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 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.

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