Sauk county sits at the periphery of Wisconsin’s Trout Mecca, the Driftless region. It is something poetic, then, that most of the county’s trout waters are located within a few miles of the county line, at the periphery of another geographic (and much more arbitrary) boundary. From our eagle’s nest in Sauk Prairie I’m well within a hour of any trout stream in the county, and over the past couple of days I visited several of them, none of which I have spent much time (if any) fishing.
The days were modest ones. The largest fish hooked probably came in around 12 inches, and I lost it on one final head shake as it struggled against my rod to reach the cover of a LUNKER structure. As much as I’d like to have an epic day on the water every time I’m out there, it’s the days when I struggle where I usually learn the most. Sometimes it’s just a simple reminder that, if I don’t zipper up the pocket in my waders, I’m bound to lose a brand-new package of strike indicators (followed by another reminder that I really don’t like using strike indicators, anyway).
Another lesson: if a late-morning caddis hatch is thick enough to cover emergent rocks and stipple your waders, but produces not a single rise as far as the eye can see, then maybe this isn’t a trout stream worth your time. (Carl Sagan might disagree with me on the evidence of absence, but then again he had to launch a space probe to take photos of a Pale Blue Dot from the edge of the solar system to feel insignificant, whereas anglers simply have to watch trout sip everything off the water’s surface, yet refuse a dry, to feel the same.)
Sometimes the lessons don’t arrive until after you’ve returned home. I managed to net a northern brook lamprey, one that looked a bit worse for wear and was moving in a lethargic manner against the current. It was only the second one I’ve ever seen. I later spotted several more, clustered together in a scour ahead of a large boulder. A little bit of Googling revealed that the northern brook lamprey spends only a short period of time as an adult, spawning in the spring and then dying shortly thereafter. No wonder I rarely see them otherwise. That little guy may have just accomplished his destiny and was on his way to finding a quiet resting spot to kick off; and that group of lamprey may have been preparing a bed to lay eggs.
(It further struck me that, as concerned as anglers are about avoiding redds in the late fall and winter, we don’t talk enough about avoiding the streambed in spring when lampreys, sculpins, and other important denizens of our trout streams are preparing for the next generation. Just as we worry about how to #keepemwet, maybe we should also think about how to #keepthewadersdry for the sake of all the critters that help make our trout streams healthy.)
And, sometimes, the lessons start well before we hit the water, with planning and researching and Googling the names of potential hone holes, secret spots, and hidden gems that might reward us with coldwater gold. This week’s adventures ended with a small brook trout fooled on an Elk Hair Caddis, on a stretch of unassuming water whose name rarely passes by a Trout Bum’s lips, running through a parcel of public land so obscure that only a single source even bothers to put it on the map. The fish was colored a deep purple with a spotted backside and fiery red belly that shone boldly in the afternoon sun.
It was not a big fish. But the best way to measure fish is not in inches, but in the lengths you took to land it.