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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Saturday, June 20th, 2009

It’s “Christmas Day” today. Last night was “Christmas Eve.”  What do I mean by that? It’s the Bois Brule River trip! The preparations and care that we go through to plan this annual pilgrimage are no less than the effort and planning than we put into that most sacred of holidays. We were up very late last night packing up all of the gear: fly fishing gear, fly tying stations, camp gear, photography outfits, food stores, and more. The Canoe’s on top of the FJ and our little green Daccos trailer is hitched up behind. There are spare paddles, ropes, anchors, and everything else that we drag along when we go to “have at it” on the wonderful Bois Brule River. There are even a couple of float tubes and fins back there just in case we decide to hike into a remote pond for a day.

It’s about 10 O’Clock in the Morning on a Saturday. If we drive straight through, we’ll get up there around 3 p.m. Even if we throw in a couple of brief stops, we’ll be into some Brown Drakes tonight. We’ll probably put in and take out at either Big Lake or at Stone’s Bridge. Yeah! We’re on our way to the fabulous Bois Brule.

Our first ever trip to the Bois Brule River was in June of 1998. We were in search of the ultimate Wisconsin trout river, and although we were not sure at the time, we were about to discover it. Even though we had only been fly fishing for about 6 years, we had already logged more time on the water than most people do in a lifetime. Our pursuit of that most ethereal of fish already had us ranging ever further from home. Milwaukee, although blessed with close proximity to Lake Michigan and several of its tributaries, is extremely lacking in the environs of inland trout. We had a growing library of reference material and were working our way west and north as we read about different rivers, their hatches and their trout. In the west, Grant County with its Big Green River, Castle Rock Creek, Crooked Creek and Blue River. Vernon County with its coulee spring creeks and the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. St. Croix County with the Willow, Kinnickinic and Rush Rivers. Moving north we first ventured to Waushara County to visit the Mecan River and the White River. Hex Madness ensued. Further north to the Tomorrow River, the Wolf, the Oconto and the East Branch Eau Claire River. And there were more: Otter Creek, the Trempealeau, Lunch Creek, Black Earth Creek, the Mullet, the Pine, the Little Wolf, Flume Creek, Duncan Creek, the Brule and the Pemebonwon. Not to mention several spring ponds. So much water and so little time  . . .

We had read of the fabled Bois Brule River in numerous books: rich history, protected forest, pure flows and awesome trout. It just happened to be in the exact opposite corner of the state. But now it was time for a week-long pilgrimage to this most promised of lands. We called ahead to reserve our lodging with Chloe Manz of Brule River Classics. Chloe has three log cabins right in the town of Brule on Highway 27 just south of US Highway 2. Brule River Classics is within a half hour of our launch point at Stone’s Bridge on County Trunk S and less than a mile from Brule River Canoe rental on US Highway 2. Chloe is a semi-retired school teacher that spends her summers running the cabins and occasionally fly-fishing.

Up to this point in our fly-fishing careers, our method had been limited to the walk-in-and-wade approach; a technique far too limiting for the Bois Brule. This was a river that had to be floated. Chloe recommended Keith Behn as a guide who could introduce us to canoeing down the Brule. She also commented that he would have us in stitches because he was so funny. Was he ever in for a surprise. We called Keith and he recommended the following flies for the first week of June: Sulphurs with white posts, Caddis, Callebaetis, Hendricksons, large dark Stoneflies and Brown Drakes (just in case). All of these were carefully tied over the course of the prior winter and set aside just for the Bois Brule.

Back to 2009. We make it up to Rice Lake and stop at the Norske Nook. Joe can tell you what it’s like to suck down two large BLTs and a piece of peach pie; and what the heck is a diabetic doing eating French silk pie? Back on the road, we have our first near miss with a deer. Whew! I never want to come that close to a deer on the highway again! We could see the individual hairs on the deer’s neck and the fine velvet on its antlers as it veered away at the last second!

Over the years we have discovered a few additional places to stay when we come up here. Things can fill up quickly during the bigger hatches. This year we are staying at R&M beach front cabins on Lake Nabegamon – we like the fisherman’s cabin. It has two bed rooms, a nice kitchen, and an especially nice table for tying our flies. Not to mention that Nabegamon Creek is within walking distance. We have yet to fish that stretch of water in June; however it has given up its share of Small Mouth Bass and Rock Bass in the summer time.

We arrive pretty late; however, we make sure to get ourselves onto the river – and with good cause. There is something about the Bois Brule. It’s restorative. We climb into the canoe a bit exhausted; however we are immediately returned to our youthful selves upon stepping into the water. The Bois Brule is like that for us. We are intimate with many of its hidden secrets and it is uplifting to come here. Perhaps it’s the years of nostalgia and good times that have come to make this place a mental and emotional retreat – a sanctuary of sorts.

We put in at Big Lake. No sooner have our paddles broken the water when we come forth with antics and hilarious poems that we dare not repeat here. At the tail of Big Lake, we take the short, quick ride down wildcat rapids and on through Lucius Lake to fish the many bends above and below “Castles”. The hatch begins before dusk and it is a good one. We see the Baetisca mayfly which we also refer to as the “half-body” mayfly.

Baetisca Mayfly

The Baetisca is a tough tie. The height of its wings is so disproportionate to its short, fat body. Several of our first attempts would not even stand up on the water. Over the years we perfected a sparse tie with a couple of turns of over-sized hackle through the thorax to get the job done. We also see some brown drake duns and spinners on the water – that’s what we’re here for so it is good to see these bugs active on our first evening on the water.

Baetisca tied by the auhtorSome trout are steadily rising and Joe takes a nice brook trout and a smaller brown. I wait patiently for a larger fish to rise near me. I don’t want to disturb the water for a smaller fish. I end up fishless this first evening – something that would have bothered me in past years. Fortunately I know what lies ahead for the next several days.  Tomorrow morning, I’ll whip up a fresh batch of Baetisca dry flies…

 

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Day 2. We sleep in this morning and take our time getting our gear organized for the week. Fly tying stations are setup and hooks are set out for the flies that we know we’ll need more of. Then we’re off to the river again. We’re not quite in a rhythm yet. The weather is clear and hot when we get into the river, so we leave our Filson jackets back at Stone’s. However, whenever you’re in the immediate neighborhood of Lake Superior, you should count on rain. And so we get soaked through the mid-day. We break into the dry bags as the day wears on so that we are warm and dry as evening approaches. Rain persists so we are more than damp by the time we get back to the cabin.

Overall, it is a good day. We float down through the many wing dams that are scattered along the upper most part of the upper river. We stop at a couple of remarkable spots on our river map where we have waded in past years for some nice brook trout – and we are not disappointed. There is a particular stretch here where I enjoy floating a drake comparadun along the tag-alders.  This is very tight fishing with a fly-rod. You have to drop your fly literally less than an inch away from the tag alders right where they are dipping into the water’s surface. Detritus, river debris and foam collect here making for extended cover for a larger trout. Sometimes you have to drop your fly right back into the varied edges of the tag alders to tease up a nice trout. This is why we target practice with our fly rods in the early spring. We may need to hit the upper part of a 12- to 18- inch opening, manage a foot long drift, and then get that fly back in the air before it catches a snag! It is in a spot like this, and right before I need to pick my fly back up, that it disappears in the voracious, slashing rise of a wild brook trout. He goes mad – knocking off a short run before leaping into the air. It is an exceptionally large, well-colored male. Nice! He heads back to the root-laden water below the tag alders. Oh, no! I twist my upper body hard to the right side, turning him back to mid-river. Now he bolts around a large bolder, diving to the depths of its base for cover. I lift the rod to halt his progress when he rushes to the surface to greet the air again. Splash! I nab him in my net. It’s a very nice 12-incher with beautiful colors.

Brown Drake Emerger tied by the author

We take a couple of more trout here before paddling down to Cedar Island Estate. On the way, we continue to fish the edges with our brown drake patterns: the comparadun and an emerger pattern that we tie. I am in the gunner position and Joe is rudder-ing the canoe. He has gotten quite good at this over the years – able to quietly hold the canoe cross ways in the river amidst a brisk breeze while I repeatedly work over the same spot with a few casts before moving on.

We beach the canoe when we get to the island. This is another special place. It used to be the Summer White House for Calvin Coolidge during his presidency. Coolidge was a reputed trout fisherman and we have seen historical photos of him in a john-boat being poled up river while a small force of secret service agents creep through the woods on the opposite bank. Eisenhower and other presidents fished here as well, earning the Bois Brule’s nickname: “River of Presidents”.

I work over the springs here. There are great-horned sedges clearly visible with their long horns (antennae). They are dapping in the water and one larger rainbow is making a feast of them. I worked over that fish for some time with no success. Joe heads down below the foot bridge to the “Dining Room Pool”, aptly named since we can see the dining room in main house from this location. He manages a couple of smaller fish before we paddle back upstream to an area that we refer to as “The Up and Downs” – named for the hilly gravel and cobblestone bottom that goes up and down throughout this section creating a varied set of pools alternating with wade-able water.

The Author’s Brother shows off a nice Brown Trout

There are some fish rising, but we do not see a significant hatch up here. We see a few Baetiscas float by; however, not in the numbers if the prior night. Joe takes a damn nice brown trout by stripping a dark-ribbed yellow nymph back from the wood-strewn edges of the river where that fish had been rising. That ends up being the best fish of the evening. This is how it goes on the Bois Brule. We need to find the hatch. Hatches like those that we are watching for typically start in the lower parts of the river and work their way upstream over days and weeks. We take the slow evening in the upper river tonight as a sign to spend time down river for a few days and work our way back up here toward the end of the week.

We’ll be back to this spot for sure as it has treated us well in past years. In 2006, I had one of those remarkable evenings where everything came together. This excerpt from my journals captures it perfectly:

There is a soft yellow light streaming through the trees at day’s end, reflecting and glittering off the wings of the brown drakes as they take to the air – still wet having just  escaped from their watery world. It is a sign that something incredible is about to happen. There are a few fish rising around me, so I begin casting my sparse brown drake back into a woody area near the bank. A diminutive fish smashes it with the unabashed-ness of youth. I hurry it toward me so that I can get back after a larger fish. Halfway through my retrieve, a large brown trout chases it down, taking it sideways in its mouth. Let me be clear here – this brown trout is not “hooked” in the literal sense. It simply refuses to let go of that brook trout until both are netted! Another once-in-a-lifetime experience delivered by the Bois Brule River. You can even see the teeth marks in the flank of this brook trout.

Double on a single hook!

The evening quiets. It is a ninety minute paddle back upstream to Stone’s. A misty fog blankets the river obscuring our visibility to less than 20 feet. The flashlights that we carry only make this problem worse. We end up directing the halogen beams to the higher trees, well above the fog, sweeping in rapid succession to light up the forest and hint at the river’s course. The whippoorwills’ call out their chorus as we work each bend; retrace each wing-dam; recounting our day along the way…

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Despite a very late evening getting off the river, I am up early and sitting on the edge of a dock on Lake Nebagamon enjoying the cool morning. A family of loons approaches: two adults and two chicks. The chicks are tucked under a wing on their mother’ back.

I sit quietly photographing them for over an hour. They come remarkably close and I can see their iridescent red eyes. They dive into the lake’s cold depths and return with small fish which are then used to feed the chicks. The photos are remarkable and I am happy to add them to my ongoing collection of landscape and wildlife photography. Some of these photos tell a story . . .

The rest of the morning is spent drying out our gear, tying flies and reading. There’s no rush to get on the river today. Over the years we have come to appreciate the fact that the Bois Brule is a night river. We get on later and fish into the darkness. Sometimes we paddle off in the pitch blackness of a moon-less night through fog and rapids. We still end up spending 10 to 12 hours on the water when all is said and done. Don’t get me wrong, this river is definitely worth floating and fishing during the day and we have seen strong hatches at mid-day on an overcast, drizzly day. Those days are special and we are up early if the forecast suits us. There is also something to be said for being rested (or at least not exhausted) when that hatch kicks in at 8:30p.m.!

Today we get on the water at 2 p.m.; however not before stopping in town for a large coffee – we need it! We paddle down into the summer home section. We have a spot that we refer to as “Favored Drake.”  It’s a wonderful spot with sunken cedars on the far bank – an obvious haven for beefy brown trout when the river serves up a smorgasbord of bugs including those Brown Drakes.  When we arrive, we settle in among the sweepers and tie up the canoe. Joe heads down river and I head up. We see some sulphurs – maybe a #14 Light Cahill would get the job done. In fact, Joe does get the job done with that very bug.

I fool a 10-inch brown trout with a Comparadun Brown Drake. Several small brook trout came to hand with this same fly. The main hatch starts right around 9 p.m. led off by the Baetisca mayfly and then followed almost immediately by sulphurs which come on very strong. Just as we began to lose light, the brown drake duns start to come off – very sparse. I see a large trout rising in a more regular rhythm at the very top of this section – at the end of the lake where it just starts to narrow. I have a Baetisca that I crafted this morning and I decide to stick with it as I cannot see any of the larger Brown Drakes in the vicinity of my riser. He is just off the edge of a cedar tree on the far bank. I creep forward, edging closer. “A short cast is an accurate cast,” I keep telling myself. There is a large sub-surface timber that I have to carefully work over mid-river and I make a mental note not to let this fish run into that area should I hook him. Once clear of that obstacle, I wind up the first cast. It’s a bit short.  I strip off some line gauging the distance carefully. The first whippoorwill calls out in the night. I love this! My Baetisca lands about three feet above my target and drifts right into a purposeful rise. A 16-inch brown comes to hand.

Down below me Joe connects with two large brown trout that escape him. One is taken on a Light Cahill and the other on a Baetisca. It’s nerve-racking when that happens; however he lands a nice brook trout and a smaller brown for the night. We’ll be back in similar sections tomorrow to have at it again!

The paddle upstream to get off the river is pleasant. The cool night air refreshes us as we turn our minds to beer and pizza. Before reaching the take-out point, we have to get the canoe back up Wildcat Rapids. The routine here is to pull off on the west bank just below the rapids where there is a shallow, sandy spot. I hop out and then push the canoe back into deeper water and guide it toward the rapids. It is about 10:30 p.m. so the darkness of the night accentuates our senses. A bat beats its wings past us feasting on the few trailing bugs here. The west bank presents some deeper, calmer water and I cling to the branches along its edge as I heave the canoe forward. My headlamp flashes the branches upstream and we spot a cobweb that reveals more about tonight’s hatch: Hexagenias! There are four substantial Hex mayflies still writhing here: two duns and two spinners.

“Dun” is the term used to label a newly hatched adult mayfly. When the nymph rises to the surface of the river, it emerges from its nymphal shuck to become an adult. These flies are fat and well hydrated with wings that are opaque and upright. They float on the surface while their wings dry creating more than a moment of vulnerability. A “spinner” is the next phase of the adult when they become sexually mature. This can take up to a few days after they emerge from the water. A spinner’s body is more emaciated and its wings are clear. After mating and depositing its eggs in the river, a spinner falls back into the river with wings splayed out. Its silhouette looks somewhat like little airplane adrift on the river. We tie our flies to match both the upright dun and the splayed spinner.

The “Hex Hatch” is just beginning here, so we’ll have to keep our Hex boxes on us for the rest of the trip.

By the time we get off the River at Big Lake, it is 11:15 p.m.

 

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

The river is quiet. We paddle carefully and silently. The only sound is our paddles gracing the river in swirls of dark water. The lake narrows and we hear the rush of the rapids approaching. We cut to the left to line ourselves up for an easy ride into the head of Lucius Lake.

When we arrive at our spot, we are disappointed to see others have arrived before us. It’s popular to be on the river this time of year; however there is more than enough water here so we paddle back up to Castles and make a night of it there. A night of big trout.

I am standing below Castle’s foot bridge and facing upstream. We floated down through here on our way to one of our favorite spots; however that spot was already taken by others so we paddled back up here. Joe is fishing the bend below me which has some very deep water. I am fishing the currents below the bridge. We have had some sizeable fish here in the past. We have also been frustrated on evenings where we could not get one of the many rising trout to take our flies. That’s the nature of this sport. We can take big fish, but can we do it consistently? We vary our patterns from year to year and always keep a few of the ones that have done a better job over the years.

It was super hot today with clear skies. The lake sections of the river will have gotten pretty warm and we know that bodes well for a hatch tonight. Now it’s a waiting game. There are smaller fish rising to spurious bugs on the water. This will continue until around 9 p.m. when things will go very quiet signaling the underwater feeding of the emerging nymphs. Then the first significant rises of the night will occur – keying us into the hatch. As I wait patiently, a large trout leaps into the air above the bridge, perhaps to snatch a dragon fly from the air.

The author’s 16-inch Brown Trout just after being released

By the end of the evening, my largest fish is a 16-inch brown trout. Very respectable. There were much larger fish rising here tonight as well.  The area below the bridge is literally boiling with monstrous fish; however in the pitch black of a moon-less night, it is difficult to make out what they are rising to. My eyes strain in the darkness. The aggressive rises and gulps are nothing short of frenzied. I use a large, White Wulff pattern – more so that I can see my bug on the water than to match the hatch. In retrospect – and there is always retrospect when trout fishing – I should have switched to a less visible, more likely pattern. I also wonder if they were eating hex emergers which would explain why I could not see any bugs on the water near a rise form. There is one fish that repeatedly rises and I manage to get within 10 feet. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. I cannot see what he is taking. Mysterious. Frustrating. Wonderful.

 

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Brown Drake in Flight

We decide to do a night on the upper river. We put in at Stones Landing in the late afternoon and head up stream to burn off a couple of hours as the day expires. We paddle up to a few small wing-dams and strip nymphs along the tag-alders. Sometimes I make pretty long casts to reach a rising fish. Sometimes long casts go awry. Joe tells me that he does not want to have a face transplant as he removes my heavily weighted nymph from his cheek bone!

Eventually we head down to one of the larger wing dams and stake out our territory for the evening. Our new friend from Bemidji floats by in his canoe and shares that the tail out of wild-cat rapids produced some nice fish on a Humpy pattern last night. He took an 18-inch rainbow and a pair of brown trout that went 16- and 19-inches. Nice! He also shared that last night was very good in these larger wing dams with a nice hatch of brown drakes producing some nice fish on dries. We are hopeful for more of the same tonight.

The night produces the biggest, blizzard hatch that we have ever seen in our lives. There are brown drake duns. There are brown drake spinners falling into the river in force. Then a profuse number of hex duns start to come off. Hundreds and hundreds drifting by us every few minutes. Believe it or not, this is not the type of hatch we were hoping for. It is virtually impossible to get one of these trout to pick out your fly amidst this volume of naturals. Nonetheless, Joe does just that! He uses an over-sized Cahill for his fly. He manages to drift it among the 50 flies that this fish had to choose from and it picks his fly amidst all of those natural insects! And he lands it! So Joe puts it together nicely tonight.

We did get some video footage of this super-hatch:

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Paul & Maggie – First Brown Trout Together

It’s worth noting that the Bois Brule is good brook trout water. Tonight we are staging in the same spot that my wife Maggie and I floated through last August when we were surprised by a nice mid-day hatch of brown drakes. It was Maggie’s inaugural float and introduction to my madness. She brought the canoe about just in time for me to deliver a cast to a rising brown trout and we netted it together.

We arrive at this same spot around 6:30 pm. I walk over 200 yards downstream carefully working the edges and pockets in among the tag-alders with a reliable dry fly pattern. I don’t move a fish. I don’t see a fish. No fish rises. I’m using a pretty good pattern and tucking it in among the tag-alders. I think it’s safe to say that it’s dead calm right now. As I wander back up to the spot that Joe fished last night, I can see that the currents here are quite nice lending themselves to some good, long drifts. Now, we’ll just have to wait it out for the next three hours until the hatch comes on.

We could break out the cards except that we were doing that down at Castle’s the other night and Joe knocked all of the cards into the water! We told ourselves that we would dry them out, but I’m pretty sure they ended up in the ice chest all night.

It’s 8:37 p.m. when we see the first Brown Drake duns on the water. We’ll see how long it takes the fish to key on them now. Joe and I have switched spots this evening. He is fishing well below me and I am making my way upstream into water that I have never fished before. There is a large swirl upstream and to the left. It’s exactly 9:00 p.m. The same fish rises again. I offer my brown drake and it is met with a solid strike. The fish is the heaviest that I have had on the entire week. I play him quickly – confident in the 2x tippet. It muscles its way toward the bank, rolling in a weed-bed and dislodging the hook. Accident or intelligence?

Author with a Bois Brule Brook Trout taken on a sparsely tied Brown Drake

Another fish rises well upstream. I wait in the dark. Nothing. Silence. More than five minute pass; then another pronounced rise. I skulk forward, concentrating on only that trout. Another solid rise. As I approach, I can make out the silhouette of a sweeper – a downed tree, anchored to the bank, but swept at an angle downstream by the current. Sweepers are trout havens. They provide both a break in the current and cover from predators. Another rise. This time I can tell that the fish is taking drakes on the upstream side of this sweeper. It is so tight to the edge that the disturbance it makes (its rise form) is only a half-circle – The rest obscured by the sweeper itself.

This is going to be a bit tricky. I can make out what is happening; however I cannot reliably see my fly on the water, making it difficult to manage my fly that close to the sweeper. I am likely to get hung up.

I slowly creep to a position across river and slightly above my target fish. I’ll try to drift my fly down to it. Three casts later and wham! I coax him into the main river and land him quickly. It is a beautiful 13-inch brook trout with a deep orange belly – striking. This bend in the river gives up a couple nice brown trout including a 16-inch fish before it is quiet again.

Brown Drake tied by the author

Let’s take a look at the flies that worked tonite. That brook trout took a brown drake pattern fly that I tied earlier today. The fly is slightly larger than the naturals, but well short of the size of the hex. The hook is a #10 2xlong. The tail is deer hair tied thin – let’s say about a dozen strands. The wing is a very sparse comparadun wing made up of the butt ends of the tail fibers with a couple of turns of hackle to give it more buoyancy. The rest of the body is just several wraps of thread wound over the deer hair from each end of the tie. And that’s pretty much it. I just grease that up and fish it, occasionally using dry-shake. It’s a sparse tie, and it gets the job done on that brook trout.

Hex White Wulff tied by the auhtor

The brown trout fell victim to a more classic pattern: the White Wulff. In this case, it is meant to imitate the Hex. This is also my own tie. It’s  tied just a bit smaller than the flies on the water. The hook is a #8 2x-long shank. The tail is made from calf tail. The body is spun deer hair trimmed to a tapered body. I trim some of these much closer to the hook shnk. The one showed here is pretty beefy.  The wing is a also calf tail. It’s tied in a post with a generous amount of hackle tied fore and after of that wing. I cut a ‘V’ in the bottom of the hackle to give the fly a better chance of landing upright with that tall wing. This is a great fly. It’s large and white, allowing me to track it more readily in low light conditions. I have had many brown trout fall victim to this fly.

Saturday, June 27th, 2009 – Journey’s End

We’re packed up. The trailer is hitched back up to the FJ. It takes me awhile to gather myself from my tears as we leave the Bois Brule. The largest of brown trout eluded us this year. Joe broke off a couple of legendary  fish last night so his discord is not as positive as mind at the end here. We both know that we’ll be back here next year. Perhaps we’ll focus on some “mouse-ing” next year and stay out late into the night on one of the lakes. We’ll be looking forward to that!

Toasting another evening on the Bois Brule as we wait for the Brown Drakes to hatch. Fosters: It’s Australian for Beer!