Sauk Prairie Eagles

Twenty minutes north of where my wife and I currently live is the dual city of Sauk Prairie, a collective township composed of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac that resides along the western banks of the Wisconsin River. Home to about 8,000 people, Sauk Prairie exists at a confluence of geography, history, and culture that rivals any other town in the state. Long before the founding of either, the neighboring hills were home to the indigenous Sauk people. Just outside the city limits (along Highway 78) you can visit Wisconsin Heights battlefield where Chief Black Sparrow Hawk led 70 men against 700 militiamen led by then-Colonel Henry Dodge in the penultimate conflict of the Black Hawk War.

That war pushed the Sauk from their native lands and opened it to Euro-American settlement, and by the 1840s both Sauk City and Prairie du Sac became established communities. The German-settled Sauk and the English-Yankee-settled Sac quickly became rivals and fought to control the post office, high school, and bridge that crossed the river, all told with good wit by August Derleth in his treatise of the Wisconsin River. Derleth, a native son of Sauk City, became its de-facto historian through a series of memoirs and fictional accounts of life in Sauk Prairie, most notably his Walden’s West and the lesser known but eminently more readable Wind Over Wisconsin. Today the Highway 12 bridge into Sauk City is given his name, as well as a park overlooking the river.

Today the cities are cooperative rather than antagonistic, and driving along Water Street its difficult to tell where one community ends and the other begins. Sauk Prairie is the home to the original Culver’s burger joint and the awesomely satisfying La Mexicana diner. It is home to the Prairie du Sac dam, which props up the Lake Wisconsin flowage and has been providing power to the region for a hundred years. The summer Cow Chip Parade has become a local icon, such that real estate listings proudly proclaim “this property of located along the Cow Chip Parade route!” Along its southern margin is a nice stretch of wadable water that is great smallmouth fishing in late summer through fall.  It’s large enough to be self-sufficient and still small enough that it avoids the traps of the Madison metro area.

With all that Sauk Prairie continues to surprise me, as it did when I learned that it was a prime location for bald eagle-watching. An otherwise solitary bird the rest of the year, eagles congregate together near open water in the dead of winter in search of food. Due to the presence of warm water discharges near the dam, Sauk Prairie has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in Wisconsin during winter. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, a non-profit group based in Sauk Prairie, has an overlook located in town that is staffed by volunteers with spotting scopes on the weekend.

There weren’t any bald eagles near the overlook this past Sunday when my wife and I visited, but the dam’s warm water provided perfect conditions for activity. Pulling up to the parking we spotted one immature bird on an ice shelf in the heart of the river. I counted another eleven roosting in naked branches along the shoreline. Add two or three more that occasionally appeared in flight, circling the river in search of lunch, and the total number of birds was somewhere near 14-15.

We returned this morning to grab some pictures. We are far from photographers, but between the two of us we managed some okay shots which I’m sharing below. (Note that only some of the birds have the iconic white plumage on their heads and tails: until they reach adulthood at around five years of age, immature eagles have drab brown feathers).

The majority of the time bald eagles are hangin' out in trees in order to conserve energy. They only actively fly and hunt about 2% of the time in winter.
Where’s Birdo? There are eight (by my count!) bald eagles in this photo.
Possibly one of the nicest shots we took, courtesy of my wife.
Possibly one of the nicest shots we took, courtesy of my wife.

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While infinitely more entertaining to watch, eagles spend only about 2% of their winter in flight or actively hunting.
While infinitely more entertaining to watch, eagles spend only about 2% of their winter in flight or actively hunting.

According to the volunteer we talked to at the overlook, eagles should remain in their winter quarters through February and possibly into March if the weather stays cold. Considering the winter we’ve had thusfar I’d say they’ll be around for a while yet. If you do go yourself, know that you should stay inside your car at all times to avoid upsetting the birds (you are allowed to walk about at the overlook, however). For more information, check out the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council’s website.

Debating a Banty

Two nights ago a bug crawled into my ear and began to chant, “Banty, banty, banty…”  Since then I can’t shake the idea of turning my next bamboo rod project into a chopped job, a “banty” if you will.

Bantam rods were the name given to shorter, lighter bamboo rods in comparison to the heavy nine-footers that were a glut to the market through the 1950s. There are other names out there– flea, midge– that refer to specific lengths or weights of bamboo rods, but the term “banty” has been co-opted to describe the process of modifying one of those heavy nine foot rods to mimic the look of the short six- to seven-and-a-half foot bantams/fleas/midges. It’s analogous to “chopping” an old, un-cool Mercury into something infinitely more pleasing to look at.

The actual performance advantages seem dubious, at best. Some amateur “banty” makers claim that chopping the rod makes it more responsive and capable of throwing lighter line– reducing the weight of the rod from a 6/7 to a 3/4, a considerable improvement more suited to modern trout fishing– while others claim it does little more than change the action of the rod, sometimes for the worse.

So why bother? One, I’m near completion on my second nine-footer beast rod (featured photo, above), and don’t need a third nine-footer; and two, right now I’m kinda enamored with the idea of a short bamboo rod for little brookie streams. I also have the perfect candidate, a Pioneer bamboo rod (probably made by Horrocks Ibbotson at some point) with a curious rainbow re-wrap.

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I was curious to see how this rod might actually feel if it were a seven footer, so I grabbed a few reels with various line weights and taped them about two feet up from the reel seat (just below the first female ferrule) and gave it a toss. This rod is like a wet noodle, for sure. The tip section is really soft and “wiggly”, such that I feel it really dampened the rod’s ability to throw line, but it does a passable job up to twenty feet or so. It’s a so-so rod for a 5 wt. line– like, you could make it work IF you wanted to– but, much like its nine-foot variant, it’s probably better suited for a 6/7 wt. line.

My only concern is the soft tip and the first ferrule, which combined create a serious “dead zone” along the upper third of the rod that creates a pronounced hinge.

You can see the hinge in the lower left corner of the photo.
You can see the hinge in the lower left corner of the photo.

However, after thinking on it a while this MAY be an advantage. A more parabolic action rod would offer less stiffness in the new butt section of rod, which would require some reinforcing to make it fishable. Since the mid section here is so stiff I think it could end up as a nice seven foot 6 weight, casting issues aside. We’ll see!

Half Full

Got my nymphs in  row. Most are pretty traditional patterns or those I’ve fished with success before. Some others are experiments in tying. I tend to tie new/experimental patterns in threes: one to give to the Ents, one to give to the fish, and one to remember how I tied it in the first place.

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Top row (from left): dark hare’s ear, light hare’s ear and beadhead light hare’s ear

Second row: bloody black hare’s ear, dark hare’s ear, beadhead dark hare’s ear, ice dub hare’s ear

Third row: beadhead pheasant tail, beadhead stonefly nymph, orange and pink pheasant tail, beadhead light hare’s ear

Fourth row: pheasant tail, beadhead pheasant tail

Fifth row: beadhead black midge larva, beadhead caddis thingy, another beadhead caddis thingy (no wing), icy green caddis

Sixth row: pink and orange beadbody scuds, beadhead red and copper midge larva

Seventh row: caddis larva, more caddis larva, more caddis larva, beadheadless pink squirrel, “pink panther” (reverse color pink squirrel)

Bottom row:  pink squirrels, all the way

One Month

You can gauge the approach of a new trout season by the number of fly fishing dreams you have. In the last two weeks I’ve had three that I can remember.

One: I’m standing on a high, rocky bluff overlooking dark-colored water. The valley is shrouded in fog and it must be late spring because the gray rocks are coated in tangles of green. I search in vain for an access point but never find a way down to the water.

Two: It’s mid summer and I’m working a stretch of skinny water in a deeply incised stream. The banks are muddy and steep and choked with glacier till, and its easy to see the rocky stream bed through gin clear waters. There are a pair of narrow, wooded islands that divide the channel and I begin working a pool that abuts the first island. I see small northerns (really?) spinning and darting in the current, but I never get a clear shot at one.

Three: Again it’s mid summer and I’m clad in shorts and a tee and throwing line across a wide pool near a bridge. The water is chocolate. A dying tree dips its half-dressed green branches into the water. There are other people here, too, young kids who are putting on a fishing clinic as I grow more frustrated with each cast.

Maybe I’ll finally a land a fish by dream number four, eh?