As I pressed my nose up against the glass I couldn’t help but contemplate another urban angling assault. Unfortunately I don’t own an “Urbanist” fly fishing pack, so I felt rather ill prepared for the task at hand. Rather than another Manhattan raid, the subject of this contemplation was the all too familiar “Windy City” skyline. “It’s gotta have a few spots similar to Milwaukee,” I almost convinced myself. My rumination quickly went by the wayside as the flashes of lightening and claps of thunder were a bit too close for comfort at the apex of this skyscraper. Little did I know that the storms sweeping through Chicago had taken their toll in the Twin Cities the night before. This disturbance was just the beginning of historic damage in South Minneapolis, including a massive 100 year old tree that almost pancaked Mrs. Adrift’s car. The reality of my past 36 hours had begun to take it’s toll anyway. Sleep depravation and general soreness had lingered into our day trip into the city as I struggled to keep my sanity.
It all started a few days earlier. In standard fanatical fashion I had concocted a hairbrained scheme to bypass the mediocre confines of Dane County and make the deeper run into the “Heart of the Driftless.” The North-South Driftless divide is palpable, though not to the extent as the shameful chapter in our nation’s history. Twin Cities “Yankees” tend to go on at great length about the finer points of Western Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota, while the Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago “Rebels” proclaim the newly minted “Heart” region as the cat’s ass. Leaving my beloved Iowa with “innocent bystander” status, often unjustly relegated to sideshow designation. There’s a similar East Coast/West Coast rap war parallel to made for Minneapolis and St. Paul, but that’s a story for another day.
I’d exchanged a few messages with notorious big trout junkie and Southwest Wisconsin expert Len Harris in preparation for my forray into the “Heart.” We informally planned to meet up and fish an early morning on prime Richland County water. My timing proved to be unfortunate as Len hit the water hard the day before my arrival on another monster quest and was unable to go. He offered up a few suggestions via the information superhighway, wished me good luck, and sent me on my way.
This is the time of year that sunrise is obscenely early. To many the notion of fishing just before dawn is out of the question. For me it’s just standard operating procedure. I’m not inherently a morning person, but I’ve grown to really enjoy early morning road trips. The anticipation of what lies ahead generally wards off any notion of how tired you actually are. Return trips on the other hand can be a chore. If you’ve had a killer outing often the post conquering glow will carry you to the finish line.
GPS can be one of man’s best friend when wandering the backroads, but I never travel without my old school Gazetter. You never know when you’ll lose your signal. Navigation in the dark, bleary conditions were challenging, but I managed to find my first destination without too much fanfare. I popped into the cool waters under the veil of darkness and began my journey. It’s difficult to get your bearings when arriving on new water at predawn. It’s unwise to make any dramatic movements, so I often move at a snail’s pace and just pick apart the available cover. I opted to throw my T.B.E. fly in search of big browns (big surprise). In the first promising pool I managed to roll what appeared to be a mid-teens fish. Clearly I was on the right track. I continued my trek upstream for another 100 yards or so as the sun began to give me a better idea of my surroundings. I presented the fly straight upstream and stripped it back to me which produced a handful of average-sized browns in the first half hour. Upon arrival at the largest and deepest pool yet, I had high hopes that it would produce a bigger fish than I had seen thus far. I carefully slid into position and fired the T.B.E. to the upper portion of the hole. No strikes, but I faintly could make out the silhouette of a sizable fish in pursuit. I quickly put the fly right back into the heart of the run, only to be dissed a second time. A downsizing was in order. I went to the old faithful Sloppy Joe that has been so successful on many other streams. Retie, knot check, cast, connect. I hooked up with what I could tell was a good, but not giant fish. I slowly walked the fish downstream to an optimum landing spot and scooped her up with my trusty net, revealing a good but not great fish. It mattered little as I was on the board. A few quick pics and I sent her on her way.
I saddled up again hoping I didn’t spoil the upper portion of this prime looking pool. I meticulously baby stepped my way back into position, double-hauling a pinpoint cast to the top of the spot. I was immediately met with a rude awakening as a second and much more substantial fish took the bait. Like other tanks I’ve hooked in the past this behemoth shot to the surface, thrashing with reckless abandon to undue my stranglehold. After visual confirmation, this was for sure the biggest brown I’d tangled with this season. Some may deem “Mason Dixon” trout of 20″ be real trophies, but my pulse typically remains unchanged for anything under the 23ish neighborhood, and this fish was well in excess of that mark. The early rounds of the bout scored in my favor as I once again backed the fish down into the slower water downstream. My heart was beating like a drum as I reached behind to prepare my net for landing duties. At this point in the fight I’m usually gripping my 6-weight and holding on for dear life as fish in this weight class aren’t moved easily. I worked him to within about 4 feet, just outside of netting range, when the beast gave me another surge. Unexpectedly, he made a beeline for as the Brits say my “John Thomas.” I quickly closed my legs as to not allow him to thread the needle. In a split second the extreme angle of my fly rod caused the streamer to sling shot from the fish’s mouth into the early morning air leaving me to sulk in defeat. “Rookie mistake,” I bemoaned. I felt as if I’d been disqualified from Olympic competition after years of preparation.
I moved on from the scene of the crime, trying not to dwell on my shortcomings. One of many reasons to do this dance is to intrinsically feel something. If you’re cut from this cloth you can be moved to giddiness with child-like enthusiasm. You’ll have some of the highest highs, but you’ll pay for it tenfold with the lowest lows. This was one of those moments. Nevertheless I continued to take my craft to any nook and cranny, vowing to get vengeance on the stream that just humbled me. I began to rack up an impressive number of fish on my #4 Sloppy Joe. I didn’t bother to photograph anything as it was a medley of the usual suspects. After an hour or two I connected with another good fish. This “redemption” catch was a quality specimen a couple of clicks north of the Mason-Dixon line. I was pleased to at least walk away with a solid consolation prize in typical 2013 fashion. I snapped a few “insurance policy” closeup shots of the fish in the net for proof of purchase. This is the first thing I do when I catch a photo worthy fish. They’re not always well composed pics, but I take a few before going for the risky hand held shots that can allow the fish slip away. For the second time this summer a Big Brown slipped from my grip before I really got any respectable shots, but for some reason I didn’t really care. My apologies to those of you that look to Adrift for a light session of midwestern fish porn. I’ll endeavor to do better next time.
As the morning was heating up I began to contemplate my next move. I managed one more quality Brown before I opted for the great escape. “At least the drive was worth it,” I told myself. Next up on the agenda was a move to put some quality Brookies into the done pile. I exchanged pleasantries with a local farmer’s elderly wife while I knocked back some fluids and food items. A quick review of my maps was in order and I continued my drift through the heart.
My wayfinding skills in this neck of the woods left a little to be desired. Multiple times I wandered off course. Through the kindness of strangers I managed to find this little gem, as two different dairy farmer’s gave me directions. It’s reputation proceeded itself as I’d heard through multiple sources that it was a fine Brookie stream. The first landowner that I approached wasn’t home, so I tried the next property downstream. Sure enough an extremely friendly woman allowed my to fish on her property. She proclaimed that her son “catches some big ones.” All the folks that I encountered on this journey couldn’t have been friendlier, a welcome addition to any trip. I only had an hour or two to chase Brookies until I had to head for home. The first thing that stood out to me was the shallow water conditions. You had to trek in between quality holes. Once you found a good pool it would be loaded with fish. I decided to throw a Shirley Temple. This little fly caused the schools of Brook Trout to pirhana-style frenzy, attempting to inhale my offering. After catching a number of fish, I’d actually strip the fly faster as to not hook the smaller Brookies. It was like swatting at flies. A few good fish were brought to hand, but not the big Brook I’d hoped for. This high population stream fished comparably to many of the quality streams in Western Wisconsin, but not any better. I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t see any monsters, but quite frankly I’m like a spoiled little kid.
The trip back wasn’t as painful as I feared. It was fairly uneventful outside of being stuck behind this tractor for the better part of a half hour. I’m pretty patient when it comes to this as we’re playing on their turf. There was a few opportunities for the woman driving the John Deere to allow cars to pass but she would have none of it. I didn’t let this minor inconvenience rain on my parade.
While I’m an ardent Yankee at heart and firmly believe that my waters are the best of the midwest, you’d be hard pressed to find any ill words to describe the Rebel portion of the Southern Driftless. It’s a classic you say potato, I say potato conundrum. If you get the chance to bask in the finest waters that the Heart has to offer, don’t hesitate. Go on take the money and run.