So, I find myself in the Northwoods (That means I am in Northern
Wisconsin). Wisconsonians also refer to this as Up North. (The rest of the country is therefore Down South, Out East and Out West…as in I am going Out West on Monday (and I really am – that will be the Santa Fe, NM journal.)
When I am in the Northwoods, I usually stay at Dairymens, a place I have stayed just about every summer since before my sons were at Red Arrow Camp and where I was brought as a child for my “transition” from camp to home. For today, I want to focus on fishing – for Dairymens is synonymous with fishing.
Since I arrived, just over a week ago I have been fishing four times…the first two were forays out onto the Dairymens’ lakes (there are 7 in total!) catching a rock bass one day and a small largemouth bass the other. But these past two days, I joined my older son Gerry and ventured into the world of guided fishing.
Wednesday, we went fly fishing.
I have dabbled in fly fishing in the year plus since Gerry gave me the fly fishing gear, but and in order to get the most out of this day long trip, I met up with the guide early Tuesday afternoon for some expert instruction and practice. That was a good idea! Having done that, I didn’t need instruction along the river, as much as correction and reminders!
We were putting in on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage (isn’t that a gorgeous mouthful!) and fishing the North Fork of the Flambeau River. I studied the map afterwards, and couldn’t really figure out where our put-in place was, but I found our pick-up place. The guide said the total river we traveled (note that verb: that’s the reason I am putting this in a travel blog) was about 9 miles.
Floating down a river, fly-fishing is a wonderful way to see a river…like traveling it with a camera, you see many details that just paddling or motoring through would not register. Our day was bright and warm enough. This has not been a particularly warm week and a half, despite that mid-August is usually very hot and dry. It hasn’t been dry either!
The river is not atypical of Northern Wisconsin…clear, cold water, rocks, fallen trees, reeds and purple pickerelweed flowers in the water, shore lined with firs of all sizes and shapes, dramatic white slashes of birch accenting the dark green of the forest behind. The blue sky was dappled with clouds, and on the river we moved in and out of sunlight. There were only 2 houses on the entire stretch of river we traversed, and though we saw several other fishing boats at the put-in and another near the end, basically we had the river to ourselves all day. Can you imagine that? A piece of intact wilderness! We didn’t even hear cars! This stretch of land belongs to the state of Wisconsin and is protected from development.
Of interest to us, fisherpeople, were the rocks and the eddies, the currents and the shallows, the undercuts where we just imagined “the big one” lying in wait for our lures to draw him out and hook’em good! (Be assured – it’s all catch and release!)
Gerry fished with one guide and I with the other, in separate boats. We moved down the river, fishing areas where the lead boat had not fished. I worked areas with promising rocks for several casts, my guide rowing to keep the boat in place and to position me for a cast to the most promising shadowy spaces between boulders, along the shore in the deadfall, under overhanging branches that might shelter fish chillin’ in the shade.
For the twelve stretches of actual rapids, I sat in the front of the boat, and watched as we rocked and shot past behemoths lurking beneath the surface, revealed by the crest of brown water rearing up ominously before dropping off into a dark gully behind the rock.
I fished mostly from the boat. I did fish from the water as well, and ended up losing my balance on the uneven surface of the rocks below, taking an unplanned dip in the cool water! Thankfully, my fishing attire is all fast drying!
Fishing from the river, gave me the opportunity to move myself around to position my cast where I was most likely to find a taker, and as a first experience, that gave me the opportunity to fish different scenarios; the edge of a fast-moving current, a submerged log in the stream, the opposite shoreline with overhanging trees. It also gave my guide the opportunity to teach me techniques like roll casting and mending.
We had moments of “high drama” – like when Gerry caught the fish I was casting for. No, really! It’s not a fish story! I was fishing a big, huge boulder at the edge of the stream, and I could see the fish in the undercut, but I got hung up on a branch or something. While I was extricating myself from the branch, Gerry and his guide moved in to my spot and, voila! He caught MY fish! (I must admit – my propensity to get my hook hung up on branches and logs is one aspect of fishing that I abhor! I must work on my aim!)
It was a wonderful day of drifting, casting, catching, chatting with the guide, marveling at the scenery. I look forward to doing it again!
The day was quite long: We started at 8 am and ended at 8:40 pm. We definitely got our money’s worth. However, it was a really, long day and I think next time I might opt for a half day. Not all of the time were we fishing. There was travel to the put-in and from the pick-up, there was set up and pull down time for the boats, all of which probably took almost 4 of the total hours. There was also a stretch along the end of the river where we put-putted along with a nearly silent electric motor, the beautiful calm of the river and our gliding motion broken by short stretches of rapids. In the “flat” sections we saw lots of birds. Flocks of ducks and geese would burst from the river in a cacophony of quacking or honking, the wonderful sight of their wings splashing the river surface as they built momentum to fly made me miss my camera. Experiencing it fully with just my eyes gives me a visual memory I can embellish, even as I write it down for you.
Another thing I learned: Probably not a good idea to do back to back guided fishing expeditions. A long, late day on the first day made looking forward to a 6 am pick-up the following day seem a bit overwhelming…
But, 6 am the following morning we met up with our guide for muskie fishing! This was another new experience for me. Despite all the summers I have spent in the Northwoods I had never been muskie fishing. I was very intimidated by the concept even as we set out. A muskie can be 5 feet long and weigh 30 lbs…a fresh water monster! They have huge mouths, with very sharp teeth – a top predator in the lakes of northern Wisconsin. They are the stealth bombers of the underwater world – coming out of nowhere, mouths open to snatch bait, just disappear again to the depths. They tend to strike right next to the boat…imagine your surprise as you are just about to lift your lure out of the water, relaxed and a little disappointed that your cast produced nothing, and a huge fish comes screaming (figuratively) at you not an arm’s length away, with a huge splash and mouth open! Yes, I am dramatizing it for you, but this is what was going through my head as I set out on my first muskie fishing expedition.
The day was rainy and overcast, with fog and sunshine predicted before noon, and thunderstorms after noon. A perfect fishing day? No, but far better than a bright blue, sunny sky! Gerry (Jr) and I were decked out in our fast-drying fishing clothes and shoes, raincoats and hats, ready to brave the elements. Fortunately, it wasn’t cold. The temperature was in the upper 60s. I know that isn’t warm either, but we would be moving around, casting and reeling, so it was better to be slightly cooler than too hot. Keeping our coats on meant the flies and mosquitoes had less to bite.
We would be fishing High Lake. Though I probably canoed through High Lake as a teenager, I had no memory of it. We put-in in a beautiful creek area, lined on both sides by reeds, pickerelweed and lily pads. Behind them were varied water plants that stretched backwards to the trees and finally solid ground. A winding channel cut through the vegetation, in places just a little wider than our boat. We saw beaver mounds and a dam, and a graceful blue heron flew in to fish as we passed. I took the heron for my omen. I would catch a muskie today!
The creek eventually widened into the lake itself. High is a pretty big lake, seen from a boat. There are houses on its shores, some huge, others quite modest. There are islands in the lake, too. A long slender island, covered by a single file line of pines, dominated the foreground with its dark trees, wet from the rain. Behind it we could see other islands and the distant shore, both lighter and fading with distance and fog. It was spectacular.
Our fishing today consisted of heaving enormous lures out into the water and reeling them in, each with a little prayer “catch me a muskie, please.” The lures are so heavy (line and rod, too) that you really can’t throw it very far. Then you reel it in pretty fast … You cast a lot. My left hand (the rod hand) developed a huge cramp and my arm ached – good thing the fly fishing did the same to my right hand and arm yesterday or I would have been incapacitated!
Our guide maneuvered the boat with a tiny motor, allowing us to cover a large area slowly moving either along a shoreline or around an island. Mostly we were in water that was just 6 to 12 feet deep. Early in the day, I got my first strike. A flash of water and a tug on the line, right behind the boat about 5 feet, but no hook. I may have pulled the lure right out of its mouth. I am used to bass fishing, where setting the hook immediately is important, but I think with muskies the rhythm is slightly different. You may have to give them a chance to get a good hold on the lure before you set the hook … my inexperience in these matters didn’t help my technique.
All day long, we had rain squalls, light and fast, enough to raise our jacket hoods, a brief period of sun, frequent changes of wind. I switched the way I was casting, so that I was casting with my right hand dominant and that relieved the pressure on my already sore left arm. (I had been curious all morning as to why Gerry seemed to be able to cast so effortlessly. It took me awhile to realize that this was what Gerry was doing.)
Wildlife was abundant. Loons shadowed our boat for a good portion of the day, a pair of adults with two young. The adults will migrate south soon, leaving the young behind to find their own way. Eagles were fishing near us, too. There must have been a pair of parents with their young – we could hear several birds vocalizing. There were gulls– always a sort of anomaly so far from any ocean. And we saw a couple of otters playing in the water. They weren’t close enough to get a good look, but we first noticed them because of the odd webbed foot sticking up as they rolled around, playing in the water.
Cast, cast, cast. The rhythm was a little monotonous. Gerry was practicing figure eights at the end of his casts. Making a figure eight is intended to tease a muskie who is following your lure. Changing direction of the lure is the strike trigger, or so the thinking goes. Then I realized that I had a fish on my line. It was clearly not a big fish, and it wasn’t fighting at all, but wiggling enough that I knew he was there. I pulled out a largemouth bass, about the same size as my lure, and hooked by all three of the hooks on the lure…No wonder all he could do was wiggle! Poor thing! We got him unhooked and back in the water unharmed. Then again it was back to cast, cast and cast again. Until it wasn’t!
Mine wasn’t the typical muskie strike. He didn’t hit it hard and then run with it. He rose out of the water on the strike, but once he realized that what was in his mouth was not edible, he stopped, shocked, like “What the heck?” I started to reel him in thinking he would fight and thrash so hard I would have trouble hanging on, but honestly, I have had that much fight from a big bass in the pond at home. That surprised me! It surprised the guide and my son, too. “Why didn’t you fight him?” they asked … Why? I wondered. “He wasn’t fighting me.” So, I landed him quite quickly. The guide insists that if you hook a fish you land him yourself – a thought that had me nervous when he said it. Of course, then I was imagining a great, big muskie, and mine was decent, but under the minimum 45”. I was happy. It was a little anti-climactic though, so I was really hoping Gerry could hook a big one and give us the drama and the action we were all craving.
Despite trying for about two more hours, through the light rain and wind changes, we did not get another strike. When the sky went totally dark and the rain was coming down so hard the world around us was white, we finally packed up and went home, soaked to the bone.
Crossing the lake and back into the creek/channel to the boat launch we spotted another great blue heron. “Thanks!” I thought, my omen was true.
Today, our whole day fishing was from 6 am to 3 pm. Though with all the preliminaries we weren’t out on the water fishing until probably close to 8. Still 7 ½ hours of throwing a big lunking lure from the end of a big lunking pole was enough exercise even for a fit 30 year-old man…imagine a just almost-a-little-fit 63 year-old mom! A half day would have been just fine too – though perhaps at a more active time of year. Our guide insisted that October is the month for catching muskies.
You can bet we’ll try this again. The illusive BIG ONE is still waiting for us!
Logistics: We used Bill Sherer’s We Tie It Shop to arrange for our guide for fly fishing. Our guide’s name was John Vorhees. For the muskie fishing we went with Jeff Winters. I can recommend both very highly. If you go oout with either of them, be sure to report back to me!