Beast of the brook

Tiny springs trickle down the sandstone bluffs of the driftless area in western Wisconsin, forming small flows that join up with other spring-fed trickles until there’s enough water to gurgle and cut its way through a three or four-foot wide stream bed winding through the forest down to the Mississippi River. At some point the water is deep enough that it can support the smallest of fisheries, hidden in the shade and fleeting beams of sunlight which reveal gray-sided ghosts blended with the bottom that would go unseen, if not for a furtive dart when they suspect something is amiss.

And when they do, the fishing on these tiny flows becomes even more difficult. A wayward shadow, a foot placed too close to the bank, or a sloppy cast of fly line slapping the surface puts the tiny trout on high alert, making each step and each raise of the line from the water’s surface all the more important. Each fish is a trophy, whether five or fifteen inches on these tiny flows (though the latter is a very rare occurrence), simply due to the work, concentration between eye and arm and the effort to remain unseen, which goes into catching them.

Long leaders and thin tippets help conceal the fact that the artificial offering at the end of the fly line is not what’s normally on the menu, and hopefully dispels the idea that it is attached to an angler casting over grass, around trees and sometimes kneeling just a few yards away behind a stand of vegetation to target just the right riffle or bend that may hold one of these wild brown trout.

Casts must be straight, and positioned just so that they fall within the gurgling water without snagging the grasses which line the banks that are a mere stride apart in places. Break-offs and tangles with shoreline bushes, wildflowers and nettles which guard these small treasures are common, but the moment where the line lights up with the electric pulse of a hungry fish on the take is well worth navigating all of the obstacles.

A well-placed cast coming at the front of a riffle yielded such a strike from an eight-inch trout – my first of the late-summer trip – which flipped and fought its way between boulders and a long-secured tree which lay underneath the shore and the surface acting as a dam of sorts, causing the water to break both over and under it. Lucky for my leader and I the fish chose the over-route and avoided the need for slingshotting it back or me having to run my rod under the bough to bring the trout to hand before releasing it.

Few fish fight with the vim of a wild brown, and in these smallest of spaces the battle with an eight-inch fish seems epic. But when given the opportunity to dance with the largest specimen and that I had seen on my recent adventures in the green-clad hills and clear brooks of the driftless area, I could only stare in awe as a golden-bellied brown, after gently taking my fly, launched from the water a like it was shot out of a submarine and was given all the leeway the laws of gravity could offer, before crashing down and sending my beadhead nymph back toward shore.

The fish’s acrobatics, and certainly its size of perhaps 15 inches, had me plying that pool for nearly an hour the following day in hopes of re-creating the battle and writing a different ending. But it was not to be.

While several other fish came to the mesh of my landing net, and were slipped back into the streams we worked in the haze of morning, mist of mid-day rains and ultimately heat and humidity of two identical afternoons on the water, the one that got away remained the first of what I am sure will be many stories coming from in between the banks of these small flows, with their unforgiving features, evasive little trout, and the occasional beast holding in the deepest corner of these clean running brooksin our outdoors.