Aug 31, 2016

A Summer Leave

By: Mike Yurk 

I had not realized it until I thought about it as I was packing the car. I had not waded in a trout stream for over five years. There were reasons for that of course. 

Five years earlier, my father, brother David, and I fished the Woods Creek in northern Wisconsin not far from the Upper Michigan border. It was the last Opening Day I was in Wisconsin. We caught limits of brook trout with dark sides and orange bellies. I remembered the weekend as cloudy, chilly and damp. The evergreen trees stood out against the hardwood trees, which were still bare and gaunt looking waiting for spring to make them flourish. The water in the Woods Creek was not particularly high for the first weekend in May, but it was higher than it would have been in summer. The water was cold, rushing and tugging at our legs as we waded. The trout hit hard and David and I filled our limit of brook trout within a couple of hours on both Saturday and Sunday. 

A week later I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and that afternoon, at an ROTC ceremony, my father and wife pinned gold bars of a second lieutenant on the epaulets of my Army green uniform. The next day, myself, my wife and two daughters left Wisconsin heading south to Fort McClelland, Alabama for officer training. Six months later, I would return to Wisconsin and go duck hunting one last time before leaving for a three-year tour to Germany. My son would be born there and I would be promoted to first lieutenant. A few months before I left, I was selected for promotion to captain and extended my tour in Germany a couple more months before returning home in time for Christmas. I went ice fishing again. Now, we all headed back to Fort McClellan. I went through another Army course, made captain, and became an instructor at the Military Police School there. One day realized it had been a long time since I had seen Wisconsin in the summer.  Those years went by way too fast. 

The course I taught had a several week break so I put in for a two week leave. We loaded the trunk with luggage, jammed the three kids into the back seat, and pointed the car north. We barely crossed the Alabama boarder into Tennessee when the “stop poking me,” started, but it ended by the time we left Kentucky. It was a two-day drive and once we got around Chicago, everyone was looking forward to getting out of the car. The cornfields of Wisconsin looked wonderful. We were happy to see them. Once again, we were driving on Highway 41 getting closer to home with every mile. Finally, we pulled into my parent’s driveway. It had been a long two days. 

I think the first meal we had were bratwurst on the grill. In those days, you never found good old Wisconsin bratwurst outside the upper Midwest, and we had missed them. Even when we were in Germany, where they have lots of various sausages they call wurst, but there is nothing like bratwurst from Wisconsin. It was summer time in Wisconsin and it was hot, but it was a more mild hot than Alabama hot. After dinner, Dad and I sat outside looking at the lush green woods behind my parent’s home. By Alabama standards it was almost cool. Dad and I were talking fishing and we quickly planned the first fishing trip. We only had 10 days before we needed to start heading back for Alabama. 

A couple days later, Dad and I were on our way to the Mecan River. It is west of Wautoma and has always been one of our favorite trout streams. Nothing seemed to have changed in the last five years as we drank coffee while driving. We stopped in Wautoma for donuts. Then drove off on Highway 21, noticing that the fields were now being irrigated. We got more excited as we got closer to the stream. The car rattled over the bridge at Dakota.  We were taking the road running parallel to the stream. Dad pulled the car into the high grass in the ditch next to a sandy track, which lead to the water. The trunk was popped open, waders were pulled on, arms were thrust through the fishing vests, putting the two piece spinning rod was put together, attached spinners to the line and finally draped the creel and net around our necks. We followed the sandy trail through the pines. There was that smell of pines and ferns I missed, and the sunlight filtered through the lush woods around us. Then I saw the stream. It was a ribbon of clear water flashing through the trees. I was finally home. 

The water felt cool against my legs as I slid down the grassy bank into the Mecan. It felt good to feel the stream tugging at me. Dad and I went into the stream at different spots. It felt familiar yet distant to be wading in the stream, working my way up, all the while dropping my spinner under overhanging trees and alongside submerged logs and brush. Dad and I fished spinners. Our favorites were Rooster Tails, Panther Martin and Mepps. We used an underhanded cast to drop our baits close to cover. It had been a long time since I last fished a trout stream so I thought I would be rusty and it might take some time to get the rhythm back to getting any accuracy with those casts. But, I was surprised when, within a few minutes, it all came back to me. 

Then there was that first strike of a fish hitting the spinner and the fish rocketed to the top of the water. My light spinning rod bounced as the fish fought against it and I quickly pulled the net up under the fish. It was a keeper brown trout and the first stream trout I had caught in a long time. It felt good to hold that fish before slipping it into the creel. 

By the time I returned to the car to meet Dad for lunch, I had a half dozen trout. In those days, we could keep ten trout a day, as long as they were over six inches long. For lunch, we had cold left over bratwurst sandwiches from the night before. We had them with mustard and onions, washed down with a cold Special Export beer wet from the ice chest. It was my Dad’s favorite beer, and to this day, whenever I see Special Export Beer I think of him. 

As the day progressed, I became more discriminating on the fish that were put in the creel. I threw back some of the smaller keepers so I could prolong the fishing. I didn’t want to catch my limit too fast and have to stop fishing. By the end of the afternoon, I had caught my limit, and we met back at the car again.  The fish were dumped in the ice chest on top of the ice covering the remaining two bottles of beer. After pulling off the vest and waders, taking apart the spinning rods and putting them back in the trunk, we had the last two beers and eventually drove home. On the way home, we enjoyed a candy bar. It was part of the tradition. I remember our favorite was a Mounds bar. I was tired, but satisfied. It had been a long time since I last caught a limit of trout. 

A couple days later my brother, David, and I fished Lake Winnebago. We fished from shore on a rocky point. We waded out into the water, wearing shorts and tennis shoes. It was early morning and a cool breeze came off the lake, washing waves onto the rocks. Sunlight danced off the tips of the water. We casted spoons. We started with flashy silver spoons and David and I caught white bass. They struck hard as they tore off, doubling over our light spinning rods. Sometimes they vaulted out of the air, splashing back into the lake. We had ten or so on a stringer within an hour. 

I switched to a frog colored spoon and, after about ten or fifteen minutes, I considered switching to another spoon since I hadn’t gotten a strike yet, when I felt a fish slam on my bait. I pulled back to set the hook and, for a moment, nothing moved. The fish burst off in a streak of speed. The drag on my spinning reel was singing as it gave out line. I finally stopped the fish and turned it, but it raced off again. This happened a couple of times before I started getting it closer to shore. It was just under the surface of the water and I could see it was a big northern pike. The fish pulled away but it didn’t have the same strength it first had. I pulled back turning the fish again and it was coming in. Of course we didn’t have a net, so I thought I would just let the waves roll it up on shore. It was close to the rocks and as I gave the final pull to beach it, the spinning rod broke in half. I grabbed for the fish as it opened its mouth. I was too used to lipping bass down south and forgot how sharp those pike teeth can be. But I quickly learned again as it clamped on my thumb. I yelled as I threw the fish on the bank and looked down to see my thumb sliced open and bleeding. 

It was the end of our fishing for that morning. Back at the car, I wrapped my thumb in a rag and got the bleeding stopped by the time we got back home. They don’t have any northern pike down south, but I had caught enough of them when I lived in Wisconsin, and should have known better, but had momentarily forgotten. It was a mistake I would never repeat again. With the bleeding stopped, I filleted fish and we cooked them on the charcoal grill. A lot of people complain about white bass, especially in the summer, but they taste just fine when grilled. 

I couldn’t fish every day. There were relatives, old friends to visit and other things to do. One day we went to Milwaukee. We did some shopping, visited the zoo and took the kids to a Brewers baseball game. But ten days goes by fast and it was getting to the end of the leave. No one was looking forward to the two day trip back to Alabama. We got used to summer not being blistering hot, knowing we would have to go back to it eventually. 

It was only a couple of days before we had to leave when Dad and I returned to the Mecan River. It was an overcast day and a bit cooler. As I slid into the water, I knew it was going to be awhile before I would be back again and I was relishing this last trout fishing trip. The water was a bit dirty. There had been a light rain a day or two before. I figured the fish would not be holding as tight to cover as they had earlier when it was bright and sunny. I still targeted my casts toward cover, but every now and then, just sent a cast across the middle of the stream, especially if there was a deep pocket. 

My spinner stopped halfway across a deep pocket. It felt bigger than any of the fish I caught the other day. The fish stayed deep and made a couple short runs, bucking the spinning rod in my hand. I could see the fish was a good-sized fish and was very happy once I brought it into the net. I waded to shore so there wouldn’t be any chance of the fish sliding out of my hand when I put it into the creel. It was a 14-inch brown trout. For me, it was the beginning of the day of the big trout. An hour later, I caught a 13-inch trout. 

It was getting to be late afternoon. I didn’t want the day to end, but I knew it was inevitable. Time was clicking down. There was a deep pool at the end of my run and I approached carefully. I looked it over for a moment and then flipped my spinner across it. I saw a flash of light in the water and then felt a jolt. I set the hook and the fish tore off. My drag even gave out a bit of line by the time I stopped the fish. It made a determined fight right in the middle of the pool, staying deep. It took a couple of minutes before I was able to bring the fish to the net. It sagged in the mesh still twisting and turning as I waded for the bank. It was another fourteen inch brown. 

I cleaned the fish on the bank, as I was trying to savor the trip just a little longer. I looked downstream from where I came and then upstream to waters I had not fished on this trip. Maybe next time. Finally, I knew it was over. The fish were cleaned and in the creel. I pulled the creel out of the water with water dripping out of the bottom. As I started walking back through the woods toward the road, I was hoping to return soon. Perhaps next summer. 

A couple days later I hugged my parents, said goodbye and loaded the kids in the back seat again. In the trunk was an ice chest full of packs of frozen bratwurst. The cornfields disappeared the further we drove. It got a lot warmer the longer we drove south, and then finally into our driveway where we all spilled out of the car. The next day I was returning to work. Later that evening, after unloading the car and putting most everything away, I called my parents to tell them we had arrived back at our home safely. No matter how old you get, your parents still worry about you. Just before we hung up my father said to me, “You know Mike, maybe the fishing gods smiled down on you since you were gone so long, so they gave you such good fishing.” I think they did.