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

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One Response to “South Branch Oconto River”

  1. Daniel Tappa Says:

    Great write up. I discovered the beauty of fly fishing on the Pike River in Marinette County. I know live in Idaho, where the fishing is tremendous, but I still try to get back to NE Wisconsin every summer to fish. Above the bridge on the SF Oconto I landed a 15+” brookie a few years ago on a hopper pattern. I literally army crawled through the stream and to a small mucky island, hid behind some vegetation, and made a downstream cast to what I though should be a holding spot for a big fish. First cast. I often think about that spot and that fish. Cheers!

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