And the evening sky is the reason why I’m going driftless.
Many people—including some who ought to know better—call Michigan’s Upper Peninsula a winter wonderland. But with two feet of snow on the ground in late April, my only wonder is why I still live here. In much the way a puppy accedes to the leash, I’ve come to accept March as a winter month. But April is supposed to be spring. Major League Baseball opened its season three weeks ago—even in Chicago and Milwaukee—and if I have to take one more strike standing in the snow with the bat on my shoulder, I will undoubtedly lose my Dodge Ram mind.
When I tell my wife about the mastodon tracks in our backyard, she hides the sharp knives and suggests I drive south to find open water in the temperate climate of Wisconsin. I would never deliberately manipulate her in this way, but when my subconscious plays a game with fishing as the prize, I don’t hold up the stop sign. Instead, I wave it around third and toward home with the exaggerated windmill motion of an excessively excited coach.
I fill the truck with rods, reels, waders, boots, nets, and enough accessories to qualify for personalized holiday greetings from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association’s Board of Directors. Then I wind south on M26 through a leafless forest carpeted with snow. Fog blurs and blends the morning light as my truck and I hurtle through a three-dimensional impressionist painting. And while rubber hums against snow-covered asphalt in the background, Alison Krauss tells me I’m the lucky one:
Not a care in the world, not a worry in sight, everything’s gonna be alright, ‘cause you’re the lucky one.
I’ve yet to hear the angels sing up on the hill where the sky is black and still, but I know they’ll sound just like this when I do.
My drive is over three hundred miles, but only eighty are on divided highways. The rest are over two-lane roads that twist through towns with names like Mass City, Paulding, Watersmeet, Sugar Camp, Woodboro, Dancy, Cranmoor, and Valley Junction. Gangs of turkeys line the roads like spectators for a Big Easy parade, while Shetland ponies, pit bulls, and blue signs declaring support for Donald Trump flourish in the farmhouse yards. I’m on a mad dash through the core of rural America.
Sixty miles or so into Wisconsin, Alison Krauss cedes the stage to James McMurtry:
My fields are empty now; my ground won’t take the plow; it’s washed down to gravel and stones; it’s only good for burying bones.
Along with John Prine’s, Jason Isbell’s, and Greg Brown’s, McMurtry’s songs help me manage the monotony of driving from point A to point B in a vehicle endowed with nearly enough brains to do so on its own. About an hour outside Westby, I call a motel to rent a room for the night.
The motel is set up like an inside-out motor lodge: A long thin building with two rows of rooms, but unlike the roadside motels I loved as a kid, the doors to the rooms are inside a narrow hall through the middle of the structure. The entrance to the hallway is locked, and when I struggle to unlock it, two heavily tattooed guys eating soup straight from a can let me in. They are friendly, but if this were Texas instead of Wisconsin, I’d worry that Llewelyn Moss had stashed a stolen satchel of money in the motel’s air duct, and later tonight, Anton Chigurh would blow out the door’s cylinder lock and kill me.
The morning is icy cold, but the cylinder lock is intact, and I’m alive. I’m in the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, an area that somehow dodged the violent southern flow of glaciers. The rest of this stretch of the midwest is scarred with drumlins, kames, kettles, moraines, and eskers—geologic remnants of a drifting and churning block of ice. But rough land formations—like the Keweenaw Peninsula where I live—split the drifts and diverted them around this territory, leaving countless spring-fed streams to cut sharp valleys in the Mississippi River watershed.
Although the fly shops advertise hundreds of miles of trout water here, I don’t know where to start. My friend Tom Davis put me in touch with Winston Ostrow, a retired attorney who knows and loves these rivers as well as anyone. Winston pointed me toward a few rivers and suggested I start with a visit to the Driftless Angler fly shop.
When I first started fly fishing, I was uncomfortable asking questions in fly shops—afraid my queries would signal my ignorance and my ignorance would cause people in the shop to burst into vein-popping laughter. “Ha ha ha, this guy doesn’t know the difference between an Ephemerella invaria and an Ephemerella dorothea.” I’ve since lost that particular fear and defiantly call every small yellow fly a Sulphur. Still, a new shop in a new area awakens some of those feelings.
“Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m here to catch some trout,” I say to the guy behind the counter. He circles some streams on a map and tells me to avoid fishing at any spot where I see a vehicle. I buy some flies and a book about stream access, then—because the morning temperature is still well below freezing—drive from the shop to a local restaurant for breakfast. Six guys sit around a large round table, all dressed like retired Orvis models. Two men in an adjacent booth start a conversation with them.
“You guys look like fishermen.”
“Yeah,” one of the guys at the round table says, “we drive over from Chicago every year in the spring.”
“Is the fishing good here?”
“The fishing’s as good as the fisherman doing it,” the Chicago guy says, pretty much ending the conversation. Eight anglers—nine counting me—eating in one restaurant. I brace myself to see a lot of spots with vehicles.
I finish all of the eggs and too much of the soggy hash browns, then drive to one of the most well-known sections of one of the most renowned rivers in this region. I tie a Pink Squirrel to my line—a fly designed by one of the region's local anglers, John Bethke. It's one of those great flies that adequately imitates many things because it doesn’t precisely imitate anything. I hope these fish will think it's a scud, but if they mistake it for a sunken French fry and still eat it, I'll be okay with that, too. I have to break ice from my guides after every dozen casts, and when my fingers get too numb to tie a knot, I return to my truck and drive off for another river. This time, I decide to try one of the little blue veins on my map that the guy in the shop didn't circle.
I find a stream that meets my criteria: it’s on a well-marked stretch of public land with no cars in the parking area. I walk downstream through the woods to where the public land ends and a fence invites me to keep the hell out. A trout rises down from the boundary, so I get on my knees where I’m welcome and float an elk-hair caddis past the fence and into the place I’m not. The fish splashes its approval, and my first Driftless brown trout flips and flops to hand. Another rises, and I do the same thing again. And then another.
After landing four forbidden trout, I focus on a small upstream pool below an old fallen tree. A few dimples disclose feeding trout, so I crawl into position for a cast. They say most of us leave this world in the same state we enter: bald, toothless, and badly in need of a diaper. In between, our skills and abilities advance, then decline through similar paths, except for crawling. We are instinctively good at crawling when we are young, but by the time McDonald’s offers us the senior discount for coffee, crawling on our hands and knees—especially over the gravelly bank of a river—resembles the sort of inhuman treatment prohibited by the United Nations Convention against Torture. But because water’s acoustic impedance is sufficiently different from air’s, none of the fish hear my moans, groans, and muffled screams. From this one new spot, I catch over a dozen trout, the largest a tad under fifteen inches. I’ve never seen a small stream with so many trout, or to be precise, with so many wild trout.
I eat a late lunch back at my truck, then drive off to another of the blue veins on my map, although this one is sized more like an artery. The guy at the fly shop circled this place, and I’m familiar enough with the river’s name that I want to check it out. To get from one stream to another, I drive up and out of an Appalachian-looking valley, traverse some nondescript rolling hills, then drop into another river-carved ravine. The names for most roads are letters from the alphabet, and there are so many of these lettered roads that some need two letters to make a unique name. Back when you could buy Alpha-Bits cereal, an adventurous angler might pour a bowl and let the letters in their spoon determine their route to the next river.
This river is large by Driftless standards—the largest I’ll fish—and though the access site is not a secret, I’m the only vehicle in the small parking area. I want to fish with dry flies but see neither bugs nor rise rings on the river’s surface. So I tie on a Pink Squirrel and watch my little indicator float through the most likely-looking runs. Some grass near the river is green, but the old growth away from the banks is brown, as is everything on the hills that funnel this river toward its destination. Still, it’s a gorgeous afternoon, and nothing is icy white on the ground or in the air. On my second drift through a long riffle along the bank, the indicator stops, I lift, and all hell breaks loose. It’s the second largest fish I’ll catch on this trip, but it fights like it wants me to add a few inches for the record. After landing a half dozen more fish, I sit on the bank and drink a Miller Lite. Like David Coggins wrote in The Optimist, Miller Lite offers us a great lesson in perspective: People are wrong to call this stuff bad beer; instead, they should think of it as great water. As the sun disappears behind the highest peak of the surrounding hills, I finish rehydrating and think, “My goodness, Mother Nature is trying to reproduce a Bob White painting.”
I sleep well and only think once about the satchel of stolen money some down-on-his-luck rogue might have hidden in my room’s air duct. I eat breakfast in a small restaurant that doesn’t have the “chain” feel of the one I dined in yesterday. A little gnome statue atop my table holds the salt and pepper in a basket on its back, and I expect some modern version of Aunt Bee, Opie, and Andy to come through the door at any moment. And then they do.
Winston told me about a place I should try on private property with an easement to allow anglers to access the river, and whereas I don’t see any signs inviting me to leave, I don’t see any inviting me to stay, either. So when a gentleman strolls from his house to the bridge, I wade toward him and timidly ask if I’m okay to fish here.
“Sure, you’re welcome to fish all of this water,” he says.
I introduce myself and tell him that Winston recommended this place. He knows Winston, of course, because everyone around here seems to know Winston. The landowner introduces himself as a retired school teacher who runs a cattle ranch now, and when I ask where the cattle are, he explains how he uses rotational grazing to manage the cattle’s impact on the land. I ask where the bull is because, well, when you’re on a ranch, you should always know where the bull is.
“Oh, you shouldn’t worry,” he tells me. “Bulls are actually pretty sweet when they’re young, and they’ll do just about anything you ask them to do, until one day when they won’t. Then you tell them to do something, and they give you the I don’t have to do that if I don’t want to look.”
“How do you deal with them after that?” I ask.
“That’s when we send them to the Oscar Meyer Ranch.”
When our conversation returns to fishing, he points out some of the best spots in this stretch—places where local anglers measure the fish in pounds, not inches. After he returns to his house, I hook and land my largest fish of the trip. I get it on a Pink Squirrel, of course, and the fish drags me through two bends like a rabbit leading a hound. It’s a brown trout with large dark freckles and the slight remnant of a kype in the tip of its lower jaw.
After lunch, I finish the day on a small stream with a mix of public and private land, making it tricky to know where I can and cannot be. I park in one of the few obvious access sites and work slowly upstream in a section where the river-left bank rises about three feet above the water. Fish feed steadily below a tree extending over the river, likely a few years from surrendering its hold on the bank. I'm crawling again, but this time through mud and muck instead of grit and gravel. Once in position, I shift to my tush and begin catching wild trout on small caddis flies. The fish are mostly the same size—eight to ten inches—until they aren’t. Occasionally, one of the young adults puts on a show for the juveniles, and I land a few fish well over a foot long from this seemingly endless supply of trout. But, alas, time does what it does best, and when the shadows cover the water, the fish stop rising, and fishing time becomes Miller time.
The rancher told me I shouldn’t return to Michigan without having dinner at the Driftless Cafe. My drive back to Viroqua is like a scene from a Coen brothers movie. A cow runs and jumps in a yard the way puppies do when they’re up to their ears in piss and vinegar. An Amish fellow backs his horse-drawn buggy into a small shed while a woman flails her arms in a way that seems to say, “That way, not THAT way.”
The young lady who greets me at the Cafe door asks if I have a reservation. I tell her I don’t, but I’d prefer to sit at the bar, anyway. Most of the drinks the bartender mixes for the servers are in those copper Moscow Mule mugs, so I ask him to saddle a mule for me and order two small plates: one with braised pork and one with salmon. When the bartender asks what brings me to town, I tell him about the two feet of snow and mastodon tracks in my yard.
“My goodness, you’re from the Upper Peninsula, aren’t you?”, he asks. “You poor bastard. The drink is on me.”