One of my many visits to Dane County was particularly unkind to me. It was fall 1999 and I found myself deep in enemy territory, outside Camp Randall Stadium. My beloved Iowa Hawkeye football team was in full rebuild mode following the departure of legendary coach Hayden Fry, yet I opted to dawn an obnoxious compliment of black and gold garb to pledge my allegiance. This particular Saturday in late November is one that lives in Badger lore like a red badge of rubedom courage. Wisconsin great Ron Dayne was closing in on a Heisman Trophy and the all-time NCAA Division I rushing title, and the only thing standing in his way was an inept band of brothers and my ridiculous bumble bee shirt.
The scene was littered with the standard display of college football debauchery. Little did I know that I was soon to be the focus of the drunken Badger nation scorn. I stood innocently enough leaning against the railing above a major stadium entrance waiting for my future wife to use the facilities. Something slowly caught my attention as I contemplated the doomsday scenario that my boys were soon to face. As the hundreds to thousands of crimson clad fans streamed into the game they were immersed in a pre-game cheer. “Ass-hole, asssss-hole, assss-holeee,” which went on for some time. As she came back from her beer-fueled “potty break” my Badger clad vixen instructed me to turn around and look at the crowd behind me. Unfortunately for me, the crowd had turned its gaze to me, and it was as if all of Dane County was welcoming me to my future place of despair with their ridicule filled rouser. The pointing, the jeers, the laughter at my expense is etched into my memory for all eternity.
Fast forward. Friday morning 3:45AM I faithfully submit my latest in the recent series of early morning gas station snapshots. Do I look tired? It’s typically not an issue for me to get up early to fish, but my 2:30 wake-up call was particularly tough. I made the early morning run over to Madison from my accommodations in Waukesha county.
There was little time to prep for this trip. Due to some health concerns in the family we weren’t even sure we’d make the trip, but 48 hours prior to my arrival the decision was made. I quickly dusted off the Gazetter and probed my Google maps to come up with a game plan. I typically get one morning a year on Dane County streams. I’d prefer a night raid that provides the possibility of some evening mayfly activity, but usually the social calendar is full with other activities. Famed Black Earth Creek tends to be the focus of Dane County fishing. In previous years I’ve adopted a run and gun strategy to cover a wider swath of streams in the area, including Mt. Vernon Creek. Like a Badger football game, Dane County fishing has been a real hit or miss affair. Fishing one day a year has made for a slow learning curve. There just isn’t enough time to get the vibe of the place with such a small sample size. I always catch fish, just nothing remarkable from a size or numbers standpoint, and I’ve never seen any noteworthy insect activity fishing mornings in June.
My game plan was to chuck a mouse in the predawn hour then switch to streamers as the light comes up on a smaller area stream. This is a typical early morning strategy for me. If it’s too dark to see the water features I go topwater, but once you can begin to see things I switch to subsurface probing of potential holding lies. For some reason it’s a popular sentiment amongst some fly fisherman that a mouse is only a late evening tactic under specific conditions, but in my opinion nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore I’m not sure why topwater trouting in general is filled with such awe. Perhaps it’s my background in chasing other predatory species, namely bass, pike and muskie, that suggests that morning topwater trouting is par for the course? There’s a lot to be learned from many years of chasing bass with large hardware that can be applied to trout. For my money bass and big browns are cut from the same cloth. I just laugh when I witness the ridicule and narrow mindedness that some in the trout and fly fishing community display towards bass fisherman. I’m an “it’s all good” or “whatever floats your boat” type angler. Heck, my first lesson in chasing big browns would be to buy a $50K sparkly bass boat, move to Alabama, get wise in the ways of the bass fishing arts, then return to your local trout stream and adapt what you’ve learned. You might be surprised with your results. Sure, big fish will sip a midge offered up on tiny tippet, but that’s only part of the equation.
Ah, but I digress. I arrived at my destination fully clothed and rod ready to rock, as it’s almost an obsessive compulsive disorder of mine to be ready upon arrival. Slowly I worked my way upstream blindly chucking my bait to any available lie. The stream opened up to a solid looking pool and it didn’t disappoint. I brought Mighty Mouse across the pool practically to my feet when the water erupted into an explosion of mouse inhalation. In a split second thoughts of a big brown raced through my head only to come the sudden realization that this wasn’t the fish I was looking for. Right bite, wrong size category, as an average-sized brown had snacked on my offering.
As the sun began to light the canvas I switched to a woolly bugger. In short notice I had a fish swing and miss. Subsequently I downsized and switched strategies to what I call “Frankenymphing” or I believe last year I referred to it as “Naked Nymphing.” Over the last 5 years I’ve found a spot in my arsenal between running nymph rigs and streamers. If fish dart out from their hidey holes but reject a streamer at the last minute I often switch to this tactic. A number of years ago I picked up a pile of jumbo-sized nymphs at a flyshop in Bozeman, Montana. Most nymphs are in the 8-12 size range and some are upsized versions of generic attractor patterns. One of my favorites is the jumbo rubber-legged prince nymph. These big nymphs are almost neutrally buoyant but big enough to fish unweighted in most situations. I fish them similar to a bugger, often dead drifting them or twitching downstream. A great fly to slide quietly under an undercut or other ambush point. The funny thing I’ve noticed about these flies is that they work pretty well no matter what sort of insect activity is prevalent, and they pack enough punch to elicit strikes from the big boys.
Quickly I Frankenymphed my way upstream through an HI section in route to spot I had eyeballed via Bing maps. I was amassing a respectable number of cookie cutter browns. So much so that I vowed to quit photographing fish until I caught something bigger or a particularly handsome specimen. As the morning progressed, so did the biting flies. They were out for blood and weren’t going to stop until they reached brain. I’ve praised the functionality of the Buff, despite it’s inherent fashionista reputation. While I looked like the Amazing Spiderman I fished in relative comfort as I spritzed my headwear with bug dope and scoffed at their repeated attempts to eat flesh. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
I was forced to bushwhack my way up to a pasture stretch, only to be greeted by my bovine buddies and some absolutely terrible looking water. For some reason the steam was unexplainably muddy and fairly shallow.
As I hoofed my way back to the car I contemplated my next move as the heat index was beginning to rise. Glass half empty or glass half full? Most of the water I had been fishing must be somewhat popular turf for Madison’s finest. I had picked up a good number of fish, but no trophies were brought to hand. A few different sources had mentioned to me that this little creek has big fish potential, but I certainly wasn’t able to seal the deal with the largest fish being a 16″ caliber brown that I rolled but did not hook. I decided it was time to take on the belly of the beast and hit BEC to see if I could improve my showing.
This was my second outing with my new Korkers Metalheads. I sent my broken down Redsides back to Korkers several weeks ago for warranty replacement consideration. Korkers customer service was pretty darn good, they offered me a replacement of Redsides or an upgrade to Metalheads for the difference of the two. I opted to upgrade to the Metalheads with the prospect of a more durable construction and the BOA lacing system. In the interest of full disclosure, Korkers threw in some new soles of my choosing in exchange for a product review on Adrift. That being said I’ll always give you my honest opinion about any products that I use.
The pros of Korkers Metalheads are that the synthetic leather upper boot construction is a much more rugged material than the Redsides which feature an upper reminiscent of standard Hi Tec hiking boots. The other significant improvement is that the Studded Sticky Rubber sole has vastly superior traction compared with the standard sole. I’ve used the interchangeable OmniTrax more than I thought I would. It’s nice to have different options. The rubber soles are great when fishing smaller spring creeks where slippery rocks aren’t much of an issue or in snow and ice. Conversely standard felt or the Studded Sticky Rubber soles are preferable in bigger water and rocks.
Unfortunately the cons of the Metalheads lie in the BOA lacing system. This may not be the smartest strategy, but I always buy my boots a size bigger to allow for an extra layer of socks for cold weather steelhead, salmon and winter stream trout. Sure I’ve got a little extra toe room in the summer months, but it’s never been an issue with any other boots until now. The BOA lacing system won’t tighten down my Metalheads as tight as I typically like. The stiff upper won’t allow the system to really cinch down around the ankle since it pulls evenly throughout the boot, and you can’t get enough leverage with the tiny dial to twist it any harder. I’ve previously had two broken ankles playing soccer and skateboarding, so a tight boot for me is the difference between injury and a pleasant day on the water. Not that anyone is asking, but since I design stuff everyday I can’t help but offer ideas as to how they can improve the application of the technology to wading boots, and Korkers is one of only handful of innovative manufacturers committed to rethinking this category of footwear. The flaw of a singular BOA system is that it doesn’t allow for independent tightening in different parts of the boot. Look at the evolution of ski and snowboard boots and bindings. Multiple independent closure devices allow for an individualized fit. I think there’s a reason why hockey skates still use old school laces. Tight skates, ski boots or snowboard bindings are a must for precise edge control, and wading boots also fall into this category. Perhaps a hybrid approach similar to these DC Snowboard boots with additional velcro closures or dual BOA systems for upper and lower would improve the fit? Possibly a BOA dial extender lever that allows you to get more leverage on the closure system for the ultimate fit? Who knows, but for now I’m forced to wander the Driftless with semi-tight boots, hoping I don’t sprain my ankle. My advice is to try the system before upgrading to any BOA boot. I’m sure there are many who would disagree with my findings and absolutely lover their BOA boots, because it is a convenient tightening mechanism. In retrospect I’d probably stick with laces.
Maybe I’m just a jaded urbanite, but my quick stop at the Cenex in Black Earth provided me a brief moment of reflection. Is the “No shirt, No shoes, No service” thing still as popular as it was in my youth? I just don’t see this stern warning as much as I used to.
I’d be willing to bet that “Mary Jane” is the most popular “girl” on the UW Madison campus, and clearly the hydrology of the Dane County loves “weed” as well. I tend to block out how much BEC trouting revolves around vegetation. Even the fast riffles are choked with weeds this time of year. Don’t get me wrong we have some weeds in our Western Wisconsin and Minnesota streams, but nothing like you see at BEC in June. Half the battle is finding sections that have good lanes that you can get a good drift through. I liken it to fishing in a bowling alley. The stream is divided up into tiny lanes that the fish sit in waiting to ambush your offering. It’s really quite similar to our milfoil infested lakes on my home turf. I’d love to hear how BEC locals strategize fishing the stuff? I’ve been only marginally successful fishing it as I picked up a few more unremarkable and unphotographed standard browns. The sun and heat were cranking up the weariness of the fish making a bad situation worse. I decided to bounce around to some different runs just to get a better survey of the stream. The best water I found was in and around Cross Plains. I’m not going to lie, every time I fish this area it make me appreciate what we have back home even more.
For some reason I forgot that On the Creek fly shop is located on the stream in Cross Plains. I have heard good things about the shop for years, but never remembered to stop by. By midday I was in a haze of heat exhaustion, sleep depravation and general fly fishing fatigue. As I was preparing to depart for home, I noticed the sign and popped in to get a look at the shop. Todd was there to greet me and chat about the status of the BEC fishery and plans for stream restoration in Cross Plains. You can tell by chatting with him that he’s a hell of a nice guy, who runs the shop the right way. He was more than happy to offer up advice, even though I was too brain dead to do any shopping for flies or other gear. In future outings I’ll definitely be in touch with those guys in advance for some local intell.
Another year, another medicore outing in Dane County, as the shadow of Ron Dayne continues to darken my doorstep. I’d be hard pressed to venture further west to the prime water that lies in the heart of the Driftless, as I’m already making the run from Minneapolis to Milwaukee to Black Earth Creek, but who knows, maybe next year things will be different.
There’s no doubt about it, the two things you’ll find in the Madison area are love for Ron Dayne and Mary Jane.