Hot weather is the time for smallmouth. It’s time to lay off the trout as stream temperatures begin to rise to the point where fishing for browns and brookies could potentially be fatal to the fish. Instead grab that big box of streamers and a 8-weight and go fishing for that horse of a different color– bronze.
I’m lucky to now live in Prairie du Sac, the “headwaters” of the lower Wisconsin river, a 90 mile highway of freshwater that flows unimpeded down to the mouth of the Mississippi. If the upper Wisconsin is the “hardest working river in America”, it’s waters impounded in no less than 26 places along its course, than the lower Wisconsin is where it receives a well-earned vacation. It is dotted with ever-shifting sand bars and is protected from intensive development by the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board. The result is a float down a section of river that can feel like a trip back in time, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking yourself for a contemporary of Joliet and Marquette.
It’s also a damned good fishery, home to pretty much every significant freshwater gamefish in Wisconsin that doesn’t rhyme with “out”, and lots of non-gamefish still worth catching on purpose or accident. For the fly angler though the main target is likely to be smallmouth bass, which is what I was after a week ago while floating the river with Ben and Mike.
I’m embarrassed to admit that this was my first float of the river this year. It’s largely a logistics thing; floating the Wisconsin by yourself makes put-ins and take-outs a bit more difficult unless you’re willing to put in the extra cost and effort to hire a shuttle. I waded it a handful of times, but to really successfully pursue smallies you have to be mobile. Thus when Ben invited me to go with him I jumped at the chance– he’s been fishing this section of river for a long time and is friends with Kyle Zempel of Black Earth Angling, a guy who I’m almost convinced lives on the water. Ben knew the smallie game and I was happy to come along for the ride.
The ride itself was slow and steady as expected for the river at summer levels, and the fishing game has to be given a long-term perspective. Spending 8+ hours on the water to catch a handful of fish can be considered a success if those fish are big fat smallies. Fishing is really just a bonus; its the scenery here, largely devoid of human interference, that makes the stretches between catching fish thoroughly enjoyable. Plus: it’s the best workout your casting arm will get all season.
“Spotted sandpipers haunt the shallows, the herons drowse where once the curlews flew, crying wildly, where paroquets once made tropic color in the river bottoms, where the sky was darkened by the clouds of passenger pigeons in migration.” August Derleth knew this river well and much of it still remains as he described it. Wild, gnarly green growth hangs out beyond the edges of the most ancient islands and serve as good targets for the fly. Farther downriver we pass a bald eagle nest set high up in a barren tree just off the shoreline, two dusky-colored juveniles and one adult bird watching us warily. As we pulled in toward our take-out at twilight the bats became nearly as thick as the bugs.
A few hundred feet from shore the canoe launch became too shallow to continue rowing and we all hopped out to push the boat the rest of the way. Downstream there were two campfires flickering on distant sandbars. In that moment I forgot in which century I was living. The Wisconsin River has that sort of timeless quality about it.
If you are going to spend the whole day floating, though, make sure you and your significant other understand that this truly is an all-day event, as landings can sometimes be few-and-far between and fishing adds a considerable amount of time to a float. Also be aware that running Glympse on your phone so that your significant other can watch your progress will kill your phone battery and leave her wondering if you are still alive as the sun begins to set. It will save you that awkward arrival back home hours after she believed you died.
Oh, we caught fish, too. Mike landed his first gar on the fly. Ben brought to hand a beastly smallmouth that was nearing 20 inches. I caught a nicely sized white bass as consolation for losing a much larger smallie on a poor hookset. No pictures though. It was enough to know that someone else was there to witness it before releasing them back to the river.