I pulled off the road next to a stand of gnarled apple trees and the remains of a sign that once announced the owners of the farm. All that remains now is a blank piece of plywood, and nailed atop that a smaller metal sign that reads “AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY- Dane County Parks.”
I checked the email again on my smart phone. Topf Wells seems like a pretty authoritative person. I think I’m good.
I kept the email open on my phone, a finger-swipe away in case I had any trouble. Not that I expected any: this property is now owned by Dane county, though it doesn’t look like it. And I’ve never had any issues with stream access. I don’t have any stories of wacky landowners appearing on the stream bank ready to argue public access law with the guy hip-deep in muck (for those unfamiliar with Wisconsin water rights: they tend to favor the angler by granting public access, if you keep your feet wet, in most waterways in the state). Maybe that’s because I’ve always been pretty careful when choosing where to fish. Maybe it’s because I’m slightly paranoid of becoming the horror stories that I’ve heard over the years.
Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Nearly a decade ago, after I bought my first fly rod in Ennis, Montana while on a summer-long field course to cap off my undergraduate degree, I took an afternoon off to walk the banks of the South Boulder River that coursed through the Tobacco Root Mountains and past our camp. I probably cut across more than a few property lines in the process. I’m glad that the camp’s neighbors had a soft spot for us poor geology students.
I’ve cut across my share of properties around here, too, and did so legally, thanks to the amazing work that Dane County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done working with landowners to secure public easements through private lands. Just this morning I ambled along a stretch of the West Branch of the Sugar River, dropping streamers into slots as I slowly killed my knees inch-by-inch along the bank edge. For a short time my buddy Matt joined me, his young daughter slung in a papoose on his back, and worked a few corners before her need for cookies and nap time took priority. Then I was alone again, and continued until I reached the blue “EASEMENT BOUNDARY” sign before turning back.
There are some 30-plus miles of water like this across Dane County, from Black Earth Creek down to Pleasant Valley, and I dare say that the relative proportion of publicly fishable trout water in the county rivals that of any other in the state. That’s the good—nay, great—news. The flip side is that a lot of this water could use a little help. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to point out that among the two dozen or so classified trout streams in the county, only two—Black Earth Creek and Mount Vernon (and to be fair, Gordon Creek, which crosses into Iowa County)— are Class I waters in the DNR’s playbook (and only Black Earth Creek has significant Class I mileage). The remainder are Class II and Class III waters; essentially, they are not living up to their potential as fish factories.
Looking at a waterway such as West Branch, it’s easy to imagine why: I walked the entirely of the permanent easement from the bridge up to the easement boundary, and only spooked about a half dozen fish. In pools where I might expect to scare up a dozen or more trout, I saw one. The stream bed exhibits significant siltation—the knee-deep-in-muck kind—and the high banks suffer from erosion; it’s the sort of combination for the stream-bound angler that requires you to do a running Moon Man impression straight at the nearest bank and then awkwardly flop forward like a beached whale in the hopes your momentum will pull you from the muddy suck of the stream bottom. It’s also not an ideal situation for the survival of trout.
But this new property is a different story. A success story, hopefully, though right now we’re only reading the first chapter. The property is located on the Upper Sugar River watershed, a portion of which is classified as Class II trout water. It’s the second (by my count) significant portion of land along the river that has been purchased by Dane County, the first being the 375 acre Falk Wells Sugar River Wildlife Area that runs along Highway 69 between Verona and Paoli. Not long after the new property was secured by the county, a series of events was set into motion that ended in plans for restoration of this mile-long stretch of the Sugar River, a $100,000-plus project supported largely on the back of the county with significant support from the Southern Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited (SWTU). The goal is to start restoration in the spring of this year and have it completed by the end of the summer.
I’ve never fished the Sugar before. I had absolutely zero to do with this project, despite my association with SWTU (most of the kudos on the SWTU end must go to board members Topf Wells, Pat Hasburgh, and Matt Krueger, and probably others whom I’m forgetting). But Topf’s enthusiasm tends to latch on to you, and after his descriptions of the property I had to go see it for myself. I walked along the old driveway, past a shuttered house with boarded windows and the neglected apple orchard with last year’s harvest still hanging from naked branches, past the barn and machinery shed and along former crop rows, and finally to the farm bridge crossing the river.
The Sugar River here is broad and swift moving, high banks covered in a mix of riparian grasses and ash and oak trees, the water just stained enough that it’s deep runs melt into a dark oblivion that swallows up your fly. A flock of mallards took flight as I crept up to the bank. This is not the kind of water to serenely dip a nymph; I tied on an articulated Millennium Sculpin and bombed it into the abyss, swinging it downstream and then stripping it back along the bank. It felt good to really open up for the first time this season with the rod, and having the space to actually do so was exciting.
I was hit with the realization that I might have been among the very first anglers to touch this water since the property changed hands. I was then hit with an even more incredible realization: this water could be amazing once restored. I can imagine the streamer junkies getting their fix; I can envision thick hatches of mayflies swarming the water’s surface on a warm May evening; I can see myself splashing along a gravel bar with net in hand to haul in a trophy brown fooled by a buddy’s fly. None of that happened today—I didn’t even manage to raise a fish—but all of that is possible in the near future with a little bit of help.
I worked upstream for a few hundred yards before finding a shallow riffle to cross back toward the highway and my car. I’m usually not terribly happy leaving the water empty-handed, but today I walked away with a great sense of enthusiasm for what the Sugar River could be. The river has long been neglected and inaccessible; in a few short years it could become one of the jewels of public water in southern Wisconsin. If this restoration is successful, it likely won’t be the last stretch of the river to receive such work. So here’s my hot take: at just fifteen minutes from the outskirts of Madison, and a shorter drive for our neighbors in Illinois than Black Earth, Gordon, and possibly even Mount Vernon, the Sugar River will become one of the prime trout fishing locations in southern Wisconsin.
The Sugar River story is just beginning, but it’s already one with a number of protagonists. It’s one of landowners who recognized the potential to leave a legacy of stewardship beyond ownership, of a county that knows an opportunity when they see one, and of an organization and it’s members that believe in the untapped potential of our local waters enough to put in a lot of hard work to see it done right. It will be interesting to see it continue to it’s end.
And I believe in the happy ending: Wisconsin anglers opening the trout regulations some years from now and finding another Class I trout stream in Dane county.