performs on “off days” or even during a hatch this year.


Fly Recipe: The Professor
Hook: #10 3xL nymph / streamer hook
Tail: 8 to 10 pheasant tail fibers
Body:
Amber or light orange dubbing; tied uniform
Rib: Medium tinsel
Wing: Mallard flank – barred wood duck – dyed amber
Throat: Brown hackle

 

Saturday, June 18th, 2011 – Canoeing the Upper River

This morning we drive into Iron River for breakfast, bakery and butcher shop. Breakfast is at the Rustic Roost – an old favorite. The stops at the bakery and butcher shop are to stock up on some cookies and beef sticks: essential food items for our float down the river today. We enjoy a leisurely morning back at the cabin knowing full well that we have a good chance to see some brown drakes this evening. We check over our gear, pack the cooler, load up the FJ and head for Stone’s Bridge – arriving there at 1:30 p.m. The Canoe is lowered and I begin to organize the items that we’ll need for our float today. RJ looks over the setup and comments that nothing appears to be placed by chance. Yes.  We’ve been doing this for years. Each item has its place: the spare rod fastened beneath the cross-bars; the Maine dry box locked to a gunwale behind the left side of the gunner position; two fly rods woven into the cross beams on tucked up against the right gunwale; pelican dry box with photography equipment; dry-bag style soft cooler with ice, lunch and snacks to carry us through the evening, dry bags packed with a change of clothes (just in case); boat net; vests; tie-off ropes; cane-back seats; paddles; all of it.

We finally launch the canoe around 2:30 p.m.  Whew. Back on the Bois Brule River. The air is rank with the mixed pine and cedar forest. Restorative! Today is spent in the upper river, canoeing from Stones Bridge to McDougal’s landing and back.

The first stretch of river is marked by a series of four to five small wing dams that compel us to begin working the canoe together.  I’m sitting in the unfamiliar stern position that my brother usually occupies while RJ has taken the position of royalty in the bow. He’ll have a chance to see an unfettered view of the scene down river. I’m excited to share it with him. We share stories of years long past and I suddenly realize that I don’t know a lot about RJ – our conversations typically revolve around work. I’ve known him for over 10 years and it took coming up here to take pause enough to really begin to know him.

RJ gets his casting skills acclimated to the sitting down position as we drift along. The river is only about 50 feet wide; however the challenge now is one of getting enough line out there while attempting some level of accuracy as the fish are tight to the tag-alder edges. I back paddle and try to afford some steadiness to our position – something my brother has mastered over the years. It’s not as easy as it looks!

We stop and tie off the canoe at one of the larger wing dams. RJ works on his cast upstream and I wade down into the dark, quiet water below. A rise! I pull some line off my reel and cast a brown drake imitation downstream, letting it land well upstream. I flip extra line out onto the water so that the fly can drift downstream unconstrained to that fish. The take is a splashy one – a brook trout.  It’s the first of many today. The fly is a brown drake emerger.

RJ has waded back down my way – he notes that wading here is a bit different than the calf deep water on the Big Green River. The Big Green is much narrower so the of the banks are typically at hand and much of the casting can be performed right from the bank without even stepping into the river. The Bois Brule, on the other hand, is a bigger river strewn with many hidden boulders – requiring a cautious approach ‘less you want to topple in. In fact, there are so many boulders around some of the wing dams that it’s difficult to get your foot to a level point. If you plan to cover a stretch of water here without the canoe to buoy you up, you’ll find yourself anywhere from calf deep, to waste deep and beyond.

We hop back into the canoe and drift down through the biggest of the wing dams as I regale RJ with many tales of fish from past years. It’s fun to point out the cedar trees, big white pines and various springs along the way. That brings us to McDougal’s. I consider this a solid test of my ability to handle the canoe like a guide. The idea here is to canter the canoe sideways in the current and let it drift down past the spring so that the person in the bow can shoot their fly well into the inlet here. One cast is never enough to get it right, so a naturally better paddler (like my brother Joe) holds the canoe in place with a series of artful strokes. I am apparently no such artist so RJ and I swing about and work up and down the river here until he connects with one of the little jewels that haunt this spot:

The magic fly here is simply a #12 bead head prince nymph.

After sampling the square tails here, we head to the landing below to stop for a snack and to show RJ the first hidden shelter. We examine the more notable names and initials enshrined here and I explain how useful these shelters have been over the years, serving as places to eat, dry out, or just escape from the torrents of nature. We have cooked here, played cards here and even tied flies here. Outside the shelter, there is a tiny brook pouring spring water into the river: ice cold and gin clear. The number of springs like this in the upper river is countless. They poor in from above

We float further downstream as RJ refines his casting and we extract a couple of more trout before turning back upstream.

A light rain sets in just as the day begins to wane. We slowly paddle back toward Stones Bridge maneuvering the canoe against the mild current and up through the wing dams. At one point we can hear a grinding noise just upstream. We quiet our paddles and concentrate on the noise – it is a porcupine well out on a stream-side timber that has fallen into the river.

The falling light, misting rain and constant rocker of the canoe make for a tough photo. This point-and-shoot is one of the best; however it just does not provide the same level of control as my Canon 50D. I’ll have to set up the penguin dry box tomorrow with my better camera gear and long lens!

Sunday, June 19th, 2011– Walking Through Woods to Water

RJ’s First Fly

Today’s routine begins much like yesterday: first we have breakfast in Brule and then we head back to the cabin to tie some flies. This time we set up a vice for RJ as well. Oh no! He’s a lefty. This presents only a minor complication as I switch the vice around. It’s back to basics as I wrap my head around which direction I typically wind thread over the hook. RJ does a very nice job – his “first fly” ranking much better than the first bug that I tied back in 1991. Most importantly, this fly is very fish worthy!

We set aside the canoe for today and hike through some woods to get to the river. There are a few spots where a walk-in to the Bois Brule is possible. Some are more direct while others almost require a machete to get the job done. Either way, make sure to don your waders before you start out – the vegetation is high and wet this time of year, ticks are plentiful, and all paths lead through some boggy areas where you best watch your step.

We arrive at the edge of the river around 2 p.m. and take in the scene. The sky is overcast. It’s about 60oF. The river is calm with faster water well above and just below us. We step over a downed cedar tree on the bank and wade out over a sand and rock bottom. The rocks are anywhere from a foot to two feet in diameter, diminishing somewhat by the time we reach mid-River. I head across the river while RJ wades upstream a bit. We are not quite in position when I spot the first brown drake on the water. A mid-day hatch is just beginning! I shout to RJ and we meet half way so that I can load him up with a few more flies for the afternoon: an extended body deer hair parachute pattern; a sparse brown drake pattern (hackle only / no wing); gold-ribbed hare’s ear nymphs; bead head prince nymphs; and a few Professors.

We wade back to our respective positions. The fish have not keyed in on the bugs adrift yet and there are truly only a few to be found at this point. I tie on a Professor and start to work the edge of the river. There is plenty of downed timber here and this emerger pattern is just what’s needed.  Cast it into some wood, let it sink of a second or two and twitch it back in what can only be described as an erratic retrieve. I don’t just want to strip the fly back – that’s not how the natural would behave. I let it sink and then tug it in very short strips to make is rise in the water column like a nymph ascending to hatch. This is a patient retrieve. The fly is very light and lends itself to working like this over a nice, long retrieve. On my second cast and barely into my retrieve, I get my first take. RJ sees the commotion and wades down to see the fish and take picture. Good man! It’s a solid 14-inch brown trout with a rich, golden flank that’s replete with red specks haloed in lavender.

I show RJ how to release a larger fish like this. Holding it in the water and sliding water over its gills until is it is fully revived and able to scurry away under full power. The goal here is to minimally handle the fish: never squeeze a fish; keep your fingers away from the gill plates; and be careful not to drop a fish on the ground or in a boat. When resuscitating a fish before releasing, be sure to cradle the fish in your hands while immersing it in the water. Move it back and forth to work the water over its gills – this lets the gills do their job (produce oxygen) and fully revives the trout before releasing it. You’ll know when a fish is ready to release – it will swim away under its own power.

We each return to our introspection as we pursue additional fish. I hear a splashy rise well across river and just above me. I wander over and work my fly in the general vicinity. A solid take just below the surface! This is a heavier fish and he dives deep and makes a run for the wood. Damnation – I flash back to every brute that’s muscled his way off the end of my line. I keep my rod tip high and pull the fish back into the deep slot just beyond me. It takes a few minutes before he tires enough to land him. RJ has already reeled in and come back down to check it out. This one is measured at just over 17-inches: one fish like this makes the week-long trip so I’m delighted.

Just to be clear, this brute also took that Professor pattern. This is how my fly box gets chuck full of certain patterns. This fly will no doubt become legendary by the end of this trip. Why? Quite simply, it has earned the right to spend more time in the water. Even if only fortuitous, this fly now has my confidence. That additional swim time will, no doubt, provide more chances at fish until the self-fulfilling prophecy of its greatness reaches epic proportions. Heh. So be it!

The next few casts surrender my fly to the stream-side brush. As I stand here quietly rebuilding my leader, a small sulphur mayfly lands on my sleeve. I look up to see a few more adrift on the river. One disappears in a swirl of foam in a very tight spot next to the bank – right where a downed cedar enters the water. I memorize the location as I select a similar fly from my Wheatley box. I pin the fly in the catch above my cork handle and begin to move closer to my target fish. It rises again. Good. The next sulphur that drifts within my reach is surrendered to the microscope for closer identification. I open my vest pocket and pull out a vile of bug balm. The mayfly drifts downward, buoyed up by the fluid, until it meets the brown drake already interred there. I examine it more closely – looks to be about a size #16.

I finally make it to within casting distance of that riser. The cast is up and across with my fly landing well above the mark. The take is a violent one and the fish goes wild – tearing all over the place. It’s not a heavy fish, but I want to see him. I start backing up toward mid-river to manage him away from the wood when the unthinkable happens – I hit the drink! I back up on top of a submerged boulder and topple backwards. I quickly switch rod hands and my right hand finds the bottom of the river first as I struggle to keep the rod high. Water pours over the top of my waders. It’s ice cold. I drop to my knees to find my center and push upward. Water quickly bleeds past my wader belt as I play out the fish. It’s an eleven-inch, female brook trout and well worth the soaking.

I dump the river out of my waders and ring it back out of my shirt. Whew! That’s freezing cold. The dry bag is all the way back at the FJ and I’m just not cold enough to make the trek back out. Instead, I reel in and decide to take a closer look at how RJ is doing.  He’s taken several nice photos of my fish, so now it’s time to focus on his technique and see if we can’t put him on a few fish of his own.

Wading in this open water has really helped RJ to advance his casting skills. There is a trout rising on the far bank and RJ works out extra line to close the distance – something he was not able to do just a few weeks ago. One of his casts connects with a brown trout and I wade in to capture the moment:

I’m no casting instructor, but I do know a couple of important tips for the beginner:

  • Imagine the tip of your rod traveling in a plane parallel to the river during your casting stroke. Maintain that uniform position as you push your rod forward and back. This will tighten up your loops and help eliminate mid-air hang ups.
  • Keep your rod over your shoulder and avoid casting at odd angles until your casting is more proficient. This will improve accuracy in terms of where you are trying to drop your fly. You can get fancy once you’ve got the basics nailed.
  • When you connect with a big fish, keep your rod tip high and use the flexibility of that rod to act as a spring. This will help to prevent break-offs.

It’s this last bit of advice that I’m pretty sure RJ will remember for the rest of his life. Here’s the story. There’s a very nice fish rising among some boulders downstream. In fact this trout is literally snorting as it smacks flies of the surface every five minutes or so. RJ wades downstream until he is within reach. The fish is still further downstream and there is enough current there to allow RJ to feed some line downstream until his fly is within striking distance. There is a forceful rise followed by a powerful surge of water as RJ sets the hook. The wake made by this leviathan is shocking. It’s a trophy fish for sure! RJ’s line is taut quickly since most of the slack was eliminated on the take. I shout to RJ to raise his rod tip as his fly rod is still almost parallel to the river and only a foot or so off the water. He raises it a bit, but I’m not even sure he heard me – he’s very focused and things are happening quickly. I shout several more times, but to no avail. The breakoff is inevitable. So instead of reaping his first trophy brown trout on the Bois Brule River, RJ lands his first story of a life time – about “the big one that got away”.

We only evaluate the situation for a short time. There’s no need for a pro-longed analysis: RJ stalked and hooked that monster entirely on his own. That’s all that matters. Everything else is about spending more time on the water learning how to play a big fish like that. I have to confess that I’m a bit jealous. That was a remarkable trout – probably bigger than anything we’ve ever landed here.

Drakes are coming off steadily now and another nice fish rises on the opposite bank. We return to our fishing and the day ends well. RJ lands a couple of brook trout and I manage another nice brown trout – this one going 15 inches. The extended body Brown Drake pattern got the job done this time. This tie has deer hair running the full length of the shank, bent over to form a bullet-head just behind the eye and then wrapped with separated turns of thread to extend the body well past the bend. An Elk hair wing is tied in post style with the hackle tied in parachute style.

Monday, June 20th, 2011 – Stones Bridge to Big Lake

Today’s forecast calls for partly sunny skies. Seems like a good day for a more extended float down the upper river. So we head over to Brule River Canoe Rentals and secure a shuttle with a drop a Stones Bridge. The FJ is dropped off down river and then we are shuttled back up to Stones Bridge along with our canoe and gear for a nice long float. The shuttle service is great – the only drawback being that it’s not possible to get onto the river in the predawn. In past years, my brother and I have rented cars from a Ford dealership in Minong on the way up here.

By the time Brule River Canoe drops us at Stones Bridge, there are already a few other fly-rodders readying to launch their boats. We meet Wes and his fly fishing bride – sorry, I forgot your name! Wes asks if I am “WiFly”.  Yes, I am! He knows about the PPB fly from reading my blog. Cool. I share one with him. They show us their hex “wiggle nymph” tied with ostrich on a short thorax with a rabbit fur strip for the abdomen to create motion. This fly is tied in olive.

We run the gamut here – picking up a few nice fish at McDougal’s and other spring holes until we reach the 2nd hidden shelter where we break for some lunch.  I take a few creative photos here before continuing on. I show RJ the “circle hole”. We pull over there to let kayakers in training work their way below us. There is a small group of deer in the forest here and we watch them before sliding down through the up-and-downs.

We spot an Eagle’s nest on the right bank before making the turn to reveal the boathouse.

The next step is the big spring near Cedar Island. We slide the canoe along the bank near a large cedar tree and tie it off. This is long leader fishing and I know several rigs that have extracted fish here in the past. We take turns throwing some flies into its cold waters. I’m able to score a triple here: a brook trout, a brown trout, and a rainbow that goes 15-inches and puts up a nice fight.

The rigging that I use here is specific to this spot. From the leader butt to the dropper the total length is 18 feet. The top fly is a #10 BH prince modified so that the ‘wing’ (called ‘horns’ by some) is two slips of flashabou. The fly is finished with dark red thread. It’s a flashy fly that has worked here before – a bold design to entice a strike from these wary rainbows. There is a single large bb split shot 8-inches above this fly. Then the dropper is added off the bend of this first fly with about 15 inches of 6x tippet. The dropper is a #16 pass lake wet fly. This micro version of the large streamer version has proven invaluable over the years. The bright calf-tail wing flashes bright and I believe it makes for an excellent caddis emerger in this size – trapping air bubbles among the calf tail fibers. I need more of those!

We hop back in the canoe and sashay through the Dining Room Pool and beyond – negotiating the many twists, turns and glides that lead us to the head of Big Twin Rapids.  RJ and I sync up pretty nicely on the rowing. As we pull up to the head of the rapids, RJ says “what’s this?”.  I explain that this is the fastest piece of water that we’ll encounter in the upper river. I pull over to the bank and begin to batten down the hatches: securing fly rods, stowing camera gear, and making sure that nothing is left loose in the boat. RJ follows suit asking if we can portage. I explain that it’s not necessary. Big Twin Rapids isn’t a particularly difficult stretch of river – it just can catch you off guard sometimes. We see novices swamp their canoes here every year – sending cameras, beer and other debris adrift on the water. For a more advanced paddler, it’s just a fun little ride. We push off from the bank and I explain to RJ that I will be using steering strokes only here and that his oar should not enter the water unless I ask for a specific stroke. We fly quickly through the first section and line up for the second. Nicely handled! When we get to the bottom of the second run, I notice that the dry box is not latched shut! Woah – that would have been expensive if we toppled the canoe.

We stop of in the section below the rapids and extract a few fish. There are brook trout hiding along the cedar lined bank here. They are small, beautiful little jewels.

RJ’s casting continues to advance. Take a look at this – really nice RJ!

The next section of river starts with Little Joe Rapids and ends with a shoot that dumps into the head of Big Lake. There are a couple of larger granite boulders right at the end of the rapids – make sure to stay to the right of them. We are no sooner past said obstruction when we see a female merganser with a brood of 22 chicks. That’s 22! We counted. We can only guess that she picked up additional clutches of chicks from other merganser mothers that met an ill fate this spring.

The water is high this year, so we glide easily over the sandy shallows of upper Big Lake. There are a few deeper spots here and we glide over them watching for trout. The lake narrows down through a snaky piece of water that leads to Wild Cat Rapids – not much of a rapids at all unless you are forging your way upstream through this section. Then you’ll notice is power and depth of water. Wild Cat Rapids dumps into Lucius Lake which is divided at its head by a small island. Break right here and hug that tree line on the right bank to avoid getting hung up – it can be very shallow here as well.  Once we get below the island there is a steep drop off as the lake becomes more like a lake. We spot a few Hexagenias on the water – enough to slow the rowing and watch intently for rises. We see none. As the lake begins to narrow, we spot a bald eagle resting on a dead tree along the right bank. We bring the canoe about and my decision to bring my better camera along really pays off:

Getting photographs like this is every bit as rewarding as catching a nice trout. I am exhilarated by the experience and I can tell that RJ is too. Wow. This animal was just removed from the endangered species list back in early 2007.

We finish the evening in a narrow section of river just south of the “Summer Home Section”. There are numerous bugs hatching including brown drakes (duns and spinners), baetisca spinners, sulphurs, and a variety of caddis. I stalked a particular fish with success – turned out to be a 12-inch brown trout. There were not many big risers in my section. I also had a variety of brook trout between 7 and 10 inches – all with striking colors. RJ slogged away over a couple really large fish, but to no avail – hey, that’s part of the excitement as well. You’ve got to earn your stripes out here!

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 – Transition Day

Ouch! I stayed up until 2:30a last night sorting and editing our awesome photos from the past couple of days. RJ heads back today – flying from Duluth to Chicago. My plan for the day is to 1) get some rest; 2) tie some more flies including a special March Brown tie; 3) clean out the FJ and get things ready for Joe; 4) fish below Big Lake if the weather permits. I’m pretty excited that Joe is getting here this evening.

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