Wednesday, September 19, 2018


Upper West Fork where the little brookie was caught



Part one: We go fishing


The morning broke slowly, and the damp mists shrouded our progress up Bohemian Valley creek. It was as beautiful as it was quiet, the only sounds being the light adagio of woodwinds and muted percussion played upon the riffles; water music.

The tricos, or minute mayflies we were waiting for were quiet as well, for none were showing as we crept slowly forward, or sat with senses aware to sounds and taking in the surface of the water like a Shakespeare play… drama, or a lack of it to be exact. Some wise sage once said that there is no thing deader than a dead brown trout stream. Despite the divine spiritual beauty of the misty valley this morning, like a fog-shrouded church ruins, the trout were not having any. They just would not come out to play. No tricos showed for an hour, and no rising trout. Different fishermen would have placed an indicator on the leader, and attached a weighted nymph, but we wanted to play this game on our terms that day. As the years pass, it seems to become more and more important to just exist to witness the beauty of the rivers here in the Driftless, and part of the poetry in and on the rivers is to appreciate a few trout to hand, and the restraint to walk away happy with what the river gives you… a gift.

I did begin blind-casting a tiny size 22 trico dry fly just in case; a process not unlike playing the lottery without buying a ticket, and did manage to hook one small brown trout. Sometimes the number ‘1’ can be an existential victory. So we left the river happy. It had flowed in that valley for tens of thousands of years, and we would take up no more of its slow concept of time that day.

We stopped at Timber Coulee, the parent river, and another moss-bed incubator for the tricos, and progressed up a riffle as the sun began to warm the water. The tricos should be showing, but nature has her own rhythms, sometimes impossible to touch or feel, or interpret for a mere human soul. My friend of many years and adventures, memories and wisdom stored in the coming graying spotted a single rising trout, and covered him with a tiny caddis and caught him. The water-ghost was a brown trout full of coming autumn colors and fat. I took the lead up the 100-yard long riffle, but neither of us could raise a fish to a dry fly. So we left the river to its own terms… after all, we had both caught a single fish where there were thousands. Sometimes in life, a single sip of champagne tastes the finest when the glass is put down, and placed there to stay. You can watch the bubbles, and imagine the next sip, if there is one…

The next river we visited upon was the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. This gem of the Coulee region saw some of the first stream rehabilitation work that brought the Driftless area to trout angling prominence. The sections we were on were near the very headwaters. Often a change in valleys and streams will turn the cards over, and all comes up flushes, aces, and royalty. This was one of those days. As dead as the Timber system was, the West Fork treated us well indeed. The change in venue brought multiple trout to hand including a 13 inch brown that took the fourth drift of a skittered caddis under the grass of an undercut. I rarely get to hear the small Hardy perfect reel sing like that, even my partner heard the ratcheting from upstream, and the little bamboo 4-weight ‘Princess’ rod bent in a crazy curve. Interesting karma, since the reel was a gift from him many seasons and fish ago.

The river was good to us, and we felt a part of it like an old friend of many promises kept. We continued upstream, joined now by an old sage of the Driftless who has forgotten more about trout on the fly than many will ever know. Now we were three. We located a pod of trout mixed in with Largemouth Bass, an interesting combination. The bass were washed down from Jersey Valley lake, the impoundment and dam at the headwaters, and were making their living right there in the middle of a cold-water trout stream. It was juxtaposition as extreme as one can get: like a clown at a Harvard philosophy conference on the subject of aesthetics and epistemology. We cherished the privilege. Herr Sage picked apart the pod of trout, while we practiced standing on our lines and tying complicated knots of the macramé variety in our leaders. Yes, there are those moments too. Anyone who says it never happens to them, either only wets a line in their mind, or is lying.

We futzed about for another hour with the bass and trout, and moved upstream to a section I had not been back to in four years. It was a section of some old improvements from the 1980s still tentatively clinging to life after all these decades and the great floods of 2007 and 2008. Structure in name only, but the riffles held brookies and some browns. There is a magic place in many streams, an invisible border, a magic gateway where one is catching brown trout, and then as if passing through a black hole with a single step, catching only brookies. We stood at the threshold, one leg with the Fario, and one toe touching the Fontinalis. The ice age lay ahead with fish as old as the rocks in the stream bed, unchanged since long before man emerged from a cave, carved a stick, and attaching a string of horsehair and a bone hook, went forth to angle.

It was time to go now. Time. I ran ahead to the top of a riffle where an icy feeder stream poured in from the north. I cast a dry fly up to where the two waters met and the fly disappeared in a ring. The brook trout was all of 7 inches long. I held it in my hand. Its body was almost transparent, like the mirror I passed through to get here held the solidity, and all was clear as ice where I stood: frozen with ripe berries of color… blues and reds and halos. I looked at it. It looked back. Our eyes met. I released it back to its home. My hand held its halo, its negative, its shadow. It felt cold as deep earth… cold as the waters born there. This was its home. I was just passing through.

Time to leave. Time…

Part two: The tempest

I awoke at 1:30 in the morning to a cannonade in the north. My tired eyes witnessed a firework show on the horizon. The windows rumbled with the unending timpani of thunder. It went on forever… I fell asleep as the rain danced on the roof and spattered on my brow through the open window, the curtains rising with the mistrals to tickle my cheek. It was subtle and beautiful, this violence of nature.

I awoke anew. My phone was going off with little pings and beeps. I grabbed it and began to sort through the warnings and awake to the realities of the aftermath. Upper Vernon county and areas received over 12 inches of rain. Jersey Valley dam had breached and failed. Timber Coulee valley and Coon Valley downstream were destroyed. Bridges were knocked out, people were scrambling for information, and what was coming was not good. A sobering by nature. A reminder. A flooding like we have never seen before. Early pictures resembled a muddy world war one battlefield with trees shorn from artillery fire. It looked like death… like war… like a painting by William Orpen.

The West Fork of the Kickapoo was devastated. The Kickapoo itself was beginning to flood and the upstream towns were being evacuated. Nobody knew how to get anywhere due to roads being closed. People drove for an hour zigzagging back to where they started… and it was all headed downstream toward me. At 4:30 the next morning, our town received evacuation orders. Fortunately, Soldiers Grove had flooded so many times in the past that the main street business section along the S-curve in the Kickapoo had been demolished and relocated to higher ground. I was high and dry too at the top of a hill in my little house, so I went back to sleep.

At nine in the morning I walked the 400 yards down the hill to look at the Kickapoo. There were five-foot standing waves where a beautiful park had replaced the site of the old town. Everything was wrecked, but we were all safe, Gays Mills downstream would not be so lucky. Built in a shallow bowl in a wetlands area of the Kickapoo, floodwaters rise there and slowly recede. The last remaining businesses on the main street got flooded. That had never happened before.

I looked across the bridge back in Soldiers Grove, across the raging brown waters filled with hay bales, trees, parts of silos, and other flotsam of wreckage. There is a little sign on a post with a red line marking the high water mark back in 2008. The entire sign was under water. I turned around and walked back home. I was land-locked for two-days until the floodwaters receded. Fortunately, nobody lost his or her life in this epic mess.


Part three: Reflections


It was a week later that I began to tour the damage. I stood in my own footprints near the headwaters of the West Fork, only my footprints, and everything else had been erased like the finger of God. Everywhere we had been fishing the day before was erased. It was as if a lahar had been through the valley. I didn’t know where I was. Only the hills and the road gave any orientation. Where the river slowly jogged back and forth turning and twisting as a stream should dance, it now ran in a completely new and arrow-straight channel fifty feet wide and ten feet deep. The finger of God. I stood with my friend and just stared. The silence was tremendous.

Thousand of hours, countless dollars and efforts in the shape of stream improvements… gone.

A small dead brook trout lay in the mud at my feet. Its eyes no longer looked back… they stared too, unfocused now.

Had I hooked and released the last fish caught on the upper West Fork? It mattered not except to mull in my mind the sheer fragility of life. In the mud and debris were written lessons in a script decipherable only if I closed my eyes. To be mindful. To appreciate the smallest whispers. To cherish gifts of nature and friends, to never take anything for granted… I am but a speck of dust before nature, before God if you like.

I haven’t been out fly fishing alone since. Now it is with a close friend or a client. Perhaps I am haunted. Perhaps I held eternity in my hand for a moment and touched it. I know that this too will pass. All things are ephemeral now. My senses are more aware. I feel as if I can smell time.

The last photo I took of the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. Evening rise and mists.
Author’s note: Ephemeral means ‘transitory, transient, fleeting, passing, short-lived, momentary… It is also the root of the taxonomic name for the Mayfly, a favorite stream bred trout insect: Ephemera and Ephemerella. It seemed the perfect title to remind us to live in the moment, for all things are transitory.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Bibliophile to an Angle

Or an ode to books and the literature of fly-fishing

Author’s note: This is one essay that nearly defeated this writer. The examination of literature and themes of human expression as art and life through fly-fishing opened so many doors from expression, nature, curiosity, the human condition, the digital age, existentialism, and a hundred others that I started to get overwhelmed. This could be a book with two dozen chapters. A tome reflective of the human state of reading and not reading, of philosophy and the exploration of our humanity, achievements, fears, mortality, and everything else written down on the dozens of pages and notes I have taken in the last several months leading up to this actualization of putting pen to paper. Perhaps it can best be expressed as how it emerged, with interlocking and woven themes rather than chapters. Rivers flow and lines curve and so may words, if we are willing to read them. E.H. Summer 2018

When I was growing up, our house on the East Side of Milwaukee was full of books. Books sat on shelves, cascaded off cocktail tables, were piled on the floor, and carried in hand from room to room. For much of my youth my father sat engrossed in books, slowly smoking a pipe. Social gatherings often were occasions of passionate discussions of ideas and books, punctuated by booze and smoke. My father’s generation kept their minds sharp, even if their bodies were not always treated the best. Today sometimes I think we have come to the opposite problem: our bodies sacred, but our minds awash in a sea of data bytes, with no punctuation rooted-words to tie it all together.

As a curious child, I explored ideas with questions… pestering my parents to no end wanting to know the what, why, and how of everything. They had a set answer: “Look it up.” The search took place in books awash in dust and ideas, and often the journey was more important than the destination or answer, for it took one on diversions both small and large that opened the mind, and imprinted new thoughts or dimensions of perspective on a young mind. A transcendental journey away from the mundane.

My father found great wealth in books and was rich in ideas and knowledge. Indeed, late in his life he was at the home of a relative after a funeral, and was in an odd mood, as if he had been faced with his own mortality. One of the guests approached him as he stood alone quiet and reflective in the living room browsing through the shelves of books. “What are you doing?” the relative asked. “Looking at the books,” he replied, opening one briefly.

“Oh I hate books,” said the relative. “They cause dust, and I am allergic to dust.”

My father turned ever so slowly, and replacing the book gently and reverently in its slot, said “I would rather have dust in my lungs than dust on my brain.”

Thus, when it came time for his son to explore the world of fly-fishing, I naturally turned to books, and turned the first page in a lifetime journey.

The immortal Arnold Gingrich opened his literary exploration of the world of fly-fishing writing in ‘The Fishing in Print’ with the words:

“As Sparse Grey Hackle says, some of the best fishing is to be found not in water but in print. It follows that some of the best fishing partners are to be found not in life but in literature.”

A book, in its essence is a recording of thoughts and experiences, points of view and reflections. Stories, our stories… his story and history. Books allow ideas to be preserved in a timeless way… mirrors and windows through another’s eyes. They take us places we have never been, they augment dreams, and widen our world. They allow for exploration of ideas. Opening a book can be like an open-ended question: joy, fear, anticipation and validation… mortality and ecstasy captured through mere words on a page. Books are a lens into a different world, and an examination of the human experience… the human soul… the human story. Rivers are dividing points and joining points, moving water and flowing ideas and expressions… mirrors into introspection and perspective as words are.

When mankind placed pen to paper, and the written language emerged as a preservation tool, books were lovingly created and copied by hand. Even after the printing press was invented, cherished volumes were often kept under lock and key in vaults, so sacred and valued were the words. Libraries were the intellectual equivalent of treasuries… banks investing in or keeping knowledge. Words opened minds and that scared institutions such as the church, which spent much of their time and effort banning them and collecting them to file out of sight forever. Ideas can be dangerous. For us today they are free or nearly so. So free that we take them for granted, and don’t read them.

The greatest tribute to anything as far as human history is concerned is to capture it in art, and the written word, or literature, is one of the finest forms. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words, but I would add that a word conjures a thousand pictures, for the human mind is not two-dimensional, and words trigger imagination. The finest angling books or literature are often not entirely about fishing. Indeed, they are about life seen through our experiences while fishing. The human condition portrayed in the garden of analogy. William Humphrey wrote one of the greatest stories about fly-fishing in ‘The Spawning Run.’ It is a story about fishing, but in between the words are our own foibles laid bare in the bushes of life down by the river. Thus, the finest books are often not simple how-to or where to go typing, but viewing life, nature, art and philosophy through fly-fishing. Our little sport might be unique, for more words have been written about it than any other sport. Ernest Hemmingway wrote his most simple and essential novel, a single tale of man and a fish… which was not about fishing, but about life, existentialism, and the bigger realms. The ideas were as large as the dialog was simple and child-like. These stories endure and are endless as the rivers. Ars Longa Vitae Brevis. The writers may be gathering dust, but when we open their books, we hear their voices. Words are immortal. They give us something greater to chew on. To taste and reflect on. To live through. A hundred books, a hundred lives, and one reader living it all.

Yes, and books are there for learning. There on the shelf, the bookstore, the library or the hearth mantle available and accessible to all, only for the boldness of curiosity to open the cover and open our minds. Why boldness? Because sometimes books make us question things… even ourselves, and critical thinking can be dangerous to the self-assured. I wonder often if zealots like Halford the dry-fly dogmatic read books with their eyes tightly closed. We have to be open to ideas and desire to see the world as other’s see it. That wider view can be frightening or enlightening, depending on the reader. A closed mind is a closed book. Learning through books is something we can all do. The history of the sport, and the varied experiences and perspectives is our education off the water, allowing us to enjoy the fishing at a greater level when casting in it. Casting our fly into books can be as rewarding as wetting an actual line.

Explore wit and wisdom with Lyons as he stumbles through the rivers, laugh with Volker, discover the inner humor in Skues, Lose a day with Negley Farson in ‘Going Fishing,’ explore the north-west with Haig-Brown, Fish the world around and gain a lens into entomology and history with Schwiebert. Sit at a table with Ritz and Gingrich at a fishing club with a salon-like atmosphere where ideas are born and drown in martinis, and fishing is only the seed for the larger expressions of the mind. Sparse Grey Hackle (Arthur Miller) wrote a book almost entirely not about fishing… or was it about fishing in the end? We have to go there to see. We have to feed our mind along with our body. When we do, we find out why we might have not wanted to fish with Hemingway, or the development of the Irish wet flies with Kingsmill Moore, what we have gained and lost in tackle, the joys and losses in the tussle with memorable fish, discover Yeats and his poetry about fishing and nature, explore the north woods with Gordon McQuarrie, and even find ourselves feeling so slightly sheepishly guilty for enjoying these explorations off the stream as much as our time with rod in hand. There in an essence, was the author’s intent.

Of course, books also have tangibility, a physicality of touch and feel and smell that is clinically absent in the digital world. Books are read by the stream, by the fire, in the company of valued friends and pets, with wines, and exotic cheeses. Books are like tasting a new food. They each have a flavor as varied as the natural world and the human personality. The human writer wanting to be more, to exist in a larger sense, and create something larger out of a simple act. To separate ourselves from the animals through art and sport. Books have a durability as well. Treasured and saved. A gift to be given to ourselves again and again, and shared with others.

The digital world of today exists for a nano-second and moves on. It is designed for short-attention spans, and cultivates and harvests them. Forums don’t explore ideas like books do, they race through inane subjects like what is the best five-weight rod?… they are there and gone again. Books are like a fine wine slowly sipped and enjoyed for its character, its very uniqueness. Scanning typed data is like drinking 100 thimbles of different wines with a toothpick. We remember and enjoy nothing. Ten minutes later we are all back where we started.

Books and ideas are not to be constrained to a formula: 1,500 words with a side bar map and travel tips. Writing by numbers. Books are the soul of creativity, allowing the author to say what they want, go where they want to go, without hindrance. We owe a debt of gratitude to editors and publishers such as Gingrich and Lyons for allowing and championing just that… even if a book on fly-fishing was not always a good monetary bet.

Literacy can be defined as not just the ability to read, but the act of reading.

Books are our constant companions too, as are the stories and ideas. We absorb them and they become part of our experiences on the river. Rounding the bend on a spring creek, one remembers a passage in ‘Reflections of Rivers Past’, or wading a big river, find ourselves recalling a dozen passages of the naked fear when the author discovers that nature and water are in charge, a force not to be tamed or taken lightly, but respected. The written words peek out of the attic of our memory when we share the joy of landing a fish with an author who in that moment, captured the feeling so eloquently. We remember the words: flow, caress, spray, leap, pull, twist, dive, thunder and roar, cascade, liquid fear, anticipation, loop, cast, etc. The reels scream, the rods bend, the fish tussle, the angler is in doubt, the line breaks… the fish is freed. Then on to the next bend…

Our rod is a mere extension to a foreign realm: an upside down world where life breathes in water and knows next to nothing about the air-breathing world above the mirror of the surface. Liken the fly-rod to a spire on a cathedral creeping closer to god. Hope and mystery dwell in the nether worlds of heaven and water. We can only touch them for a moment. Words can take us there, and bring us home safely too. Books and words kindle our imagination and extend our season as we read of the rivers and fish while snow falls and the dog sleeps a dreamless sleep like the trout do under the ice on a dark January evening. We are there too, along with the author. We catch their fish along with them, triumph along with them, and fail when they do, howling a barbaric YAWP! echoing across the canyon or valley with our existence, achievements, fears, and frustrations. Then sit and reflect with print on the meaning of it all. Why do we fish? Why is this important to us? What about fly-fishing is so fascinating that we can’t get enough to fill us? The reflections have been written a thousand times in a thousand different ways, all worth the quiet to read them. Why did the author labor to record them? Was it vanity? Was it that he or she felt what many of us do; that fly-fishing is an art performed in water, but perfected in words?

The debt of gratitude is not just owed to the publishers, but to the authors themselves. We can thank them for the vicarious pleasures, for the absorbed learning, for the pure joy, and time filled with ideas by just reading their books. There is no greater tribute.

A new premium fly-rod made of space age plastics costs over $800 today. Most used ‘reader’ copy fly-fishing books can be had for under $20. With the used book availability of the internet, access to beginning a library has never been better. So for the price of one new fly-rod one probably doesn’t need anyway, we could purchase 40 books, and have a lifetime of experiences to enjoy, experiences we might never have without reading the travels of the authors: examinations of opinions we would never have been exposed to if we didn’t delve deep into the pages, history we may never have known and connections we never may have known existed without the words being recorded and bound.

There is another thing that we often find as an unexpected bonus by reading books. We discover ourselves.