I took my friend Leah out fishing in the Driftless area for trout. Living in Sun Prairie, it was her first time going this deep into the Driftless area. As we passed Spring Valley Road, she remarked that she had never driven this far along Highway 14. We still drove a bit further.
Leah, an Army veteran, got interested in fly fishing through Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), a group dedicated to the rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and veterans through fly fishing and related programs. PHWFF is a national program, but the local Madison chapter is operated out of William S. Middleton Memorial VA and run by Michael Burda, himself a Vietnam veteran. Mike’s passion for PHWFF is contagious and it was easy for me to try to get involved when my work schedule allows. Leah works near the fly shop so she is a regular visitor, and after the umpteeth story of her going fishing for bullheads at Token Creek I decided that she needed to go out and do some (in her words) “real fishing”.
Finally our work schedules synced up and we were able to steal a beautiful late spring morning and afternoon chasing browns up and down Highway 14. It was bluebird skies but we stalked along some wooded banks that provided just enough shade to keep the fish active, and active they were… splashy rises, one after another, doubles, triples, occurring in rapid succession up-and-down the long shaded stretches that held fish.
I don’t know exactly what had them interested. I’m a lousy angler that way, I guess. Sometimes I don’t ask too many questions if things just happen. I did see some caddis fluttering across the water, and tiny sulfur-colored mayflies, and at least one gangly cranefly. At one point a large, black Hendrickson landed on my shoulder and I marveled at the length of its triad of cerci. I don’t know which of those the brown trout were really after. I do know that, whatever it was, a size 16 Elk Hair Caddis did a damn good job of imitation.
The first stretch of stream was a bit tough, and I blame myself for that. While it has always produced for me it does not offer the best casting lanes for inexperienced anglers. We worked one productive pool for a good hour as Leah fought to reach her line underneath a low-hanging branch that sheltered the pool beneath it. We pulled a few fish from here, including one of the larger browns I’ve pulled from this stretch.
It was okay, so far, but both of us could go for more. I pointed us to another productive stream that tends to avoid some of the heavier pressure many Kickapoo Valley waters receive. The section I was interested in fishing looked to be occupied by another angler, so we headed further downstream to fish a length of water I was unfamiliar with that ran through a thicket of woods. The first 500 yards was a less-than-promising romp through skinny feature water. I knew that eventually this stretch would have to be broken up by some nicer holding water.
Another hundred feet or so and there was the Promised Land: a long, lazy stretch of water, tumbling down from a rocky riffle and abutting against a tangle of exposed tree roots and submerged boulders. Rises, lots of them, up and down the pool, as fish hammered surface critters with abandon. For the next hour-and-a-half we took turns delivering Elk Hair Caddis to eager fish and were rarely disappointed on the drift. Sip, sip, splash, KA-BOOM… all sorts of takes that all ended in fish in hand. We lost some too, such is the nature of the game.
At one point I had a take so violent that for a second I thought the fish might take my rod with it. It caught me by surprise, and the fish was gone. (I guess sometimes the opposite is true, that fish can catch anglers!)
We pulled well over twenty fish from that hole by the time we worked our way up to the head of the pool. Leah had another take and the rod doubled over, and when I caught sight of the fish as it tore downstream I let out a yell.
“Shit, Leah!” I said. “That’s a huge fish!”
A short fight later and a deft sling of the net by yours truly and the beastly brown was in hand. It was certainly over 15 inches, and the no-doubt biggest fish of the day.
That fish pretty much blew up the hole, so we moseyed onward and not too much further upstream found another filled with eager fish. Another half hour of casting landed some respectable browns, though nothing nearing the size of the Beast. With the day getting late we turned around, wondering at what the rest of this stretch of water might hold.
It was a good day. I think even Leah would agree it was better than Token Creek.
For more information about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, visit their website at www.projecthealingwaters.org.
For more information on the local Madison chapter of PHWFF, check out their Facebook page.