Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Back to the Stream 2015

I inaugurated the 2015 fishing season on Sunday with a trip to the Whitewater region of southeastern Minnesota.  It has become my tradition over the years to make a trip or three to Minnesota waters in the second half of April.  The regular (i.e., catch and kill, rather than catch and release) season in Minnesota opens a couple of weeks earlier than in Wisconsin, which opens for hook ‘em & cook ‘em the first Saturday of May, Kentucky Derby day.  Both states have lengthy catch and release seasons during the winter and early spring months, and some years ago I did fish Wisconsin streams in April.  You can have some impressive days of catching fish if you come upon an early mayfly, stonefly, or caddis fly emergence.  Also, it just seems that the fish are less wary at that time of year, maybe because there hasn’t been too much to eat over the winter.

But I have eschewed the early season fishing in recent years because I don’t agree with the catch and release “ethic.”  As much as I appreciate all the aesthetic aspects of flyfishing for trout, I’m a meat fisherman at heart, and I don’t like the “moral” distinctions that some catch and release advocates apply to the legitimate choices available to those who practice this pastime.  So I generally back up my position by not stringing up my rod unless there’s a legal opportunity to put a trout or two in my creel.  Which is not to say I won’t waver in my convictions on some bluebird day during the early season, maybe even next April; or indeed that I won’t find a principled justification for poaching the odd trout.  You just never know.  It pays to keep your options open.

I hadn’t been planning to round up the gear and head for the stream on Sunday, but when I looked at the week ahead it suddenly seemed like one of the few days I would be able to get away.  We have this new little creature in the house, a nine-week-old griffon puppy named Gracie, and she’s pretty high maintenance.  Actually she’s a sweetheart, and worth all the trouble (so far), but with Mary away at work part of the week, I knew I would have to be around the house, and then there were other obligations on other days…. It’s just really unconscionable that life often shows so little regard for fishing.

Sunday was actually looking like a prime day for fishing—overcast and spitting a bit, but not too cold or windy, and no downpours in the forecast.  My only reluctance arose from the fact that the Minnesota trout season had opened just the day before, and opening weekend can bring out crowds of fisherfolk who in those conditions do not always display the finest aspects of their nature.  Still I figured it would be worth a shot in the slightly rainy conditions; with some years of experience on southeastern Minnesota streams, and a little patience, I thought I’d be able to find some quiet water to fish.

There weren’t many vehicles parked along the branch of the Whitewater River, a nice surprise.  But when I reached the DNR lot in the wildlife management area through which the river flows, six vehicles had beaten me there—not much of a surprise there, since it was already late morning.  I hesitated only briefly.  There were miles of river upstream from here, with no easy public access.  It was also likely that some of the vehicles had arrived together for an opening weekend gathering, and so the fishermen would be clumped.  And then, if nothing else, it was a pleasant enough day for a walk in the woods.  I was pretty sure the ramps would be up, and so I would find something edible to take home.

I’ve been fly fishing for 25 years now, so recalling how to put a rod together and tie on a fly is not difficult, even if I haven’t done it in the last seven months.  I walked in waders, wading boots, vest, and a faded Badgers baseball hat down the rutted two-track with a steep wooded hill on my right and a stubble cornfield on my left.  Beyond the cornfield, across the river, limestone bluffs aspired, with birches, pine, and aspen on their flanks.  It’s a spectacular valley, and there are many good reasons to visit there, but it’s fishing that I know will always bring me back.

I had planned a good long hike to assure myself some undisturbed fishing, but as I came over a rise five minutes or less into my walk, I looked to the left and saw the river through the still leafless trees, and it looked like nice riffle water, and I saw no one fishing it.  My habit had always been to hike well upstream from here, but then aren’t habits made to be broken, I asked myself?  So I made the premature diversion thinking, well, if the hoards descend, I’ll revert to Plan A.  But it turned out to be a good call, with no need for second thoughts.  I fished happily for about three hours, and saw exactly three other people, at a distance.  No one walked into my water, and I did not round a bend to discover a party of raucous metal-chuckers.  It was an opening weekend miracle.

It wasn’t looking like a dry fly day: no rising fish, no apparent insect activity.  I tied on a girdle bug, a simple concoction of black chenille and white rubber legs; and then to a length of tippet tied to the bend in the girdle bug’s hook I knotted on a small hare’s ear nymph, which to the layman’s eye looks like a little brown fur wound around a hook, because that’s pretty much what it is.  Flies don’t necessarily have to be fancy to fool fish.

I waded into the stream in a shallow riffle with a rocky bottom, and as I sensed the water rushing over the top of my boots my blood rushed, too, with a sense of exhilaration.  Fishing writing can easily go over the top with evocations of mystical communion between the fisher and the natural world, but is indeed something of a sense of rebirth when you first step into a river after the long off-season.

Or as Nick Adams might have said: It was good.

Right away then, the fishing proved to be good, too.  Below the riffle where I entered the river the current divided into runs along either bank.  Casting first to the left I had a hit on my third cast, and failed to hook the fish, and then another hit a few casts later, and again my timing was off.  Nothing more on that side, but I was encouraged to know the fish were active, looking for food.  Casting then to the slightly deeper run on the right side, I lifted my arm after my third cast and saw the rod take on that splendid bend, and felt the line go taut, and there it was, fish on for the first time in 2015.

It was a lovely fish, too, a deep, chunky brown trout gold along its flanks, probably a little more than a foot long.  Meat fisherman though I am, I observe a small ritual of always releasing the first fish of the year, so once I had reeled the fish in close I ran my hand down the leader until I could grab the hare’s ear nymph stuck in the side of the trout’s lower jaw, gave it a quick twist and watched the fish turn and dive to safety on the bottom.  I never touched the fish or brought it out of the water.  
And from there the afternoon proceeded like…a really nice afternoon of fishing.  The only real negative was seeing several styrofoam worm containers discarded along the streambanks, which was irksome for two reasons--mainly because of the littering, also because this section of river is designated artificials only, no live bait allowed.  (The no worms rule was instituted to support a catch and release fishery, so I should probably feel a little more umbrage about it, if I were consistent.  When a fish goes for live bait it will often completely swallow the hook; this almost never happens with flies or other artificial lures.)

Probably the highlight—which was also, ironically, the biggest disappointment—was hooking a really good fish in a deep run not far downstream from where I started.  I cast across the run and let the flies sink and sweep through, and about in mid-stream my line took a jolt, my rod bent violently, and the reel whined as line peeled off.  I tussled with the fish for a bit, until it moved upstream, took the line down.  As the line went down I also had a sinking feeling.  One moment I was experiencing the thrill of playing a really nice fish; the next I was still standing there with the line taut, rod in that dynamic curve, yet everything was different.  The trout, which had taken the nymph, had found a log along the bottom of the stream and swum under it; the hook of the girdle bug had gotten stuck in the log, allowing the fish to break the tippet and swim away.  All I could do was roll up my sleeve, reach down the leader as far as I could without going snorkeling, give a tug and break the tippet.  I was lucky that the tippet broke right where it was tied to the hook, and I didn’t have to perform major leader repair.

I caught a few more fish, including one that was just barely under 12 inches, and that fish went in the creel.  Careful measurement is required on this stream to observe the regulations, for there is a no-kill slot of 12 to 16 inches, meaning all fish in that range must be released.  You are allowed to keep five fish under 12 inches, or four under 12 and one over 16.  I don’t think I’ve ever caught a 16-inch trout in that stream.

Although brook trout were native to this region, the introduced “German” brown trout now predominates.  I’ve never heard or seen them referred to as an invasive species, though.

The ramps were indeed in prime condition on this 18th day of April, and I picked a nice sack full.  A spring trickles through the ramps patch, and this year it was wearing a lovely coat of green—nice, perky watercress.  I brought some of that home, too.  Also a few sprigs of mint growing along the streamside path, which I used to make a sort of julep with a bit of birch syrup and 2 Gingers whiskey.  I noticed other wild edibles:  garlic mustard (always referred to as an invasive species) and stinging nettles.  When I have ramps and cress I’m not that interested in garlic mustard, and I have nettles a’plenty all around the edges of my yard.

With the opening day’s bounty from stream and woods I made a simple, seasonal meal.  I fileted the trout, chopped the bones and put them in a saucepan with a chopped shallot, stuck that in a hot oven to brown up.  Then I added some white wine, chicken stock and water, and let it reduce and infuse, still in the oven.   

To anchor the plate I prepared a recipe I had never made before, “schupfnudeln” from David Bouley’s East of Paris.  It’s a sort of noodle-gnocci hybrid, a potato dough with egg and butter that you roll with your hands into short, thick noodles.  It was really easy to work with, and very tasty, and I’m thinking I may make a couple big batches to freeze, since I have a lot of potatoes in the basement that aren’t going to be good for much longer.

You boil the nudeln, then brown them in a fry pan.  For the fat I chopped a little of our home-smoked bacon.  As the noodles were starting to brown I tossed in a couple generous handfuls of chopped ramps, mainly the bottom white and red part.  I also chopped a good handful of the ramp greens and added these to some melted butter.  The butter I brushed on the skin side of the trout before sticking it in a hot convection oven, and cooked it until it just started to brown.

I added a little more wine and a little butter to the reduced stock/sauce at the end.  Laid down a bed of the lovely brown, fragrant, bacony noodles, some fresh cress on top of that, spooned the sauce over that, and crowned it with the trout.  

This, to me, is the sort of meal so emblematic of the way we live, of the way we have chosen to live and eat, that it’s beyond the realm of food criticism of any traditional sort.  But it was wonderful, and we cleaned our plates.

That’s my story of the first fishing outing, and first trout stream meal of 2015.  If you’ve made it this far, I thank and applaud you.  It’s a perennial story that I always feel is worth telling again.  I hope you enjoyed it.


Nancy Miller said...

That makes me want to fish. I think I was a teenager the last time I did, which was a few years ago. The noodles I will definitely make soon.
Last spring, when you were here for your Waupaca Library presentation, you left me some ramps. I planted them, crossed my fingers, and waited. They all came up this spring! I pulled two of them, trimmed the leaves from two more, and left the rest for a more bountiful harvest next year. Thanks.

WIDBA said...

As with all "busy with life" fisherman, this sentence "It’s just really unconscionable that life often shows so little regard for fishing." really hits home.

Makes me want to grab the fly rod and hope the ramps come soon (granted todays snow is making that seem like a far away possibility).

Wendy Berrell said...

Nice. Fished same system next day.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Nancy: You know you have some pretty fine trout water in your neighborhood, if that urge to fish become more than you can resist! Delighted to hear the ramps are happy in their new home.

Zach, I hope you are able to log some quality stream hours this year. The ramps are up as early as I can remember. We've been eating them at every meal for a couple of weeks now.

Good to hear from you, Wendy. I fished to a massive caddis hatch on that same stretch last week.