Josh and I started our fishing career together about the same time we developed a habit of breaking each other’s Transformers and G.I. Joes, and getting into fights every other day. It’s hard to believe that was about 25 years ago. Our early fishing adventures mainly revolved around a walk to Oak Island Park on the Wisconsin River, and catching an occasional walleye or smallmouth on a twister tail or Rapala. Eventually, we outgrew all of those “hobbies,” even fishing together.
We kept in touch throughout our college years, but a new career for me and the start of graduate school for Josh lead to less and less communication. But, as chance would have it, that same career would lead me back to fishing – specifically to fly fishing – and to a closer bond with my old fishing buddy.
“Want to try?”
And with that, I was… well… I’m trying to find something less cliché to say than, “hooked.”
I had a summer to get the basics of the craft. The following winter, I headed back to Wausau, my home town, to spend the holidays with my family. No big surprise, but Josh had done the same. We were both leading herds of family members to a showing of The Grinch when we saw each other.
After I started fly fishing, sometimes I’d think about a time in high school when Josh had shown me some flies he had tied. At the time, a Hare’s Ear was nothing more to me than something on a rabbit’s head and I had never even heard of a caddis fly. For some reason, I never e-mailed Josh about my new hobby, but as we were heading into the theater, I asked, “Hey, you like to fly fish, don’t you, Josh?”
“I just learned how last year. We should talk about that sometime.”
Numerous e-mails later, we had firmed up plans to fly fish together over the following Memorial Day weekend. Josh’s grandparents had land on the Brule River (the “Border Brule,” not the Bois Brule), and he told me stories of wild brook trout and other fun times we’d have.
Of the game chess, I’ve heard the saying, “It takes a day to learn, but a lifetime to master.” At the time we met for our first fly-fishing trip, we had each learned little bits of the game of fly fishing, but were far from mastering any of it. Josh had tied flies for a few years by this time, and he was quite good at that craft, as he was at casting his seven-weight. (Incidentally, we’d soon find that fishing for Brule brookies with a seven-weight was a little like hunting squirrels with a bazooka.) But, his experience was almost solely with dry-fly fishing.
In my early fly fishing lessons, my fishing mentor, Greg, introduced me to the virtues of dead-drift nymphing on the small spring creeks of La Crosse and Vernon counties. However, I was pretty clueless about a river like the Brule. It’s not a mammoth by any means, but the power of the current, its width, and the freestone bottom in some areas was nothing like Bohemian Valley Creek that I was most familiar with.
The evening we arrived, there was still enough light to get down to the river for about an hour. With little more than a quick “hello” to his grandparents, we set up our gear, donned our waders and vests, and headed down to the Brule
As we approached the stream, luck was right there with us. We saw hundreds of mayflies flittering above the surface and dancing down to disappear in a quick splash.
As I mentioned before, one of Josh’s strengths was his fly-tying abilities, and he had the fly boxes to show for it. He was ready for pretty much any situation. I, on the other hand, wasn’t the most adept tier (I think I probably mistakenly used floss instead of thread once or twice at this point), and I didn’t have much of an arsenal. But, one of the few flies I had tied (mainly because I had the materials for it) was a number of Light Cahills – the exact mayfly that was now feeding the trout in this stretch of river. Of course, Josh had plenty of these as well. Brule lesson #1 – sometimes it’s as good to be lucky as to be prepared.
We both tied on our flies and took turns casting to break in the current near shore where we saw repeated splashes of little rising trout. We both mustered a couple trout when the hatch began to fade a bit.
I saw this as a chance to show what a big hotshot fly fisherman I was, and I tied on a Hare’s Ear nymph and slapped on some moldable putty as an indicator. Josh looked at me with a squint. He was both a bit perplexed and doubtful about my tactic.
I cast into the spot where we had been catching fish while the hatch was still hot. Nothing. I cast again. After drifting for a couple seconds, the fluorescent green indicator was quickly yanked below the surface. I set the hook and felt my fly rod bend slightly – a fish was on.
I smirked to myself a bit, proud to show my fly-fishing skill and teach Josh a new trick. My cockiness was short lived, as I pulled up the line with a big-lipped creek chub hanging off my fly. Brule lesson #2 – don’t be cocky, or you’ll end up with a creek chub.
Josh had a good laugh at my expense, but I tossed out my line again, determined to show him that I knew what I was doing. Sure enough, a couple casts later, and another fish. This one put up a bit more of a fight, and turned out to be a nice, fat, nine-inch brookie. After we both admired the fish, I slipped it back into the water.
“Let me see that!”
I handed Josh the end of my line and he sized up the Hare’s Ear tied on the end. To be honest, I’m doing a disservice to every purist fly tier by calling that fly a Hare’s Ear. At best, it’s a “Poor Man’s Hare’s Ear” – no ribbing, no wing case, no frills; it was just a tungsten bead, some rabbit dubbing, and a tail. Josh scoffed a bit, though he began to ask more about nymphing, and my strike indicator putty.
It was getting dark, and seemed a good time to call it a night, so we headed back to the bunkhouse.
We spent that night tying up more Light Cahills for the next day, which came in handy as they continued hatching throughout the weekend. I also kept trying my nymphing technique, and didn’t catch another fish with that method all weekend.
The mayflies, caddis, and the trout were cooperative with us, and we caught enough brookies to keep us content. It also helped me forget about tripping over a submerged log and getting a nice cold Brule bath. (Brule lesson #3 – the Brule used to be used heavily for logging, and a lot of the old logs still remain submerged as wicked booby traps.)
I learned some tips about fly tying and casting that weekend. Josh learned a new nymphing technique (and I’m relatively certain that he tied about a hundred new nymphs within a week after getting back home). But both of us still had a lot to learn; when the mayflies weren’t hatching, Josh and I weren’t catching any fish. We hadn’t learned the finer points of swinging a wet fly or stripping in a streamer, amongst many other things – but those would be lessons for another trip.