Bleak. Desolate. Unforgiving. These are a few words that may be used to describe both the Gobi Desert and the opening day of Wisconsin's inland trout season, 2014. Like most of my fellow trout junkies, I frequently visited weather websites in the days leading up to the opener. At one point it was looking to be at least in the mid-teens both Saturday and Sunday, with Sunday being a bit warmer. When it came to it however, Saturday would be the least frigid, with temps barely breaching 2 digits.
I don't blame the many avid trout hunters who sat this one out. After all, the forecast for next week looks much better, above freezing even.
But I decided I must go. Its not like I haven't trout fished all winter, having indulged in several trips to Iowa. Without putting too much thought into it, I am going to blame a strange sense of duty or maybe a craving for the structure afforded by tradition. I read somewhere human minds are evolutionally wired for performing ritual, hence the existence of established religions. So, um... I must go fishing on opening day in the cold!
I have the proper clothing for this. I was worried most about my hands. I picked up a pair of rag wool fingerless gloves that have the mitten part that folds over. Wool should stay warm when wet. Along with my multiple layers, I put on my waders and boots while still at home, as well as assembling my fly rod. Why stand around in the cold messing with these tasks, I thought.
When I arrived however, I felt a chill on my legs immediately. This soon went away as I struggled though the snowy banks and silty stream bed. The real issue became my fingers, as I thought they would. Frequently I had to make fists in my gloves to bring them back to a living human's temperature. Otherwise, they were stinging and throbbing. Ice allowed 4 or 5 casts between eyelet ice busting sessions. By the time I would complete that job, the reel would have frozen solid requiring a dip into the creek which would thaw it out enough to bust it loose.
Cast, cast, cast, bust ice, thaw reel. This was the process as I progressed slowly up the tiny headwater creek I had chosen. This creek had provided fun in the past with its robust population of brook trout and reliably open water in the early season. On this day I would not have any fish to show for my snow-jungle navigation, not for a while anyway. The fish were there. I saw many of them.
Between sliding down into the creek on my butt in the snow (pretty fun actually), climbing back out of the creek and managing anger associated with untangling my fly leader from thorny bushes, my finger temperature finally stabilized. Somewhat free of pain, I could start to notice another effect of this uniquely polar fishing trip. After I walked out of a thigh deep section of the creek, my waders would freeze solid. I felt as though I were walking in a pair of pants made of linoleum.
After a couple hours, I finally had a fish stick briefly to a fly. A half an hour later, a second trout popped off my streamer. Still standing far from the head of that hole I scored a third bite of the day and this one finally stuck.
I could never tire of the colors in brook trout. I checked the fish for gill lice, which he had, and sent him squiggling back to his hole. If fishing in Wisconsin's driftless area, you can help the DNR's research of gill lice by reporting their presence on the gills of brook trout at their website. The cause, seriousness and long term effect that gill lice will have on populations of brook trout is still being researched and debated.
As a finale to this section of stream, I reached a bridge. This was the end and it had taken me about 3 hours to get there. I would not be going much further upstream from the bridge, but just upstream from the bridge there is a hole I remembered from previous trips. Water spilled in from a short waterfall and the creek widened below with a deep drop off from the right bank. The hole was fished by side arming casts from below the bridge. As before, I started catching fish quickly. Four brook trout and a small brown were all to hand within the next half hour.
Then something curious happened. As often is the case when I get a fish to notice the small streamer I'd been using, a small boil rose behind the location of my shallowly retrieved fly. I hooked it briefly and my line went slack. I noticed my fly was gone. I could only image a bad knot. This creek has never given up a trout to me over 12 inches. But no angler would dismiss the small possibility that there was a huge trout just on. I did consider leaving too. The temperature was dropping and my fingers were starting with that familiar sting.
I decided instead to tie on another copy of the same fly, one I had tied to look like a Milwaukee Leech. It's close, I think. I might need mohair yarn to really copy it well, but I haven't been able to obtain any so had used looped tread olive dubbing mixed with UV for the body instead. A marabou tail with crystal flash, olive bugger hackle for the collar, a bead head and 1x long size 8 hook are the remaining ingredients.
I casted back to where I broke off looking for more action. A similar boil chased the fly and this time it stuck, defiantly. My friend Trapper calls little trout "shakers", I'm guessing because once they're on your line you feel them shake as they wiggle their little trout bodies. This was no shaker. It did shake it's head with more of a steady "whomp, whomp, whomp" akin to an idling Harley Davidson. The fish merely obliged to zig zag its way in my general direction as I carefully stripped in line and held my rod high. I could tell now it was a big fish. I would liked to have played it on my reel, but it had frozen solid. Striping in line would have to do, and I gave some back when a few particularly violent jerks were transmitted from my adversary.
With line floating around my legs in the nearly still water under the bridge where I stood, my leader reached the top eyelet and I could see the fish. I thought it could be 20 inches! The fish slowed and I raised the rod as far as I could under the bridge guiding the fish to my feet where I scooped it from behind with my net. I gasped in awe.
The fish turned out to be 18 inches. One inch shy of my personal best and bigger than any fish caught the previous season. As fate would have it, my real camera's battery died after only a couple of head shots. My cell phone however was alive and well. I even shot a video of myself. I present to you Brauntrutta's first GIF. A live action grip n' grin.
I released the dark brown and he kicked away powerfully. I am wondering if starting the season this way is a sign of good things to come or is it just going to go down hill from here. I'm going with the former.
Time was now 5:00 and I had been out for about 4 and a half hours. Completely satisfied I climbed out from below the bridge and walked down the highway back to my car feeling damn proud of myself. Freezing was worth it today.