Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 10.43.27 AM

Many of you have written to me asking “why are you no longer writing in your blog?”  In truth, I never truly stopped keeping my journals and photography up to date – I just have not had the time to polish my stories to the degree I like for WiFly (you probably can tell that I am not a casual, weekly blogger). Today, I published a poem that I wrote over the Christmas Holiday called “Ode to the Cedar Tree”. That was fun to write and match to photos taken from this past season on the Bois Brule River in northern Wisconsin. Getting that post up was a breakthrough amidst a torrent of obligations to work and family. And now I’m motivated to close that three year gap covering 2012, 2013 and 2014. I will even be tucking in a few stories from my past trips our west (Yellowstone country) along with my first jaunts to Alberta Canada and Lower Michigan.

In the end, these blog entries chronicle time spent in woods and water through my lens for my family to read in years to come. I’m even pulling this content into a book format for that very personal purpose.

So…no apologies for the delays = life happens! You can get a sneak peak at some of the content that I’ll be sharing me by following me on Instagram: https://instagram.com/pstillmank/

Cheers,

Paul Stillmank (aka WiFly)

 

Advertisements

Ode to the Cedar Tree – A Fly Fisherman’s Tribute

EPV0076

Oh cedar tree of forest pure
That bows at river’s edge,
You greet the angler wading by
And hide the new-hatched sedge.

Aroma spoors the air we breathe
While Tannin seeps below,
To color waters amber brown
And hide the trout, our foe.

The hatching caddis on the wing
Below your branches dance,
I plunder fly box searching for
Its match, to have a chance.

And chance would have I have the fly:
A perfect imitation.
I tie it on with trembling hands.
Oh my! Exuberation!

Intentions pure, my line doth fly
And fly doth land adroit;
Forgiving nature, foliage soft:
You seldom break our knot.

cedartreefoliage2

Fresh cast below thy recessed bank
Doth drift along the sod,
And wily squaretail drags it deep
To fight in your root wad.

The battle wages high and low
In air and waters deep.
And ends with splash and thrust with net,
This cedar’s prize to reap.

brook trout bed

I gaze upon the colors rare
Of lavender and red,
And recollect my father’s words,
Yes, everything he said:

“You note the fly and mark the spot.
Then mark the time of day;
Release the trout back to his home
And watch him drift away.”

brook trout bend - blurry release cool2

“This trout is not your own to keep.
No, it belongs to all.
So others may to seek him out
When cedar tree doth call.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The cedar tree’s call is not rare,
For those who care to listen;
So take the time to respite there,
Where purest waters glisten.

Inhale the breath of richest air,
Your soul for to set free,
And hold the peaceful feeling near
That is the cedar tree.

Paul Stillmank
December 28th, 2014

 

 

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 – Wading for Whoppers

The weather forecast for today calls for rain early and late. What to do? Indeed! We head to a little known spot that we often turn to on such days. Our intention is just a mid-day foray, but we end up staying until almost dark – how could we walk away from steady hatches serving up the biggest resident trout in the river?

The rain never shows. Instead, all of that precip manifests as a heavy mist wafting down the river – creating an eerie effect that we’ve only seen in movies. The temperature hovers around 50oF.

The day turns into an extraordinary one. No sooner do we arrive at this favored location than we realize a sparse brown drake hatch is already underway. It continues throughout the day and early evening with vacillations of intensity. In fact, there seems to be more than one size of drake here – we’ll need to look into that. And with those hatches come the trout: some rising mid-river and some nestled tight to the banks. From bejeweled brook trout to behemoth browns, this will be a day to remember.

The first order of business is flies. We carry a range of brown drake patterns so this should be a good day to see what works most reliably. I stab a few different patterns onto the fly patch on my Filson:

  • Extended-body brown para-drake. This #10 fly has an extended, deer-hair body, an elk hair wing post, and a  parachute style hackle.
  • Paul’s Drake. This fly has a micro-fibbet tail. The body is yellow floss wrapped over brown dubbing. It is parachute hackled like the previous fly; however, the wing post is mixed organza. The organza wing is made up of fibers of white, brown and gray rolled together for a mottled effect.
  • Sparse Tie. This fly sports a #10 light wire hook, micro-fibbet tailing, sparse dubbing and two turns of grizzly hackle. That’s it.
  • Yellow Humpy #10.
  • Other, less notable brown drake variants.
  • Sulphur Comparadun. Yes, those are hatching as well in about a size 16.
  • The Professor – our go-to fly on this trip.

I start out with the extended body para-drake and I don’t change flies until that one is just plain worn out. Multiple, nice brown trout are landed along with a plethora of brook trout. The browns typically go 14 to 15-inches with the largest brook trout pushing 12-inches. I lose one larger brook trout while trying to land it: it goes wild and throws the hook. I’ll guess that is was nearly 14-inches. We photograph the more notable fish. I have to thank my brother Joe for reeling-in to take these pictures – something that’s not that easy to do when bugs are hatching and fish are rising.

Joe is having a remarkable day of his own. He lands several nice fish including an 11-inch brook trout and this beautiful 17-inch brown trout. The fly? The professor of course! Joe’s the one who turned us on to this very appropriate wet fly. In a size #10, it is absolutely reminiscent of an emergent brown drake. Other flies that work for Joe include the sparse hackle Brown Drake (mine never made if off my vest). He also uses a PT Nymph that he strips along the edges of the river to entice takes. He shares that a few other flies did not produce today: the Coachman wet; the Pass Lake wet, and a BH Prince Nymph.

The prize for me today is a 20-inch brown trout with an enormous mouth and visible kype. This trout gets my attention not just because of the size of its rise-form, but because of the shear reverberation of it: I can hear it rising from over 50 yards away! There’s a spot in this section of the river where several sub-surface boulders barely kiss the surface of the water. They unite to generate a variation of currents, crossing this way and that, making it difficult to manage a drag-free presentation through there. So this ogre is just sitting there – right in the middle of this spot – letting those mixed currents serve up a smorgasbord of drakes from every direction. The rises are aggressive and relentless: big, swirling rises to brown drake duns. There is good cover overhead from the pine and cedar forest lining the bank here. It’s a good spot for a big trout.

I begin by drifting my extended body paradrake downstream to him. This fly has been my “go to” bug all day. I watch as it drifts into the zone. The drag is intense despite my s-curve and the brute is put down. Less than two minutes and he is rising again. Whew! I reel in and add 4 feet of 4x tippet to my rig, keeping the same fly. Sometimes adding a good length of tippet provides additional drag free time as that tippet snakes through the current. No good.  I make several more attempts with this rig before I decide to change positions. I make the long walk across the river, down the west bank and back over to 45o below him. I manage some solid drifts here (at least from my perspective); however, he is not fooled. The next hour (yes hour!) is much of the same. I move on to other flies, other positions. The drake parade continues – a flotilla of insects on their watery ride to the grave. With all of these duns being visibly taken by my quarry, it takes a bit for me to come back to the professor. Hell, I’ve spent well over an hour trying to get this thug to take a dry fly. Now, it takes only a couple of minutes on a wet fly. I should note that I am back upstream and above him now. The first cast is really just to gauge the distance. I let the fly drift downstream until the leader is invisibly over the “spot”, while the fly line is still well upstream. I begin to strip things back upstream through what I imagine to be the last rise-form.  I can see the almost indiscernible wake of the professor just below the surface. Strip, strip, strip. Smash! An explosive take. Umpf! The hook is set. Damnation! The fight is on.

I can feel his weight as he muscles into the security of a large boulder. I charge downstream holding the rod high, retrieving line, and applying solid pressure. He rushes up and across stream into the sandy flat before me. I can see him as he flies across the river for the refuge of the far bank. It’s a surreal scene: his dark body rushing across the light sandy bottom. The line cuts wildly through the surface. Water sprays. I don’t need to reel: he takes up the remaining slack in my line and more. He just begins to disappear from view into the deeper water of that far bank when I lift the rod higher to halt his progression. This battle will be waged mid-river. My rod pulses as he throws his body into the fight; it bends under the pull as he makes another mad rush for safety.

These are the most exciting moments of anticipation. A large brown trout is solidly hooked. The tippet is a beefy 4x. The river is fraught with obstacles from large boulders to downed timbers. Several judgments and trade-offs are made in short order. He is twice at the net before he is mine. And what a fish he is! My brother is at hand and I toss him the camera with exuberance. We examine this paragon of the Bois Brule carefully, keeping him in the water as we snap off a handful of photos. He is then afforded some time to revive –little is needed – before being released back to the wild. He heads in one direction before making an abrupt turn, heading for the east bank with determined haste. A safe haven, no doubt. This fish did not get this big by hanging out in the shallows – especially with the number of bald eagles we’ve seen here so far.

Check out the size of this trout’s mouth compared to mine (top photo).  This animal is designed to devour large prey whole! No wonder he has reached such behemoth proportions.

As if this was not thrilling enough for one day, I end up hooking another giant. This one takes the micro-fibbet drake with yellow floss wrapping (Paul’s Drake). This fish is cruising back and forth in a large pool back in some timber along the shoreline. It’s “black deep” back in there and he visibly exposing his nose as he feeds on the numerous Brown Drake duns floating through. I cast my fly into the mix and throw a big mend into my line in hopes of a nice long drift. The giant porpoises on a natural before rising to take my fly seconds later. This battle is short lived however. I pull the hook!

 

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 – Speckles Identify Trout?

We breakfast at the Rustic Roost in Iron River this morning, replenishing our stores from bakery and butcher shop. Back at the cabin, we knock out a handful of flies for the day. Joe then turns to his Spanish while I organize yesterday’s photos. We’re getting into a rhythm here: sleep; relax away the morning; get on the river mid-Afternoon; fish into the night.

Rain, Rain, Rain – turns out to be light, but steady. Nonetheless, how can we not return to the area where yesterday’s legends were made? We each end up with a nice fish at the beginning and then dead calm sets in.

When we break for lunch, we stop to examine the best trout photos of the trip – locked in place on the camera. It’s then that we notice a similarity between two of the fish. Upon closer examination, we realize that a fish that I caught on Sunday, was caught by Joe yesterday:

We see many matching elements here; however the three distinguishing marks shown here are enough to match these fish:

  1. An oblong marking crosses the lateral line
  2. An oval shaped spot on the gill plate
  3. The freckles around the trout’s eye

You can examine things more closely by clicking on the image above. Yep, it’s definitely the same fish. I guess we shouldn’t be  so amazed – anglers have been returning to specific holes to fish for the same monster from season to season even. I guess this makes Joe the better fisherman since he caught this trout after I did – when it was much smarter from having been caught by me.

After catching that truly magnificent resident brown, I spend a bit of time with the camera photographing Joe. He knocks down a couple of additional beauties while I sit in the woods with a long lens enjoying the scene.

Friday June 24th, 2011 – Stones Bridge to Big Lake

Our last day on the river for this trip. It’s been one for the record books. We’ve become more intimate with the Bois Brule, unlocking a few more of its secrets. We’ll float it from Stones Bridge to Big Lake today – I want some better pictures of that Bald Eagle’s nest on the upper river. The weather is fantastic: 65 degrees and sunny. Before we even get started I notice some beautiful columbine in the woods. My tripod is already battened down in the canoe, so I shoot these with an Image Stabilizer lens. I work around the plant looking for a dark background and set my focal length to blur out that background while focusing on the bloom. Lovely.

We paddle carefully through the upper river, parrying the edges with small wet flies and picking up several brook trout. When we arrive at the nest, all three eaglets are active and visible. I set a tripod up in the woods and get some wonderful photos of them jumping across the nest and trying out their wings a bit.

It’s rather windy up there and each eaglet in turn spreads its wings,  feeling the wind and teetering back and forth under its power:

We’ve never seen an adult on this nest and are left to wonder if the beautiful Bald Eagle that we photographed below Lucius Lake is the parent of these three youngsters.

We enjoy a nice foray on the upper river before shooting down to “Favored Drake” – a location of our own naming. There’s a multi-hatch tonight: drake spinner fall; baetisca; light cahill; and sulphur spinner fall. Whew. It’s time like this when you need to target a fish and figure out what it’s taking.

Joe takes a fish on a professor while it is actively rising before dark. Interesting – that’s the same way I hooked the monster well above here.

The light slowly dissipates into dusk which gives over to dark just as the Night Hawks arrive. Night Hawks are mottled gray-brown birds with white bands across their long, pointed wings. They winter over in South America and return to Canada and the Northern U.S. during the summer months. Tonight, they are foraging on the Brown Drakes and other insects just like the trout. They are a much more welcome friend than the bats which will come out shortly.

I can hear Joe down river from me working diligently over some regular risers. He hooks three more fish in total  – bringing a 14-incher to the net. Successful flies were a sparse brown drake #10, a #12 Light Cahill, and a #12 Adams. I manage a 12-inch brown trout on a #12 Light Cahill. I hook a large fish, but he pops the fly (the professor again).

Things quiet down after that. We reel in and stand near the canoe – ears and eyes straining in the dark of night. Our eyes turn to the sky. The starts are brilliant. We hop in the canoe and begin our foray upstream to the takeout. We slide past a few other late night anglers still tossing bugs to a few sporadic fish.  This fish are cruising now – covered by the safety of night as the Bois Brule succumbs to its reputation as a Night River.

Once we’re clear of those fisherman, we move to the middle of the river. Joe paddles steadily while I infrequently flash a halogen light to determine a bearing. We reach the wide open river down below Lucius Lake and douse the light – taking in the night and all its beauty. It’s a wonderful way to finish our time here.

– WiFly

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.

There are no words to describe the moment that a fisherman loses a big fish. One moment your rod is alive, trembling and bowing to the pull of the fish. You can feel that fish. Its weight. Its energy. It creates an intoxicating effect, the potency of which is strengthened by the compression of time. Then it’s over. He’s gone. A rushing vacuum of despair replaces the high-spiritedness of the prior moment. Then the moment is immediately relived in slow motion. The swirl of the fish. Rod lifted high. The flash of line. Reel whirring. The forcible halt. Deep tug. The sideways pull. Head shake. The line in retrieve. Sudden rush. The rod springs free. He’s gone. Silence. No words are spoken. Reflection. A new bit of information has been gleaned. Resilience. More than a bit of experience has been added to my arsenal. Resentment. I am struck by an excerpt from Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It: “I shall remember that son-of-a-bitch forever.”    – Paul Stillmank (a.k.a. WiFly)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

This year’s foray to the far northern reaches of Wisconsin is a short one, compressed by work and other obligations of life. The lost days have been stolen forever, never to be returned. The melancholy imposed by such forfeiture is made even more fervent because this is not just any trout river: it’s the Bois Brule. Fictitious in many ways, this river is only made real by experiencing the legendary firsthand here each year. And so this excursion must not be dampened by lost time. It must be celebrated. Yes, the proportion of time here is made irrelevant by the mystic effects of this place. We draw near the river in the low light of pre-dawn. Our senses are deeply stirred:  melodic sound of water harmonizing with wind in the trees; scent of water and woods; refreshing feeling of air and mist. We are transported to past years, past fish, and past memories.

The canoe scrapes along the gravel landing at Stones Bridge until the water lifts us to a silent drift. We feather our paddles, slipping between the currents that will carry us far down river. We’ll return here considerably later to disembark in the dark of night. For now, we drift quietly, listening to the sounds and taking in the beginning of a perfect day.

By mid-morning, the rain is light but steady. The float down river turns out to be a wet one. The water is tinted to a burnt umber – tannin seeping in from the soil beneath the cedar and pine forest. The aroma is heady and adds a calming effect. It has been a wet year. The river is at its highest level since we started fishing here back in 1997. This makes for an easy float, removing all trepidation of jarring the large granite sarsens that hide beneath the surface.

We start out with small streamers, casting them tight to the tag alder edges. A momentary pause lets the fly sink before it is retrieved in short, quick strips. This strategy pays off as our #8 PPB is rushed by many colorful brook trout.

A brown drake is spotted drifting in the current just below us. It takes flight untouched. A splashy rise downstream.  I reel in and switch to a brown drake emerger. We drift in silence, waiting and watching. The rain has paused. The surface of the water reflects black in the light of the overcast sky. The current is almost indiscernible even though we know it is flowing at about 120 CFS or more. I make a quiet cast. My brown drake drifts along, tracing the currents’ filigree where the tag alders break the water’s surface. A sudden flash! A brook trout rushes to the fly and smashes it before attempting to return to the safety of the root-wad below. I halt its retreat, turning it down river and working it to the far side of the canoe. Joe tosses me the net. This brookie is well above average.

The streamers seem to work the best in this stretch although we continue to see some brown drakes popping infrequently along the way – enticing a few more fly changes before we reach McDougal’s.

McDougal’s. I’m sure many people don’t know the reference, but some do. It’s a spring. We have marked its location along with many others on our personal river map. For us the river map is no longer needed. Notable landmarks mark the approach and arrival of the best places. We always pause at McDougal’s, aligning the canoe broadside in the river so that we can shoot flies far into its cold waters. The high water this year allows us to get our streamers further back into the base of the cedars that line the bank here – some of them appearing to dip into the water before bending skyward again. We tarry here for about an hour, having one of our better outings at this hole since we first started fishing this water. One of these piscatorial wonders even has fangs – something that we’ve never seen before.

Make sure to fish on the inside edges of downed trees that have fallen mostly into the river and then been pushed by the current to angle downstream. These are called “sweepers” and fish hangout on both the upstream and downstream side of them. Tucking a cast tight to the bank on the upstream side of a large sweeper occasionally results in an unexpected battle with a large brown trout or scrappy brook trout. This year we have a bit more depth for those flies. This year we’re getting hung up a lot less and we’re picking up more fish.

The rain has returned in a steady torrent now.  We hold up at one of the fisherman’s shelters. It’s mid-day so we sample a bit of food while our clothes dry in the rafters. Even our Filsons are soaked through – and that’s a first. We’ll have to remember to wax those this coming winter, returning their resiliency to resist water. We pass the time with a deck of cards while we wait for the rain to let up. It never does…

We paddle back upstream and conclude our day with an evening’s fishing near the wing dam that we fondly refer to as “brook trout wing dam”. Although many brook trout are taken here, the reward this evening is a fat, 15-inch brown trout. The charmed fly is one of my newly tied #8 white wulff’s with a deer-hair spun body. This fly floats very high and I’m pleased with the way it’s hackled. I’ll have to spin up several more of those for other Bois Brule adventures.

So our first day on the river is rewarding albeit wet. We arrive back at Stone’s Landing in pitch darkness and commence with the ceremonious cleaning and hoisting of the canoe. As we lift the canoe high, water rushes out from the gunnels and pours down my arms. I barely notice because I’m that wet. We head back to the cabin on Lake Nebagamon, put on some dry clothes, and head to a little bar called Bridges. We toast our damp day and its beautiful fish with dark beers and sausage pizza. We’ll be back out there tomorrow!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Today’s forecast is for the best weather day of the trip. The upper river is reasonably pleasant, treating us much better than yesterday. Joe works the canoe artfully along while I parry the edges of the river with streamers, emergers and dry flies. The sky is overcast and we hope to see some brown drakes hatch during the day again.

Mid-way through the various wing dams that mark the upper river, we see a very large mayfly crossing the water below us. But it’s not brown drake – it’s a Hex! The Hexagenia Limbata (a.k.a. the Hex) is the largest of mayflies and is well known for bringing up super-sized trout. Dimples of water are scattered below us; each one a Hex struggling to break through. One after another, they come forth. Many hatches normally reserved for evening have been known to come forth during a damp, overcast day. The Hex, however, hasn’t been one of them. It’s a first and I immediately change over to my own Hex pattern:

Hook: #10 3xL lite wire
Tail: 10 to 12 long moose mane fibers
Body:
Very fuzzy, roughed up yellow dubbing; tapered
Wing: Elk hair post
Hackle: Parachute style with two feathers – one barred ginger and the other a lighter cream.

This fly produces fish all the way down the river.

One exciting moment comes as we float through the stretch just above the largest wing dam. The river bends here just as the wing dam comes into view. A large, mid-stream boulder gives away its position with a rose-quartz crown cutting through the surface. Below the surface, an ancient piece of cedar timber is jammed into the base of this boulder. A small channel of water flows between the boulder and the tag alders that line the bank. All of this makes for a fish haven: there’s a fish rising between the boulder and the tag alders, another above the boulder, and yet another in the slot directly below the boulder. We actually marked this spot yesterday after taking a very nice brown trout rising to drakes in the rain (sorry – no picture).

The fish of note today is upstream of the boulder and tight to the tag alders – facing upstream. The tag-alder bank curves here creating an extended point. The water pours into the bank here sliding around the point and continuing downstream. This requires a curve cast to the left to present the fly. Our target fish is sitting in the spot right where the water collides with the bank.

The magic fly has all of my confidence and the cast is spot-on. An aggressive swirl engulfs the fly. It’s a size-able fish. I rotate my rod high and away from the tag alders, quickly getting him on the reel. This brute knows his way around the end of a leader, and muscles his way back into the tag alders, forcing me to over-play him. I pull the hook and he is gone. He is gone.

There are no words to describe the moment that a fisherman loses a big fish. One moment your rod is alive, trembling and bowing to the pull of the fish. You can feel that fish. Its weight. Its energy. It creates an intoxicating effect, the potency of which is strengthened by the compression of time. Then it’s over. He’s gone. A rushing vacuum of despair replaces the high-spiritedness of the prior moment. Then the moment is immediately relived in slow motion. The swirl of the fish. Rod lifted high. The flash of line. Reel whirring. The forcible halt. Deep tug. The sideways pull. Head shake. The line in retrieve. Sudden rush. The rod springs free. He’s gone. Silence. No words are spoken. Reflection. A new bit of information has been gleaned. Resilience. More than a bit of experience has been added to my arsenal. Resentment. I am struck by an excerpt from Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It: “I shall remember that son-of-a-bitch forever.”

We tarry here a bit and extract a few of the mid-stream trout; however none compare to the prizefighter that was hanging tight to the bank.

We float down to another favored stretch where Joe and I usually split up. I take “the circle hole” and he takes “the up and downs”. The “circle-hole” has stood the test of time for me. I caught my first size-able brown trout at this spot back in 1997. It was our first run down this river and there were three of us wedged into a single canoe. Our guide, Keith Behn, had the stern position. I was in the bow. And Joe held steady in the middle. Back then my only fly rods were a 7W and a 4W. I had the 4W strung up and ready to go. Our guide chastised me a bit for having a rod that was too dainty for this water. He strung up a 5W and brought it along for me; however, I was determined to use my own gear. The fly of choice seemed to be a #6 pass lake wet fly (peacock body with a calf-tail wing). Again, I was determined to use my own ties and I saw no reason not to fish my new creation: “Paul’s Polar Bear” or the PPB as we have come to know it.

Also a streamer, the PPB is a very effective fly. The body is heavily weighted with lead wire for the entire hook shank. Its silver, mylar body provides a bit of flash. Its wing is layered in polar bear, black bear and polar bear again. The head is built up with white thread which is tied off before a collar of red thread is used to imitate the flared gills of a bait fish. The PPB imitates the abundant dace in the Bois Brule. There are some nice publications by the Wisconsin DNR that are worth a read. “Fishes of the Bois Brule River System” not only recounts the trout, stealhead and salmon; it summarizes the abundant bait fish in this fishery. Also see  Aquatic insects of the Bois Brule River System by Robert B. Dubois.

So there we were – drifting along with our guide who kept telling me to be sure to use that large Pass Lake (I’m sure the fly produces). As we approached the Circle Hole, a violent rise occurred well off the port side of the canoe. Keith tells me it’s too far off to reach with my lighter rod; however, no sooner has he finished his sentence when I drop the PPB within two feet of that splash. Strip, strip, strip. Too say the strike was violent would be a gross understatement. I set the hook hard and the fight was on. The river bottom here is mostly scattered boulders and rocks. Eventually I got this monster on the reel as Keith hopped out of the canoe to net him – but not before a good fight on each side of the canoe. It was the largest brown trout that I had ever seen at this point. It had a deep, rich golden flank with lighter-colored radiances surrounding its black and red specks. It was beautiful. That fish (that trip) hooked me on the Bois Brule for a life time.

Back to 2010. Just below the Circle Hole is a stretch that Joe refers to as “the up and downs”, named for the varied river bottom that rises and falls like a sinusoid through this stretch. We beach the canoe on a little peninsula off the main river channel and Joe heads down into his dream water. I carefully, slowly, quietly wade out to the middle of my own.

The Circle Hole is not really a “hole” as most fly fisherman would define it. It’s not a deep piece of water with a head, pool and tail. Rather, it is a very wide bulge in the river that is created by the abundant springs entering the river from its southwest bank. The main spring coming in on the upper end of this stretch keeps what appears to be a backwater completely clear and free of algae. Its edges are lined with sticks, brush, and rocks creating a myriad of locations for trout to hide. The cold spring water flows through these spots on its way to join the main river. That current is critical to carry food to these skulking trout. I enjoy wading out to the center of this “circle” and target casting to the edges – tucking casts into difficult spots and stripping back quickly to entice strikes. Several fine-looking brook trout are caught and released. This is where I honed my casting accuracy over the years. Now I’m at the point where I can drop a fly back in the tag-alders along the river’s edge with near pin-point accuracy. That’s where the bigger fish have interred themselves while they wait for the evening’s banquet.

I work the perimeter of the circle hole before hopping back in the canoe and floating down through that snaky piece of water, overtaking Joe, and entering the water again three bends down. As I overtake Joe, he tells me he’s had a very nice brown trout lying beneath one of the over-hanging cedars. He says that fish are rising to something throughout this section. This piece of water has been very good to us in past years and we like to finish up an evening’s fishing here once a season. It’s actually the farthest we’ll come down if we plan to paddle back upstream to Stone’s Bridge at the end of a night – over a 90 minute effort in the shadowy night forest.

Joe eventually catches up to me and we continue our paddle. We’ve spent more time than we had planned to in the upper portion of the river. It’s easy to loiter about here, wafting flies to nice-looking spots among the currents. So we’ve no time to work the area around Cedar Island Estate. This is another wonderful spot for the astute fly-rodder. It offers a deep spring and wary Rainbows that come to the net only when the hatch is on and the river obliges. Instead, we decide to peruse the faster water down below in hopes of plummeting select pockets with our bead-head nymphs and heavily weighted stone-fly patterns. So we skip over the Dining Room Pool, slide beneath the Green Bridge and paddle on through Mays Rips, Big Twin Rapids and the numerous eddies, chutes, and s-curves that make the upper river so charming to the canoeist and fly fisherman. It’s particularly enjoyable with this high water. We examine the river here and there; however we do not stop again until we reach a favorite location for the evening’s affair.

Some severe weather is threatening. In fact we can hear the distance rumblings of Mother Nature as we paddle through Big Lake – a bit foreboding. We wonder what the evening will bring. Indeed. We are no sooner in position for the evening hatch when the owner of the boathouse at the tail of Big Lake comes down to warn us that the forecast is calling for inch-sized hail and 60 mph winds. And it will be on top of us in about 20 minutes! We gracefully decline an invitation to seek shelter right here and high-tail it off the river altogether (and just in time). We linger at the forest’s edge as the torrent unleashes. In the end, we decide to surrender the river to the treacheries of nature and head back to out cabin. Perhaps we should have lingered until that storm subsided. I’ve always been curious about the manner of insects and fish after a front like that moves through. However, a severe electrical storm is not something to second guess.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday starts out as a very bright day. We head into Superior for some breakfast and to visit the fly shop there: Superior Fly Angler. We need to pick up a few missing materials to tie up a few more PPB’s (3xLong #8 hooks and lead wire). There’s a pretty nice selection of materials here. We are delighted to see some locally tied fly patterns that mimic the native hatches.

We get on the river around 1 p.m.  Today we decided to walk in at the stretch between Big Twin Rapids and the fast water above Big Lake. Sucker Lake is in this stretch. The road is marked Anderson Road on one part of the Gazetteer, but then it becomes CCC farther south – also labeled Hilltop Road. Another adjacent road is labeled Francis Willard Road or Willard Road.   Right where the road bends from Willard to CCC there are two small areas to park. We should have been at the lot that’s further north, but chose to walk in from the southern one. The trail here is clear enough at first; however it disappears into heavy woods and thickets and we end up having to hack our way to the river in true Lewis & Clark fashion. We wade out to some prime water just upstream of Big Twin Rapids. Just as we ready to wet a line, a steady and torrential rain sets in – again!

Now this is a new definition of wet! We hunker down under a couple of the large cedar trees overhanging the rivers’ edge. Cedars have large, webby foliage and provide great accommodation in a situation like this. We’re kept completely dry – at first. The rain becomes so steady that the cedars eventually become soaked. Water seeps down from above, penetrating the lower branches and then falling in drops from the lower branches. Eventually, these steady trickles just find their way in. And then we’re soaked as well. I should note that we left our Filson Jackets behind on purpose this time. We want them dry for the evening. We’re not that far from the FJ and we decided that if we got wet, so be it. We can always hike out and put on some dry clothes later. So I’m wearing a gray t-shirt. Drip. Drip. Drip. Steady and relentless. My t-shirt gets completely soaked and then that water works its way down until eventually there is a good amount of water sloshing around in my waders.

The rain eventually lets up a bit, although not entirely. We’re already soaked through so light rain isn’t even a nuisance any more.  I work my way downstream through Big Twin Rapids, plummeting that fast water with big streamers and heavy weight. I like to think that I would have picked it over more carefully and thoroughly if I hadn’t been doing so in such conditions. I’m convinced that we can deep nymph some of these fast water slicks and dredge up a trout or two. I know we can.

The rain starts to let up right as we reach the head of Sucker Lake. We divide the lake between us. I take the east bank and Joe the west. The idea here is to cast our flies along the bank as we pick our way down stream. Joe hooks up with a couple of brook trout almost as soon as he begins casting. The east bank seems pretty fish-less despite some nice cover from tag alders. I’m over half way down the lake when I finally take a couple of small brook trout.

I stop to examine the spread of shoreline before me. My attention is drawn to a large cedar tree. Its on of those setups where the trunk bends down to greet the water before bending skyward again. Remember, it’s a high-water year this year. I’m fishing with a small streamer on a #10 3xL hook that is designed to look like a brook trout fry. I get off a good cast tight to this cedar tree right where it touches the water. I barely begin my retrieve when a more size-able fish just smashes it. I lift the rod high and it leaps completely out of the water. I get it on the reel and apply some pressure: another magnificent, floppy jump. We can both see that it is a rainbow. It measures over 12 inches at the net and is richly colored. Joe snaps off a couple of quick pictures to capture the moment and the fish.

After releasing that rainbow, I return to the exact same spot and continue to cast around that area before continuing to move down. Within a few more casts I am into a decent sized brook trout – almost 11 inches. This fish is also beautifully marked.

I pause to take in the scene. There is a blanket of fog misting over the river. It appears to be moving. Yes, it’s flowing in measure with the river – passing over us in waves as it moves downstream. It’s not eerie. It’s actually ethereal; adding motion to the landscape and deepening the experience.

We continue to follow the currents north along each bank as the lake starts to narrow to its outlet. On the east bank, the lake water pushes into what I can only describe as a corner before turning back to its narrows. It’s the northeast corner of the lake. I drive a long cast into the darkest water of the boulder strewn corner. An even bigger fish roles on my streamer and begins to fight. This fish is size-able; however it does not jump. Rainbows almost always jump whether in still water or rapids. This fish is a brown trout and decides to stay deep in his watery world to wage the battle. And a battle it is. It takes me a couple of attempts to get this fish to the net. We try to land our fish quickly here and sometimes a fish is not ready, making a determined run right at the net. Eventually I get him in. He is well over 15-inches long and plenty fat.

This ends up being the fish of the trip for me. I had one of similar size the other night on a hex bug. However to catch a fish like this during the day is special. It’s overcast right now, but also very bright. Very enjoyable.

So here I am with a “triple” on the east end of the lake: Rainbow, Brook, and Brown. All of good size. Joe’s had a few small fish, and as gracious as he is, he’s got to be thinking “what the heck?”  However within a couple of minutes, he hooks and lands a nice brook trout. So now it’s my turn to reel in a snap a photo of his catch. And no sooner have I waded back to my northeast corner when he strikes a monster fish. I can see the deep bend in his rod. Hell, it’s bent full over! It is a stalwart fight as this brute runs for wood and Joe tugs him back to open water. But this fish is determined to escape and does. He runs back into the sweepers on the west bank and when Joe attempts to once again horse him back to open water he pulls the hook. It’s a tough situation to be sure. How much pressure can you apply without applying too much?

We return to our respective quarters to continue our efforts when Joe calls out to me “hey, there’s something blue floating down behind you! What is it?”  I turn around and here comes a Coors Lite floating down the lake – probably from some people up river that flipped their canoe in the rapids.  It hasn’t been cracked and the top is bobbing above the water’s surface. I pick it up. Pfsh! And I have a little Coors Lite on the river. Pretty nice. The beer’s original owners soon appear working their way all over the river and the open lake area trying to retrieve their lost elixir. Heh.

So I continue to work my way down into that north east corner until it turns into that great run that leads into Big Lake. I carefully work my way across to the other side and begin to work the water below Joe. There’s a nice hole here; however the water is a bit fast and I’m not able to get the fly down deep enough before drag on my fly line becomes un-mendable. I’ll have to fish that again next year with something heavier. Or get closer to it, shorten up, and nymph it with a rig that lets me mend and snake a good fly down through there. A sinking line might be the trick as well – from above. Yes, there are many ways to tackle a spot like this.

In any case, as I start to fish the west side, Joe crosses the river and begins working over that north east corner. He fishes even farther back into the corner and takes another nice brown from over there. So now Joe’s now battling away in that corner and this time the quarry comes to hand – over 14 inches.

So we had quite a nice time on a lake that for some reason is called “Sucker Lake.” Perhaps it’s named this to ward off fisherman from a favorite spot. We certainly did not see any suckers on this trip. We had tremendous fishing here with each of getting “triples”: brook, brown and rainbow trout in a single outing.

Let me remind you that we are both completely soaked to the skin here. I still have the same amount of water (or more) sloshing around in my boots that I had when we worked our way down the lake this morning. Joe exits the river on the west bank and immediately spots the trail that we intended to take this morning. It’s quite a nice path that takes us all the way back and just north of where we walked in from this morning. So we return to the FJ, pull out the dry-bags and shed our wet clothes. It feels good to be warm and dry again. We peel open the sardines and Joe produces some corn bread muffins that he made yesterday. We crack open a jar of kalamata olives and break out some fresh musk melon. This isn’t exactly a meal we’d plan at home; however it seems like a feast fit for kings when we’re out here.

We get all of our gear reset and head to Stone’s Bridge. We’re bound for this evening’s hatch. There’s another notable fish on the float down. I am working the edges with that hex dun pattern described earlier. I drop it tight to the tag alders on the east bank near a dark piece of water. A really nice rainbow trout just smashes it and then leaps fully out of the water. We can both see its crimson side writhing in mid-air before it plasters the river in a magnificent splash. We both gasp as it runs into a tangle of roots and is lost. Silence. Reflection. Resilience. Resentment. Son-of-a-…   That seems to be more common on this trip, especially with these bigger fish. We’re trying to horse them back out of the wood and we end up popping the fly.

We finish up down below the big wing dam in a place that we usually don’t stop. We see spinners and duns in small numbers. We have some fish coming up, but not for repeated rises. So the hatch ends up being a bit of a non-event – although the weather is fantastic. There is a light breeze keeping the mosquitoes off. There is a light sky fueled by the moon hidden in the clouds. The bugs were there – flittering and struggling by in small numbers. We both take some fish. Joe lands a 10-inch brown trout early. He also hooks up with another sizeable fish that gives him the slip. I take a nice brook trout on my high floating White Wulff pattern. I also have one really nice fish take a slash at my fly – a new hex spinner that I came up with.  And that’s it. It’s a very enjoyable paddle back off the river. In fact it’s all you could hope for from a summer evening. Light breeze, no bugs, high water and we arrive at Stones Bridge around 11:30 p.m. There were only about four or five other canoes on the upper river tonight.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

It’s the last day of the shortest trip that we’ve ever taken here. “Charlie Murphy!” Joe shouts as he bursts forth from his bedroom. We spend the morning debating where and how to spend the day. We could float the upper river and finish up in the wing dams. We could hike back in at Sucker Lake and go back up without the pressure of the rain through those fast water sections around Big Twin Rapids and beyond. In fact, we could do the latter and still put in somewhere for the evening hatch – much like yesterday. Will it be the wing dams, Big Lake or the summer home section?

In the end, we decide to hike back into Sucker Lake and fish our respective positions of yesterday. And it’s a good thing too. Joe does quite well with a size-able brook trout and a size-able brown trout. That brown probably goest north of 18 inches and is replete with beautiful red spots spread out across its flank. It also has a nice corn-yellow belly on it. Those red spots radiate with lavender halos for a wraith-like effect. Very unique and certainly a different strain of brown trout than we are typically catching here.

Joe’s fly:
Hook: #10 2xL Nymph Hook
Tail: 8 to 10 pheasant tail fibers
Body: Burnt orange (almost ochre) dubbing and spiraled with flat tinsel
Throat: Brown hackle fibers
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed yellow and tied in the down position with the flat side up.

I take mostly brook trout with one going 10 inches. The north east corner that I chronicled yesterday is barren of fish. We hike out, lunch and then pack everything up to head to Stones Bridge. The sky is clear and we’re hopeful for some moonlight in the upper river this evening. Moonlight and Hexagenias!

We arrive at Stones Bridge around 7 p.m.  A man walks over to our canoe and examines my net. He says “you can send this in for re-finishing if you like.”  I say “are you Lloyd?” He responds “yes.” Lloyd owns LDH Landing Nets. I found him online many years ago and ordered three nets: my trout net, a steelhead net, and a long handled net for landing fish from the canoe.

They are all beautiful, functional art. So it was nice to meet him in person finally. I recall Lloyd emailing me photos of different types of wood. I selected the Curly Koa wood for my primary trout net. Lloyd also counseled me in the types of wood that could be used in that long handled net and still handle the weight of a nice fish. Walnut was the recommended choice. As we head down river, Joe notes how far I’ve come that I can walk into the Brule and meet the guy that made my nets; and then he notes that the boy that made his net is still living in Pakistan or Korea.

The evening is perfect. Darkness falls. The Whippoorwills sound off.  I’ll post a sound file of the Whippoorwills here later.

Well that’s a wrap on a Saturday night on the Bois Brule. I don’t even know what to call it. A flyer? It just didn’t come together.  A disappointing day for me; however Joe is more than pleased with his afternoon’s trout.

A reflection for next year relative to the Big Wing Dam – I am drawn to it mostly on the memory of that big fish that we caught while floating through there in the rain one day several years back. It’s a very difficult stretch to wade at night. It’s boulder strewn with nary a place to get a boot to the bottom. It seems we would have been much better off up near the brook trout wing dam. In fact, we’re starting to realize that other veterans of our craft, like Bemidji, are going after what they refer to as “the flats”. These are typically a bend or so down below the larger wing dams. Here, silt and sand have deposited making these stretches better hatch areas for the burrowing nymphs (hex and brown drake). And these stretches are very wade-able allowing for easier wading. In fact the stretch above the brook trout wing dam (and below it) has flats stretching for over 100 yards. Something to review for next here.

I’ll be out hitting the Hex hatch on some streams closer to home in the coming weeks.

I’m also planning a major expedition to Yellowstone this fall. I’ll post some links to pictures from that trip here as well.

Tight Lines!  ~WiFly~

Saturday, April 24th, 2010 – Spring is Sprung!

Father and Daughter – The Early Years

 

 “Many men go fishing all their lives without realizing that it’s not the fish they’re after.”  – Henry David Thoreau

That quote hangs in the lobby of the Fenmore Hills Motel beneath a photo of a man standing in a quiet stream, fly-rod in hand. Solitude. Reflection. Recuperation. Time-off to gather one’s self. Time to spend with the best of friends. Communing with nature. It isn’t the fishing: it’s what the fishing brings into our lives. This picture of my daughter and I when she was about 9 years old will become a family heirloom no doubt. It is a reflection of the non-fishing part of fishing: time together.
Spring is here in Fennimore. Signs are everywhere. Newly born calves. Robins building their nests. Red-winged Black Birds defending their turf. I’ll be here for four glorious days. That’s just enough time to settle in a bit and feel like I’m a part of the place. As I drive down these old county-trunk roads listening to Van Morrison, it strikes me why I enjoy coming here so much. I feel free here. I feel like me here. This is me.

The forecast for today had been for electrical storms. I thought I might have to spend the day hunkered down tying flies. The lightening, however, never arrives. The rain is light. The game is afoot!

I head for a favorite spot in the woods. Rain seeps down through the trees. It’s wet out here. It’s a light, steady rain. The trees collect water into larger, more substantial raindrops that fall from budding leaves. The sound of these large raindrops dappling the forest floor creates an enchanting sonata of water that seems to be in agreement with the flow and rhythm of the nearby stream. I pause to listen. This is a perfect place.

I am going after that particular fish that I like to revisit from time to time. Or at least the spot where I know a larger trout resides. I watch the river intently. The surface is dimpled with raindrops, sometimes hitting the water so hard that a little bubble pops up from below and drift downstream. The water is not as clear as it was in March. Rain has a way of making these green rivers green.

I find myself walking more quietly along these smaller streams. Not setting down heavy footsteps. I’m taking a very casual walk and putting each foot down softly, deliberately. I read many years ago that “a heavy foot makes for a lighter trout.” We know that the lateral line of the trout is a sensory organ; that it is used to perceive prey underwater. So the vibration of a heavy foot along the bank can also be detected by these larger fish (large fish have larger lateral lines) and give them reason to be more wary or just plain gone.

OK, here’s the setup. I’m fishing my 4-Weight (4W) Z-Axis Sage rod today. This one does not get the workout that my SLT Sage does – also a 4W. I love that rod. However today, I purposely focused on some different rods to give them a try. I’m fishing a #12 Elk Hair Caddis trailed with a #16 scud with a flashy back. That dropper is about 24 inches.

I toss the rig up into a nice foam line. Foam lines are important to target. Wherever the currents are accumulating foam on the surface of the water, you can be sure they are accumulating drifting insects in the water below. That concentration of bugs is where you’ll find the fish. It takes the addition of a micro-split shot to the dropper to eventually tease two small brown trout out of the shadows.

I walk upstream a few bends into tighter quarters. I have never fished up here before. I come to a spot that is somewhat more open as I turn and face back downstream. There is a pair of large, flat, limestone ledge-rocks jutting out into the stream here. They make a perfect casting platform. I kneel down on the lower stone, concealing myself. A simpler rig can be used here. A bead-head pheasant tail (PT) nymph. There is a small sweeper on the far bank worn away to the point that it looks like drift wood. I cast my PT downstream and feed out some line. As it reaches the downed timber, I mend my line into the current on the right which lets the fly swing down into that woody area. Bang! A nice, colorful 10-inch brown trout.

I switch to a slightly larger, heavier wet fly. Black body. Black bead. A couple of turns of webby, black hackle around the collar. “Dark day, dark fly.” The next fish is an 8-inch brook trout – the first that I have ever caught on this water. This motivates me to explore a few more pools upstream, tossing off a few “bow and arrow” style casts that pay off with small brown trout as well. The next time I come here, I will bring my 3W rod or my 7-foot 4W. These are more appropriate for fishing these tight, woody areas.

~ WiFly ~

Saturday, April 24th, 2010 – Favored Water

So now I’m off to a more than favored stretch of river; however this time I choose to walk downstream and well below my usual haunts. I am no more than two bends into it when I see some perfect riffle water. The stream is 40-feet wide here and the river chops along a steady clip for about 60 yards. I rig up a bead head prince nymph and cast it to the far bank, letting it swing in a downstream arc through the current. When it reaches the bank below me, I strip it back in along that quieter water. Several nine to ten inch fish are taken here. Fun.

Further down, I come to a spot that I shared in one of last year’s blog posts. It is a deep, deep pool at the tail of a nice, fast run. The head of that run is a furious torrent as the river takes a hard right bend. Water pours into the bank as it turns downstream.  With the long riffle and a nice rock garden just above, this all adds up to bug factory for the fish down below. I rig for deep water. The foam line here is more than obvious. I deliver a cast to the middle of the pool, mindful to work the lower stretch and then work my way up. Nothing. Another cast. Nothing. I stay in my current position, stripping out more line. The next cast just reaches the end of the tongue – the top of the pool. The brown trout flashes gold as it rolls on my fly. This one fights hard and makes stalwart efforts to stay on the far bank.  It is the first of five fish taken here. Each one flashes gold deep in the pool. Each one goes the full opening of my net. Each one is a treasure.

I finish off the day up in “Daniel’s  Hole,” picking up fish all along the way. Daniel’s hole delivers a solid brown trout with some nice shoulders on him as well.

~ WiFly ~

Sunday, April 25th, 2010 – Chocolate Water

Somehow I lost track of the fact that the early season closes tomorrow. In Wisconsin, the water is rested for a week after the early season and before the regular season. That presents a problem that can only be solved by a jaunt into Iowa where the season will still be open. I’m excited about the prospect of new water. That, however, is for Monday and there is time to be spent here first.

Last night I laid down to take a quick rest at 6:30 p.m. and did not wake up until 4:30 a.m.  Fresh air and a long day in the field have a way of doing that. I needed the rest! I spent this very early morning getting my blog posts up to date as I was still behind from last year.

It’s worth noting that Fenmore Hills Motel has outstanding wireless service: better than some big-city hotels that I’ve stayed in recently. Thanks Dale! This makes it nice for blogging, uploading media . . . and researching Iowa a little bit online. I check out some local TU blogs while figuring out where to go on Monday and Tuesday. Dale also tells me that Prairie Du Chien has a Cabela’s, where I can pick up my Iowa fishing license, Iowa gazetteer, and anything else I need.

Breakfast is at Friederick’s on the corner of Hwy 61 and Hwy 18. It’s an excellent place. Remember to bring cash or your checkbook though – Friederick’s does not accept any kind of plastic. That’s all right with me since the food is outstanding.

It’s all of 11:00 a.m. by the time I get to my first stop today: Castle Rock Creek. I am disappointed to see that the weather has put this water in a bad state for fishing – it’s chocolate brown. Castle Rock Creek is an excellent spring creek; however it does not respond well to rain like many of the other rivers in the area. I walk up to where the big spring flows in – it looks surreal to see the crystal clear spring water swirling around in the chocolate water of Castle Rock.

I decide to stay, “man up”, and drag a black, cone-head muddler through these murky waters. Sometimes the only way to see if something will work is to try it. The rain is relentless and despite my stanch efforts, I walk away without a trout. I shall return Castle Rock Creek – in early summer when the rains are gone and your waters run clear.

I wrap up to day with a bit of photography and a stop by the Spurgeon Winery to pick up some Cranberry Wine before heading off to Cabela’s to get ready for tomorrow. While I’m there, I pick out a new toy for Gabe: a play set with a canoe, a kayak, paddles, a tiny fishing rod with a functional reel, two fish and a small net. We’ll play with that in the kitchen sink as soon as I get back – no doubt!

~ WiFly ~

 

Monday, April 26th, 2010 – Go West Young Man . . . to Iowa

The town of McGregor sits across the Mississippi River from Prairie Du Chien. It’s under an hour’s drive from Fennimore. Once the main highway is left behind, Iowa becomes a labyrinth of gravel roads, limestone bluffs towering overhead. These winding roads lead the way to two choice rivers that more than reward the effort to explore them.

The first river is blue ribbon quality water: riffles chuck full of bugs leading into deep, aquamarine pools. There are fish rising to a #16 caddis hatch in almost every calm flat. I can only presume that the caddis are of the species Rhyacophilla since every rock has one or more cases for that caddis larva – also referred to as “green rock worms.”

I cover quite a bit f ground, taking several fish along the way, before coming to a second barbed wire fence. It’s a bit difficult to get past this one, but it’s manageable. This next section has been posted by the DNR: All fish, 14-inches or larger, must be immediately released; artificials only.

No sooner am I clear of that barbed wire than I come to the first tongue of water leading into a deep pool. Standing on a high bank looking down from the broken, crooked tree that overhangs here, I can see a large school of fish finning in the depths. It is the first school of fish like this that I have seen here. They are, of course, trout.

A few more bends down from here and I come to an exceptional piece of water. There is a riffle that cruises around a bend. There are also some rocky shoals that are also pouring water into the head of this run. There is a big, deep pool with a clear foam line. And there are fish rising here as well. The small caddis again. I decide to go all the way to the top – to the fish that is rising there. A dry fly of course. It is not an aggressive rise; however, it delivers a 16+ inch, brown trout! Wow.

I sit down to reflect on what just happened. That water was so clear that as I played that trout, I could see every twist of its body. As I spooled up my extra line, he just kind of sat there cruising. I thought, “that’s not my fish; where’s my fish?”  When I lifted the rod, that fish lifted its head. So he was just kind of cruising back and forth in the pool quite comfortably as I reeled in the extra line. Then we fought.  I could see everything as I played him in this clear water. Extraordinary.

This fish went 16-inches and I am surprised to see a larger brown trout rising to such small dry flies.  We know the bigger hatches of brown drakes and hexagenias reliably bring brutes like this to the surface; however, brown trout usually become dusk and night hunters as they grow larger – stalking small fish.  It takes an overcast day like this to really get on them during the day. I guess it somewhat depends on the river and what’s available. This is a spring creek to a large degree – and I am sure it throws off a wide range of hatches on a regular basis. It must to grow fish like this.

This is a solid piece of water. Time to find another.

I head over to the tributary of a different river. It’s less than a 40 minute drive. This creek is not that much smaller than the water I was just fishing.  I stop to examine a riffle for insect life and I am stunned to see one of the best aquatic environments that I have examined in some time. Mayflies. Caddis. Cress Bugs. There are a wide range of mayflies in every size and color: brown, black and olive. I turn over a 6-inch by 6-inch rock and it must have 100 nymphs on it! This is an insect factory. Light is beginning to wane, so I work the pool above the riffle first. There are fish rising up there to an evening caddis emergence.

As I walk toward the bend, I immediately start sizing up the trees. Can I get a good cast through here? It looks like it. I have a tandem rig. Two hydropsyche larva – a larger one trailed by a smaller one. There is a deep, dark slot up here along a limestone bluff. I catch about half-a-dozen browns with one going 14-inches.

Iowa. It has been here the whole time. And these rivers are within an hour or less of McGregor – some within an hour of Fennimore. I’ll be back!

 ~ WiFly ~

 

 

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!