In a previous morning's rambling through the then deserted campground
I had discovered a path that led from the ground's turnaround down to
the river. There was a "beach" there composed mostly of small rocks.
The river had also dug a bit of a hole there, beside a large boulder.
Mason had worn his swimming trunks on our failed trek to the Nurses
Lakes, hoping against hope that he might find some swimmable water in
a part of the country where 65 degrees was considered an aquatic heat
wave. He was still wearing them as we pottered about the cabin, making
lunch and drinking coffee. As the afternoon wore on I suggested a
little visit to the beach. Mason could possibly "swim" there and, my
true ulterior motive revealed, I could wade down through the water
that flowed through the West Big Rock River Association lands.
We loaded up the Subaru with towels, face mask and snorkel and fishing
gear and drove through the campground to the path. A couple of sites
were now occupied. We disgorged our stuff and strolled to the rivers
edge. After just a minute or two, a couple of twenty-something campers
showed up wanting to know if the water was deep enough to swim and
snorkel in ("Only for an 8 year old"). We poked about the beach,
finding a nice eclectic mix of rocks. There were fossils from Lion
Mountain and all types of metamorphic and igneous stones from even
farther up the drainage. Then while Mason made a quick foray into the
icy water I wadered up and eased into the braided channel that wound
down past the "You Are Leaving National Forest Property" sign nailed
to the fencepost next to the beach.
Now things here get fuzzy. This is all being written from memory, of
course, but I seem to have sharper memories of events both before and
after my little sojourn into the "private" waters of Messrs. Keaton,
Brokaw et.al.. The aforesaid parties are all members of the West Big
Rock River Association. They banded together to buy up a parcel along
the river, ostensibly to keep it from development, a laudable goal.
The cynical part of me wondered why buying the parcel and donating it
to the public wouldn't also have preserved it from development, but it
was, after all, their money to do as they see fit. The WBRRA compound
is certainly modest compared to the McMansions being built on the
lower river and, in the low flows of August, the river is available to
anyone ambitious enough to put a little felt sole to the streambed.
Looking Down Through "WBRRA Water"
I was wondering if the non-public land bracketing the river would mean
larger numbers of fish. And I immediately caught two cutthroats, both
an easy cast from the "beach". But then, as I worked my way down the
river resumed its strange character, with no fish lying in obvious
holds, no fish skittering away in panic from a careless footstep, no
fish rising casually in mid stream to snag an errant bug. But I had
learned from my previous four days on the water. And what I had
learned was the direct correlation between fallen, instream timber and
fish. The current on the West Big Rock is fast, even mid calf deep
water could be hard to wade through. But one of the attributes of that
current speed is that a number of trees, mostly small firs, were
undercut and fell into the river, with tips extending downstream.
Most of these trees held fish. Not a lot of fish, usually just one. I
took a small cutt below a still green treetop. I noticed that this was
the first fish with an obviously hook scarred jaw. I took another,
nicer brown (maybe 11") next to a bare, gray trunk. I'm sure I caught
at least a few other fish but here is where the memory becomes hazy.
And I think I know why. I was pre-occupied. Always in the back of my
mind was the fear that I'd round a bend and there meet one of the
guests of the WBRRA or even one of the Lords of the River themselves.
Now, I knew I was on rock solid legal grounds to be where I was. I was
obviously below the AHW mark. The influence of the current could be
seen on the shoreline far above the height of the occasional gravel
bar I cut across to avoid wading fishy looking water. But still, I
wondered what it would be like to meet someone the likes of a Brokaw
on water that flowed through land liberally sprinkled with keep out
and no trespassing signs.
Hook Scarred Cutt
So I can't recall exactly how many fish I ended up catching. I think
half a dozen is about right. And every trout came from woody cover,
mostly tight against the bank. I remember I came to a extremely deep
bend hole, with a wad of blue plastic snowfence entangled in the logs
and brush piles on the outside of the bend. The bottom was actually
invisible in parts, other parts were a deep aqua green, with the
bottom cobbles barely showing. The kind of hole that here in Wisconsin
would hold fish, big ones in the bottom, smaller ones scattered in the
marginal niches around its edges. I drifted flies of every description
through that place. Dries on top, from hoppers to Klinkhamers.
Streamers and nymphs through the mid levels and with a string of split
shot clamped to my tippet deep and slow along the bottom. Not a single
fish rose or hit. No sign that this hole, with perfect cover and a
food factory of a riffle above it, held a single trout. Strange and
So I turned around there and headed upstream. It was getting close to
dark. I was still picking up an occasional brown. I hooked one fish
that did his mini-Atlantic salmon act, leaping and running. When the
14" trout was in my hand I thought I noticed a splash of blood.
Dismayed I saw the tippet disappear into the fishes mouth and a quick
look showed the Royal Trude hooked deep back in his inside cheek, near
the gills on the right side. I nipped the 5x off near his lips,
leaving the fly undisturbed. I then waded over to quieter backwater
and laid the fish down. And it immediately shot back into the fast,
cold water downstream. I always wonder in these situations whether I
should have kept the fish. This time the appearance of blood was
fleeting, if even really present at all. But I've let other deep
hooked fish go. Some, I'm sure, later expired. Why not keep them? This
was a legal fish, big by the standards of the River back home. Brown
trout is not my favorite fish to eat, not even close. But I'm sure
fried up in a little butter and washed down with some of the Rolling
Rock in the cabin's fridge he would have gone down just fine. But
instead I let him go. Hopefully he's still swimming midst the broken
stubs of some decrepit spruce.
If I remember correctly I took another brown on my way up. I know I
caught one with its own hook scarred jaw, the second of the day and
the only two such marked fish for the entire trip. Then as the dusk
was deepening I saw what I had been waiting for. A pod, a whole pod,
of fish were rising in a small pool below an equally small riffle.
This was more like it. For some reason it was more comforting to me
the think my ineptitude was why I was seeing so few fish, rather than
accept that most of that beautiful fishy looking water was empty of
trout. And here, slurping some unseen bug 30 feet in front of me, was
the proof that I had been clumsily schlepping my way past legions of
West Boulder trout.
I think I had another Royal Trude on. Whatever fly it was, it was
nudged and then rejected by the feeding trout. Odd, most of the fish
rising I had come across hit whatever you threw at them. I put down
the nearest fish. I then started going through flies. I can't remember
what all I tried but I do remember that I ended up fishing with a #16
Adams Parachute. While my casts and/or missed strikes would put the
fish off for a couple minutes they would resume feeding after a very
short rest. The closest fish in the pod had been regularly rising
while I re-rigged. I floated the little gray bug over him and he took.
Solidly. The surface was shattered by the fishes thrashing. But there
was no run, no feeling of an organized attempt to escape. But the
fish was heavy and it churned the surface of the pool. But I brought
it slowly in and by the time he was in hand I wasn't surprised to see
its pointy little snout and its underslung jaw. 16 inches of Mountain
Whitefish lay in my hand's palm. The Adams dangled rakishly from its
leathery mouth's corner. I slipped the barbless hook free and eased
him back home. He swam leisurely off to join his companeros who were
still working the feeding lane. I kept on moving upstream.
Just before I hit the little beach I came alongside a silvery log,
spiked with the broken off stubs of branches long gone. Deep under the
log I saw a tiny rise. Then another, this time a small bubble floated
in its place for an instant. I side armed the small Adams under the
recess and the water exploded. With my rod still held parallel to the
water I man handled the fish from his tank trap of a home. I got him a
foot or two away, my rod bent in a very serious arc, when the fish
changed tactics and headed for the submerged end of the tree. My
tippet held though and he swung in a broad arc throwing up a wake from
his beating tail. He repeated the maneuver and again by pulling him
sideways I made him repeat his imitation of a waterskier slaloming
behind a 200 horse Merc. Then he ran towards . Giving up my frantic
cranking in a vain effort to regain slack I started to strip in the
line. The slackened end of my line sped past my left foot and the fish
tightened up on his own accord and when the pressure came back on he
wallowed on the surface pulling my rod tip almost to the water before
I eased the strain on my tippet by letting some line slide off from
between my fingers. Then he came back towards me and dove. Through the
line I could feel the rocks he was bulldogging through and then I
could see that he had wrapped me around one of them. I raised my rod
high to get the tippet free of the rock but no go. The fish made
another lunge... and was gone.
Looking Up Through "WBRRA Water"
The biggest brown I've ever landed was just a tad less than 19". This
fish felt much bigger. It was certainly the the gamest fighter of any
trout I've ever had on. As I ran the end of my abraded leader through
my fingers I tried to decide if I had enough light to tie on a new
tippet and fly and keep on casting my way upstream. I decided I
didn't. So I went back to the cabin and a cold beer.
george, it has been a pleasure. work such as yours goes a long way
towards making this place worthwhile.
my thanks to you.