When I woke up that day, I never expected to find myself face down, belly in the snow, up to my elbow in mud and cold stream water. But then again, I didn’t expect much of what happened in five of the wildest minutes in my fly fishing career.
I had sent Mark a text with a screenshot of the weather - One hundred percent chance of rain starting in the morning, eighty percent chance all afternoon. The outlook was bleak to say the least, and I wondered if it was worth ditching the family to stomp through the snow in a rainstorm. With temps in the mid thirties, it had the makings of a terribly crappy day.
After a long day, Mark and I finally connected by phone and found time to have “that” conversation. I’m sure most fisherman have had it with a buddy, “So, it’s gonna be really shitty tomorrow, you still want to go?”. I’ll be honest, with the long week I’d had, having a day to hang with the kiddo and Mrs. sounded downright nice. You could hear it in our voices, neither of us sure it would be worth it, but also neither one wanting to be the one to decide to pull the plug. “I’m game if you’re game” Mark said. That was all I needed - “See you at 6:30 tomorrow morning.”
The drive went fast. I hadn’t really spent much time with Mark. We had floated in different boats on a couple of different day trips, but never really had the chance to get to know him. It’s amazing what you can learn in three hours and it was fun to learn more about his travels through his band, River Valley Rangers. Though he’d spent tons of time perfecting the mandolin, he hadn’t had a ton of experience in the Driftless, so I was excited to show him around.
We drove through sleet, snow, rain and even found about five minutes of clear weather, so it wasn’t a surprise when we rolled up on the first spot we had in mind and it was vacant. We gave it a quick look and decided to push forward to another spot we wanted to check out. As we rolled up, I quickly realized I’d fished here in the past, and thought it would be worth the walk down memory lane.
Rigging up the sleet began to turn to rain, and it began to come at a more consistent pace. Wadering up in the truck, I wanted to stay as dry as possible. As we walked down to bank, with streamer rigged, I figured it would be worth getting a few casts in before we began the long walk downstream to wade back up to the car. I set Mark up on one end of the pool, and I took the other. It didn’t take long, and I had a nice brown hooked up. Without my camera on me at this point, I quickly released the little guy to fight another day and went to find Mark. He was thrilled to see a hook up and noted he’d never caught a brown in the Driftless. I immediately went back to the car and grabbed the Sony and threw her in the bag. I did have hopes the weather would clear up.
As we trekked through knee deep snow, we made our way through a corn field and found some downed trees, making a great little spot for Mark to get his first Driftless brown.
It was one of those pools you can fish a few different ways. Throw upstream and let it sink and bounce it back. Toss it against the far bank and let it swing through. Sling it downstream, swing it and strip it back. Mark had options and with a perfect cast, somehow managed to combine the last two and with a perfect mend his line went tight. A perfect brown trout quickly tailwalked it’s way across the pool, and after a brief fight, Mark stripped him in to the net. Elated, Mark scooped it up and we took a few pictures to memorialize what will be the first of many Driftless trout.
Still wondering how I ended up face down in the snow and mud?
As we walked our way back to the car, I snuck my way up to the pool where i connected earlier. We hadn’t fished the entire pool, and I started at the downstream side, casting off the far bank. As I stepped forward, I first thought I had gotten hung up along some brush that had been washed down this area over the last few floods. When I felt the tug pull towards the deeper pool upstream, I got a little excited and thought I might have something bigger than this morning. As she turned downstream and made a run, I knew it was game on and I had a bit more than I thought. She moved towards the downed barbwire fence spanning the width of the creek. I knew I had a small chance of landing her if she made her way it. With 5x tippet on, I didn’t have much room for margin.
I directed her upstream and she came completely out of the water. One of the most colored up browns I’ve seen in a long time. I about lost it, entering full freak out mode. Suddenly I couldn’t reach the net attached to my bag. As I tried to move upstream, my feet got tangled in the seemingly miles of fly line that suddenly were at my feet. I screamed for Mark downstream. There was no shelf to stand on. No area upstream or down to land the fish. Netting this thing myself we seemingly going to be impossible, I thought.
As I directed her back upstream, she made a run for the undercut bank just below my feet. I stumbled to the bank, keeping pressure on the line, praying she was still attached. My heart was slowly sinking. I took a deep breath, told Mark to hold my rod, and I dove to the bank, reaching for the line, and a prayer. I down up to my arm and couldn’t feel anything but the bank. She was buried, or the fly was lost, to only live on in stories. I grabbed the net and pushed the line down and away and all hell broke loose. A slab of a brown erupted from the depths. I can’t tell you how she ended up in the net. I probably had my eyes closed and a goofy look on my face. In full Superman pose, I held one of the nicest trout I’ve ever caught up in the Driftless. Not the biggest, but one of the most beautiful trout I’ve ever caught. And the way it went down, I’ll hopefully never forget.
Looking back this was a trip that almost never was. I find myself often taking the easy or lazy way out. Having a beautiful baby girl and such an amazing wife, I honestly don’t want to be away from them much. It’s days like this that reconnect you with why we get out. It reminded me that going outside shouldn’t only be for sunny days. Getting to hang with Mark, finding fish, and reconnecting and recharging - all just as important as the others. Even without a fish worth the stories, this would have been a great day. The weather did clear, Mark got his first trout in the Driftless, and we found plenty of reasons to come back.