Last September, having concluded that hunting grouse in the jungles typical of opening weekend isn’t sport so much as self-abuse, I decided to open the Wisconsin grouse season by going trout fishing.
There’s a beguiling little brook trout stream I’d always wanted to try at that time of year, and with my friends Donny and Erik, who are made of stouter grouse-hunting stuff than I, planning to be at the cabin for the bird opener it seemed like a natural. I told them that if I got lucky there’d be brookies for breakfast on Sunday morning, and with this in mind I brought a pound of bacon along. For the grease.
If I’m cooking brook trout, I’m going whole hog.
It takes a bit of doing to get to this stream, starting with a hilly cross-country trek—a trek that, ironically, winds through a big piece of gorgeously brambly grouse cover. It was a crisp, cool day, too, the kind that almost made me regret leaving my hunting kit at home.
This stream is a feeder to a small river (a fetching piece of water in its own right), and when I reached the rocky cliffs above the latter I heard, floating up from the canopy on the other side, the throaty clangor of hounds. Bear season was in full swing, and as I switchbacked down the slope the tromboning swelled, receded, then swelled again. Soon it was clear that the pack was heading my way, and within seconds a half-dozen tawny brindled Plotts came pouring out of the understory in raucous full cry. While I watched from the opposite bank they turned abruptly at the river’s edge, galloped upstream for some distance, then angled back into the woods, the entire encounter passing in a breathless Doppler rush.
I was heading upstream as well, and at some point a new note of urgency in the hounds’ tone told me they were barking treed. Just as the mouth of the feeder came into sight I scanned the treetops on river left and spied the bruin. A medium-sized adult, he was sprawled more-or-less horizontally in the fork of a maple, and at the risk of egregious anthropomorphizing he was wearing an expression of stoic resignation—as if he knew this could not end well for him.
With the hounds’ cacophony as my background score I worked up the stream and started fishing. The water was lower than I expected, and while I dropped my fly—I was using a #16 Hare’s Ear beadhead—into every likely looking pool, pocket, and riffle I couldn’t turn a trout. This fruitless prospecting went on for an hour or more, and through it all the Plotts continued to bark treed. It’s wild country in there, roadless except for the two-tracks left by loggers, but I couldn’t fathom why the houndsmen were so tardy getting to their dogs. They were pushing the envelope of fair chase, and it was starting to grind on me.
At last I came to a place where the stream emerges from the woods and coils lazily through a broad, marshy flat. I’d always given this stretch short shrift—from what I’d seen it looked silty-slow and largely featureless—but with nothing to lose I decided to inspect it more carefully. A tongue of deeper, faster water bookended by pine snags looked promising, and after easing through the tall grass to the top of the run I crouched low, stripped a few feet of line off the reel—zizz, zizz, zizz—and flipped the beadhead across the current. The fly swung briefly, the line came electrically tight, and upon feeling that living presence on the other end I uttered a shamelessly girly cry of pleasure, something like “Hee-hee!”
The trout tore this way and that, the willowy bamboo rod magnifying every throb. It was about a nine-incher, perfect for the pan, but as I cradled it in my hand, astonished as always by the startling purity of the colors and the almost holographic effect of the markings—like a galaxy of haloed stars—I couldn’t bring myself to keep it. Or to keep any of the others, all eating-size, I took from that spot. So much for my skillet-thumping Iron Chef talk. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the bear I’d have been less … I don’t know. Merciful? Ambivalent?
When I stood up to leave I realized that the hounds’ baying had stopped. Now there was only the gurgle of the stream, straining through the pine snags.
And, back at the cabin, there was bacon.