Crouched down with my back to the wind, I pulled my hood over my head to shield myself from the icy wind that gnawed at my neck. With my other hand I dug through my pocket, grasping for a plastic wrapped packet of HotHands. I coaxed the packet out with my stiff achy fingers and tore it open, then I kneaded the packs until they came to life and breathed heat. I snuck each hot pack under my wool fingerless gloves and secured them against my bare palms.
With feeling and dexterity returning to my fingers, my thoughts turned back to fishing. I watched as my fishing partner tested the swirling waters of an outside bend on this quaint trout stream. We were deep in a trout valley of western Wisconsin, unknowingly fishing one of the last March trout openers.
The drab rolling hills around us were decorated with the snow-covered remnants of cornfields, abandoned farm implements, and patches of woodland. We were fishing a deeply cut and narrow wandering stretch of improved water on a small creek that purportedly held big browns. I was with a good friend, fondly known by our group as the older brother. He carried with him a casual sense of humor and the knack for clever observations. On this cold day, he quipped that early March in Wisconsin should be renamed ‘Bonus February’.
We moved up to the next run where it was my turn to fish. As I took my position at the edge of the creek, winter air plunged down the hillside, howled through the naked branches of frozen trees, and forced its way down the creek bed before blasting me in the face. Waiting for the wind to pass, I stared deep into the comforting green pools of this little trout creek.
The top two guides of my rod were frozen solid after my third cast and in haste to clear the ice, I snapped off over a foot of rod tip. The spare rods were back in the truck at our take-out spot 3 miles upstream. I excused myself from the older brother and began the lonely hike back to fetch a new rod.
Before I had the chance to stew over my misfortune, a cherry red Buick hummed to a stop next to me. The passenger window slid down and an older man leaned over from the driver’s seat and asked if I needed a ride. Jim, the owner of the Buick, was a gentle old farmer with perfect silver hair that had been tamed by eighty plus years of ardent combing. Not a hair out of place and he must’ve vacuumed his floor mats daily.
The little spring creek wandered right through his farm and he confirmed that, yes, there were large trout in this stretch of stream. In fact, his adult son had taken a 24” brown just last summer. His description of the giant curved bottom jaw on the trout added credibility to his story.
I swapped rods at the truck and the old farmer dropped me back where he had found me. I found the older brother at the next turn up from where I’d left him. We continued up the creek moving the occasional fish. Finally, the older brother came tight to a sluggish brown trout. It was a fine fish for this sized creek, but when it came time to take a picture, the trout disappeared into his massive hands and cowered behind his sausage fingers.
Aside from that fish, this steep banked little stream had not been kind. I was beginning to understand why so many of the guys in our group complained about fishing ‘improved water’. The fancy new rock outcroppings that Trout Unlimited inserted deep into the stream bank, and the bottomless holes they’d scraped out with a back hoe, made getting a streamer to a fish nearly impossible. Worse than that, the improvements gave the stream an unnatural feel.
We stopped for a break along the bank at the halfway point of our wade. We sat silently, as anglers do when fishing fails to match expectations. I wondered if the rest of the guys from the group were having a better opener than we were. The rush of water pouring from a small feeder creek into our trout stream helped to mute the still howling winds. The older brother pointed at the feeder, “I could swear I just saw a trout push out of that thing and dart right back in. It wasn’t a small fish either.” The mouth of the feeder creek had our attention now.
After a few minutes of intense staring, it happened again. Definitely a trout and a healthy one too. With renewed hope, we hurried over to the microstream for a closer inspection. It was no wider than a shoebox. I straddled the rill with one foot on either side and watched plump trout frantically pinball back and forth under my legs. They were everywhere. We traced the trout ditch back to an old concrete bridge, climbed up the embankment, crossed to the other side of the bridge and looked down.
Below us, on the upstream side of the bridge, sat the origin of the rill (and all those plump trout) – a beaver dam. The steamy dark water of the upper pool brimmed over the closest edge before cascading down branches and trees into the cleaner water of the lower pool. The surface of the lower pool danced with wakes and vees – a sure sign of active fish. We admired the beaver dam for a moment longer and then mapped out how we might go about fooling one of the big browns that surely lived here.
I crept softly down the hillside towards the lower pool and crawled to a small opening amongst the dead reeds. Quietly, I took my place on my knees on the left side of the pool, staying low to avoid disturbing any fish. Then I sent a few back casts carefully under the bridge before delivering my final forward cast to its target alongside some deadfall. I made two painfully slow strips before my line went tight and a big brown turned sideways.
“Good Fish!” the older brother, still at the bridge, shouted down. He thundered down the embankment and, in a flash, was standing next to me, net in hand. I wish I could say that the big brown fought valiantly, but the frigid waters and the sloth like nature of a beaver pond trout made for an unremarkable battle.
Hours later back at the hotel, the rest of the group took turns scrolling through our camera to get a glimpse of our beaver dam trout. At supper, we ordered hearty midwestern meals. Plates of meat, potatoes, sausage laden pizza, and bread – lots of warm bread – were piled like mountains on our table. We laughed through windburned faces and smiled through cracked lips as everyone shared their best story from the day. Some stories were so good they were told twice.
Later at the bar, discussions turned towards where we would fish tomorrow. Magical words like confluence, headwaters, and the nomenclatures of fiercely named trout streams hung in the air. One by one, weary anglers said their goodbyes and then bowed out from the evening celebrations. When morning came, we filed out of our rooms and went our separate ways. Most of us would not see each other again until the next opener.
The following March, a few guys, arrived to the valley ahead of the rest of the group and found that the heart of that little rill was gone. The beaver dam and its giant pools dancing with life had vanished. There were rumors that a group of stream conservation do-gooders had torn through the valley like a lynch mob, clearing any and all beaver dams they came across. The upstream side of the bridge was so thoroughly cleared that only a narrow fishless rill remained.
The beaver dam that briefly changed the fortune of that tiny fishless rill is gone and the March trout opener was shuttered years ago. I haven’t been back to that valley in a decade and I don’t have plans to return. I wince when I consider how many miles of trout stream could be improved in ten years – the entire valley might be unrecognizable. Jim, if he hasn’t already gone the way of the beaver dam, isn’t in any condition to give rides to unknown anglers. As I imagine it, his cherry red Buick hasn’t moved in years, collecting dust and cobwebs in one of his weathered old barns.
Thanks For Reading,
Captain Brian Boehm
Quiet Waters Fishing