Grouse Creek

Places that aren’t easy are precisely the places brook trout and ruffed grouse are supposed to live
native brook trout
Photo: Rueben Browning

It’d been so long since I’d stumbled into a family unit of grouse that it took a moment for all the tumblers to click into place. I’d crossed the old hilltop farm field and come to the pipeline cut when, just as I reached the lip where the cut slopes down to the creek, a largish, brownish bird with thunder in its wings erupted from the shaggy grass, bore left, and vanished into the concealing green of the woods.

Then, as several half-scale, half-speed replicas of the first bird rose, giving the impression of creatures incompletely formed, my brain caught up to my senses and I realized I’d blundered into Mama Grouse and her brood. You rarely flush grouse in a place where you can tilt back your head and see nothing but sky—the birds were undoubtedly foraging for insects in the grass—so this ranked as something of an event. And while a part of me wished that I could chalk it up as a neat little wildlife encounter and leave it at that, the part that ultimately makes the rules insisted on filing it for future reference.

In less than a month, you see, the sporting implement in my hand wouldn’t be a three-weight fly rod. It’d be a twenty-gauge shotgun.

It felt like fall, too, or at least it felt more like a day to hunt for grouse than it did a day to fish for brook trout. When I arrived at the cabin in the early afternoon, the thermometer in the Subaru read 57 degrees. A raw north wind shook the trees; occasional bursts of needle-fine rain sizzled down. The sky was gray as iron.

The funny thing was, it all felt right. There should be days like this in northern Wisconsin in August; days when the sun and its warmth lose traction; days when you imagine you can taste Lake Superior’s wintry breath on your tongue. Places with weather like this, I propose—places that aren’t easy—are precisely the places brook trout, and ruffed grouse, are supposed to live.

So, while I may have been a bit inconvenienced by the conditions, I understood that they came with the territory. I was philosophical about them; in a way, I even welcomed them.

Besides, it wasn’t as if I was on a schedule, or had a looming deadline, or for that matter had anything pressing whatsoever to do. To the extent that I had an actual task, it was to pick a bag of apples from the tree on the north side of the cabin, a tart, early ripening variety that, in the hands of an expert baker (read: my wife), surpasses any other apple I’ve found for pie. The fact that the tree’s a biennial bearer, meaning that it sags with fruit one year and produces almost nothing the next, lent a minor sense of urgency to the mission.

Of course no one plants apple trees like this any more. Indeed, it was planted before—presumably long before—the cabin became “the cabin.” The place was a farmhouse then, its occupants struggling heroically to wring a living from a handful of dairy cows and a few acres of rocky, frost-riven soil. I like to think that the pies, and the sauce, and whatever else was created from these apples added a small note of grace to their hard, walled-in lives.

I found a few unbruised apples on the ground—apples that the local deer would’ve cleaned up if I hadn’t gotten to them—picked a few more that I could reach while standing on two feet, then used a folding aluminum ladder to finish filling my sack. With that, I returned the ladder to its place in the cabin’s utility room, chuckling, as always, at the poster tacked to the wall there. A bar ad for Schlitz Tall Boys, it features a photo of a top-heavy but demurely posed Playmate, 1960s vintage, beneath the all-caps headline HERE’S TO BIG CANS.

And, the thought crossed my mind, to low-hanging fruit.

My original plan had been to spend some time that afternoon working in the little iris bed I’d established, too. It needed weeding desperately, but I’d gotten a chill picking apples, and the idea of kneeling on the ground grubbing in the dirt was rapidly losing its appeal. After a few moments of indecision, I finally said the hell with it.

I made a sweep of the cabin—I’d already set a jug of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the really good stuff, on the kitchen table in anticipation of bird season—locked the door, got behind the wheel of the Subaru, and headed for the creek. The old adage “Wind from the north, no true fisherman ventures forth” banged around in my head, but I figured since I’d come all this way I had to give it a shot.

The creek isn’t one you hear about; you won’t see it on any “Best” lists or find it mentioned in any of the Wisconsin where-to guides. Those of us who know about it are inclined to be evasive and, when we do speak of it, to use hushed tones. It’s a gem, a beguilingly trouty piece of ice-cold, fast-flowing, gravel-bottomed water that not only holds a healthy population of native brookies but, in contrast to 98% of the brookie water in this part of the world, is wide enough to fish successfully—and, more to the point, enjoyably—with a fly rod.

The DNR scraped out a small parking area near a particularly choice stretch a few years ago but unless you know it’s there you’re unlikely to find it. It’s unsigned, and while it’s just two turns off of a state highway, the second turn, onto a narrow two-track, appears to lead nowhere. The upshot is that I’ve never seen another vehicle parked there. I’ve never seen another angler fishing the creek, either.

For the record, I am not unhappy about that.

With grouse few and far-between the last few years, flushing the brood did my heart good. It buoyed my spirits, gave me reason to be optimistic about prospects for the fall. I scrambled down the slope, found a game trail, and followed it through the alders—impenetrable but not quite—to the creek. A pair of upstream braids reconnect there, creating a run with a deep slot on the right bank. The water was a tick high but unstained, and I knew, even before I stepped foot in its sluicing flow, that there was no need to check its temperature.

I also knew that whatever insects those grouse had been feeding on were unlikely to be on the trout’s menu. It was one of those days when the smart money fishes wet, so I cut back my leader, added a fresh piece of tippet, and tied on my go-to prospecting fly, a Beadhead Hare’s Ear. I fish it more like a streamer than a nymph: flipping it at a quartering downstream angle; swinging it through the pools and tail-outs; mending line to swim it beneath the overhanging alders; doing whatever I need to do, pretty or not, to put it in front of a trout.

Just workin’ it, as they say.

On my third cast into the slot I felt a tug, raised the rod, and came tight to a fish. It was one of the creek’s typical brookies, a scrappy seven-to-eight incher with a flaming orange belly, blood-red underfins edged in purest white, and spots like haloed stars, luminous against their backdrop of midnight blue. In the presence of beauty such as this—beauty for which there is no explanation—my knees tend to go a little weak.

I caught that brookie’s twin a few casts later, and as I eased my way downstream, picking up fish with pleasing regularity, I felt a cloud begin to lift. It had been, by a wide margin, the most disappointing year of fishing I could remember. Spring and early summer had been unrelievedly cold and wet, knocking the hatches of caddis and smaller mayflies for a loop and snuffing out the Hex hatch altogether. A “bucket list” destination trip had gone so spectacularly off the rails that it left me stunned and almost catatonically unresponsive, like a bird after it’s crashed into a window. Even a normally reliable smallmouth float, on a river that gets virtually zero pressure and looks like it was lifted whole from the Canadian wilderness, failed to deliver.

But now, on this gray, blustery, otherwise unpromising August day, on this lovely, semi-secret brook trout stream that widens into pools framed by magisterial hemlocks and fizzes over cobbled riffles and races between craggy knobs of upthrust bedrock, I felt the simple joy of fishing begin to flow back, refilling the emptied well in a corner of my soul.

The fishing wasn’t challenging; the fish weren’t big. But they were wild, and they were willing, and they were hard fighters—all the things brook trout are supposed to be. In this despairing age when nature is under relentless assault and entire ecosystems are breaking down, their very existence seemed a miracle.

To catch such a fish is to receive a blessing. To feel its throbbing energy is to touch what was sparked when the world was born.

In a swirling hole below an outcropping of jagged black rock, something struck the Beadhead with uncommon violence. The rod tip plunged, the line
went taut as a guitar string—a heavy fish. Just to be safe I put him on the reel, and after giving me all I could handle on the three-weight I finally managed to manuever him to the surface and slide him into slack water.

There, I cradled him in a wetted hand and gasped. He had to weigh a good pound-and-a-half—a giant, by the standards of the creek—and he was the thickest brook trout in proportion to his length that I’ve ever seen. It was like holding an ingot forged in ice, a lozenge of some precious stone as yet undescribed. The intensity of his colors was dazzling, as if they had been boiled down, then refined.

His frayed pectorals and hooked jaw told me, too, that he was a Methuselah of his tribe. I released him as quickly as I could, watching in wonder as he unhurriedly finned away, trying to imagine what I had done to deserve this gift.

The creekbed carves through a meadow of pale-yellow marshgrass at this point. Looking up, I saw a great sweep of sky, all of it an undifferentiated, gunmetal gray, its boundaries hazily delimited by the rim of the forest. The wind still keened out of the north. I took a breath and blew on my cold hands.

It all felt right.


Wonderful writing, I really enjoyed coming along on your adventure! I know that feeling of "How did I deserve this?" and then I have to remind myself of all the failures, money in the bank of fishing I guess!

You had me at the grouse...