2013 has been billowing like an overstuffed burrito. The ever important life/work balance has been stalled at the work end of the spectrum. There has been little room between the beans and cheese of life for chasing trout. As last week unfolded, I finally found a small window for a much anticipated day trip into the belly of the beast. The calm before the storm consisted of reviewing maps for potential targets and surveying my fly boxes for a quick state of the union address. The latter revealed an assortment sorely underrepresenting the tiny flies that can do so much damage this time of year. I’d have to suck it up and sneak in some vise time to round out the the “tiny” portion of my box. I like to pop open my laptops to review maps, stream reports, and tying videos while on the vise. It’s the ultimate ADHD scenario. One computer just isn’t enough, I often have two or three adorning my desktop. I determined I’d make a run to an array of familiar and unfamiliar streams to kick off the season. After hard charging towards Brown bliss last fall I though I’d switch gears towards beloved Brookies. I was also committed to the idea of fishing small. I throw big stuff more than most, but I was eager to dust off the 4-weight and sling some tiny goodness. Many guys are embroiled in a “tiny rod” arms race to convince themselves that the puny fish they are catching feel bigger. It’s sort of an inverse penis pump situation. If anglers want to tape a few pieces of spaghetti together and fling some horse hair to feel closer to their quarry more power to them. I’m an ardent “each to their own” sort of guy who’s also perfectly comfortable bottoming out at a standard 4-weight for Driftless dutites.
By later that evening it was a done deal. the coordinates were punched into the GPS and all that remained was to tie up a few pseudo masterpieces to fool the pint-sized salmonids. A quick review of my tying materials revealed a significant problem with my plan. Not only was my stash devoid of any small hooks, I’d have to improvise using size 12 hooks. I should have anticipated this given my propensity to tie and fish bigger, but I hadn’t had the time to run to the fly shop and I’m somewhat adverse to ordering online. I’m a visual person who prefers to inspect and handle most goods prior to purchase, and tying materials easily fall into this category. I’m also a staunch minimalist on and off the water. Many years ago I shed the habit of carrying big boxes with hundreds of flies. I roll with a small chestpack containing only a few small boxes that I swap out and replenish as needed. This method certainly has it’s pros and cons. I’m not sure how many anglers have ever attempted to fish size 12 flies for midges with any seriousness, but I was about to embark on this mission. Simple is the name of the game when you’re hamstrung with my tying abilities. I opted to whip out a few makeshift zebra midges and a brassie-like creation I like to call the Blue Light Special. I substitute some bluish ice dub for the peacock herl and crown it with a pearlescent blue bead robbed from my kids robust cache of friendship pin materials. I followed up with a Griffith’s Gnat and a fat pearlescent pink squirrel just so I can officially lemming myself a true midwesterner.
Life has a funny way of doling out lemons when you least expect it. I’m prone to being a night owl the night before a round of fishing. The clock struck midnight as I went to the kitchen for a quick beverage. While I stood enjoying a refreshing drink Mrs. Adrift’s phone lit up with a text message from a family member, “call me ASAP.” Initially I didn’t think much of the message, until I considered the time. Why would he be texting her that message at midnight I asked myself? I proceeded to pick up her phone and unearthed a series of messages and missed phone calls from family members, as the ringer had been silenced. My prefishing anticipation took a quick turn towards something much darker, and a lot less fun. I woke up my wife to inform her of the bad news (I’ll refer to this person as GG). It turns out that GG had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t going to make it through the night. There wouldn’t be enough time to say our good-byes in person. We called family members in Madison who were bedside at the hospital, which allowed Mrs. Adrift time to say a few words over the phone to GG. The next stage was a torturous waiting game. Sure enough a few surreal hours later we received the call that GG had passed. What the hell just happened?
In times like these fishing becomes both the least and most important thing. The reality is that fishing has no importance in the context of what really matters, but it’s therapeutic value for people like us cannot be underestimated. You see, I had the misfortune of losing my parents and grandparents by the age of thirty. There was a seismic flip flop in my world years ago where I traded being a child for becoming a parent, all within the span of two years. In addition to the support of family and friends, the one constant in life is fishing. It’s a place where you can always go to simplify things.
As the fateful day unfolded last week, we sent the kids to school and Mrs. Adrift courageously chose to head into the office to tidy up a few things in preparation for our impending journey. My fishing plan had gone by the wayside until she suggested I still go. I had mixed feelings about leaving, but conceded there was nothing more we could do for a few days. I quickly scaled back my itinerary to stick closer to home should I need to return. The back up plan was the “venerable” Hay Creek. I’ve ripped Hay Creek a new one in the past since it tends to be towards the bottom of my list of favored local trout streams. I think it’s worth clarifying that trout streams, like ice cream cones, are a range of goodness. Mint chocolate chip may be one of my least favorite flavors of ice cream, but it’s not like it’s brussel sprouts. It’s still fucking ice cream.
Hay Creek , like others, suffers from the usual overworked HI approach that is standard fare these days. It seems like no stream is acceptable unless every inch of it has been blindly McStreamed. I’m not convinced that it’s always about habitat improvement as much as it’s driven by dollars. Trout stream “improvement” is as much of a business as it is about the fish. All HI is good HI is the mantra. Leaving nothing to chance and lacking imagination. Every nook and cranny has been preplanned by human hands. Wetting a line at Hay feels like fishing Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. I realize that it’s poor form to shit where you eat, and I don’t mean to belittle those who have invested their energy into the creek. Unfortunately Hay is the only viable option remotely close to the Twin Cities if you’re looking for a quick winter fix. I usually try to keep the preachy opinions to a minimum, but it’s my blog so occasionally a few slip out. I’ll jump off the soapbox at this point and stick to the fishing.
I felt compelled to blast down the Wisconsin side of the river en route to Red Wing, just so I could daydream about popping in on prime badger water. Too bad we’re a few months away from the Wisconsin opener as I inevitably arrived at Hay. To my surprise there were no other cars at the usual spots. Somehow I’d have the water all to myself (minus a cross country skier and her protective team of dogs) for the entirety of my stay. I got on the board quickly in some faster water with a cookie-cutter brown on my plump pink squirrel. Man it felt good to connect for the first fish of the season. As the morning began to unfold sporadic midge activity became readily apparent and I switched flies accordingly. I fooled a fish on the oversized Blue Light Special in short order. Did this fish actually think this fly was a midge larvae? Perhaps it was functioning more as an attractor than anything specific? It’s silly for me to determine whether this situation fits conventional wisdom, because I never really mastered the conventions in the first place. My approach is thick with the trial and heavy on the error that comes with a largely self taught skill set. Ultimately the details mattered little. I was racking up numbers in reasonable succession for winter fishing, thereby taking out my angst on the bait-sized Browns of Hay.
I alternated between the man-made sections and the old school stretches that have yet to be fully strip-mined, picking up a fish here and there as I wandered my way through the early afternoon. The air temps were comfortable enough that I didn’t bother wearing gloves or even a coat for that matter. If global warming has it’s way we may have some pretty nice fishing conditions in the coming years, and I suspect the winter season will swell in popularity.
I continued my journey resisting the urge to go big. On the contrary I tied on a microscopic #22 Red Hot Nymph and was immediately pleased with the results. Once again the adjustment to my “rewards system” was complete. Thoughts of giant brown trout had for the moment evacuated my memory banks as I simply took what the stream offered me. I had to ask myself, is bigger always better? Certainly that isn’t always the case. Nothing illustrates this more than NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial war on giant sodas and obesity. Big drinks equals big people, to what end? It takes a little discipline on my part, but I can occasionally fool myself into thinking that a small fish can provide the hefty return on investment worth the price of admission.
The first trip of the year was under my belt and I was no worse for the wear. While it was somewhat unremarkable from a fishing standpoint, it successfully shook the rust off and provided temporary mental respite from the day’s events. We proceeded to complete our inevitable date with destiny, packing the kids into the car and spending a few sullen days with family. Our trip culminated in GG’s funeral procession, followed by a few honorary toasts. As we drove home from Madison I convinced Mrs. Adrift to take the long and scenic route home. Splitting the Driftless in two by dashing over to La Crosse, followed by a quick Winona flyby for lunch at Beno’s Deli, one of her college favorites. The youngsters tallied the eagle count, while their old man rubber-necked a bonus number of trout stream bridge crossings. It’s drilled into our pre pubescent psyche that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In our increasingly dysfunctional world of iPads, smart phones and Netflix, choosing the road less travelled is a small package worth treasuring. Life ultimately gives way to death. The counterpoint that death affords us is the opportunity to take life as it comes and relish the little things, because good things come in small packages.