Today is the first day warm enough to go without a coat, but I’m chilly until I have walked downstream for a piece. It isn’t yet spring and a few dense wedges of transformed snow remain in the woods. The trees are still bare. The stream looks like slate under the cloudy sky. I tell myself I should learn to look for morels this year. I think they should be happening soon. I don’t know for certain because I never spare the time to leave the water and search for them. I keep my eyes peeled for rising fish as I walk.
I fish small pheasant-tail nymphs for a bit and manage to catch my first couple of trout of the year before sitting on the bank to sip coffee from a thermos. In theory, trout should be feeding on the blue-winged olive nymphs moving around ahead of the anticipated afternoon hatch, but my efforts don’t confirm or deny anything specifically entomological. A beadhead pheasant tail can catch a trout on any river in the world, regardless of season. I don’t own a stomach pump and never plan to. I’m content waiting to see if the hatch happens or if it is still too early.
Here on the northern edge of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, the aquifers feeding the narrow spring creeks percolate up through fissures in the limestone spared by glaciation. Perfect temperature and alkalinity are acquired in the process. The brookies have been here for eons. The browns came from Germany more than a century ago.
The most consistent BWO hatches in this part of Wisconsin are during March, after the little black stoneflies but before caddis, although they will make an appearance again in September if fog and cool weather arrive in time. March has been getting consistently warmer in the last 20 years, so it probably won’t be long before we’re saying February is BWO time. As the temperatures rise, I hope the trout can hang on.
A few concentric rings appear on the surface of a nearby pool. I spend an hour or so on my knees casting to those spooky, sporadic risers and manage to get a few to eat a spare CDC emerger after they reject my sparkle duns. Rising trout are always amazing, but they are especially miraculous after the long northern winter. When they stop feeding, I head back upstream, considering how soon I could take another afternoon off from work.
Rising trout are always amazing, but they are especially miraculous after the long northern winter.
My fish count could be higher, but my casting has been clumsy. After a winter of Skagit heads and bunny leeches, the trout rod feels like I’m using a flimsy toy to throw weightless thread. The rod requires a casting tempo one heartbeat slower than I’m used to. It punishes a double haul but sets a dry down perfectly if you get off the gas. It was the first good rod I ever owned. It is a two-piece because the four-piece version was an extra 50 bucks and I couldn’t swing it. I bought it the year after I got out of college as a belated graduation gift to myself. It cost about the same as the car I bought that same year. This is a testament to both the quality of the rod and the shittiness of the car. Priorities.
Before I get back to the vehicle, I stop to look at one last piece of water. The run is practically boiling with feeding trout. At first, I don’t believe what I’m seeing. Everywhere I look, trout heads and their spotted backs are pulsing out of the water’s surface. In the depths, other fish flash underwater as they feed. Dazed, I unhook my fly, roll cast a rod’s length of line and promptly hook a fish.
Over the next 40 minutes I experience the best dry-fly fishing of my life. It is absurd. Every inch of the run seems packed with frantic, ravenous trout. If the fly drifts a foot without dragging, a fish eats it. At least a couple of times I see multiple trout race to the fly, the loser turning away at the last moment when the quicker fish is hooked. I catch a stupid number of them before I retreat to watch the last couple of feeders work the slick against the far bank. There is such a thing as handling too many fish.
A few duns are hovering in the air by now. I find some writhing in streamside spider webs. I think they must have arrived from another section of the stream or hatched earlier because I don’t know how any of them could have survived that trout buzzsaw. The BWOs unlucky enough to hatch in this stretch had been slaughtered. Cued by light levels, maturation time and temperature, they had abandoned their rocky streambed sanctuary to make a mad dash up through the water column. They fought their way through the stream’s dense meniscus, wriggling to escape their shucked carapace. If they made it to the surface, finally breathing air instead of water, they were forced to drift helplessly as their wings dried. Woe to those who were knocked over by a gust of wind like a tipped sailboat. They were goners for sure.
At each step in the process, the BWOs were crushed in trout jaws or swallowed alive and packed in gullets with the rest of their brood, dissolved and absorbed as fuel for starving fish desperate in the waning winter. But some of those trout should be wary, too, especially in the recklessness of the BWO feeding frenzy. The hierarchy of the food chain keeps going. Big browns in this section of river don’t bother with the puny calories offered by the tiny BWOs. They live in root wads and deep pools and feed primarily on bait instead of bugs. Those monsters will stalk and devour a six-inch brookie just the same as that little char smashes a mayfly struggling to escape the river on an early spring day.
The hierarchy of the food chain keeps going. Big browns in this section of river don’t bother with the puny calories offered by the tiny BWOs.
This article was originally published in Volume Nine, Issue Three of The Flyfish Journal.