It was the last morning of the trip. In just a few hours we’d be packing up our tents and gear, hitting the road south back to Grand Rapids.
By now our morning was a routine: make a fire, get warm again, change into the appropriate gear (either hunting clothes or waders) and get going. I wasted no time downing two cans of espresso, jumping into my waders, and disappearing into the woods.
The trail was familiar to me now; I didn’t need my GPS to tell me where I was. It was as if I’d been there a hundred times before. There was the spot with lots of elk tracks. There was that downed tree. There was the log where I gutted the fish.
I returned to the Black River, two days of experience behind me. I only had three hours to fish; my plan was to concentrate on where I found the bigger fish. Deeper, darker water with bubbles. I used only two flies, my #6 olive wooly bugger– of which I was running in short supply– and a single #10 stimulator dry fly.
The wooly bugger is always a great fly, and no matter how I tie it it always catches fish. These little #6’s I’d tied with 4 ingredients: olive marabou, yellow and black grizzly hackle, 1 strip of flash on the tail, and a tiny tungsten bead. I used the marabou for the tail, then wrapped the extra around the shank. The traditional wooly bugger uses chenille for the body, but the fuzzy marabou works fine for me.
The flies had a small profile in the water, smaller than if I’d used chenille, and they proved their fish-catching ability over and over again.
That morning I skipped the shallows and the riffles, tossing my buggers into all the pools. It was clear the fishing was better in the afternoon, but I was determined to catch some fish to take home.
Not catching any fish, frustrated, I switched to a heavily-hackled stimulator dry fly. There was so much hackle and deer hair on it I could strip it through the water like a minnow imitation and it wouldn’t sink. If nothing else, I could see fish responding to the fly since it was at the surface. Soon I had my first fish of the day to hand.
But I was looking for the bigger fish. Now that I had experienced the mind-blowing flavor of fresh brook trout pan-fried in cast iron, my stomach was making the decisions for me. I was less of an evolved mammal fly fisher and more of a predator looking for my next meal.
In a skinny stretch of the river, the water picked up speed as it was funneled through an old beaver dam. There was a small eddy directly downstream of the dam; next to that was fast deep water with bubbles. In my mind there was no way there weren’t fish there. My previous two days fishing that river had taught me where to find the fish, and this was an ideal spot for bigger brookies.
I bushwhacked through the dense streamside brush and emerged downstream of the pool. I quietly entered the water, let out enough line, and cast my little green fly up into the deep water.
After a few casts I connected with a fish! In the fast water it was hard to tell how big it was until I actually saw it. Even the small fish felt like monsters.
In this case, it was indeed a bigger fish!
Brook trout are usually small; in my internet research, I read that the average size is 7 inches, although they have been known to grow more then 20 inches long in some cases. A 20 inch brook trout would be mount-worthy; a 10 inch brook trout is a pretty good catch.
I was ecstatic to have cracked the code, at least for that weekend. I figured out where the bigger fish were. The fish I had on my line was 9-10 inches; not a monster, but certainly a larger than average fish for that river.
In the net, I admired its vibrant coloration and bulging belly. What had it been eating? I’d find out soon enough.
I thanked it, killed it, and slid it into my creel.
I hooked and lost a few more fish in that pool, but I did leave the river with another keeper brook trout.
As I made my way back up the river toward the trail, I made many last casts. Before every cast I said to myself, “this is it, last cast. Gotta go,” but I kept fishing.
Eventually, as if it to remind me of the time, my fly line and leader wrapped itself in such a complicated knot I had to stop fishing and begin hiking back.
Back at camp we took down our tents, packed our gear, and eventually hit the road back south. I was sad to leave that special world; although it had only been three days, it felt like much more. I knew I’d want to return to such a place as soon as possible. Saying it was a life-changing experience would probably be an exaggeration, but I think I certainly grew as an “outdoors-person.”
I’d never hiked so much in such rugged terrain, nor had I ever gutted fish in the field and had a shore lunch over a fire I built myself. I’d never fished anywhere– or even been anywhere– quite so far from civilization.
Before the trip I wondered if I would like those woods, so far from everything, so remote… and the answer was a resounding “yes.”
Back in Grand Rapids, Monday night I pulled my two brook trout out of the fridge to prepare that night’s meal. I couldn’t find my filet knife so I used my 2 inch swiss army knife blade to cut the fish open.
I started with the bigger fish, the one with the bulging belly. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing, what it was that came out of that fish.
Upon closer inspection, I realized it had eaten seven or eight small green frogs. My little olive green wooly bugger was an almost perfect match for these frogs in size and color! I wonder if that’s why that fly had been so successful.
As I cooked the two trout in cast iron, I thought about the trip and everything I’d learned. I fried potatoes, onions, and peppers to accompany the fish. My second time pan-frying trout went even better than the first: now that I had a feel for the timing, I was able to get the skin extra crispy and the meat extra moist and delicious.
Soon the fish was gone somewhere in my belly; all that was left of my trip to the Northwoods was a pile of bones on my plate, and the amazing experiences I’d had there.
After the last bite of fish I immediately began planning my next trip.