Mud in Your Eye

"Summertime Creek," by Brett James Smith

by Dick Donnelly

There’s nothing like a cold one after a hot day of fishing.

I disapprove of drinking. But not saloons, oddly enough. Coming off the water on a 90-degree day there’s nothing like a cold one. Even  if it’s just Coca-Cola. That first gulp, poured into an ice-filled pint glass, has the same effect as a shot of whiskey. You shiver all over.

Every small town has a bar. Sometimes two. In western Wisconsin’s Plum City you will find a pair of them 50 yards apart. Fly fishing to the bridge brings two choices. Turn left or turn right. Or keep fishing. But let’s be honest. It’s left or right.

Small-town bars don’t really compete with each other, unless it’s who has the best onion rings. They know leaving one door the average citizen is just as likely to walk through another.

Sometimes a bar is locked up. Those guys trout fish too. Or throw bait at walleyes or catfish in the bigger rivers. I asked one proprietor what time he opens.

“When I unlock the door,” he said.

He wasn’t being difficult. He was telling the truth.

There are rules in backcountry bars. The first one to remember is you are not in New York City. A lot of big talk will get you nowhere. Wait your turn. Don’t eyeball the waitress or over-tip the bartender. And don’t make a lot of demands. The menu is limited, the standard being a half-pound hamburger with a slab of cheddar melted over the top. The burger is locally ground with plenty of beef fat. Seared at high temperature, flipped once, it arrives in a basket with bacon, a thick slice of onion, a slice of tomato, a pickle and a generous side of perhaps the world’s greatest invention, waffle fries. Don’t tell them how to cook it, either. They know what they’re doing.

If you’re going to drink avoid ordering a vodka Gibson, shaken, in a martini glass. The last guy who tried that was a tax assessor from Madison, a dude in designer jeans and sport coat, stopping by after hassling some farmer over a fallow land credit. They told him they were out of vodka. When he asked for gin they were out of gin. He stomped out. Those guys never learn.

He should have ordered tap beer. You can’t beat a pint of Old Style on a hot day, delivered in a cold glass, brewed just down the road in La Crosse. The price? Two bucks. A buck if you swing in during happy hour. Go ahead and tip 100 percent. A 100 percent tip on a dollar beer is not over-tipping. Speaking of New York City, last summer I took a friend from Brooklyn, a video tech who worked on commercials, fly fishing. It was Brant’s first time in Wisconsin’s dingle and dell, creek and bluff country. He had never held a fly rod. I set him up with waders and boots, a vest and olive bandana. Like a lot of fly anglers I have two of everything. (Actually I have four or five of everything. Don’t tell my wife.)

We practiced behind the house with my easy- casting, six-and-a-half-foot fiberglass four-weight. After three tries Brant threw a pretty good 20-footer. Enough practice. Time to go fly fishing. We jumped in the truck and headed for Isabelle Creek. Main Street changes to gravel a mile out of town. The July day was pretty and warm with cotton-pillow clouds. At the top of Three Mile Bluff the sky opens up. You feel like you can see clear to Omaha. Bluffs and pastures stretch to the horizon, speckled with the black dots of grazing cows.

“My God,” Brant said. “You live here?” “Yep.”

We dropped into Isabelle Valley under jutting cliffs of limestone. Spring water trickled from rock walls. Glens of balsam fir and aspen appeared, products of a chilled microclimate more resembling the far north. High above bald eagles and turkey vultures cruised on thermals. I parked at the gravel-covered bridge off County Road M and grabbed rods. We wouldn’t have to walk far.

The creek cascades through a series of chutes and pools, and I knew where a pod of rainbows lived, right next to the bridge. I tied both our tippets with big fluffy Royal Wulffs. Rainbows are a good introductory fish. Like some people, they will fall for anything.

After walking through a glade of ferns we stepped into the creek. I let Brant wade ahead, casting under the bridge and letting the fly float back through upwelling pools. I’ll never forget the first fish, the squeal he let out at the splash of trout to fly. “I got one, I got one!” he yelled, tripping on rocks. “Whaddo I do?”

“Bring him in,” I called. He reeled like crazy. “Forget the reel. Play him by hand.”

Brant hauled in line. The rainbow jumped. Then jumped again, head shaking, the fly showing in his mouth. The rod pulsed slower and slower as the fish tired.

“Hold him there,” I said.

The fish, a blue and pink 16-incher, nosed up-stream, swimming but going nowhere. I waded ahead and netted it. Brant held the fish close to his face and I took a picture of trout and man, both with eyes wide.

We released  the rainbow and it shot back to its brothers. Brant couldn’t wait for the next fish, but the next 10 casts brought nothing. “Where are they?” he asked.

“Don’t worry. They’re in here.” “Why aren’t they biting?” “They’re thinking about it.” Here is my theory. Many a fly angler gives up on a good pool or run, thinking they covered the water, but repeated casts are not wasted casts. Why cast 20 times? Because it works. Maybe they really are thinking. Maybe seeing the fly enough convinces them there is a hatch of some kind. What a red- and-white dry fly resembles in nature is hard to say. Five minutes later Brant had another take. This was a bigger fish, and it broke him off, bulling deep and wrapping him around a submerged log. “What could I do?” he asked, despairing. I knotted another fly for him.

“Keep fishing,” I said. I didn’t tell him hooking a big trout in a branch-tangled pool is always going to be tough. You can try to “horse” them out, really bending the rod. This takes great sensitivity to tippet strength, something a newcomer is not likely to have. Personally, I walk backward, holding the line. For some reason this gives me better feel, and the fish won’t see you when finally coaxed into shallow water.

One bit of advice: If you back away watch where you’re going. You don’t want to step off an ankle-deep limestone ledge into an eight foot hole. Not that I’ve done it.

Brant kept casting. We got lucky.The bite “turned on.” Every third cast brought a strike. In no time Brant had caught and released six or seven more.

I carried my rod, but hadn’t made a cast. I let him do the fishing. A great pleasure in fly angling is watching others catch trout. The same cannot be said for other kinds of fishing. Say, trolling for walleyes. When your buddy catches all the fish you want to break his rod in half.

Laughing and sweating, Brant released another fish. Then the water went quiet. Time for a break. We climbed out and walked up to a roadhouse just off the bridge. Next to the parking lot was a spring-fed pond, deep and green with watercress. We peered in and saw that it cruised with big rainbow trout. How they got there no one knew. The bar owners kept them as pets, feeding them fish pellets. “Holy smokes!” Brant said. “Do they get that big in the creek?”

“You better believe it.” Leaning our rods against a split rail fence we walked in. After all that sun the darkness was blinding. There were two or three others standing at a long mahogany-colored bar. We ordered tap beer. Behind the bar sat jars of pickled eggs and ham hocks. What’s a ham hock, I once asked a friend. He said it’s ham hocked off the hog. Ask a dumb question. A pool table clicked as billiard balls fell into pockets. Someone played a little Merle on the jukebox, that slow and lonesome tune about quitting the city and landing in Montana.

The waitress, carrying a tray of empties, bumped against Brant. “Excuse me,Honey,” she said, squeezing his arm. She was one of those big, dark beauties, big eyes, big arms, big everything. Brant’s eyes followed her. She washed glasses, wrote on a pad, wiped the bar top, smiled at him. Then walked to the kitchen.

Brant’s a single guy. I could see his mind working. “Should I ask if she’s single?” he said.

“That’s probably a bad idea.” “Why?”

“You live in New York.” “Yeah, but…”

“Maybe next time.”

The other drinkers left. The day came to a sort of pause. Dust floated in tiny rays as sunlight poked through the door. A barstool scraped on worn maple. Then silence. Midway through his second beer Brant exhaled, long and slow.

“I have never,” he said. “Been happier in my life.” I knew what happened. The backcountry valleys and towns got to him. The church steeples, the diners and hardware stores, the pastures, the rolled hay bales, the ancient barns, the old farm wives hanging laundry next to gardens, the gravel roads leading nowhere except to more bluffs and deep valleys, to creeks with their gin-clear water.

My friend had been captured. It would wear off. It has to. Otherwise, you buy a truck, fool your wife into moving into a 110-year-old house, take up life in a small town in the heart of trout country, and spend all your time fly fishing.

I mean, who would do that?  

Dick Donnelly treks the wild outback of SE Minnesota’s bluff and creek country. He hunts and fishes more than he works, and it shows.