It was the last day of the stream trout season in Wisconsin, and my Dad and I headed to a favorite river. Our main goal was to keep some female brown trout so that we would have fresh spawn to use for steelhead fishing on the Lake Superior tributaries later in the year. There was no chill in the air on this final day of September, with bright sunny skies and temps in the low 70s. Not ideal trout fishing conditions, but you take what you get at the season’s end. I armed myself with both spinning and fly tackle, knowing that late Summer brown trout can be very difficult at times and I wanted to increase my odds for success. My Dad, of course, never stooped to the lowly practice of worm dunking and bummed a handful of flies from me to fit his needs.
The first stretch of stream that we fished was a favorite of mine. A small yet turbulent rapids dumps into a deep run, where old stream habitat work had been done to provide undercut bank hiding lairs. Three huge limestone blocks sat in the middle of the run as well. Beginning with a deep-dredged nymph, I worked the run over deliberately. Nothing bit, however. A change-up to a different nymph also found no interest with the fish. This was going to be a tough day, it seemed.
I set my flyrod in the bushes and picked up my light spinning rod. It was already rigged up with a small circle hook and single split-shot, so I reached into my pocket and found my box of worms. These worms were hand-picked by me just for trout fishing – perfectly sized small, healthy nightcrawlers that the trout usually go bonkers for. On my first drift, I found the perfect seam beside one of the huge boulders and felt a tug. Tightening up, I felt a good weight and turned my rod sideways to keep my light line from rubbing on the rock and breaking me off. The fish dug deep toward the other bank, trying to get into the dark cave formed by the undercut bank. I gingerly played the fish out of this trouble, leading it into the slower run below. A large fish rolled at the surface, but it was not the trout that I was seeking. This was a big white sucker, about four pounds, sporting the dark coppery sides characteristic of specimens from these cold streams of the Driftless. After netting and admiring this cool fish, I let him go and watched him swim lazily back to his haunt beside the boulder.
Soon after, my Dad caught up with me and rather glumly informed me that he had caught no fish. These were tough conditions, and his nymphs were not working today. He thought we should try a different stretch of water, somewhere wooded so the stream would be in shadow. The trout might be more willing to bite in a place like this. After a short drive, we found our chosen stretch of river and got to fishing. I had little confidence in my flies, but brought the flyrod along with me anyway because, well, you just never know.
At the first deep hole I fished, I caught another white sucker. Then, a creek chub. No trout wanted to bite here either, though, so I moved on. I knew of a nice shaded run where the stream flowed beneath tall overhanging Elm trees upstream about a half a mile. A large boulder just barely broke the surface mid-stream, and it created a nice seam where the fish liked to lie in wait. I took my time sneaking into position, knowing that this was most likely my last chance for the season. Threading a plump worm onto my hook, I cast it upstream and drifted it alongside the boulder. Then, I drifted it again. After a dozen or so drifts, covering the run, I reeled up and sat down on the bank. I saw my Dad getting out of the river below me, heading my way. He was probably ready to go home. Suddenly, I saw a fish rise upstream near the boulder. It was a very slight, delicate rise indicative of a wary trout feeding on a small insect. He rose again. Now I was glad I’d brought the flyrod. I tied a #16 olive mayfly klinkhammer to my tippet and got back into position, then made a cast but it was off the mark. The fish rose again. I cast again, and my fly floated right over him, but he did not take. Three more good drifts, and no take. The fish quit rising now, almost certainly put down because of my subtle presentation. This river gets fished hard all Summer, and toward the end of the season its wily brown trout get very educated.
My Dad was walking upstream along the river to meet me. I made a few more drifts, perhaps just to squeeze the last bit of angling in for the year on this favorite water of mine. Nothing took. On my last drift, I let the fly swing downstream after a belly formed in the flyline. The fly traveled through the tail of the run, which was only two feet deep, swinging quickly just inches below the surface. As I watched the fly travel below me and stop on a tight line, there appeared a large fish which tipped upwards and, opening its big white mouth, simply inhaled my fly! I could see the buttery yellow sides and big black spots on the fish, even the red spots on its adipose fin. It was magnificent. I didn’t know why the fish was in that spot, or why it chose to eat my swung sunken dry fly, but shocked as I was I knew enough to set the hook. The fish fought me tough on my light tippet, and I took it extremely easy on her because I wanted her badly in my net. After perhaps three minutes had passed, my Dad showed up. I was glad he was there to watch. Suddenly the fish arced upstream and made a spectacular leap. I bowed to the fish, keeping her on the line. My Dad was talking to me , asking how many trout I’d caught – and although I was annoyed at the distraction while trying to focus on landing this prized fish, I managed to tell him that this was the only trout I had hooked all day. After the fish’s lunging leap, it was tired. After only a few more runs, each less powerful than the last, I led it into my net and let out a whoop. Success!
I laid the fat brown trout on the bank, and Dad and I admired it for a moment. The tiny dry fly was barely stuck in the tip of her lip. At 17 inches, it was the largest trout I’d caught all year, and it came on my last cast of the season. There was no question that it was a female plump with eggs. These eggs would make for some top-notch steelhead bait next month on the Brule River. After a quick photo of the big brown lying in the fall leaves, Dad and I headed back toward the truck. Another trout season gone, another great memory made.