Friday, June 5th, 2009

After much debate, here I am back in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: just had to float that river! New water always seems to entice – it’s the unknown. I’m traveling with my good friend Barb Theisen who agreed to join me, be my second paddler, and help shuttle the canoe. Unfortunately Barb doesn’t espouse the generally accepted principles of a fly fishing life – as the book A River Runs Through It surmised, one should never be late for three things: work, church and fishing! And so Barb rolls into my drive way sometime, oh let’s say “before noon” to be respectful. And then just to add to the overall ambiance of this particular excursion, sometime before we arrive in Iron River, Michigan, she announces that she doesn’t have her fishing license! So we track down a Walmart  – the last place that I want to set foot in when I am thinking about a wilderness excursion – and get legal. Hey Barb! Did you know that you can get your license online (Wisconsin and Michigan) – from the comfort of your own home BEFORE you get on the road?

We also stop by Town & Country Ford to pick up a rental car so that we can shuttle the canoe. Throw a gas-up into the mix and it’s all of 6:30 p.m. already. The light is fading fast. At least we might be able to get over to Cooks’ Run or the Paint River tonight if we’re lucky. Above all though, we’re here! It feels good to be back out with a good friend in pursuit of trout.

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

The next morning finds us examining the water at the bridge upstream from the place that I fished last week. This bridge is named for its distance upstream from the Forest Road crossing down below. A 10 mile float is a long one when there are trout to be extracted along the way, so we better get moving!  Hopefully we’ll get off the river before dark; we have our headlamps in tow if that’s what’s needed.

An Upper Peninusula Trout Stream

Well as I said, “we” are here “on the river”. When I say, “we”, I mean Barb and I. When I say “on the river”, I mean that I am sitting in my canoe tied up to shore while Barb futzes around stringing up her rod at the boat landing. So my feet are wet, but my spirit is damp as I am once again forced to wait for Barb! She is clearly still in withdrawal from work, so I finally get up to help her complete the process. Let’s take a look at her setup: she will be fishing with a plastic-coated, cork handle on a 7-weight rod with the reel on backwards! OMG! We’ll have to see how she does today. It’s probably worth noting that Barb is more than a proficient and well-accomplished fly-rodder. What she is doing with this rig on this river will forever be one of the great mysteries of my fly fishing career. You can probably tell that I also like to pick on Barb from time to time. 🙂

We finally push off. Amazingly, we are no more than 20-feet down the river when Barb notes a place where she would like to get out and fish!!  I tell her that we cannot fish by the damn put-in and at last we head down river…

Stopping Off for Lunch

Our float is a memorable one. We don’t tag any big browns, but we would hardly expect to during the day. We moved some nice schools of brook trout – some with good size. We even took a couple of very respectable 13-inchers along the way. The general routine became to pull off when we entered the head of a long sweeping bend. We would beach the canoe in the shallows or sandy bank of the inside bank.  Then we would creep along that sand bank and drift our nymph rigs down into the depths of the dark water on the opposite side. We took fish on dead drifts, Leisenring lifts, and by swinging wet flies.

The water clarity is like few rivers that I have seen. We can see some fish suspended in the water before us like they are floating air. That clear water permits a fine examination of what lies beneath: a sandy bottom with a range of rocks, boulders and timber throw in. This sandy bottom provides  just what the burrowing Ephemerella species of mayflies love. The brown drake hatch here must be spectacular. That will drive me craaaaazy for the next couple of weeks as there will be no opportunity to return during that time. We see the same trout insects that we saw last week including that #12 parachute pattern and Bead Head Prince in sizes #10 and #12.

There are no rapids in this stretch of river. It is mostly a smooth ride winding through the Hiawatha National Forest in a serpentine fashion with some tight turns thrown in as we pick our way through with a bit of canoe craft. Overall, this is a very enjoyable float with some nice wade-able stretches.

There was at least one fish that we failed to photograph that will forever haunt me (one of many I’m sure). Not because of its size, but because of its unusual markings. It was silver with the vermiculate marking of a brook trout; however it was more silver in the sides and had black flecks running throughout its flank. The only thing that I can find that matches the markings are those of an Atlantic salmon – and this was no Atlantic salmon. This is not the first time this camera has missed its mark – something wrong with the shutter release button and time to retire it. This “speckled trout” is burned into my mind, so I will have to work a little harder to identify it, or return here and sample another next year…

~ WiFy ~

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Tuesday, May 28th, 2009. WiFly has decided to “hop the border” and make an excursion or two into the U.P. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan will always and ever be more than just an adjunct to Wisconsin for me, but more of an appendage: an essential component that makes the overall experience more whole. It offers the remoteness of the mountains swathed in a range of blue ribbon water fine enough to satisfy the passion of even the most particular of anglers. And all of this a mere 4 to 8 hours away depending on your final destination.

It’s Tuesday, May 28th, 2009 and I’m off to a bit of a slow start. Rain has set in and I have yet to determine my final destination. When in doubt, head to Escanaba! It’s about 230 miles and 4 ½ hours of driving (counting a couple of quick pit stops). Once I arrive and unload some gear, I drive along the banks of the Ontonagon. My brother-in-law Chuck told me about a spot below the Bony Falls reservoir, but I simply can’t find the place.   I know I’m close and may even have found it; however the dam is open and it’s a veritable torrent down through there –completely un-fishable.

I spend the evening back in Escanaba pecking away on a couple of blog entries over a few beers – aah heaven.

Wednesday, May 29th, 2009. I pour over my maps the next morning trying to decide whether I should drive another 5 hours. There is the  East Branch of a river tucked into the far northern reaches of Lower Michigan that holds some remarkable brook trout. After much debate, I decide that it’s time to get out of the FJ and get into the water. I head to an old favorite. It’s almost a 2-hour ride from Escanaba, so I still have a little bit of a drive. In fact, Iron River would make a better jumping -off point if you’re focused on rivers like the Paint, Cooks Run, and more. Crystal Falls also has some suitable digs. I set up shop in Escanaba because it is more central to my grander plan to work my way northeast on this trip as well.  The main branch of the river that I will be fishing is a fine trout stream; however I’m eager to start up in the West Branch where I recall struggling to reach some rising fish the last time I was here. They were probably brook trout. I was working the edge of a large beaver pond and the water was too deep to reach them – or my cast was too short! With the canoe in tow, I’m sure that I’ll to be able to address situations like this with more success.I stop to look things over on the main branch at one of its few crossings.

One of the Few Crossings

It’s a favorite spot and it feels good to be back here. This main section has become more and more accessible over the past dozen years or so. The first time we slogged it back in here, it took all of the muscle that our stout 4-wheeler could muster to propel ourselves through the deep ruts left behind by the logging trucks that frequent these trails. It’s still a remote piece of water, but not to the degree it used to be. In fact, I floated this stretch back in 2005. It was a trip to remember as I frayed a muscle in my rotator cuff while trying to lower/slide my canoe down a short, fast drop in the river by using a set of ropes. There are a number of drop-offs like this downstream of here – not big enough to be noted on a map, but surely big enough to respect when approaching them in a canoe. I walked the canoe down a few fast pieces of water and I dragged it around at least one. But when I came upon the boisterous remnants of an old dam, it seemed reasonable to feed the canoe down by rope and then hike/wade the edges to go below and retrieve it below. That first float ended up being more exploratory with little time devoted to fishing – especially after that injury. I look upstream from the recently repaired logging bridge – there are some nice foam lines here and a sparse mayfly hatch is already bringing up some smaller fish, probably brook trout.

Looking Upstream From Logging Train Bridgee

The hatch is slowly increasing in intensity – it is about a #12 Ephemeralla-subvaria. This mayfly is imitated so well by the much admired Hendrickson pattern. The “Hendrickson” was popularized by Roy Steenrod who named the fly for his good friend A.E. Hendrickson back around 1918 while they sat on the banks of the Beaverkill – or so the story goes. It is one of the larger mayflies and there is nothing like a big bug to bring up some fish. I’ve also come to appreciate the ability to see and track that bigger fly on the water as I have gotten older – especially when I’m casting a bit farther with a leader that’s a bit longer to take a fish that’s a bit wary!

Ephemerella subvaria (Photo by Jason Neuswanger)

This hatch occurs from about mid-May to the middle of June up here. Although the Hendrickson fly imitates a range of mayflies of the genus Ephemerella, this river’s bugs are most likely to be of the species invaria (sulphur) and subvaria (Hendrickson). These mayflies are often confused with the Mahogany Duns that hatch during the same period, which are a bit smaller (#16) and whose genus in this neck of the woods is more likely to be Paraleptophlebia, Heptagenia or Isonychia.

Isonychia – Mahogany Dun (photo by Jason Neuswanger)

These look VERY similar to the untrained eye. One clear, identifying factor is that the Ephemerella mayfly duns have three tails while the Isonychias have two. It’s a lot easier to distinguish the nymphs than it is the adults, although the nymphs both have three tails! I see some small fish rising, both above and below the bridge. I love standing well above a river like this and watching trout come out of nowhere to snatch an insect – flashing to give away their sub-surface position. These look to be smaller fish from their behavior: darting around as opposed to holding in a particular spot and steadily rising. Or is that more the nature of a brook trout, with their splashy rises? In the time it takes me to assemble my fly rod and tie on a fly, the hatch has swung into high gear – its intensity going up multiple orders of magnitude. There are hundreds and hundreds of bugs coming off steadily and the trout are fully turned on now. I’m heading downstream to have some fun.

Ephemerella Subvaria (L) and Isonychia (R) – (photoa by Jason Neuswanger)

There’s no trail here and quite a bit of undergrowth. I pick my way along being careful to watch the ground-cover for signs of a bog. A large patch of forget-me-nots is something to watch for – they are a true “bog plant” and thrive in aquatic environments.

The marsh marigolds are in full bloom. I have always been partial to them, associating them with the euphoric solitude of a spring day on the water.

Marsh Marigolds (photos by Paul Stillmank)

I sneak downstream through the woods, coming about face as I enter the river. As I get in position, I am reminded that I will need Deet tonight – the mosquitoes have arrived!

Mayfly Dun tied by Paul Stillmank

I catch and release several 7- to 8-inch, female brook trout – beautiful and delicate. The blue halos surrounding their spots seem iridescent as I lift each from the water. I’m using my biot-bodied parachute #14 that worked so well up near Cecil, Wisconsin – it is a great imitation for the Ephemerella Subvaria, although I use it is smaller sizes to imitate the Stenonema Vicarium (March Brown) as well.

I take several more small fish before stopping to examine the area for a larger target. There appears to be nothing of true size rising here. Nonetheless, I spend an hour or so before heading on.

Delicate and Beautiful

I finally arrive at the West Branch. It makes for an interesting foray up stream: I’m barely around the first bend when I come upon a beaver dam that is impassable. I almost swamp the canoe trying to get it positioned on the other side – It’s a very large dam! I paddle on, returning just before dusk…

…Well, what can I say about the West Branch?  To sum it up in one word: beavers! There are beavers here . . . there are beaver huts, and there are countless beaver dams. They block the access of the canoeist paddling upstream. They thwart the downstream canoeist with small spill ways and sticky places to work over. I read that in the mid-90’s this was a fantastic brook trout fishery. I would have thought that the Michigan DNR would have taken better care of it! Back in Escanaba, I review my maps again. Is it possible that I should have been on the East Branch? It’s nice to know that I am still putting in my time!

East Branch (L) and West Branch (R) Beavers busy making sticky places

Beavers busy making sticky places

Thursday, May 30th, 2009. I take a leisurely morning of it, reserving myself for fishing into the evening. I head out around One O’clock with my mind bent on grabbing some grub before I head east. Lo and behold as I’m driving along on Ludington Avenue, I come across a little shop called “Gram’s Pasties” – right across from the UPS store there. I remember these beef pasties from up here – they’re fantastic. I’m offered a choice of a plain beef pasty, beef with rutabaga, or beef with rutabaga & carrot. I’ll have two, thank you very much! I go with the plain beef and the rutabaga & carrot – enough for lunch and dinner today.

A drive so pretty, I could take it every day

I make my way east and north to The River. I found it several years ago and although I can’t fully remember the details, it must have really struck me back then – I took the time to secure complete topographical maps of its full length. My drive takes me north on a long forest road – a drive so beautiful that I would take it every day if I could.

When I get to the bridge crossing my choice river, it strikes me as Hemingway trout water. Unbelievable. I gear up and head upstream. I hike along a path on the southern bank. The river lies below me to the right, about a 20 foot drop. The trail is very well groomed, being five or six feet wide and clearly used by horses. I walk as far as I can while still leaving myself a few hours to fish. I can always hike out in the dark. It’s beautifully wild and mysterious here. I am going deep into a forest to fish a new trout river – extraordinary.

As I continue deeper into the forest, I am reminded that there are wild animals in the U.P. including black bear. I come across a pair of logs that are clearly broken apart and scavenged by a bear looking for insects to eat. I recognize those markings from my wanderings in Yellowstone. I remind myself to keep my eyes and ears open. Moments later, my heart is pounding at its full capacity! A white tail deer comes charging directly at me on the trail at a full gallop, veering off less than 30 feet away. I have to tell you that if it had been a bear, it would have been curtains. I scarcely had time to get my stomach back down from my throat let alone time to think about dodging off the trail or fighting! Whew! It only took a few minutes before I began to wonder why that deer was running…or what it was running from…

Flowers of the Forest Floor

This forest is rich with sights and colors – from small, fragile flowers along the ground floor to towering pines with their heady, Christmas bouquet.

At one point, the forest gives way to a small glade filled with sun before picking up again. The sunlight feels noticeably warmer than the shadowy forest. I am overwhelmed by this forest, this path, this river….and I haven’t even fished it yet!

I finally step into the river about another mile upstream and it is absolutely delightful: tannin colored water; sand, gravel, and cobblestone bottom; boulder strewn. The brook trout here are fat little square tails with very stark vermiculate markings – striking.  There are several light colored Hendrickson #12’s flitting about and there are a few caddis on the water as well.

U.P. Brook Trout Caught by the Author

The hatch picks up, but there are no fish rising. Why? This is super trout water. Perhaps an earlier, more prolific hatch occurred and the fish are gorged. I have actually experienced this first hand before. One time, my brother and I were fishing in the Two Hearted drainage and a hatch of truly large Brown Drakes came off – not Hexagenias, but Drakes. Brook trout were rising everywhere. The fishing was good. Then it all stopped. Not the hatching, but the feeding. The hatch continued for some time, but the fish stopped rising. Completely. Big bugs drifted by – a flotilla of them. The trout were down – presumed to be gorged on these big, meaty insects that continued to come off all the way back to the point where we had gotten on the water. And that was a long way!

I continue to work my way back toward the bridge and then pause there in the dark to gather my thoughts. I’ve caught a handful of brook trout – mostly on a PPB. I’m not sure where the brown trout are – I have to presume that they are out cruising the depths now, which is more their way. I had switched over to a cone-head muddler for a period of time as I tried to plummet the depths for a bigger fish; however the depth of the water had me concentrating more on staying dry than fishing. This is really deep water and even though the reading material says that it’s 85% wade-able, I’d put it closer to 50% at this time of year. I’m a bit damp, but not soaked, from working some deep spots. This absolutely merits further investigation and I’ve got to believe that this would bring up some much bigger fish during the more sizeable hatches of early summer: Hexagenia-limbata (“the Hex”) and Siphlonurus – occidentalis (Gray Drake) are reported to inhabit these waters as well. This River is nothing short of mystifying. The level of fish it holds I can only guess at.

As my eyes lift to look upstream, the soft periwinkle glow beyond the pines hints at the fact that the sun has slipped below the horizon just a short time ago. Birds call out triumphantly – perhaps exuberant in their own feast on the hatches at end of the day.  This is a river that needs to be explored in a canoe I think. Perhaps later this summer. Or perhaps during mid-June of next year at a time when the bigger hatches reign. Yes, I think I’ll return here to float this river and see what it has to offer.

Friday, June 1st, 2009. Well, I’m on my drive back to Milwaukee – very hard to leave that Indian River behind and I wonder what other undiscovered gems that I might have spent time exploring. However, I truly miss my family and my mind is bent on the weekend and our spring garden plan.

I spent last night looking for some Guinness, but never found any. I wanted a Guinness and a pizza; however when I stopped by several small pubs, they were no longer serving food as it was already past 10 p.m. In fact, it was already pushing midnight. And, of course, I wasn’t going to find a pizzeria serving Guinness. Along the many stops I made, someone referred me over to Mueller’s Pizza on Main Street – I believe that was Ludington Avenue yet – in the middle of the downtown district of Escanaba. It became a very entertaining evening once the bars started to close at 2 a.m.  People started to roll into Mueller’s. Everybody to the individual was completely drunk except for me. I had some very entertaining conversations including one with a guy named Joe (of all names) who tried to convince me to buy Mueller’s Pizza from “Nick The Greek” as he referred to the owner. He spent most of the evening coaxing me in that endearing dialect that is so much the U.P.

So I spent the wee hours chatting with those folks and rubbing elbows with the locals. It was quite good. I got back to my lodging around 4 a.m. and took a full night’s rest – packing it up before noon and getting on the road. On the drive back, I had to mull over my “challenge” for the rest of this season. I absolutely love this river, but I am already anticipating an old favorite in the Nicolet National Forest this next week. However, I realize that I have yet to wet a line on Timber Coulee Creek this year. Do I go back to St. Croix County and fish the new sections we discovered there? And what about the new tributary water we fished out that way? There were some pretty nice sized fish there. I haven’t really gotten north of Highway 10 yet either – between the Hunting River, the Prairie River and the Wolf River – and with the U.P. in the mix, it’s difficult decide where to spend this next weekend. The Bois Brule trip is coming at the end of June and I have another down weekend to spend with the family before that trip. So I have some thinking to do before deciding where to spend what looks to be one of the last weekends that I will be able to spend in the field. There’s so much water and so little time…

There probably is not a more varied stream in SW Wisconsin than the Big Green River. Pasture Land with open room to cast. Wooded sections with overhanging limbs, downed timber and under cut banks. Fast and tumbling. Slow and silty. Deep and boulder strewn. Sandy in spots. Browns and Rainbows are the fare here and they do not dissatisfy. From the big rainbows down around Cty Tk K and Cty Tk T to the leaping browns at Collins Road, Spring Valley Road and Big Green River Road, this is stream that never disappoints us.

It is no surprise then that we are headed to the Big Green for the first trout trip of 2009. It is Saturday, April 18th. My daughter Caitlin and I drove into Fennimore last night so that we could be here to make an early morning of it. We are here to look over the Big Green River and either confirm or dispel reports that seasonal spring torrents have blown out the Big Green rendering it less than fishable.

This should be a nice father-daughter outing. The usual antics that attend our outings are left behind with my brother Joe who is not able to pull himself away to join us. Or so I think. You can imagine my complete surprise this morning when I wandered outside to discover an empty parking lot. Where is my truck? I had just hopped out to run back inside and retrieve my digital voice recorder. Caitlin knew I was coming right back. I was literally gone for less than a minute. What the hell. I left the keys in the car. Now I think the worst – has Caitlin been abducted right here on Highway 18? In fact, Caitlin pulled a fast one by hustling the FJ Cruiser well out of view leaving me to stand there to wonder what just happened. The little prankster! She rolls with laughter as we head up Cty Tk K.

Big Green River - Map 1

Big Green River – Map 1

We arrive at the bridge on Collins Road at 9 a.m. It’s a little later than we intended since Caitlin slept in a bit. The red-wing black birds call out as we walk toward the bridge to examine the water. Our shadows cut through the deep, green pool right below the bridge. The water is glassy smooth with a course of foamy bubbles breaking the surface. There are a few trout finning behind some rocks here.

About 40 feet below the bridge, the river takes a 45 degree bend to the right as it goes through a very shallow riffle. Another 100 feet below that, and it bends back to the left at a small tree (more of a bush) that is leaning over the river. As the river turns this corner, it makes a beautiful seam, pushing water into the far bank. There is a squared-off boulder sitting well above the water just before the river gets to the next tree. There is a beautiful seam from the tail of that riffle to that squared-off boulder and fish can be taken on both sides of this seam. Further downstream I see that the river takes a sweeping bend to the right before disappearing from view.

Looking Down Stream From Bridge at Collins Road

Looking Down Stream From Bridge at Collins Road

Upstream of the bridge, there is a shallow mud flat that gives way to that deep pool filling up the gorged out space below the bridge. Directly below the bridge and to the right, there are some nice sized rocks with several respectable trout sitting along the rock ledge. They quietly drift into the dark water perhaps sensing our presence. There is a nice foam line leading right to the spot that they just vacated – I will remember that. About 50 yards upstream, the river bends to the left and I can just see the first shallow riffle at the top of the bend dumping into a small bathtub-sized pool. I have fished this stretch many times. I remember near the beginning of my fly fishing days back in the early 90’s, walking along this bank above the bridge and stepping on a spot where a gargantuan trout – a 20-inch class brown trout – drifted out from below the undercut bank and disappeared beneath the bridge. That fish has always fascinated me about this spot and it is part of the charm in returning here now.

We decide to head downstream to that first nice seam just below the riffle water. On the way, we stop and spend a good hour in the riffle examining the insects. We turned over various rocks and saw lots of cress bugs – some going from as big as #10 and all the way down to #16. There were mayflies writhing about by the hundreds under some rocks and most of those were in the #18 size and smaller. We did find some caddis larva including both rhyacophilla (aka green rock worm) and hydropsyche. These last two bugs are some of my favorites to tie and we spent some time photographing them. They were consistently in the size 14 range. Caitlin found one particularly nice specimen of rhyacophilla and we got some exceptionally nice photos as it came out of its pebble/rock case when we turned the rock over to examine it.

Examining Insects in Riffle below Collins Road Bridge

Examining Insects in Riffle below Collins Road Bridge

Cress Bug

Cress Bug

Rhyacophilla (aka Green Rock Worms) in Cases

Rhyacophilla (aka Green Rock Worms) in Cases

Matching the Hatch - Hydropsyche Larva

Matching the Hatch – Hydropsyche Larva

We wrappep up in the riffle with a short video that shows how rich this river is in terms of aquatic insects:

Once we completed our little acquatic study, we headed down stream and fished that nice piece of water below the riffle. We hooked a few and landed one here. The smaller trout are more difficult to land: they don’t have much weight to them and when they dart all over the river, they slip off.

Another Big Green River Brown

Another Big Green River Brown

Next, we moved down to Cty Tk K and T to one of our favorite spots. The map below breaks this section into several pieces. I will cover this entire section as part of this blog, but only a couple of spots today. As always, this stretch was pretty good to us.

Big Green River - Map 2

Big Green River – Map 2

The big ones got off today: barbless hooks and I pulled a line trying to keep one big monster out of the weeds and rocks. So a couple of 15-inch or larger fish got away on us. One of these  larger fish jumped right out of the water when I did not expect it to. In such a case, you need to drop your rod to get the tension off the leader or else it will break from the weight of the fish. The risk though is that when you drop your rod tip to reduce the pressure and avoid the break, that the fish will be able to throw the hook more easily – especially if it is barbless and can just slip out. There are many things that can go wrong out here and we have seen them all! We did get a couple of very satisfactorily fat 13-inch fish and one 14-incher. We used a #10 hydropsyche larva with a #16 cress bug trailing it. Fish took both bugs about 50/50. We got pushed off the river around 2 p.m. by a little wind and rain – gave us an excuse to go get lunch and then look over another stretch of river.

Big Green River - Fish On!

Big Green River – Fish On!

Big Green River Brown Trout

Big Green River Brown Trout

We had lunch at Frederick’s on the corner of T and Hwy 18 in Fennimore. If you go there, try the turkey club sandwich – it is fantastic and we bought an extra one to split between us. After lunch, we head to the bridge at the junction of Cty Tk K and Cty Tk T. Looking upstream, we can see that a significant embankment on the left fell away due to spring’s high water – not uncommon. There is a smaller creek coming in here as well and we plan to extricate a couple of browns from that water before heading up into the woods upstream. This is a spot that we are familiar with from past years as well. This is section ‘b’ in the Map 2 above.

We have two different rods rigged up for this section. The first is a 5-weight rigged up with a 10 foot leader terminated in a #10 hydropsyche larva. Trailing behind this by about 15-inches is a #16 olive mayfly nymph. The other rod is a 4W rod rigged up with a 10 foot leader and a #16 elk hair caddis. We work our way up through the woods taking a few smaller trout before wrapping up the day and heading into Fennimore for a fish-fry and beers.

Paul.

Rivers talk to us. Early in our fishing careers, the sound is faint and we can only make out some of the words. As the river miles stretch out across our lives, the  message becomes clearer. Listen closely. Watch intently. By observing a river’s characteristics, we find intimations that affect our approach, our rigging, our fly selection, and our presentation. Characteristics like size – is it a full blown river, a stream or just a small creek? And what about speed? Nothing as technical as CFS, but rather things like a run, a riffle, a rapids, a pool, a meadow section.  Next there is bottom type – sandy, muddy or silted, cobblestone, freestone, pebble strewn.  There are other characteristics too, like temperature and water clarity. Even the aquatic insects that we find in the first couple of shallow riffles tell us something about the water and how to come within reach of our prey. Each one of these characteristics evokes some past knowledge, some inherent insight that strikes a chord and affects our method.

This scale – these attributes – they’re familiar to most people who fly fish. However most of us dont’t realize that as time passes, our fly fishing becomes more emotive – filling out the edges of the scale with smells, feelings and remembrances. Emotion. Is this a scale that can be applied to the waters that we fish? Well, there are “rivers.” That evokes one emotion. Then there are “trout rivers”: a completely different feeling emerges. And then there are “holy waters”. These are those rivers of legend that induce pilgrimages over the course of our lives. Rivers like the Madison, the Battenkill, the Ausable and the Henry’s Fork. And Finally, there are the “home waters” that reside in our own backyard. For me here in Wisconsin, this includes rivers like the Big Green, the West Fork Kickapoo, the West Branch White River,  the Timber Coulee and the wonderful Bois Brule River – the Bois Brule being a holy water that I am fortunate enough to call my home water as well.

The Bois Brule river has stood out singularly in my life and it defines the pinnacle of the emotional scale for a piece of water. I am intimate with this river. This means that the experiences that I have realized there are so treasured, so affecting, that they defy labeling altogether.

How does a piece of water ascend to this standing? Well it’s a journey of sorts. A number of things have to come together: rich history, beautiful trout, prolific hatches, pure waters, secret places and some extraordinary experiences. All of these came together for me over twelve years ago when my brother Joe and I first discovered the Bois Brule River for ourselves. And we poured our souls into that water: annual pilgrimages, aquatic studies, historical research, and 18-hour river days. We even created our own, personal river map noting every spring, hatch and relevant abundance of trout. Twelve years ago. Twelve whole years, and just now do I discover another river of intimate proportions. Just a short distance northwest of Green Bay, I find myself near the town of Breed on a stretch of water that truly stuns me, leaving me haunted as I lay in bed each night reliving what I experienced there: the South Branch Oconto River.

Amazingly, this area of the Oconto River was the focus of some of our earliest fly fishing excursions – all the way back to 1992. We began by exploring the Wolf River, the North Branch Oconto and the East Branch Eau Claire Rivers. All three of these rivers are right in this area. It is a memory from these earliest days that drew me back here. As we were working our way along a particular stretch of the North Branch Oconto, we ran into a fisherman with a spinning reel and rod who had just caught and killed a legitimate 18-inch brook trout (yes, we measured it). I say a “particular location” because although I can see the location in my mind, I did not keep the fastidious notes back then that I do now. I do remember that the pullout was deep enough for the fisherman to park his pickup truck perpendicular to the road. The river ran fast just across the road and down a very steep, woody embankment. The water was strewn with boulders and wading was challenging, but not impossible. What was impossible was mending the line on the fast and varied currents – a fruitless effort for me back then.

That trophy-sized brook trout is burned into my memory. I can see it now, lying on a bed of ice in the fisherman’s cooler in the back of his truck. He had rigged his line with a large float. Heavy split shot swung below to deliver a worm as he snaked his rig around various boulders to take his quarry. That trout amazed me and is part of what drew me back.

I am also drawn here because the South Branch Oconto River is currently marked as a catch-and-release fishery and I have learned what that means over the years as well – protected waters mean challenging fishing for larger trout. After searching the banks of the North Branch in vain for my memoried location, I head for the South Branch to check it out. The river strikes me as exceptional – the water is tannin colored with some nice seems visible upstream.

South Branch Octonto River

South Branch Octonto River

As I put on my waders, a black-and-white point-setter approaches. His is a nice dog and I befriend him with a bit of beef jerky. The land between the river and the road is heavily posted as private property. I take care to enter the stream close to the bridge and then move slowly up the right bank. The point-setter follows me through the hole just above the bridge – swimming right through it! He turns back and disappears as I move upstream.

Point Setter That I Befriended

Point Setter That I Befriended

I am moving up the right bank toward the first hard bend in the river when a trout rises in the bend. A #12 elk hair caddis brings a plump 10-inch brown trout to hand. I continue on slowly and carefully. There are no more rises, so I switch to a nymph rig with a strike indicator. I move at a snail’s pace and cover the water completely – nothing.

That first trout keeps me focused. As I continue on, an older man steps out of the woods and addresses me. “Catch anything?” he inquires. “Yes” I reply, “a plump 10-incher”. He acts surprised and says that the river has not been fishing well and that its hatches have been declining in recent years. “Where did you get in?” he asks. I tell him that I got in at the bridge. “Get out at all along the way?” he asks. I tell him that I have not – which is true. He presses me for how I managed to get around the large snag now behind me. I tell him that I climbed over it – also true. Clearly these are the questions of a private land owner.

He goes on to offer that there is better fishing downstream, below the bridge. He wants me to leave this stretch. I feel uncomfortable – just a little – but I thank him and press on. He turns away and heads back into the woods telling me that there is a path here that leads to the road and that I can use it if I want to. Maybe it’s not the land that he is protecting. Maybe it’s some favored fishing hole. Now I am intrigued – what lies ahead? He looks back and sees that I am clearly continuing upstream. “There might just be a big brown or two upstream as well” he says and I catch a glimpse of a little grin as he disappears from view. I creep forward with anticipation.

The river curves to the right here and greets a series of large, sub-surface boulders – big ones – the two largest cutting the water’s surface to mark their position. Above the boulders the river makes a large ‘hole’ as it pours into the bank on the down-side of the next bend above me. This is a magic place. The water is dark here. Deep too. There is ample cover for large trout including a well-shaded bank.

A Magic Place

A Magic Place

As I creep forward, a fish rises to take a mayfly – a hatch is trailing. I mark the time – it is 11 a.m. Moving forward, I am now stunned by the evidence of the super-hatch that is left in the streamside cobwebs. Spiders have created intricate networks of webs among the branches that reach well over the river. They are literally choked with mayflies. Some spiders have even bundled a dozen or more mayflies into ¾ inch diameter balls – preserving them for later. Just fantastic! Another trout rises . . .

"Super Hatch"

“Super Hatch”

"All Balled Up!"

“All Balled Up!”

This last rise is pronounced and it is immediately followed by another. The black water throws off light from the wavy ripples as concentric circles emanate outward and disappear into the disturbance made by the boulders just above me. That rise was right between those two boulders. I examine the flies in the bush once more and then switch to a #14 March Brown. Another rise. I work out some line and cast it up to the right of the trout to help gauge the distance. The current is more varied here and I realize that my fly starts to drag as soon as it hits the water. I adjust my position so that my fly line will fall to slower current and reduce the chance of drag. A 14-inch brown trout runs into the bend below me where I play him out. This is a great setup – I can hook fish above me and play the down below without overly disturbing ‘the hole’.

The next trout is much larger and I lose him as he runs to wood and I force the hook out trying to turn him. My pulse quickens as yet another large trout rises. This one is pinned against the right bank, deep in the bend. This presents a more challenging casting and mending situation. I size up my approach. At this point, I have advanced all the way up to the boulders. There are actually three of them. The first and closest is massive, breaking the surface while leaving a good half-ton of rock below. The second boulder is to the right and is about half of the size of the first. The third boulder is hidden below the surface and slightly upstream of the first one. It is between the biggest boulder and this smaller upstream one that I situate myself to cast to the next rise. I put him down. I wait. Five minutes and he rises again. This time, I get the job done – all 16 inches of it! This trout’s back is dark, dark brown and its flank is a rich, corn yellow. It is speckled with pronounced red and black spots – beautiful.

A South Branch Oconto Brown Trout

A South Branch Oconto Brown Trout

Unfortunately, this last trout stayed up in the deep pool to fight. I wait for some time hoping for another rise, but none appear. I change out my rig and nymph the hole before breaking for lunch. I take the old man up on his offer and use the path through the woods to get back to the road. Along the way I spot some pink trillium. I pause to admire its beauty. I can hear the sound of water bubbling along in the distance – I have found a new river to love.

Pink Trillium

Pink Trillium

Accommodations

Cecil Fireside Inn: http://www.cecilfiresideinn.com/. This Inn is at the corner of Highways 22 & R just east of Shawano Lake and right in the town of Cecil. The rooms are nice and the little bars and pubs in this town are alive with entertainment at this time of year.

Another Choice  is the Village Haus Motor Lodge in Shawano: (715) 526-9595 or toll free at (800) 533-4479. The lodge is just off the corner of Highways 22 & 47 on Airport road and offers great convenience in terms of restaurants and shopping right in Shawano. There is even a restaraunt that is part of the Lodge.

– Paul.

To Be Continued . . .