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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments by interested readers are welcome. Back links to non-topical (spam) websites will be treated as spam and deleted.