The Chasm

Examining several aspects of our relative positions on the food chain.

[by John Motoviloff]

WE’RE ON THE VALLEY ROAD, with green pasture and stream off to the left and bluffs to the right. Even in this year of summerlike spring, all the water in Crawford County and maybe the whole world seems to be draining right here, with springs spilling from the hillside into the creek, the creek spilling into the Kickapoo, the Kickapoo spilling into the Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin spilling into the Mississippi.

My friend Sam Diman and I come here to fish every May. I build it up too much, so once I get on the stream I’m in a state, but I’ve yet to be disappointed. Some years it’s ridiculously easy to catch trout, and when I come downstream from the upper beats, Sam has already cleaned his fish and is ready to go back to the truck. Other times, I catch something rare like a tiger trout—a sterile but naturally occurring cross between the stream’s wild brook and brown trout—or a troika of trout so red-fleshed and plump I’ve already begun eating them in my mind with nothing more than lemon and black pepper.

But I’m ahead of myself, which is bad for writing and fishing and not unlike how we were in the valley. We couldn’t remember which side of the spring to park on, and ended up bushwhacking, trying to find the trail that was overgrown and, really, no longer there.

It was May but it felt more like June. July, even. Berry bushes were flowering and the tree canopy was carpet-thick. My sense of what nature was and what nature really was were far apart. I had the unsettling feeling of chasing phantoms, even more so when we got to the stream and found that it had shape-shifted. Again, I was in the chasm between thought and reality, expectation and firm ground. In this space, it’s tempting to shake your fist at God and the dive-bombing deerflies, but it doesn’t do any good.

We fell into our routine. I went upstream toward the white house, and Sam fished the runs. I plodded along, shaking my head at the low water and early summer. I twisted my ankle and fell face-first onto the stream bank. Thankfully, it was grassy, but gratitude seemed far off as I bulled my way upstream. I was fast ruining the day. Or maybe it was one of those days where all your shots and casts are off. Or your shots and casts are on but Nature doesn’t give a damn.

At the first good run, I took a brown trout on a Muddler Minnow. The fish hit as I swam the fly back toward me. There’s a distinct feel to streamer fishing that elicits the predatory aspect in trout, this one no exception. He gave a good hard strike and a noble, head-shaking effort. He was slender and copper-colored, forged dark and shiny as a magic penny. I knelt to clean him in the grass, pleased at the intense red color of his flesh.

Now, some may fault me for taking a limit out of this creek a few times a year; and for luxuriating in the primal—gustatory—aspects of the chase. To them, I say that the toll of a 30-fish day of catch-and-release isn’t that far from killing three trout for dinner.

I was beginning to feel the clouds parting, feeling that my creel held a sort of talisman or passkey. But as I ducked beneath the branches of a big hackberry, I fell into the chasm again. A mother wood duck came squealing and splashing from upstream, flapping her wings and trying to predator-deflect. She swam out of sight and I let things settle. When no ducklings appeared, I switched to a worm and split shot. A cloud of deerflies began dive-bombing without mercy, as though I’d entered a zone of predation.

Wincing and swatting, I dropped my worm into the run and plucked out a second, and then a third trout. As I fished them from the watercress into my creel, four ducklings came into view—puffy little things riding high, swimming toward the logjam in front of me.

The quartet of little peeps rode nervously downstream, on a rivulet narrow enough to be breached by a modest broad jump. And then a shadow emerged from the depths beneath the logjam, noisily finned into the shallows, and with one deft motion the lead duckling disappeared.

When I say disappeared, I mean exactly that. A neat, clean display of power, with no artifice.

When I saw a pike do this on 10,000-acre Lake Mendota, I was awed, but not stunned. Big water grows big fish, and big fish take big bait. With a great deal of splashing, a three-foot fish did away with something the size of a game hen.

Here, in this chasm, the act was cleaner, more final. Maybe the trout was an 18-incher and gravely efficient. Or perhaps it was a foot larger. In either case, the size of the fish in such small quarters was the dark magic.

I thought, as I waded downstream toward Sam, that I was glad to have witnessed it. And just as glad to be emerging from the chasm.

John Motoviloff is a frequent contributor to Gray’s and lives in Wisconsin. His latest book, Wild Rice Goose and Other Dishes of the Upper Midwest, is just out from the University of Wisconsin Press.