I’m a sucker for a good ol’ fashioned adventure story, one filled with fortune and glory (…kid, fortune and glory) and great discoveries of ancient ruins and lost worlds, the kind of story just bonkers enough that you would believe it when reported on the nightly news but call bull when you hear it from a friend-of-a-friend. Like the story of the Pintupi Nine or Ishi of the Yahi, the coelocanth or the Wrangel Island mammoths. I like the story-stories, too. All three Indiana Jones movies (no, that’s not a typo), the legend of Atlantis, whatever Percy Fawcett found in the jungle, and that B-movie about a lost band of Cheyenne starring the guy from Major League and the dad from That 70s Show.
It doesn’t seem like the world has a lot of those adventures left in it, when we are covered constantly by satellites and GPS and cell phone towers. If I were to place a bet, I’d imagine the next great “lost worlds” story to emerge from some lonely Pacific island or rugged mountaintop in Patagonia. Instead, that story emerged from a trickle of water outside of Baraboo.
In a series of emails between myself and Scott Allen, president of the Aldo Leopold chapter of Trout Unlimited (ALCTU), Scott mentioned a curious addition to the Wisconsin DNR’s 2016 trout regulations: an approximately two-mile stretch of water in Sauk County was designated as Class I trout water, supporting a wild population of brook trout. The designation was so new that the stream does not even appear in the print edition of the 2016 trout regulations handbook (I have noticed that it has since appeared in the online version of the regulations). The stream itself is so remote that the creek doesn’t even have an official name (the DNR considers it unnamed; it has two unofficial names, as well).
Since that initial e-mail I’ve made the hike to the creek several times during the off season. I should mention that it is not “remote” in the sense that it is far away, or completely inaccessible; most of the creek runs across public lands just a few minutes from the Baraboo River. The difficulty comes in actually getting to the stream, as it meanders through a steep gorge without any readily identifiable means of reaching it. You could easily drive along the highway and never knew it existed. The only clue is a number of small yellow signs posted along the road that read “Public Lands Ahead.”
I took the hint, parked on the shoulder near one of these signs, and followed a short deer trail to the edge of the gorge. The hike down to the stream wasn’t too bad in early November before the snowfall, during my first visit there, but it becomes a bit more harrowing when covered in a few inches of snow. The stream itself is not wide—you can hop across it without much trouble—nor is it deep. The “holes” are hardly more than a foot in depth, and a good pair of hip boots will more than satisfy the need to go wading. The DNR’s assessment of the watershed notes that the stream likely receives very little (if any) fishing pressure due to the efforts required to fish it.
But there are fish here. In the couple hundred yards of water I walked, I counted dozens of brook trout, some of respectable size—6 to 8 inches—holding in water no more than inches deep. In the most practical sense it’s probably not worth the effort to fish it. But after the snow melts out of the valley and the warm weather arrives to let the fish do their thing, I plan on giving it a cast or two simply because it exists. And it’s amazing that it has gone unrecognized for so long. Like the fabled Brigadoon, the creek has appeared seemingly out of nowhere and unto the (fishing) map.
(To be fair, it’s not like finding trout in this creek was like finding Tutankhamen’s tomb. There was at least some folks keeping an eye on it over the years, as it turned up in DNR watershed reports published few years ago. It was also stocked with trout at one time, though that was nearly thirty years ago. The fact that the brook trout have been naturally reproducing, and have gone unknown for so long, is what tickles my rod tip.)
Then again, the Baraboo Hills are filled with technically unremarkable yet easily lovable trout streams, if only given the chance. Most are small, with brushy banks and overhanging vegetation that makes fishing a technical challenge. Most are filled with small brook trout—a 10 inch fish here is a good story, and a 14 incher is a true trophy. They beg to be fished with a 2- or 3-weight rod, with the angler bellying along the streambank and throwing high casts to the bank edge using soft hackle nymphs, and dries when the fish demand them.
I don’t like to give out their names, except in code. The angler willing to put in the time to find them—online, on the ground, or in seeking out those who know the waters—will be rewarded with some beautiful treasures, both in the water and among the scenery. If you want to chase native brook trout in southern Wisconsin, there may be no better backdrop than the spires of Devil’s Lake and the surrounding Baraboo Range. It may also be one of the the best hopes for preserving brook trout in Wisconsin, as several (but not all) of the waters here have been rated by the DNR as being resilient to changing climate that will doom brookie habitat elsewhere in the state.
The new creek, then, might truly be Brigadoon: it’s trout appearing to us for such a short time before disappearing again. If that is the case, it raises my desire to fish it: to do so, before it’s gone.
Try it yourself sometime. If you’re into that sort of thing. And if you can find it.
It’s worth it.