Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tweed & Cane

The weather has finally begun to feel like it's suppose to during late spring in Wisconsin.  Though the landscape displayed every shade of green imaginable last weekend, the cool temps, clouds, and rain reappeared for a few days, making the Driftless feel more like the chalk streams of England than the Dairy Heartland.  Fittingly, I donned a bit of thrift store tweed for the morning jaunt.
I am still in the process of building up my fly arsenal through tying and buying, but I already have accumulated many flies that have not seen the end of my tippet.  These are flies that have a reputation for catching trout, but I just haven't used them yet.  For that reason, I made the decision  to avoid my "confidence" flies as much as possible this season in order to try out more flies in my box.  It's been easy during my first few seasons of fly fishing to fall back on the half-dozen patterns that always seem to work.  This season I'm going to increase my number of "confidence" patterns--and I'm already off to a great start.  Each time I've hit the water so far this month, I've caught trout on at least two new patterns I had not fished before.  Some of these flies are patterns I've learned in my Thursday night tying class, but others are common patterns everyone knows about that I just have not fished yet. 

This guy/gal helped add one such fly to my confidence arsenal yesterday. 

Besides trying out some new flies last weekend, I also fished with a bamboo rod for the first time.  A friend loaned me their dad's old Orvis Battenkill to use on a couple stretches of water we visited, and I fittingly caught a long, skinny brook trout on my third cast.   
The rod was more whippy than I was use to, and I also had to adjust my muscle memory to the two feet of length that were absent, but there was something very aesthetically pleasing about the deep shades of the cane and the old Pflueger reel on its butt.  A bamboo rod may not be in my near future--I will happily return to my trusty St. Croix graphite for my next outing--but I can appreciate the split cane underworld a bit more now. 

Like a tweed hat on an overcast day, bamboo rods connect you to fly fishing's rich heritage.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Out of the Ashes

I've fished with a lot of different people already this season, but today was my first time on the water alone this year.  I was working in the vicinity of very good trout water, so I headed to the stream for the final three hours before sunset. 

It had rained quite a bit earlier in the day, so I knew there was a chance the water would be muddied up.  When I reached the bottom of the valley, I also noticed that the surrounding meadow had recently been burned.  The charred clumps of grass bordered the entire stretch of stream I planned to fish.  I crossed my fingers and hoped that the runoff had had time to sink in or disperse downstream, and looking down from the bridge upon arrival, that's just what had happened.

After a weekend of seeing vehicles at every access point along most of the well-known streams in the area, it was refreshing to have the entire valley to myself.  I had to share it only with the very vocal red-winged black birds setting up their spring breeding territories, the sprinting killdeer, and a couple content equines downstream.

Overall, I had a very good afternoon on the water.  I caught a lot of healthy trout on dry flies--when I could manage a decent drift.  I swear the wind was blowing consistently at 20 mph with gusts up to 40 mph.  It made casting into the narrow slots a bit difficult, and combined with the bright sun, I spooked a hundred times more fish than I caught.  Gale force winds make me appreciate the calm, mosquito infested nights of late summer......as well as the infinite number of ways your line and fly can get snagged.  In hindsight, and as a friend recently suggested, I should have embraced the wind and used it to help move my line rather than fight against it.  Use the force.  Unfortunately, I'm sure I'll have many more opportunities this season to tap into my inner Zen master and become one with the wind.

At least the burned meadow gave me plenty of room for my back casts.  With the black, charred ground all around me, it almost felt like I was fishing on the moon.  It's amazing to see green shoots sprouting to life amidst the carbon blackness of the burned landscape.  It reminds me that fire is life. 

Fire is an essential component of many healthy ecosystems.  Without fire, native plants get choked out and tree regeneration is stunted.  The charred landscape made me think of bur oaks and how their thick bark allowed them to survive many generations of prairie fires.  Whenever I see an ancient, venerable bur oak in the middle of a field in southern Wisconsin, I try to imagine how it once looked surrounded by oak savanna.  Many of the larger bur oaks in this state are old enough to have grown up interspersed within a grassland, which allowed them to develop wide, sprawling branches.  Even though only a few small remnants of the original oak savanna ecosystem of Wisconsin remain, there are still bur oaks around to remind us of our prairie past.

As a child, I daydreamed about going back in time to live a day as a homesteader on the prairie.  I read most of the books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and definitely believed I would have enjoyed life on the open prairie.  Even today, I get a small thrill from driving through the prairies of North Dakota that others find mind numbingly boring.  I put myself in the setting of My Antonia and imagine a life surrounded by waves and grass, endless skies, and weathered outbuildings.  I've read that some early homesteaders on the Great Plains went crazy from the endlessness of the landscape, but I find the grandeur of the skies and grasslands quite appealing.  I would love to travel back 200 years to see the great seas of grasses dappled by bison herds on the horizon.  I'm not sure I'd like to experience a winter on the Plains or try to outrun a prairie fire, but this landscape puts some sort of spell over me.

While loading up for the drive home, I noticed more life from the ashes.  After decades of trying to control nature, it's comforting to see that, when left to her own devices, Mother Nature can take care of herself.  It's hubris to believe that humans are a necessary cog in the grand wheel that is Planet Earth.  Sure we are starting to remedy our past mistakes by performing prescribed burns, restoring trout streams, and tackling invasives, but don't all environmental issues have Homo sapiens at the epicenter of the problem?  I enjoy the fact that mayflies like this are hatching today, but were also hatching thousands of years ago.  Their life cycles continue on without the faintest nod towards the achievements and follies of the human population.  Observations like this make me feel insignificant in the grand scheme of life, which is strangely comforting to me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Streamside Therapy

My husband and I normally make a pretty solid team.  My weaknesses are his strengths, and vice versa.  We can usually pick each other up when we're feeling down, but last week we discovered what our kryptonite is:  a dying pet.   With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to Jeffrey last Saturday.

Jeffrey was not your ordinary cat.  He had a lot of special quirks that made him quite amazing, and we're certain we'll never have another companion like him.  Most people who've lived with pets understand how important they can become to you and what an integral role they can play in a household.  Jeffrey was that way.  He was a little guy with a huge personality, and we'll greatly miss his company. 

We've thankfully now arrived at the acceptance stage of our grieving process, but it was touch-and-go for a few days.  After a long period of mourning together, we each chose different ways to dispel our sadness and head down the path towards the sunnier side of life once again.  My husband buried himself in work (partly out of necessity), while I chose streamside therapy.

I was very thankful for the chance to head to the Driftless with a couple good fishing partners the day after Jeffrey was sent to the Great Beyond.  There's nothing like a day on the water to put things in perspective and to refocus your mind on the things that make life good.  The day was the epitome of spring:  warm breezes, blue skies, the smell of rotting humus, and green shoots peeking through mats of dead grass.  There were also the sounds of cranes flying overhead, returning from their southern wintering grounds, and red-wing blackbirds marking their territories in the stubbled fields. 

As the sun sank closer to the horizon, with only the sounds of the breeze blowing and birds singing, we enjoyed some cold beer and watched the tell-tale rings form on the shimmery surface of the stream below.

If that's not a Zen moment, I don't know what is.  Though I'm still catching phantom glimpses of our lost companion multiple times each day, and though I miss him tremendously, my streamside therapy somehow provided closure.  Maybe it was the trance-like state I found myself in while fishing up enticing runs, the refreshing blast of spring air for eight straight hours, the soul-cleansing flow of water, or the good company on the stream.  More than likely it was a combination of many things.....including friends who care enough to send flowers. 
Thanks, Katie and Janie :)


Monday, March 5, 2012