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Driftless Recollections

Spring arrived two weeks early by Missouri standards. The dogwood and redbud trees in the front yard, an unofficial phenological metric verified this fact. Wintertime is nice, but the mix of conditions and signals offered by chilly mornings, warm afternoons, short days, and a mostly barren landscape showing signs of life provide certain migratory cues for the mind and soul. I was feeling the need to travel north.

A couple weeks earlier I took inventory - leaders, tippet, flies, rods, and reels were laid out for inspection. Immediate needs were few, although new wading boots made the list as did a sling pack as part of a never-ending quest for comfort and efficiency, an idea abandoned after trying a couple different styles. I evaluated the calendar and weather forecast. Seven hours is the distance between where I live and a trout fishing mecca I could easily call home, except for the fact my matrimonial contract dictates otherwise. I decided on five days. Longer if the weather cooperated.

Trout fishing the Driftless Area of Wisconsin is not for everyone. The streams, of which there are many, are mostly small, as are most of the fish you’ll catch if you lack perseverance. The water is very clear, and the fish are wild and very wary. And for these reasons and more, I make a couple trips each year to test my skill, patience, and to bask in a landscape like no other. Even parts of Iowa and Minnesota sharing the title “driftless” don’t quite compare to the beauty of the eastern portion of this geologic anomaly; however, I am biased in this regard.

Upon arrival, late afternoon thunderstorms kept me confined to town. Usually there’s enough daylight and energy to rig a rod and leisurely fish a favorite hole on the West Fork of the Kickapoo, a great place to run the routine ahead of tomorrow’s more serious attempts, but death by lightening seemed unpleasant and tomorrow would come soon enough, so I grabbed a little food and kicked back at the hotel for some light reading and a cold beer or two.

On day one, convenience store coffee and a breakfast sandwich started things off before stopping by the Driftless Angler fly shop to say hello and grab a couple of “needed” flies. Barely open, another angler, too stylishly attired to be taken seriously, wandered the store chatting with Geri, one of the store’s owners. The loquacious patron made it clear he was available for counsel, offering unsolicited insight, a few name drops, and too many other words for my liking at this time of the morning. The proprietor, still working through her own morning grogginess, may have felt the same. She yawned a couple times and offered polite acknowledgements while easing into the morning business routine. Most fly shop owners and fishing guides offer good case studies in patience, and based on stories told, some probably deserve sainthood. Kinda like a good bartender.

The first official stop of the day would be a stream that holds nostalgic significance. Tucked back in one the many gorgeous coulees dominating the area, this well-known ribbon of blue on the map was the first stream I fished in the driftless many years ago. Unfortunately, on this day mid-week, it was a little too well-known. Public access points revealed 11 anglers who must’ve arrived at precisely the same time. Seeing other folks on common streams is not uncommon, but for this stretch of water the count was too high by about eight. The double-edged sword of regional popularity. I waved hello and moved on.

Wet boots by 8:30 a.m. is a goal, but my coffee was still hot and zigzagging around the countryside a bit is part of the gig. Every trip involves a certain amount of exploration and subsequent prospecting, so I scanned my map and proceeded to take a random drive down a valley road never before traveled, knowing at a minimum I could acquire a doughnut and refill at its terminus. By 9:30 a quick exploratory drive down a road paralleling another popular creek revealed empty water. Conditions were ideal. Cloudy skies, cool temps, and rain-soaked streams with a slight stain. As I prepared, another angler arrived at the parking spot upstream. Things were looking good. Only two of us with a significant amount of water to ourselves. A six-ten, four-weight with a nymph would be my weapon of choice on this day.

I have a relationship with this particular stream. And even when she treats me badly, as she has on many occasions, I always come back for more. She challenges me, and on this trip, rewarded me with several fish from a particular hole where, on many other visits, scorn was the norm. The fish were happy and so was the man, and by the end of the day, I felt my past inadequacies and offenses had, for the moment, been pardoned by the gods who oversee piscatorial bliss.

Days before, I emailed a friend of a friend, Duke Welter, looking for time when we might meet. We tried to hook up last October but I cancelled my trip due to conflicting priorities, so I was hopeful our paths could finally cross. We agreed to rendezvous in the back room of a local watering hole during a meeting of the Coulee Region Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU). For a fishing trip, this was turning out to be more social than what I’m used to – like an old brown trout, out of sight and close to cover is preferred, but venturing from one’s comfort zone is sometimes required and rewarding. The TU meeting was time well spent. Good, like-minded people dedicated to the Driftless Area and its resources, and a great presentation on fishing big streamers for big fish by an enthusiastic angler, Chris Firkus. At the end of the meeting, Duke surveyed my plans for the next day and proposed we meet at his home for breakfast to wait out the expected morning rain.

As is often the case in the conservation community, the world is small. Over coffee, eggs, and venison bacon, Duke revealed an unexpected professional footprint. A retired attorney, he has achieved local legend status as a regional leader in TU, and also managed to serve a term as a Wisconsin Natural Resources Board member. The latter was a surprising bit of detail opening a door to a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation. When the rain stopped we headed out, and as I transferred gear, Duke’s wife wished us luck. She was happy to see a team effort for the day, and made it clear we would be stalked by pocket technology just in case. My wife does the same. That way she’ll know where to find the body.

We headed out of town with a vague plan and destination in mind, but when you start watching the land roll by through the windshield, every little side road and creek starts to call to you. One of the great advantages of living in a landscape with abundant choices.

“How much good trout water do we need to drive by to get to good trout water,” Duke asked rhetorically.

“Stop wherever you want,” I replied. “No need to do anything special on my account. I’m just happy to be here.”

As we drove a bit further, Duke shared stories about past challenges to restore various local streams and some of the interesting characters he met along the way. I was familiar with most of the streams he talked about, having fished many, but the backstory Duke provided deepened my appreciation. Chasing the fever to catch fish is all fine and dandy, but having some context about the region, the people, and the history is important. When you step off the road into a creek, you’re walking through someone’s neighborhood, their farm, their childhood, their family tree, and their way of life. The resources may be publicly owned, but exercising access rights without honor and respect is wrong. This point was made clear as we pulled off the road to gear up. A small handmade sign creek-side reminded us – Keep Your Feet Wet!

And for the next 90 minutes we obliged. Hole after hole we alternated our subtle attack in tight quarters as we furthered our conversation. Don’t think I’ve ever talked so much while trout fishing, and on this day, I did not mind. In between stories, hoping to learn something from someone with actual skill, I watched Duke effortlessly pitch a fly and then a nymph, at one point catching a couple fish in succession. And then true to the day, the man who lives in Wisconsin revealed to the man who lives in Columbia, Missouri the truth behind some of his magic  – the three-weight bamboo rod he was using was made by Bill Lamberson, another longtime TU volunteer who also happens to live, of all places, in Columbia Missouri. And so everything came around full circle.

It was getting late when we stepped out of the creek and hiked across a state easement back to the car. We shared a sandwich, and now knowing a little about me, Duke brought and offered a can of Point beer to wash down the bread, sausage, and cheese. We checked on a father and son team fishing down the road on the way out, and cruised by a few other streams heading home, each with a story. We wrapped up our day with thanks, a handshake, and a promise to do it again.

During our day together, Duke complimented me on a couple of well-placed roll casts. Only trout eyes see my efforts and they are usually not so impressed. Crawling out of the stream, I extended my arm to help Duke climb the steep bank. He appreciated the assist. And in between casts, conversation, and fish caught, a friendship was made along with these driftless words of recollection.


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