With all that’s happening in the world today, emotions and opinions are as strong as they are diverse. But this hardly seems new. For the outdoorsmen and women, times have been a little easier as our lives haven’t been entirely uprooted. For those of us closest to our respective stomping grounds, the itch to get out is scratched more easily than those in the city centers. For us in the upper Midwest, we saw our usual spring tease a few weeks ago, followed by a steady drudge of rain and cold.
Finally, the getting is good, and spring has arrived. The pores of our skin welcome the fresh warming breeze. The birds are jumping up the river ways north. The bad bugs haven’t awaken quite yet, but the good ones are dancing. The first hatch has come.
Each year, we welcome the small, black caddis hatch across our favorite rivers, as do the trout. Enchantingly, their emergence always seems to be better or best, and it offers even the most novice angler a chance at a memorable dry fly fishing experience.
The buzz has been in the air the past week among anglers as the hatch has gained ground in the area, and it’s ebb and flow across streams and reaches has stirred theories on the verge of conspiracy. But one thing was certain, this weekend was the moment. In Wisconsin’s early season, only select stream lengths are open, concentrating the hoards of cabin fever stricken anglers, lusting to get out of the home. Fishing the front of the hatch is critical in connecting with the fish before they have seen too many naturals to compare your fly against, and before they’ve seen numerous similar flies yet this season.
Saturday felt like the perfect day. Warming overcast with a few days of caddis ramping up. We opted for the less beaten path in the morning. We didn’t expect to see bugs. Wrong river, wrong time. But we swung wets for a few hours while we waited for the day to unfold and caught a few participants along the way. By late morning, a few bugs were popping, and that was our cue to head off to more prime water. Of course, finding open water by this time on a Saturday can and did prove challenging.
We opted for a bridge parking with a single vehicle already laying claim. Public lands up, easement down. We went down on the chance the other fisher went up. The car was from our town, and the license plate suggested a Trout Unlimited member, but we couldn’t place the vehicle to a face. Looking down, caddis were quickly becoming more prevalent, but where were the fish? This stretch had proved exceptional in years past. We kept working down the easement. The bugs were steady, but not heavy. By about the time we reached halfway through the easement, a few risers began to eat.
Now, admittedly we typically are underprepared for this hatch, throwing over sized, off colored elk hair caddis patterns. But this year was different. We had them tied to specification. But for hours, fish ignored even the most perfect presentation. Truly disheartening. What did we do wrong? What was different? In an act of either comfort or futility, we put an oversized, bright caddis pattern on, and soon we had a hit. By now the hatch was winding down, and the few rising fish quickly became fewer. Should have switched up sooner. We began working back up stream until a sizable brown showed himself. Within a handful of casts, we laid one out right down the lane and like clockwork, he took. A head turn on the take and the tippet knot slipped; and that was effectively the end of the day.
That evening back home, we re-prepared and tied up a dozen dark gray, but oversized 14 elk hair caddis. Just the ticket. We hoped. With a vengeance, we’d return the next day.
Sunday. Coffee down, car still loaded, box supplemented, granola on the passenger seat. Let’s go! We were somewhat less optimistic with the clear sky, but the previous day’s overcast didn’t produce. So, humble us, or humor us; we won’t be picky. We split our arrival timing between the rest of the anglers showing up and the start of the hatch. Sure enough, no other cars around. We stepped up to the stream. Bugs were around, but the fish were not. Could this be a repeat of yesterday? We planned to use the time to scope some new water anyway. So, we scuttled down stream, tossing the occasional cast.
By the time the meadow gave way to forest, bug activity picked up, and the combination of dappled shade, woody cover, and broken water had fish focused. Right away we were into a few small, slap happy browns. Things were falling into place it seemed and a few bends later and everything began to align. The bugs, the fish, the water, the casting lanes. The next hour was spent pulling fish after fish off the top. A mixed bag a brookies and browns in a section known for the occasional natural tiger trout, which we’ve crossed paths with back upstream before.
We scratched our itch for fish, and we had other goals set forth for the day. We brought along a few new toys to test out, and the clear water coupled with clear sky made for ideal conditions. This being our first GoPro, the settings and timing will take some more practice. The dome is particularly hard to troubleshoot in situ as the apparatus covers most of the small screen. Results were mostly unusable, but our mistakes were consistent and easily fixable. Mostly, we found we weren’t submerging it enough. Next time will undoubtedly yield much better results.
We continued downstream toward the confluence with a small brookie stream. A parking area opposes, just atop the floodplain. By now, it was afternoon and other anglers were arriving. A pair parked and walked down. We exchanged pleasantries and they proceeded upstream through the waters I came from. With a steady caddis hatch, they would undoubtedly land some of the fish I moved past. As we continue around the next bend, voices give way to a pair of anglers mucking up a hell of a pool-run sequence. Suddenly, we found ourselves sandwiched on the river we had to ourselves all day. We knew this was inevitable, and we’d had a good day. This is the double edged sword of public lands. But we encourage the recreation,and hopefully increased use will lead to greater protections, funding, and support for years to come.
Turning around upstream, with no real agenda in mind at this point, a familiar car pulls up to the parking area. The car from the night before. A pair are pulling out camp chairs and one looks familiar at a distance. We walked up to be greeted by familiar faces. Tom, our former Trout Unlimited chapter president and leading colleague of TU CARES, was setting out a picnic looking over the river with his wife. What unexpected and great timing. We talked for some time of local restoration work, hatch progress, and personal happenings. It is always a special treat to meet a friend unexpectedly on the river, but perhaps especially so in a time when social interactions have become increasingly infrequent.
Following multiple good byes and by-the-ways,we headed up stream to tickle our last few trout of the day. By now, the anglers who pulled up earlier have come and gone, leaving the river to us once again. The hatch had slowed significantly, but the grassing banks were still packed with bugs. A swift kick through the brush could nearly start the action back up.
We continued to cast at the occasional riser, pushing up to the forested section. We had some unfinished business up there. Coming to a turn of old bank covers leading to a deep cut pool, we found bugs still hatching off midstream. And the risers were steady. We managed another dozen or so fish from every seam edge until we felt accomplished. Onward.
We were now back at the meadow. The water is slower, shallower. The sporadic, splashy rise can still be heard around each corner, but the hatch is effectively over for the day, and the fish had enough. We stomped back through to our ride and packed out.
Like a day on the job, peeling off the boots is it’s own pleasure, and a fine way to end the day. We stowed our gear for the ride home, but weren’t quite ready to say good bye yet. It’s hard to remember to stay hydrated when standing in fresh, cold water all day, so we grabbed the lifestraw water bottle and hiked over to the stream one last time. A spring fed liter would keep us alert and thankful for the ride home.