Camp Creek was my “Welcome to the Driftless” moment after moving to the Madison area from Milwaukee last spring. I was driving out to the West Fork Sportsmens Club to meet a bunch of TU guys for a weekend of habitat work at Bear Creek, ambling down Highway 56 on an early Friday afternoon, when I hit County G and the ‘meadows section’ of Camp Creek. You know the one… open meadow, twisting meanders, some cows. It was a sunny day but half the valley was still shrouded in shadow beneath the steep bluffs. A couple of guys were already working the nearest bend to the County G bridge. It was like a little piece of Montana had been transplanted to Wisconsin.
It’s that first experience of Camp Creek that sticks with me, even more than the fish that live there.
March 18, 2014
Air temp: 34 deg (morning)
Water temp: 43 deg (Button Hollow), 42 deg (Springdale)
Access Points: DNR public land, adjacent to Button Hollow and Springdale Rds
Fish Caught: 0* (1 brown fouled)
Air temp: 49 deg
Water temp: 40 deg
Access Points: DNR public land, adjacent to Highway 56
Fish Caught: 4 (all browns, all on pink squirrels)
The Kickapoo River watershed reads like a “Who’s Who?” of Driftless trout streams: West Fork, Camp Creek, Bishop Branch, Seas Branch, Billings, Reads. If there was a figurative heart to the Driftless Area, then I would have to think it lies here. If Camp Creek was my first true experience with the Driftless, then Bishop Branch was my first exposure to the pleasure of fishing this place, back in mid-June with a handful of Pink Squirrels and plenty of eager browns. Like any good heart surgeon I took much of the remainder of last season exploring the artery of Reads Creek, catching my fair share of browns and brookies.
This year my major fishing goal is exploring as much new trout water as possible, and Camp Creek was high on my list simply for its popularity and ease of access. In hindsight I should have started where the creek first grabbed my interest last spring; instead I started further upstream nearer the headwaters, working the sections of public land between Springdale and Button Hollow Roads.
Now, I firmly believe that no time on the water is wasted. Even when fish aren’t caught you learn things, or you see things that you can’t find on the couch. This morning, though, was probably the closest I’ve felt to being robbed of my time on the water. The upper section of Camp Creek is fairly open– I want to say “savannah”, though maybe the better term is “field” or “converted farmland” or whatnot– the stream fairly narrow here (two, three feet on average, maybe?), and fairly skinny and clear. Water temps were up into the low 40s, which is a good sign for active trout, and trout were spotted here and there at the tail ends of riffles or along the edges of pools.
Why, then, were they so difficult to target? I suppose gin clear shallow water would make me spooky, too. At the very least they were not inclined to chase nymphs of any sort. In fact, I’m not sure they were even in a feeding mood until around noon-ish when a midge hatch came off the water. At that point the creek became a smorgasbord of insects, and the water’s surface began to boil in rises. Occasionally I caught sight of a trout sticking it’s nose clear of the water, and once of twice a small brown launched itself completely free of creek.
Of course, do you think they’d be interested in some dries? Hell. no. Now, this was probably due to a couple of different factors: a) size 18 Griffith’s Gnats were too big; b) a direct downstream wind made throwing a size 18 dry fly difficult, and I could never get the leader to unfurl quite right, causing it to bunch up on the water surface and look like a big mess; c) the fishing gods intuitively sensed my bias against dry flies and decided to screw with me.
Now, add in a few twisted lines and ill-timed casts that caught brush along the banks, and a few choice words by yours truly, and I was about ready to give into my hatred, strike down this rod and reel at the bank and join my place at the couch potato’s (i.e. Dark) side. But instead I did the second-worst thing one can do while dry fly fishing: I tied on a nymph. And for a second, it seemed like it would pay off. One toss of the pink squirrel, a few strips of line, and fish on! It fought particularly hard and the tug on the rod seemed a little… odd… and in a moment it all became clear. Someone I managed to foul this little brown along its backside.
If that’s not a clear signal to pack it in for the day, I don’t know what is. I decided this was not my day to fish Camp Creek and hauled it back to the car. A quick lunch and a look at the gazetteer, and I made the decision to head further west along Highway 56 to Seas Branch to use up what time I had left in this day.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a significant psychological difference between the act of “fishing” and the act of “catching”. I don’t considered myself a trophy hunter. I’m not looking to catch the most fish or the biggest fish on the water. But I would like to catch A FISH. Just one. Maybe that’s all I need to justify my existence out on the stream; maybe it’s just enough to justify this pursuit to my wife, and family, and friends, and society; but to me the greatest divide in this sport is the one between “fishing” and “catching”. Catch ten, twenty, a hundred fish in a day, and the psychological boon isn’t nearly as great as the difference between catching one fish and getting straight-up skunked.
So you can imagine that, by afternoon, I was getting a bit antsy for some action. One foul-hooked brown doesn’t count, and right now it’s last in the third quarter and we need to score, dammit! So while cruising along Highway 56 I spot the sign for public access for Bishop Branch, and suddenly my plans change.
Bishop Branch I’ve been to before, and I’ve fished it rather well. I figure this was an opportunity to conduct a little experiment. Fish Bishop Branch just like I fished Camp Creek, and see if there is any difference in the result. After all, I’m familiar with Bishop already, I know where to find fish, and my success (or lack thereof) should hopefully shed some light on my lousy performance at Camp. I pull off the road, suit off, and plow my way along Bishop.
I came to a nice stretch of riffles, tie on a pink squirrel, and give it a toss. On the first cast I hook up with a feisty little brown, maybe 8″ or so.
It surely wasn’t a world-beater, but that first brown finally put me in my happy place. Working my way upstream I quickly hit another, slightly bigger brown at the head of a pool. The pink squirrel hatch was obviously on, so I continued to ride the hot hand. Fish number three of the day would be the best of lot, a 13-14″ coming out from behind a large rock to show up for a most awkward-looking picture.
Further upstream I got a two-fer of sorts: one quick bite which came off the hook, and then another small brown on the subsequent cast.
Alright, so four fish over the course of two hours. I’m not gonna win much bragging rights with this outing. Still, several things struck me about the contrast between Camp Creek and Bishop Branch. Fish were obviously much easier to come by at Bishop, on nymphs no less. Furthermore, I saw no rises at Bishop, despite the present of midges (I saw more than few fly around my head). So, why such a difference in fish behavior between the two streams?
After running through a few different scenarios (i.e., food sources, riparian habitat and its effects, timing), my best guess is the angler effect. I.e., me. Going into Bishop Branch I knew (or at least I thought I knew) where the fish would be. I was casting that pink squirrel with a level of confidence that was lacking at Camp Creek. I stuck it out longer in spots at Bishop Branch where I may have moved on at Camp Creek. In fact, three of the fish caught came long after the first cast to a spot. I kept at it because I knew there should be a fish in that spot. And I was right.
So maybe getting skunked on Camp Creek wasn’t such a bad deal at all. It’s a reminder to always tackle each stream like a boss, even if you’ve never fished it before. After all, the rules don’t change from stream to stream. If the fish should be there, they probably are.
Or maybe I’m over thinking this. Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is probably the right one.
Simplest explanation: Pink Squirrels are composed of Krystal Flash and magical unicorn dust.