Sunday, May 16th, 2010

All Images  can be ‘clicked’ on to view them in a larger format

Stenonema Vicarium (Family Heptagenidae)

I see a pattern here. I discover a new piece of water and I get fixated on it. Those magnificent brown trout! Despite my disease, I am in no rush to get moving today. I want to relax, spend some time blogging, breakfast in Fennimore and crop some photos from last week’s outing with Joe. It’s inevitable though that I will make the trek over to Iowa (again!) and see how that water held up from the rains of this past week.

The horses are all the way up to the Stile – so I walk the length of the barbed-wire down to the river and then follow its edge to the first good riffle. I stop here to photograph some bugs. There are numerous Stenonema Vicarium nymphs here. Two bends down there lies a large boulder where trout stack up in large numbers. The water was gin clear last week, but now it’s a bit murky: I can no longer see to the bottom. I’m actually encouraged by this. It provides some cover as I work to extract a couple of big browns from the nice pools further down stream.

I move down to the piece of water where my brother Joe got that monster brown last week. He dubbed that fish “Goliowa” (Goliath + Iowa) and now I’m here to have a crack at him for myself. I start down by that deep water above the wood debris and work the ledge rock on the far bank. The water is murky here as well and I wonder how well the fish can see my fly. I’ll make several passes and cover the water very thoroughly.

Eventually,  I start to work my way up to the head of pool. I switch my fly from the #12 bead-head prince nymph to a tandem rig with #8 hydropsyche larva followed by a weightless #16 Pheasant Tail (PT) Nymph. I try something new here with the rigging for the dropper. I tie a perfection loop (see below)  and place a PT on the first coil of tippet – the one that is pulled through to create the final loop it self. As I coil the second wrap around, I slip the PT through and tug the knot down tight as is usual with the perfection loop. Now I have a nice loop with a fly on it.

Perfection Loop Used for Dropper Fly in a Tandem Rig

This fine loop allows the PT to swing freely for a more natural effect. I consider changing it out as I’m not sure if it will hold for a bigger fish, but what the heck – I’ll never know if I don’t try it. I toss the rig up into the tail of the run that leads into the pool few times and finally connect with a nice trout. Unbelievably, it is the same brown trout that I caught over a week ago: with the very distinguishing marks by its right eye. I am pleased to say that this fish took the dropper fly on that loop which held up nicely as I battled this brute to the net.

I continue to work upstream into faster water, adding a single micro-split-shot above the first fly along the way. I pick up two smaller brown trout as I approach the faster, shallower water. I then sit down to enjoy the moment. this is a beautiful spot. There is a natural spring here that joins the river right at this prime piece of water – creating a cooling effect and giving trout just one more reason to congregate here.

The weather is sublime. The wind has picked up a bit providing some surface disturbance. The wind is bitter-sweet to the fly-rodder. Although it makes casting more challenging and tends to blow hatching insects asunder, the surface chop definitely aids in concealing the angler. The sky is overcast. It’s gray as far as the eye can see.  The sun has created an obvious bright spot where it is working to burn through those clouds. All things considered, I think there should be a hatch on this river! Three weeks ago, I took all of my fish here on dry flies – caddis to be precise. Then Joe and I saw a few nice march browns hatch out on a single bend in the river last week (hardly enough to call it a hatch though). You’d think these conditions and this time of year would be producing an abundance of bugs up and down this river. However, it’s 2:20 p.m. and I haven’t seen a single bug on the water nor any rising fish.

A blue heron takes flight just downstream prompting me to head down river, camera in hand, to find another spot to enjoy. I carefully approach the next large bend in the river and see several nice trout finning in the depths. I move down below them and re-assemble my nymph rig. I have a field day landing over a dozen nice browns and rainbows in this stretch. Further down, a  massive snapping turtle rests on a submerged branch, possibly waiting for some unsuspecting prey to pass by – it certainly blends in well with its algae-covered shell.

It’s amazing what an overcast sky and a little murky water can do. I catch trout in every hole on this river for rest of the day. I have to say that I love this creek when it runs so “bloody”. Replete with a tremendous day on the water, I head back to that first spot to have a final try for “Goliowa”. I start at the very bottom of the hole. I am no more than a half dozen drifts into it when I feel a light take. I set the hook. The fish makes a tremendous run, pounding its way to the head of the pool, and then driving into the riffle and run above – against the current!!  Line rips off my reel which suddenly goes limp as the entire rig breaks off in the rocks. Argh!!  I am simply amazed at the power of this fish. Was it Goliowa? I’ll never know. I never saw the monster – it just took line faster and harder than anything I’ve ever had on before. Ever!

~ WiFly ~

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Saturday, June 20th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baetisca Mayfly

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

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

 

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

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

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

Brown Drake Emerger tied by the author

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

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

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

The Author’s Brother shows off a nice Brown Trout

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

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

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

Double on a single hook!

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

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Brown Drake in Flight

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Paul & Maggie – First Brown Trout Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Drake tied by the author

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

Hex White Wulff tied by the auhtor

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

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

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

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

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 ~

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…

Saturday, May 16th, 2009
Well, here we are in St. Croix County. Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s Saturday, the 16th of May. I am here with my brother Joe and we are going back to the oldest of haunts: the Willow River, the Rush River, and the Kinnickinnick River. We’re going back to the early 90’s this week, bringing the skills of over 16 years to bear.

We stop by the Cty A crossing on the Willow River to have a look at our original stomping grounds. This is where it all began. We have not returned here for over 8 years – a measure of the other waters available here in Wisconsin. As we walk along the edge of the river, my memory echoes the laughter and banter of my children all those years ago. The water twists and slides along, rushing against mid-river boulders and gurgling over rocks and timber strewn about the near bank. I stand there listening to its soothing sounds as I revisit precious memories. We would camp at the Willow River State Park – always at the same site. We tent-camped in Laacke & Joys original canvas tents made right here in Milwaukee. We would always bring a cooler with a small block of dry ice to keep the milk and eggs cool and the ice cream frozen. We did this every year from 1994 through to about 2001. We always found our way over to the Willow River at this Cty A crossing, or just below the mill pond dam, or further downstream by the “Willow River Race”.  We may return to visit these sections later, but for now we are headed south to try our hand at the Kinnickinnick River and its abundant brown trout.
We pull off at the State Park Wildlife Refuge at Cty F where it crosses the Kinnickinnick River. There are about half a dozen cars here and an empty canoe rack – so some people canoeing the river today. The sign here says “no hunting or trapping”. You have to have a State Park sticker on your vehicle to park here. We stopped up at the Willow River State Park and got ours there. Let’s explore the Kinnickinnick River and see what a category 5 water in Western Wisconsin has to offer us.

Walking upstream, our map of past years tells us to hoof it for about 30 to 40 minutes to get to some select water. There is a path on the north bank of the river that runs along the river for most of its course.

This allows us to watch for flashing and rising fish as we work out way upstream. I recall from past years an extremely small spring brook flowing into the K from opposite bank. I sampled the insects there and was delighted to discover a rare species of caddis – identified from photos that I took back then – pointing to the outstanding nature of this fishery.

We hop into the river after about 30 minutes and warm up our casting as we hop and skip over each other to sample different sections of the river – still continuing upstream. I am just above a nice S-curve with Joe fishing the slot below me when. I can hear him call out that he has just lost a nice brown. I have yet to even tag a fish up through these pools. It is tremendously deep here, so I am fishing a very long leader with a tungsten bead-head prince stonefly – my own variant.

Prince Stonefly Variant (Tied by Paul Stillmank)

This Kinnickinnick River is about as pretty a river as I have ever seen. Perhaps we should have been fishing it all these years. It has beautiful limestone walls, some of them just seeping with water – reminiscent of the early Willow River before they removed the dam at the old Mill Pond. That Pond piled a lot of water into the surrounding limestone for a dramatic effect downstream. That is all gone now along with the trout. The Dam removal was botched and shallow springs were wiped out. There are still trout to be found here, but it is more of a warm water fishery now. Sad. And one of only a few situations where a Dam removal produced a poor result.

The Kinnickinnic is a natural wonder – there are no dams at all here. I trace my way back along a small fork in the river that runs up to a low limestone ridge. Water is seeping from the porous stone. It is cold here. Life is drawn both to and from this spring. Where the water seeps from the stone, dark mosses are growing –hanging down as they follow the water toward the river below. Where the spring enters the river, the water is as deep and dark as that moss – no doubt harboring large Salmo trutta in its depths.

I just fished through a beautiful piece of water which I have no doubt had trout in it, but I am walking away fishless. I’ll be analyzing why in my mind as I work further upstream. There are bugs coming off. There are birds on the water in countless numbers, swooping down and taking Caddis as they take flight from the water’s surface. However, no fish rise here except for a red horse that startled me as it leapt more than a foot out of the water about five feet away from me. I’m moving up to find Joe, see how he’s faring, and pick out another piece of water.  

When I catch up with Joe, he is fishing along another limestone bluff. It is deep here with some wood down below. It is a deep and dark hole. Joe throws a little pheasant tail nymph back in there and is rewarded with a nice 12-inch brown trout. So Joe’s into fish and I’m still fishless!

Joe Casting Along a Limestone Wall

I photograph some of the bugs here. There are some Stenonema Vicarium. There are also some large mayfly nymphs from the clinger class that I will have to look up when I get back to make sure we get them properly identified.  I photographed some of them along with the appropriate imitations from my fly box. Have a look:

Matching Underwater Insects

I know I’m getting to the bottom. I know I’m swinging the fly right. Where are the trout? Finally on the way back downstream, we come across a large rock outcropping cutting a line in the water. I work my same rig since the water is both fast and deep coming off of this rocky ledge. Bang! I finally hook up with a nice one – just north of 12-inches.

When I catch back up to Joe, he reviews his day noting a couple of browns in the 12-inch class. He also describes a big one that got off. He was mid-river in a nice, deep run and he got the brute all the way to the scoop when he realized that he had no scoop! Another one for the memory books! He said it went at least 17 inches. He truly put it together much better than I did today. We noted on the drive back out that he was fishing much lighter bugs and shorter leaders. With some of the hatches present, that might have been warranted – the fish were looking up!

Sunday, May 16th, 2009
A new day, a new river. It’s afternoon already. Having noted the condition of our backs at the end of our long day yesterday, we decided to get on a bit later today, affording us a little reserve strength for the evening hatch. We’re headed to the Rush River area. We turn off of Hwy 72 and head south. It amazes me that these old roads used to have such fantastic names. We used to get into this river at a bridge on “Stonehammer’s road”. Now it’s called nnn-th avenue. In any case, we will start out today on a tributary to the Rush River that we first fished back in 2003. This little tributary is another beautiful creek with limestone walls and a couple of deeper pools. I recall a nice brown trout in the 16-inch class taken on Ross Mueller’s “dark ribbed yellow” nymph http://bit.ly/5PSxhs . We may actually fish through this area and on into the woods above. It’s heavily posted there, however the regulations say that we can go through there as long as our feet are wet and our purpose is intent on fishing.

We’ll finish up on the Rush River itself later today – perhaps on a new section. Then we will wrap up the day with an evening hatch on the section above our old Stonehammer’s Road.

We begin on that tributary first. There are some smallish trout here. We can see them finning in the different pockets. The creek here is perhaps 15 to 20 feet wide. There are limestone bluffs along its edges. I’ve moved up just below a memorable location. This is where I took the largest of browns from this water in 2003 (see image to the left).
The lesson here is that rivers change and the memory of a spot is never quite the same years later. And that is the nature of rivers. The water was a bit deeper here in 2003. The corner where I had caught this fish still hosts the large bolder that I remember jutting in from the edge, however the bottom is much shallower now perhaps ravaged by 6 year of spring flooding. There is still a nice foam line here paried by the large boulder and I have a go at it. As I work the section hard and it only yields a 6-inch brown to a combination rig of a #4 Elk hair caddis and a #18 bright green crystal flash caddis emerger with a puffy black head. The trout takes this trailing fly.

As I swap out my rig, a fly box hits the drink. Ouch!  I’ll have to dry that box out this evening to avoid hook rust.

I reach another bridge and cross it to find a fast run of pocket water. I recall this spot as well. A dark, beadhead mayfly nymph trailing a short line to a strike indicator did the job last time. I rig it up. Again, the water is much shallower, especially for this time of year. The water is cold. I don’t have my thermometer, but it is trout cold.

We didn’t do so well on that first section of water. However, at 6:30p we are still on that same tributary. Why? Because we moved downstream to do a bit more fishing on a new section where the water was a little bigger. We saw some trout finning here above another bridge and decided to hit it. We moved through the small gate attached to a tree. Joe took a little nap on the grass here while I distracted myself with a few small brook trout, the largest was 7-inches – a mail with good colors.

Next, I headed upstream while Joe headed down. The upstream section was beautiful and cold. I ended up walking along an underwater ledge on the upstream left side of the river and watching the glide next to me as a large, behemoth brown moved up and down the river. I tried in vain to catch this brute, but he was much too old and wise for me. I would have to fish here after dark sometime with a mouse or large streamer.

I finished up this section trying to swing fly down to my quarry – a pass lake wet. No good. I headed downstream to find Joe. Amazingly, Joe was also fishing the Pass Lake Wet when I caught up to him.

This downstream section has some incredibly deep, green pools flanked with limestone and downed timber. Joe found a spot where he could cast his wet fly up stream into a nice pool and strip it back down. He took successively larger brook trout on each cast:

Successively Larget Brookies With Each Cast

Rush River Tributary

Joe and I fish down a bit further and to some sporadic risers before heading back up to the bridge in hopes of an evening hatch on the section upstream of Stonehammer’s Road.

Caitlin Extracts a Brown Trout in the Rain – Rush River 2003

 

Stonehammer’s Road

We arrive Stonehammer’s much too close to dark. I high tail it straight for a specific spot. Joe dives into the river about half way up. I arrive at my destination. I remember it very well. I remember a little sleuce dumping into a massive pool below. There are fish rising above.
River’s bring back memories. This is where Caitlin and I fished together. I remember leaving Caitlin to her own means and then returning later to find her intently working on a rising trout. She had been using a nymph here and greasing it so that it would stay in the surface film – and I was truly amazed at everything she had learned. I mean she couldn’t have been more 11 or 12 years old. She hooked that fish and there was an old, left over remains of a beaver hut – obviously gone now – and I remember Caitlin getting here line wrapped up around those sticks as I tried to help her net that well-earned fish. I wanted it so badly for her. And of course it got away. But the memory remains…

The next year she landed her prey, albeit amidst a drenching rain.

I’ve walked a little further upstream now. More memories. I could not be happier with the time and energy that I invested discovering these places years ago. It is a treasure to come back here. I step into the old spots and let new water flow over my waders. I swing flies to rising brown trout and make some new memories.

Back at the hotel, I pull all the bugs out of that soaked box and dry both them and the foam to avoid the risk of rusting the hooks. The flies look like an army lined up for battle as they dry out over night.

Drying Out the Nymph Box

Monday, May 17th, 2009

Back to Stonehammer’s for a partial day. We will finish early, heading back to Waukesha and Milwaukee in time to see the babies before they go to bed. We decide to push beyond the bend that I finished on last night. That spot always seemed to be the upper end of the water that we ever walked into on this river. We are now well above that looking at what really has to be a fantastic spring creek. There are deep green pools running along towering limestone bluffs. Some plunge pools. There are some smaller fish rising to dries here. I was able to get one in. We are fishing heavier rods here due to the brutally heavy wind that we have to contend with. We’re hitting the 6-weights. The fish are small and the stiff rods do not have much give on smaller fish, allowing them to flip off before they come to hand. It’s gorgeous back in here and we vow to return her for an evening hatch – not today though.

The walk back out takes about 10 minutes from this spring creek like water back down to “Caitlin’s bend”. It is another 8 minutes to the car including the time to snap a few photos of the forest floor:

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 . . .