Excuse the fact that it’s now a few days past Halloween. Inspiration doesn’t always strike in the right season.
They say the best time to go fishing is when you have time to go fishing. If that fish is anything but a steelhead, it might be true. The best time for steelhead, however, is right after it rains on a cold overcast morning in the heart of autumn. That’s when an entire mass of giant rainbows, grown fat from years gorging on baitfish in the Great Lakes, feel it’s time to migrate up the tributaries, only to hold fast through the dead of winter in hopes of securing a prime spawning ground come the warmth of spring. If you come too early and there are no fish. Come too late and they’ve disappeared upriver. Come at the best time and you win the lottery.
So every year in late October I take a week’s vacation from work and caravan with buddies up to northern Wisconsin to chase steelhead on the Bois Brule River and drink beer by campfire. It’s a longstanding tradition among the four of us, and we consistently drink more beer than catch fish. People ask me why I bother driving five hours away, freeze my ass off, never sleep, only to not catch anything. To those who are anglers, I tell them they’ll understand after they fish the Brule; to those that don’t fish I tell them they’ll never understand.
The Brule is almost impossible to describe in words. It is better to simply feel it yourself. The only thing I can say is that the river feels unstuck in time: thick oaks stretch along its banks, the same ones that likely watched as the first Frenchmen explored the Northwoods, and old rutted footpaths carry anglers up- and downstream like they have for generations. The names of its fishing holes—Dance Hall, Bachelor Bend, Stump Hollow—are stuff of legend. Even the most powerful men in the free world—Ulysses S Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Calvin Coolidge—could not escape its allure.
This river haunts the mind of every angler that has touched it. I have no choice but to go back.
Speaking of which…
It was already raining as we drove up to the Copper Range campground; a good omen for the week ahead. We set up camp, did our best to light a fire, cracked a beer, and began bullshitting. That time Jeff got lost downstream of Pine Tree Hollow; Bill arguing with Jeff over the size of a fish he caught years hence; laughing about the time Tom wandered into the wrong camp in the middle of the night after taking a piss and nearly having the rest beat out of him by an angry husband; and trying to piece together the night last year we visited the Hungry Trout when the river blew out from heavy rain. A couple of beers later and we were ready for bed, thinking ahead to an early morning the next day.
I awoke before dawn, rain still falling, and sat the back seat of my car with the overhead lights on as I rigged up my rod. I’m a cheapskate and my outfit shows it; an older St. Croix 8-weight matched to an even older, oversized Pflueger Medalist. The other guys laughed as they pulled their brand new Sage and Orvis rods from shiny aluminum tubes, but that rod and reel got the job done; and when most of the job was simply swinging streamers with no hope of a hook up, it performed just as well as those thousand dollar rigs. Besides, I always felt that crusty old Pflueger was simply meant for for a place as timeless as the Brule.
After finally jostling Tom awake we stood under the open rear gate of Bert’s minivan, downing black coffee and talking the day’s strategy. Bill and Jeff would head downstream from the campground, and Tom and I would head the opposite direction. Tom insisted on starting at Dance Hall, as he always did despite his own history with the hole, so I chose to go as far upstream as I could before first light, and then working downstream until Tom and I crossed paths again. We’d rendezvous at noon around a pot of chili in camp, hopefully with a good story or two to tell.
The rain turned the footpaths to a mud slurry, and it wasn’t long after we left each other—Bill and Jeff’s headlamps had disappeared around a bend in the river, and Tom’s was a faint speck behind me—that I realized I wasn’t nearly as comfortable navigating the river banks in darkness as I was in the light. The rain grew thicker, my progress slowed, and eventually I realized I had been following a non-existent trail through the woods. I tried to backtrack, but it was impossible. After crashing through a stand of pines and nearly hurling myself across a fallen birch, I decided it was best to simply hunker down beneath one of the large oaks and wait for sunrise to find my way back to the trail.
The rain fell heavy for a while, but at the first inkling of dawn, as the gray forest floor started to regain its color, the rain suddenly let up and the clouds began to break. It thought it was odd how quickly the weather had turned, but chalked it up to the lake effect and set about finding the trail again. It wasn’t long after that I heard the first gunshot.
Hunters were as common in the woods as anglers, so it wasn’t unusual to hear the report of shotguns throughout the day as someone flushed grouse from thick brush somewhere far away. I thought nothing of it, concerned only with finding the river trail again. I double-backed the way I thought I came, eventually reaching the river bank, but here the trail seemed far less defined than I remembered. Rather than being a deep rut in the ground it was barely a trace, and even then it was covered in fallen leaves that made it nearly impossible to distinguish from the forest floor.
Not a big deal; I would simply follow the river’s course back downstream until I spotted something familiar, or until I ran into Tom at Dance Hall, and once I got my bearings I could get to fishing.
I wandered back downstream for quite a while—much longer than I felt it took me to get lost in the first place—and still the river seemed only vaguely familiar. Was it possible that I got myself more lost in the dark than I thought? Was I further upstream than I believed? I passed by holes that I thought I knew but they seemed just a bit off, unfamiliar. I simply shrugged it off as the consequences of an early morning and excessive coffee, but then grew a bit alarmed when I reached Dance Hall.
At least, I thought it was Dance Hall; that unmistakable hairpin turn in the river, the cascading riffles that plunged in the deep pool at the lip of the bend; there was no other place like it on the river. Tom wasn’t there, however, and I knew it was much too early for him to give up the hole. More unnerving: I couldn’t find the wooden steps back to the campground. There was no trace of them, as if they never existed.
My heart dropped a bit. Okay, so I was lost; that was the bad news. The good news was that the river was not the final frontier, it was well-marked and well-traveled, and if I simply continued moving in one direction long enough I would either run into another angler or some signage that could get my bearings back.
It was then I made the fateful decision to head back upstream. I figured maybe, just maybe, Tom had headed upstream and I missed him by going off the beaten path. So I turned around.
Not long after I turned around I heard the gunshots again. At first they were far away and muffled, one here, another there, nothing unusual. As I moved further upstream they became louder, closer, and increased from scattered shots to a series of volleys, then from volleys to a something that sounded like a few good ‘ol boys thought it might be Fourth of July rather than later October. The wind, blowing from the south, suddenly carried a stench of rotten eggs that nearly overpowered me. I stopped a moment, waited, and listened. Now along with the staccato of gunfire were the frantic screams of men, unintelligible and still at some distance.
My heart beat faster. What the Hell was going on up there? I had never heard anything like it. Maybe some locals having too much fun, some sort of dispute over fishin’ holes gone wrong? Hell, I really didn’t want to stick around to find out.
I was just about to beat a retreat back downstream again, away from the commotion, when the sound of thrashing branches stop me cold. A hundred yards ahead of me, through a thicket of tamarack, a man appeared, running at full speed, deftly maneuvering through the underbrush with the grace of a whitetail deer. His eyes were wide with fear, his chest heaving with every breath, legs pumping fiercely. His right shoulder was covered in blood; his, I’m not sure.
None of that bothered me. Not compared to his appearance.
He was nearly naked from the waist up, though he wore the ragged remains of a cotton shirt, once white but now dark brown and red where it touched his shoulder. His pants were buckskin, adorned with some color made from cloth and beads. His feet wore moccasins. His long dark hair was tied intricately about his head, adorned with a red roach. He looked like he just ran out of the pages of a James Fennimore Cooper novel and was now headed my way.
I couldn’t move. Fright over flight. I nearly hit myself as he rushed past nearly close enough to touch, but he never so much as glanced at me. Just blew by like I wasn’t even there. Only after he passed, maybe twenty or thirty yards, did he turn his head and look back.
I could tell he wasn’t looking at me, though. He was looking through me, back from where he came, eyes still wide with fright at whatever he left behind.
Flight over fright. No way in Hell was I gonna find out what was chasing him.
I took off at a full gallop, mimicking the running man’s flight, using him as a point of reference as I tumbled through the woods, slipping over wet leaves and slapping at low-lying branches that fought back with stings to my hands and face. I never stopped, so long as he didn’t. Just kept running, running.
At one point the tip of my rod snagged on a branch, yanking the rod free of my grasp. I didn’t think to stop. I figured I would come back later, if I wanted. Right now I didn’t want.
The gunfire grew more distant, my breath grew ragged and my chest started to burn with every breath. The man was now out-distancing me; I could barely make him out through the thrashing woods around him. At one point I looked back to see if there was anything left to outrun. I saw nothing behind us, and took that moment to slow my pace and give my lungs a rest.
When I turned around again the man had disappeared into the woods. I never saw him again.
I hunkered down against the trunk of an ancient oak tree to catch my breath and my wits. It began to rain again, hard. I lay there quite a while; I don’t know how long it really was.
The gunfire ceased, but there came another form of shouting. The voice was distinct, and it was calling my name. It was Tom. Another voice repeated the same call. Bill, and then Jeff. The three were clearly looking for me. I called back, stood up, found the well-worn path again for the first time since that morning, and quickly reunited with them.
They asked me where the Hell I was; I never returned to camp for lunch. No way had that much time passed, I said; I had hardly been out here an hour, tops. They had been searching for me most of the afternoon, up- and downstream from the camp. Impossible I thought; I had been up- and downstream the entire time, looking for them. After jawing back-and-forth for a few moments it became clear we must have crossed paths at some point; somehow we missed each other.
I asked them if they saw where the running man went. They hadn’t seen anyone else the entire day. No way could you have missed him, I said, describing him in detail. They each looked at me like I had insulted their mothers.
They hadn’t heard the gunfire, the shouting, nothing. They shook their heads.
A chill went down my spine.
It later became a joke amongst us. Catch any ghosts today? We sat around the campfire and had a good laugh about the time I got lost in the haunted woods. We personally named the hole near where the guys found me as Ghost Hollow. And after a while I simply rationalized the entire thing as the product of a tired mind running on too much adrenaline and caffeine. It became the most eventful part of that trip, at least, since we never spotted a steelhead.
Even worse, I never found my rod again. After regaining my composure we headed back upstream to find it; it was gone. After what I just experienced it didn’t even bother me that much. Just like any group of people, there are bound to be a couple of assholes among anglers. Somebody got a nice little fly rod outfit, I figured.
I forgot about that reel for a while, but the experience with the running man along the banks of Bois Brule haunted me. Who was he? Was it a ghost? What about the gunfire? The smell? Where the Hell was I the entire time the guys were looking for me?
I’m not much of a history buff, but now I know a lot more about that river than just how it fishes. I know that a white man named Benjamin Armstrong once lived with the La Pointe Band of the Ojibwe near the Brule in the early nineteenth century. He was the only eyewitness of a battle between the Ojibwe and the Santee Sioux in late October 1842, which occurred along the banks of the Brule not far from our campsite. The Ojibwe slaughtered the Sioux, and those few survivors fled into the woods with the Ojibwe in swift pursuit.
I think about that every time I walk the woods from Dance Hall to Broomstick.
I never do that walk in the dark anymore.
There is one more thing which I think needs to be said. Benjamin Armstrong became the adopted son of Buffalo, one of the leaders of the La Pointe Band. Being an important figure among the Ojibwe, Buffalo came into regular contact with Americans, and more than once had his photo taken. In each photo appears a stern, stately man, often finely dressed in clothes considered fashionable among white culture at the time: a military overcoat with the epaulets of a general, for example. In each there also appears a large medallion around his neck, likely given to him as a gift from some high-ranking military official or politician. The medallion appears almost the same in every photo, a flat silver disc attached to a thick woven necklace.
In the last photo of him, taken circa 1850, just a few years before his death, he wears another medallion. It’s a grainy early tintype photo where details are difficult to make out. Still, the first time I saw it in a history book my heart skipped a beat.
It’s impossible to say for sure.
But Buffalo’s medallion looks a lot like the spool of a beat-up old Pflueger.