Friday, June 5, 2009

Fisherman's Lunch

To look at the maps in the Wisconsin trout regulations book, you would think that the area around our Dunn County cabin is a fly fisherman's paradise. Open the book to pages 12 and 13, and you'll find the maps right up the middle of the two pages, showing Dunn, Chippewa, and Barron counties (ChiBarDun-land!) vividly etched with streams and rivers color-coded according to their specific regulations--red, purple, yellow, green--like a very bad, but bright and cheery, case of vericose veins.

Within a half-hour's drive of Bide-A-Wee you'll find creeks called Gilbert, Lamb's, Little Lamb's (but no Mary's, that I can find...), Tiffany, Duncan, McCann, Hay, Hay, Hay, Beaver, Big Beaver, Little Beaver, Beaver, Moose Ear, Elk, Wilson, Knight's, Cady, Otter, Bronken, Como, Sand, Upper Pine, Lower Pine, Turtle, Dorrity, Jones, Silver, Popple, Four-Mile, Ten-Mile, and Eighteen-Mile. And a lot more. And a few rivers, too, and the odd brook, like Trout Brook, and the other Trout Brook, and the other one.

It all sends a fly-fisher's mind wandering down idyllic, summery paths, imagining bluebird days that unwind to the rhythm of a well-tuned casting stroke, blissful wading in pristine streams, a wild willing trout just a line's-length away.

The trouble is that many of these streams, while easy to find in the the regs book, are, in geographical reality, damned evasive. For instance: Following Wisconsin highway 25 from our cabin to the little town of Ridgeland, you travel for a distance along one designated trout stream, the Blairmoor Branch (love that), and cross three others--Farm Creek, the Lower Pine River, and Spring Creek. I only know this from having looked in the regs book, though I've traveled that stretch of highway dozens of times. These streams are very, very small, in other words, and frequently are invisible by mid-summer when tall grasses arch over them and hide any trace of water.

Others bear more resemblance to drainage ditches than to the sparkling waters that a fisherman fantasizes about--stagnant, greenish, scum-slicked pools trailing away into duckweed and cattail. Some of them actually are drainage ditches, I believe. It takes some patience and a spirit of exploration to turn up water that's wadable and clear enough of encroaching alder jungle to cast a line.

And then, sometimes rivers that meet those criteria fail in another crucial way: they are just too warm to support trout, which need cold, well-aerated water. This was the case with the stream I fished prior to my fisherman's lunch, McCann Creek, a "state fishery area," no less, which had been subjected to habitat improvement and boasted big impressive signage to that effect at several crossings, but which I now refer to as the McCann Creek State Chub Refuge, in honor of those plucky little rough fish, the only things I managed to hook in an hour's fishing some pretty tasty looking water up through a meadow. But I should have known what to expect: When you step into quality trout water, you feel a shock of cold through your waders, even in the heat of summer. Only after I'd left McCann Creek did it occur to me that, even after a very cool night, the water was running bathwater warm.

It wasn't a total loss. While looking for the upper reaches of McCann Creek, which I crossed over twice before I recognized it, I came upon a good-sized black bear ambling down county road AA, the first bear I've seen in that part of Wisconsin. There have been many reports of a growing bear population in the area--a record number of bear-car collisions in Sawyer County, a very large, hibernating bear killed when it was run over by a combine in a cornfield near Boyceville last fall, a friend of a friend's beehives near Wilson torn apart by an animal with a Winnie-the-Pooh-like sweet tooth. Now I have my own personal testimony to add to the list.

And there's always the consolation of lunch, even--perhaps, especially--so simple a one as homemade walnut rye spread with excellent butter and topped with a slightly sun-warmed slice of Wisconsin baby swiss, a mild, sweet and nutty cheese, and a fine local craft beer, in this case a New Glarus brewery "Hearty Hop" india pale ale. The focus isn't so great, but I think you can make out their slogan:

Thus fortified, I traveled a short distance to another stream and though I had to fight through alders and nettles, and ponder a stream that at times disappeared right in front of my eyes, split into rivulets and disguised by tall grasses, and was chased by an angry mother mallard, had to crawl under electric fencing and through barbed wire, and had my casting technique assessed by a herd of curious cows, I found water enough, and fish, our native char, the brook trout, which I have recently come to think of as "chickadees of the stream," and found my fisherman's reward.

And later, while the fish cooked over a fire of apple and oak, yet more reward:

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

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