Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Smallies, Turns out you can go home again.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
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I was northbound on State Highway 63 in eastern Wisconsin, nearing the end of the long drive from Colorado in a peculiar state of mind. If you’ve never experienced one, it’s impossible to describe the quality of road trance these solitary drives can induce. Suffice it to say that after thinking things over for 1,100 miles, I’d arrived at the inescapable conclusion that at the right distance and in a certain light, a mature cottonwood tree looks like an enormous head of broccoli.

Highway 63 is one of those rural two-lane blacktops that are in no particular hurry. It takes its own sweet time meandering past farms and lakes at an average speed of 45—which seemed like walking speed after the interstate—and then slows abruptly to 25 as it becomes the main street of one small town after another. At this point I was in no hurry either. Up until then it had all been about making time, and through Nebraska and Iowa I’d enjoyed the symmetry of going 80 miles an hour on Interstate 80. But by then I was within two hours or so of Hayward, where I’d meet my friends Wendy Williamson and Larry Mann, who run the only fly shop in town. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and we wouldn’t be fishing until tomorrow, so I had all the time in the world to drift into town, pick up a fishing license and move into the empty apartment above the shop they were letting me use. I wouldn’t have to wait for them to come back from their respective guide trips to get in. This being northern Wisconsin, the apartment would either be unlocked or the key would be under the mat.

I spent part of my youth around here—right next door in Minnesota, actually—but for the purpose of nostalgia I claim this entire region as my home ground, more or less from the Dakotas east to Lake Michigan. My family moved around when I was young, so I lived in other places as a kid, but those years in the upper Midwest were what they’d now call pivotal. The place was a paradise for the kind of sportsman I aspired to be and I was finally old enough to paddle a canoe, run an outboard, and fish and hunt without undue supervision. I’d also long since figured out that girls were more than just boys who dressed funny, but I was then on the verge of working out what a guy might actually do about that, given sufficient courage. In other words, I was just beginning to glimpse the field of adult possibilities that I haven’t yet exhausted after almost 50 years.

Of course things—including me—have changed since then, but I still feel oddly at home here, as you do in a place where you no longer belong but once did. I’ve never dared to go back to the lakes I fished as a kid for obvious reasons, but I’ve been back to the general area several times and aside from cell phones, video rentals and the odd sign advertising “awesome yoga mats,” things seem pretty much as I remember them. The countryside is still a patchwork of farms, lakes, rivers and woods; many small towns still have statues of walleyes instead of war heroes in the park; cheese curds are still inexplicably considered a delicacy and waitresses still call you “Hon.”

So with time on my hands I stopped for lunch at a roadhouse straight out of my idyllic youth, with deer and fish mounts on the walls and Formica booths with cracked plastic seats patched with duct tape. I ordered the regulation hot pork sandwich on white bread with a pound of mashed potatoes on the side, the whole thing slathered with industrial-strength brown gravy. The waitress who delivered this thing was a cheerful 300-pounder, in case there was any doubt about the dangers inherent in a steady diet of Midwestern comfort food.

The next morning, Wendy and I floated a stretch of the Chippewa River. It was a warm, sunny June day after a week of steady rain, so we dawdled more than we normally would in the morning to let the water warm up. On the drive to the river the woods looked lush and steamy, and there were fresh puddles on the shoulder.

This spell of soggy weather had gone on intermittently for weeks and was shaping up not as an isolated event, but as a definitive break in the drought that had kept the rivers worrisomely skinny for the past several years. It’s an article of faith in the Midwest that when rain spoils a picnic people say , “at least we need the moisture,” but in this case it was God’s own truth.

The Chippewa was now bank full and Wendy’s sense of relief had settled into a kind of suppressed giddiness. Shifts in the weather used to just be shifts in the weather, but now, with everyone looking over their shoulders at global climate change, there’s the fear that any extreme could become the new normal. And when you guide fishermen for a living, the thought of your rivers drying up is the stuff of nightmares. So Wendy kept pointing out sunken gravel bars that had been bone dry last year and submerged rocks that used to be 10 feet up the bank. She really wanted me to visualize it, and I did remember walking the boat over some bony spots on this river a few years before, but in the end I was just another tourist whose curse is to never fully comprehend the backstory.

We caught nice-size smallmouth bass on topwater bugs at what I thought was a fairly good clip. There’d be 15 minutes of fruitless casting followed by a fishy bank where I’d get five hits and hook and land two or three fat bass. Wendy said the fishing was slow, but then guides endure so many clients who expect non-stop thrills that they sometimes lose sight of reality and set their own bars too high. In fact this was perfectly good fishing for someone who still believes—in spite of a lifetime’s worth of evidence to the contrary—that catching fish is pretty unlikely. Most of the fishermen I know fully expect to catch something when they head out in the morning, but for some reason I’m still as skeptical of the whole business as I was at age five when I first lowered a baited hook out of sight over the gunwale of a rowboat. Some mean older boys had already sent me on a snipe hunt, and I thought this could be yet another practical joke.

The bass were scattered that day, as they tend to be in a river that’s recently risen several feet. You can get technical about what this means to both fish and fishermen, but it comes down to bare statistics: You’ve got the same number of bass as before, now spread out in twice as much water and as puzzled as you’d be if your neighborhood suddenly doubled in size.

Of course when bass get flummoxed, they hunker down in the thickest cover to wait things out, so the best cast was one that tucked the bug in so tight that its rubber legs were hugging a rock or log. The fish wouldn’t move far for a fly, but when it was right where they wanted it you’d get those quick, precise takes that are unlike those of any other gamefish.

Smallies have the air about them of being all business. They’re compact, chunky and muscular; greenish bronze-colored overall with broken olive/brown vertical bars to break up their silhouettes. They’re so beautifully camouflaged that sometimes it’s hard to see one in clear water even when it’s within half a leader’s length of the boat. In the hand they feel hard, cool, slick and vaguely grainy. Every few years some fishing-industry wonk declares that smallmouth bass are poised to become “the next trout” in some bottom-line marketing sense, but so far they’ve persisted in being just what they are. If a brook trout comes off as a delicate creature on its way to a party, a smallmouth bass is a guy in coveralls clocking in at work.

I bore down and made some accurate casts, some of which drew strikes. Every once in a while Wendy would quietly say “Nice,” the single word that, coming from a guide, makes a fly caster’s heart soar. Of course other casts fell far short of accurate, as usual, leaving me to wonder what the hell just happened. When you make a near-perfect cast, or even two or three real nice ones in a row, you naturally wonder why they can’t all be that good, because apparently you have it in you. Likewise, when you occasionally say just the right thing, you wonder why you say the wrong thing so often.

The next day the rain was back, and Larry and I floated the Namekagon in a steady, daylong downpour. Foul weather adds an emotional dimension to the boondocks, and although the river was within sight and sound of a state highway in places, it looked as remotely beautiful and deserted as a tributary of the Amazon. We had it all to ourselves. No one else was dumb enough to be out in a boat in the pouring rain.

We caught bass at a leisurely pace through the morning, alternating between Larry’s current favorite bug, the Umpqua Swimming Baitfish, and some fabulous bass bugs that had been sent to me out of the blue by a Frenchman named Jacques Bordenave, who had read and liked some of my books. Aside from being the most flawlessly tied deerhair bugs I’ve ever seen, they were designed brilliantly along the lines of a Whitlock Diving Frog, only more elaborately colored (“for the pleasure of the eyes,” Jacques said) and with wider, flatter bodies that made them dive deeper and wiggle more seductively. The fish liked them, and so did the half-dozen bass fishermen I showed them to. They all wanted to know where they could buy some, and I enjoyed putting on airs by saying that they were tied for me privately in France and were unavailable commercially.

It must have been mid-afternoon when the fishing shut off completely. The water temperature had been cool to begin with, and according to Larry’s digital stream thermometer the rain had been chilling the river at the rate of about a degree per hour. Bass are all about water temperature, and when it approaches and then passes their lower avoidance level, the jig is up, simple as that. We anchored out for lunch and sat with our backs to the wind, hunched over to make dry spots just big enough to keep our sandwiches from getting soggy. At this point someone is required to say, “You know, there are people who wouldn’t think this is fun.”

I can’t recall if I kept casting as we rowed out, or just watched the river go by. I know there were several miles to the takeout, but in my memory, the day ended while we were still hunched over our sandwiches. My notes don’t help. All I wrote in my log that night was, “Tuesday it rained.” What else can you say?

Wednesday was still raw and gray, but the rain had petered off to intermittent, gusty squalls. There were periods of as much as half an hour when you could lower the hood on your rain jacket. This increases your peripheral vision and relieves the claustrophobic sense that you’re casting from inside a culvert.

Larry took me to a stretch of the West Fork of the Chippewa that he hadn’t been able to fish for several years. The river here flows through flat country with a current so imperceptible it gives the impression of being a long, skinny lake. But to get in there you have to negotiate a quarter mile or so of rocks and riffle below the put-in that until recently hadn’t had enough water in it to float a drift boat.

Larry said we might get a muskie in there, and the place had that look to it. Dense mats of wild rice, bulrushes, cattails and arrowroot bordered the slow channel. The water was clear, but stained the color of strong orange pekoe tea from all the rain percolating through a forest floor made of pine duff and dead leaves, giving everything under the surface a metallic reddish cast. It was perfect for a big ambush predator with the unlikely combination of glacial patience and a short fuse.

Muskie are a fact of life in these rivers, so smart bass fishers tie their flies onto 50-pound fluorocarbon shock tippets to avoid losing too many expensive deerhair bugs. Some traditional muskie lures can be a foot long, but early in the season muskie eat the same frogs, mice, crawdads and small baitfish that bass do. On previous trips I’d caught a few muskie by mistake while bass fishing, and at other times I’d targeted them specifically—with equal results using the same flies. Whether I expected them or not, they were among the nastiest things I’d ever hooked on a fly rod. Of course I mean “nasty” in the best possible sense.

Larry opened one of his briefcase-size plastic fly boxes and handed me a large gray-and-white swimming baitfish pattern with an orange band around its middle. It didn’t look like any living thing I’d ever seen, but it looked good and I obediently tied it on. There’s some intuition to fly selection, and I trust Larry’s more than mine.

In a deep spot in that stretch of fast water I hooked a small bass off the bank and missed a muskie I didn’t see, but that Larry said wasn’t big. It was a beginner’s mistake: With the fly still in the water, I’d glanced up to look for the next spot and had begun the strip for my backcast. The fish naturally chose that instant to nip at the fly. There are a thousand things to know about muskie, but only two are crucial. One is that if a muskie follows your fly and you stop or even slow the retrieve, he’ll lose interest. The other is that he’s fearless and will often follow the fly right to the boat, so you should never, ever take your eyes off it.

I picked up a few more small bass that day, but mostly it was the long, steady slog of muskie fishing where it can be hours if not days between strikes. Once an ominous bulge followed my fly for a few feet off a bank, but nothing came of it. Later, on what had become just another one of hundreds of casts, there was a sudden, violent rush of water and a splash that resembled an anvil dropping in the water. Out of shock and awe, I set up too soon and ripped the fly away before the big muskie could grab it.

Larry put on a professorial voice and said, “In my role as guide, I’d now normally say that you should wait until you feel the weight of the fish before you set the hook, but there’s nothing I can do about 50 years worth of ingrained reflex.” In other words, “You screwed it up, but then you already know that.”

On the morning of what would have been my last day of fishing, I was awakened before dawn by what sounded like a street sweeper going by outside. But it didn’t go by, and when I got up to look it turned out to be the roar of pounding rain punctuated by flashes of lightning. When I heard Larry come in to open the shop I went downstairs, and we stood with cups of coffee looking out at a frog strangler that all but obscured the ice cream shop across the street. It would have gone without saying, but after a clap of thunder that rattled the windows, Larry said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going fishing today.”

The day before, Wendy and I had done a float on the beautiful Flambeau River where I’d caught just the right number of bass—enough to lose count, but not so many as to ruin the sightseeing—including one late in the day that was as close to perfect as they get. He wasn’t all that big, but he was parked in a narrow divot in the bank the way you’d pull a car into a garage. My cast put the deerhair body of the fly in the water with its tail lying on the grassy bank, and the fish all but crawled up on dry land to eat it. Wendy said, “That guy was holding a little tight.”

Back in the fly shop, two customers in full raingear came in after shaking off like wet dogs on the front steps. They were dressed for fishing and bought some flies, but instead of bustling back out again they joined Larry and me as we stared blankly out at the weather. I was thinking about my long drive home. Larry might have been thinking about the clients he had booked over the coming weekend when, even if the rain stopped, the rivers would be too cold for bass. He’d have been weighing a few days of poor fishing against the enduring condition of the rivers, and taking the long view.

The customers had been all bluster and determination when they came in, but now seemed on the verge of changing their minds. All four of us just stood there for what seemed like the longest time.

John Gierach has written FR&R’s Spor-ting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.