It’s probably not lost on you that my last post offered little insight into actual trout-fishing. This has broken open a debate for me about what motivates me to hit the streams in the first place.
Don’t misunderstand, if there are fish to be had in the streams we visit my unwavering priority is to catching them. But there are plenty of circumstances in which the fishing isn’t likely to be terribly productive. These non-season scouting events have proven to me that fishing is simply a goal to be reached.
An unmistakeable coyote track.
It is the pursuit that matters.
Once your ‘in it’ the story of the day just unfolds and you spend it in rapt observation. There is always something going on. Your responsibility, as I’ve read somewhere recently, is to come home with that story not always told in pounds or inches.
I recently lost a friend to a brain tumor. Young and in every other way unmistakeably healthy, my friend was famous for his love of winter activities. He was a ‘work hard/play hard’ kind of guy and an inspiration to many. His loss gave me ample reason to investigate my relationship with the cold and snow. This has been a revelation. January and February have often felt like a long cold wait in the past. Not this season. This winter everyday has offered possibilities. There is no weather or temperature that does not give you options. The snow and ice are amazingly free surface agents with super neat physical properties that beg for experiment and inquiry. And we have so many new technologies to explore them.
A closer look reveals a classic four-toed canine paw print complete with claws.
As an aside, I have to put in a plug for the guy who really got me out on the streams chasing after salmonids with some measure of success. Jay Ford Thurston’s Spring Creek Treasure has been so revealing with unadorned and specific advice about our Wisconsin trout streams that it has proved as a kind of unconscious series of post-it-notes reminding us where to go and how to do.
I’m sure I speak for Tom and I both about this remarkable work and the big thanks we owe to Jay. I’m not sure anyone has given more of his time figuring out this whole activity than he has.
The view from the 'oculus' of the tent vestibule in Bear Paw campground.
This camping trip really got me excited about the possibilities of opening day. Maybe camping in the snow could open up opportunities for great fishing even when the streams are full of enthusiasts. This activity resets all the variables for where you can go to chase after that next big brown or wild brookie.
It’s snowing again today. I say bring it on. It’s not gonna hurt my chances at finding my bliss. With Tom’s three boys and my two, we are sure to be out in the snow giving our wives a welcome reprieve from the general din as we explore our next series of trout waters.
Bring on the Driftless!
An invitation for summer fun at Bear Paw campground in Oconto county.
Well, Tom and I visited the Northwoods. As our start date became a reality I think we both felt a tremor of reserve about the nature of winter camping. Why go into the woods in late January? Is it some kind of sickness? Self-loathing?
We're not the only fishermen in the woods. Otter slides offering a reassuring image of the presence of fish and fun in the great northwoods.
Not at all. Right out of the gate I would say, “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”. Cold hands, constant alterations to your clothing and gear, frustrations with keeping a fire going, to say nothing of driving conditions, are all very real issues. Now hear me out here for a minute.
Author slowly shaking off the overnight torpor.
Tom looking a bit more 'game' than his counterpart.
It’s true that on the face of things it sounds insane. But there is an upside. First, the woods are yours for the taking. (minus the omnipresent drone of the snowmobile devotees) You hardly see a soul and there is a real grace in this kind of solitude. Second, you get your pick of the litter when choosing a campsite. We camped in two premium spots in the national forest that you would be lucky to get at any other time of the year. Just feet from the water with lovely views and access to your points of interest. Also, that deep layer of white has a kind of cartesian clarity, the landscape looks somehow more understandable. A fresh snow is like flypaper as it records all new activities and careful inspection can reveal a story of the daily goings on that makes for a seriously fun project of sleuthing. Last, there is something about living from moment to moment, just out of shear need, that is strangely calming, restive, and deeply satisfying. You don’t have to wonder if your doing the right thing because it is painfully obvious what needs to be done. And there are always surprises about what goes really well that you couldn’t have hoped for, like an unlikely gourmet meal made over an open fire from spare fixings.
A welcome sight on a snowy evening.
Everybody’s had the experience of a meal tasting better when you’ve worked for it. Your effort demands the senses to take note of every little hint of flavor as the body looks for some cognitive measure of comfort no matter how small.
Our pack sleds ready for easy hauling over lots of new snow. Easy is a relative term.
Truly, the best things in life aren’t free! Oh and by the way, no need for a big plastic cooler to follow you around. Carbohydrate rich food packs easily with little fear of some crazed raccoon making a mess of tomorrow’s vittles.
Breakfast in the vestibule is easy with a little evening forethought.
River stones warming up over the fire for tucking away in the sleeping bag. Highly recommended.
It does appear that Oconto county has much to offer but it may be that the trout fishing will have to play second fiddle to other concerns if your going to have a really nice experience. Probably due to a lack of appropriate levels of groundwater, the trout-streams continue to produce smaller and smaller fish. This is a light gear kind of place where the fishing is all about making the most of it. Most of the streams we saw suggested spin-fishing to my eye. Tight, narrow fishing alleys broken up by alder infested banks that would resist the unfolding flyline. There do look to be pockets where a stealthy spin caster could pull out a few beauties however. We encountered two areas on the Northern branch of the Oconto River which struck me as good fly-fishing opportunities. But without seeing the underwater features beneath the snow it’s difficult to know whether or not this pure fantasy. Check out Bagley Rapids if your ever up that way.
Here's an arresting image of the four season tent looking very inviting.
We arrived on a sunny day in the high twenties. We passed through the Menominee Indian Reservation on the way. The forest was deep and beautiful here with an abundance of emerging beech trees in their winter splendor showing a forest in a long term transition. We stopped in the tribal office to inquire about fishing or other tourist opportunities within the reservation boundaries. We were told with great sympathy that these kind of activities are simply not possible on tribal lands. The people we spoke with were very engaging and only too willing to be helpful with our questions. (this included the president)
Moving water really draws you in this time of year.
We stopped at the Ranger station to pick up a map and found more willing and sympathetic people who offered us their personal incites on how to go about our search. The large map for sale was virtually worthless for car navigation having too much information. The simple one-page xerox copy of the local campgrounds, with a few personal notes drawn in, proved to be a great solution when coupled with a gazetteer. “How can we camp right next to a trout stream?”, we asked stupidly. This is a question that may not be welcome on opening day but in late January I think our questions were met with genuine warmth and real solid advice.
Tom, hard at it, snowshoeing to the Bagley Rapids campground.
Our first campsite proved to be everything it was billed to be. We’d hoped to do some ice-fishing in camp should our scouting of streams prove of little value. Down a long, windy, unplowed, road we parked the car just a couple hundred feet from a small lake and our destination campsite jutting right out onto the water and including a rope swing for the boys in the summertime. It was really nice.
We had the tent up and a solid fire going in about an hour and a half. We bought three bundles of firewood for the evening but utilized plenty of downed maple saplings for additional fuel. Overnight we got somewhere between five and six inches of snow. It came down solidly all night and was a source of some worry considering we had parked the vehicle on an already unplowed road with a solid 3 to 4 inches already present many miles from anything. In the morning we elected to pull up stakes as anymore snow and we would surely be stuck.
Like the otters, I think this spot has a lot of promise (Bagley Rapids)
This proved a wise choice as we traveled extensively the rest of the day checking out various swathes of the Oconto River for premium fishing opportunities. Most of the sections we were looking for were registered as Class I or Class II troutstreams. More than half looked to be very small and, in all honesty, not very promising. The first solid looking spot had us out of the car and working the banks looking for signs of trout when another car pulled up behind us and a man got out. This was a fortuitous circumstance as it turned out this man had once been the head of the local chapter of TU and he lived right on the property.
Author happy to have his feet to the fire and psyched about winter camping.
This gentleman and scholar gave us a pretty good nutshell version of Oconto county trout seeking. First, he said that though he was a member of TU his preference was for panfishing. Not a good sign when you live just a couple hundred feet from a Class I stream. I suppose he could have been pulling our legs but it sure didn’t feel like it. He told us that he had electroshocked this particular section of the Southern branch of the Oconto for most of a decade. Though there are twenty inch Browns present they are few and far between and most fish will be in six to eight inch territory and they’re getting smaller not bigger. A long way to drive for such small quarry. He told us how fortunate we were to live an hour from the Driftless Area which he felt rivaled the best fishing out West in every way. We couldn’t argue. He offered us a few ideas about possible fishing spots in the forest including a barrier free section for handicap and child accessibility. We thanked him for his thoughts and were on our way.
We stopped at the barrier free section and got out the snowshoes do a little looking around. The stream looked like ideal size and the boardwalks made for fishing provided spots all along a 1/4 mile stretch. The conditions were still not terribly conducive to flyfishing as the forest encroached from both sides with lots of alder stands right in the water. And the barrier free fishing idea sounds great but anybody who has fished trout much knows how important it is to be able to move around on the stream and work a hole from an ideal location. This kind of activity is not really suited for standing still three or four feet above the water. Neat spot though. We found lots of evidence of otters busily working the stream for their meals. We also encountered some very shy Ruffed Grouse while we walked through the woods.
We decided to check out Bagley Rapids on the North branch of the Oconto at the recommendation of an RV camper who had posted some pictures Tom found online. This proved to be a great piece of information as the walk-in campsites proved awesome and this was the likeliest section of fly-fishing water we found in our entire visit. Because the road leading to the campgrounds was unplowed we parked as close as we could and hauled our gear via sleds. What might seem an onerous chore is actually kind of what you’ve signed up and feels really good while your doing it. We got a site twenty feet directly above the water.
Like the last campsite this one was as nice as anyone could ask for. Set up time was greater due to the lengthy haul but had a better fire-ring for winter situations. We found that a ring which was not dug into the ground was far better for this time of the year as it radiated better and moisture did not steal as many of those beautiful campfire calories. We made a stew from some canned venison and ramen noodles that was outstanding. (Thanks Dan!)
The temperature dropped all night long and by morning we had some serious condensation in the tent. My face felt like a windshield covered in dewy frost in the morning. The cold puts a serious setback on getting anything accomplished quickly. We used every stick of firewood we had to take down our camp constantly stopping to warm up. I can’t speak for Tom but I actively wondered how those early explorers dealt with serious cold without the benefits of modern technical clothing and gear. I was never so cold that I wasn’t having fun.
With the camp gear stowed we got called to the sound of the rapids. We put on the snowshoes and hit the river for some cold sunny morning sleuthing. The cameras were very handy as this is a very picturesque spot. There were fresh otter tracks up and down the river’s edge and we found a likely den and a pretty legitimate story developed that at least one coyote was very interested in whatever those otters were doing. We didn’t actually catch a glimpse of anybody but I feel certain that with a telephoto lens and some predawn preparations we could have shot some film of some pretty cool wildlife scenes. It was hard to pull away from this very pretty piece of river.
We climbed off the riverbed and hit the highway for home.
In the end, I think Tom and I came away feeling terrific about the forest and the trip but skeptical that our ‘trout camp’ will end up in this part of Wisconsin. The Driftless Area continues to have an air of inevitability about it.
Lots more pics to come. Enjoy.
Look at this guy’s amazing rope swing. The hole he lands in must be filled with trout! But trout aren’t the first thing that come to mind while watching this.