When Israel of Shorebound Hero fame messaged me, asking if I wanted to fish Port Washington harbor for big brown trout, my first thought was, “How am I going to do this with a fly rod?”
It never crossed my mind that he may have meant fishing by way of conventional gear, like normal people, like everyone else who fishes the harbor in Port Washington. When we lived in West Bend I made my way down to the harbor on a few occasions and tossed spoons near the power plant discharge and never saw anyone with a fly rod. Even I didn’t carry one at that time. I knew enough of the harbor’s layout to know that fly fishing it would be a challenge, with some stretches of shoreline downright off limits. I was constantly checking my back cast for cyclists and pedestrians along the public walkway, and worked twice as hard as Israel had to with his baitcaster to sling my fly.
On the car ride to the harbor conversation ran deep and Israel asked me what my passion was in life. I was schooled as a paleontologist but now work in a fly shop. I’m a dedicated member of Trout Unlimited but spend more time chasing smallmouth than anything else. Some days I’d rather do anything else but fish, and others I think of nothing else but having a rod in my hand. I don’t know if I’ve ever pursue anything at a level that I would describe as passion.
“What gets you out of bed in the morning?” he asked.
An hour later, fly line coiled around jagged blocks of limestone and my right arm working hard to push a fly where it has no right to go, I think to myself: good question.
I like fly fishing because you need to be a bit different to make it work. Personalization is not only encouraged but the God-given right of every angler that sits at a bench and dreams of the next hot fly pattern. I realize that tacklecraft exists among conventional anglers, but I think its an exception to the rule rather than the norm. I know more than a few people who have poured their own lead jigs, and maybe a couple that build their own spinners. On the other hand, nearly every fly angler I know has tied flies in some capacity. A surprising number of them have wrapped their own fly rods at least once. This despite the fact that neither activity is a cost-saving device, and instead rips open another hole in the fabric of space-time through which your money readily disappears.
The end result is that nobody’s fly box looks the same, as each of us churns out a small fly shop’s worth of goods each-and-every year. If one looks closely in the branches of your favorite trout stream you’ll find more variants on a Blue-Winged Olive then there are species of Baetis. Look even closer and you may be able to tell who made it. Like fingerprints, our own creations put us at the scene of the crime.
That sense of personalization– that fly fishing can be whatever you want it to be— is, I think, what has driven a whole generation of younger anglers to do stuff with a fly rod that that just don’t seem right. Muskie on the fly. Carp on the fly. Catfish (I imagine somebody must be doing this). Hell, there are folks who cut off the hook part of the hook, tie on some strands of nylon rope, and hunt for longnose gar. I’m not pretending that any of these ideas are novel concepts– I do believe somewhere out there is a black-and-white photo of Lee Wulff landing a muskie on a bamboo fly rod– but there is a growing number of anglers willing to shrug their shoulders and say, “What the hell? Why not.”
I rig up a 9-weight Clearwater rod with a sinking leader, and a hastily-tied streamer that is meant to imitate an alewife, and carefully choose my casting lanes to avoid smashing the fly on the rocks or hooking a passerby. If I’m careful– if I get my rhythm down, I avoid tangling the fly line in the rocks– I can whip that silvery bugger out there a good 60, maybe 70 feet, where it disappears in the milky blue water and the churning waves immediately begins to contort the line into shapes unflattering to the angler’s eye. I strip it back until only the sinking leader I left on the water, then begin my next cast.
This continues for a while. I realize pretty quickly that the leader alone isn’t enough to get the fly deep, near the bottom where I might actually have a chance to entice a fish. The fishing in general in slow– we see one guy hook into a nice salmon and put up a good fight before the sharp crack of his line brings it to an end– and I see no reason to stop what I’m doing, at least until Israel does something amazing with his baitcaster.
What that’s thing they say about insanity? Doing the same thing over, and expecting a different result…
On the next strip I get a moment of excitement as a small brown dashes the water’s surface near my line; one, twice, a third slash with it’s tail before slipping away again. It was nowhere near my fly, but I strip in harder with the hope that maybe, somehow, the fish will change its mind and come back to another look.
It does not. But it gives me an idea. I pull in the line, remove the fly and sinking leader, and re-rig with a leader built of 20-pound flurocarbon. Then I rummage around in in my fly box and pull out a homemade Crease Fly.
These fish are coming to the surface. I don’t know why. But what the Hell, why not?
A few weeks earlier Israel and I are walking away from Lake Monona after spending a couple hours wading for smallmouth and muskie. We’re dressed like any fly fisher would be. A lady approaches us. I recognize her as the person who sat at a park bench the entire time we were out on the water. She asks if she can take a photo, telling us how much she enjoyed watching us fish. We oblige.
Later that day we’re searching for carp in the heart of Madison and a younger man approaches us, breaking the news that there aren’t any fish in this stretch of water. I tell him we’re targeting carp, and suddenly he changes his tune. He welcomes us now, assuring us we can take as many of those dirty, filthy carp with us. Neither of us have the heart to tell him that we’re putting them all back.
These are the kind of interactions Israel has on a regular basis. He’s the guy with the fly rod when everyone else is carrying spinning tackle. He stalks every mud hole in the Madison area in search of carp. He wades the lakes for muskie. What he’s doing is like nothing else anybody around here has seen, and people can’t help but ask him why. What he’s doing isn’t an original idea– fly anglers have targeted carp before, and there are others who fly fish the urban jungle– but he’s one of the most visible and has nearly single-handedly moved urban fly fishing in Madison forward a few steps.
It may not be unique, but it certainly is different.
There are others, too. Luke Annear has quietly laid the groundwork for a more robust carp fishing community in the area. Kyle Zempel has made Crash an everyday word in the fly angler’s lexicon. Matt Sment and Mike Lutes at Badger Tenkara are doing crazy stuff– literally crazy, I don’t know how they do it– with tenkara rods, recently introducing the beefy WisCO rod to deal with smallmouth and carp, and currently developing a steelhead rod. Then there are the numerous folks who pass through the shop, peruse the materials wall, and sketch rudimentary fly patterns on a piece of paper in search of something else; something different than what’s in the fly bin.
Me? Well, I do have an obsession with small creek smallmouth. It’s not that unusual, really, but I’m still surprised at how criminally underfished these waters are. More for me, I guess. Sometimes being different means having incredible fishing opportunities all to yourself.
The story is supposed to go like this: I tied on that Crease Fly, danced it across the water’s surface, and caught a sexy brown trout to the total amazement of everyone in the harbor.
I didn’t catch jack. I switch back to the streamer.
A while later I sit down to take a break– fly casting is hard work– and Israel pulls out his WisCO tenkara rod. He’s been given instructions from Matt to basically beat the hell out of it in the pursuit of big fish. He rigs it up, throws on a streamer, and begins tossing it. I take a turn at throwing it. I will admit, the rod tossed a weighted streamer much better than I expected. I still have my doubts that a steelheading tenkara rod should exist, but for the sake of Badger Tenkara I hope it works. The fly fishing industry could use a little bit more audacity.
Across from the breakwall I see an older gentleman on a park bench, sitting, staring. I think he’s watching us cast these funky-looking rods, and it looks like he’s smiling. It’s probably not something you see every day in the harbor. Like a lady who is tickled enough by your antics to ask for a photo. Or the pontoon-boatfuls of people on Fish Lake who exclaim, “He’s fly fishing!” when they chug by me and my float tube. Or the guys at Hat Rapids Dam who, upon watching Mike and I struggle to put his drift boat in the river– a boat laden with heavy rods and tackle– ask us what kind of trout we’re fishing for on the Wisconsin River.
Big toothy trout, of course. That’s all you can fly fish for, after all.
So, what does get me out of bed in the morning? My alarm.
(I guess if there is one thing in my life that approaches passion, it’s being a smart-ass.)