Jul 10, 2014

WOODS CREEK REVISITED

     Has it really been 23 years since I last was here? That question came to mind as I step down into the stream. I turn to help my wife, Becky, down from the bank and then look downstream. Yes, it had been 23 years.

     We are fishing a stream called the Woods Creek. It is a small ribbon of water in Florence County, only a few miles from the Wisconsin/Upper Michigan border. It is a trout stream that had once been filled with dark purple native brook trout. It was my favorite trout stream in the days of my youth.

     It embodies the dreams of my youth and now the memories of a man soon to turn 60. For me, the Woods Creek had a place in my heart and now 21 years after I last fished here, I was back to revisit the stream and memories once again.

     It is late summer and the water is down. It has been a couple of dry years, it can be seen on the banks where water had carved out hollow areas under trees, exposing the roots. Those spots are dry now. I can remember times when the stream was a lot higher.

     Much has remained the same as I remembered it and saw it over the years in my mind’s eye. On this warm, sunny bright day the sunlight filters through the thick overhanging pines and dances on the surface of the stream. The sound of the water rushing across the rocks gurgles and twinkles as if it were chimes. I smell ferns, sand, pine trees and the heat from the warmth of the day. It has been a long time and I am glad to be back.

     When I was young, my father and I fished the Woods Creek three or four times a year. We were always there for the opening weekend of the trout season. We would try to return again for the Memorial Day weekend, another weekend during the summer and sometime later towards the end of the season. It seemed like a long drive to get there in those days, and we always stayed in a motel, which always added to part of the adventure.

     A couple of days earlier, when I was loading the car, I selected two old fly rods from the days of my past. The one I will fish with had been father’s. My mother and I got it from Herter’s. For a reel, we got him an automatic fly reel made by Perrine. Perrine, Martin and Shakespeare were the most popular models for automatic fly reels in those days. I sometimes still see automatic fly reels, but not often, and I think only Martin still makes them.

     On father’s fly rod, one of the guides is held on by duct tape and another guide is broken. He used that rod a lot over the years and it took its share of abuse. Eventually, father got into spinning for trout, and his fly rod sat in my parent’s basement. Sometime before Father passed away, he gave that fly rod to me complete with the Perrine reel. I put it on the side of the fireplace in my family room with some of my grandfather’s old casting rods and some other antique fishing equipment I have picked up over the years. My guess is that fly rod had not been used since we had last fished the Woods Creek together. The last time would have been for the opener in 1977, just before I went back into the Army. That would have been 32 years earlier.

     The other fly rod Becky is going to use is my old fly rod. It was made by Heddon and it has dark burnt cork for a handle and metal wraps on the guides. I bought it sometime in the early to mid 1960s with some of my hard earned grass cutting money. I also had an automatic fly reel made by Shakespeare, and it now sits in a little display of old fishing gear by the fireplace. I admit I seldom use that old Heddon fly rod. There is nothing wrong with it, but I have bought several newer and lighter fly rods I use when fly fishing now.

     Brook trout fishing on the Woods Creek is not the classical, traditional fly fishing experience. On much of the stream I can stretch my eight foot fly rod across from bank to bank. Along with that, trees and brush are tight to the stream, with branches interlocking overhead making it tough to swing a fly rod with flies. So, father and I fished with nightcrawlers. We didn’t need the entire nightcrawler for these small brookies, we just pinched off a third of the crawler to slip on the hook.

     We still used fly rods which made it easier to drop or chuck our bait into the tight pockets and holes. The longer rods also helped us to able to extend the rod out to get into smaller pockets. In the spring, when the water was high and discolored, you could drop your bait right into the middle of the water to catch fish. But once the water shrunk in summer, we would have to look for the small pockets and holes for fish.

     We step into the water, and 10 feet downstream I see a dark hole disappearing under some brush. I remember anytime you found deep water near cover you would find brook trout on the Woods Creek. Becky and I slowly work downstream, moving to the side of the stream where I can swing a chunk of nightcrawler into the pocket.

It had been a long time since I used a nightcrawler for trout, so it seemed a bit awkward at first. However, as I swing the line out, it drops into the deeper water just short of the brush. As the bait sinks to the bottom, I feel a tug. I lift up on the fly rod and the fish comes splashing out of the water. There is little finesse to this kind of fishing. You just pull the fish out of the pocket the best way you can with all the brush around you.

     I hold the fish in my hand for a moment. It is a six inch dark brook trout with a bright orange belly. As it did when I was a kid, it strikes me what a pretty fish brook trout are. It isn’t a particularly big fish but brook trout in the Woods Creek never were. In the days of youth, most of our fish were from six to nine inches. A 10 inch brookie on the Woods Creek was considered almost a trophy. A six inch brook trout was a legal fish when I was a boy. Now, the minimum size limit on the Woods Creek is eight inches. For me, it doesn’t matter; I am not planning on keeping fish anyway.

     I take the hook out of the fish and hold it in the water, feeling the cool water rush against my hand. I release my grip on the fish and it quickly darts off. My first brook trout, on the first cast, on my return to the Woods Creek with father‘s old fly rod. As father would say, “What could be fairer?”

     A log has blown down across the creek and the water bubbling around it has dug out a hole under it on both sides of the bank. It is dark and the hole reaches back under the log. I point it out to Becky and tell her to drop her chunk of nightcrawler in front of one of the pockets, letting the current drift it under the log.

     She steps in front of me and her bait splashes into the water on one side of the log and is sucked under. I see her line jerk and she feels a tug. She pulls back and a brook trout comes splashing across the surface. I unhook the fish for her and slide it back into the water. She is very happy, and it is the first brook trout she has ever caught.

     On the other side of the stream, I drop my nightcrawler into the water so it washes back under the log and am immediately rewarded with a tug on the line. My fish comes flying out as I pull back on my fly rod. It too gets quickly returned. I find it satisfying that we both took a fish from the same log.

     My last two opening days on the Woods Creek both coincided with my going into the Army. In May of 1972, I had no idea that three months later I would be in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I was still a somewhat carefree college kid.

     It had been a wet spring. When father and I got to the stream early Saturday morning, after our normal drive in the dark, we found the water was higher than either of us remembered. The little stream that gurgled and twinkled as it bubbled over the rocks in summer was now a roaring river. The water rushed and I remembered how it tugged and tore at my legs as I waded into the water. It was a cool, damp, overcast day.

The day would turn out to be the best day of brook trout fishing I could remember on the Woods Creek, or any other stream for that matter. In the next couple of hours, I caught my limit of five brookies. The smallest fish was 11 inches and the largest was 14 inches. Even the smallest fish would have been a trophy on the Woods Creek. I don’t think I ever remembered catching a brook trout over 10 inches before on that stream.

     The 14 incher was an incredible fish. I let the bait drift under some overhanging brush and when I felt a tug on the line, I set the hook. The water under the brush exploded. I pulled back on my fly rod, forcing the fish out of the brush into the main part of the creek. It put up a great fight by the time I finally led the fish into the net.

As I walked back to the car, my creel actually felt heavy, which was unusual with just five brook trout. I was excited and could not wait to show father my catch. A few minutes after I got back to the car, father emerged from the woods. When he dumped out his creel, he had a five fish limit as well. His smallest fish was 11 inches and his largest was 14 inches. We virtually had an identical limit of fish.

     Five years later, I would return for my next and last opening day on the Woods Creek. A lot had changed for me since my last opening day there. I finished three years as an enlisted soldier that included a two year tour to Germany, had two daughters, and was now back in college. In less than a week after this opening day, I would graduate from college, get a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army, and a few days after that, would be in Alabama for training and eventually back to Germany.

     My kid brother, David would join us for this opening day. It was his first time to the Woods Creek after hearing father and I talk about it for years. Although I was five years older now, and much had changed for me since my last opening day, our adventure and the Woods Creek seemed to be the same. There was the Friday night preparations, the alarm clock going off early Saturday morning, frost on the car windows, the drive in the dark while drinking coffee and enjoying the warmth of the car heater, and then the car rattling over the bridge just as the sky began to turn gray. We pulled on waders, joined fly rods together, shoved containers of nightcrawlers into our creels and hiked up the road. Father cut in first through the brush to the stream while David and I walked further up the road before we headed in to the stream.

     This year, the water was not as high as it had been five years earlier. It took a pool or two before David got his first fish and I remember he seemed a bit peeved with me when I did have the net out instantly to get his fish. We steadily caught fish, and within a couple of hours we both had our five fish limit. David and I got back to the car before father. He felt a great sense of satisfaction we had caught our limits before Father. I took David down to the stream, showed him how to clean a trout and handed him my knife to finish cleaning the rest of the fish while I fired up the camp stove to make a pot of coffee.

     It would be the last opening day on the Woods Creek for all three of us. I think father lost the energy to make that long drive, and I would be gone, first back to Germany and then stationed in Alabama and North Carolina. But the Woods Creek would always stay with me in my memory and no matter what was going on in my life. I could always go back in my mind to the Woods Creek when life seemed easier.

     I would dream of this stream for years and always wanted to come back. But life and work would not allow it. It was in the late 1980s, and I was back in Wisconsin on leave before leaving for my third tour to Germany. I had no idea what was in front of me yet. As it turned out, I would be gone for four years and command another military police company for three years that would take me all over Europe and the Middle East to include Desert Storm.

     On that leave I wanted to go back to the Woods Creek. It had been 11 years since I last was there and I had to see it again, but sometimes you can never return to the past.

     It had been a tough couple of years for the Woods Creek. A long and harsh drought had altered the northwoods. Todd and I fished a long stretch of stream and caught only one very small brook trout and a bunch of suckers and chubs. I never remembered suckers and chubs on that part of the water before. I was shocked. The Woods Creek had finally changed and I was sad to see it. The memories would always be there, but now I felt it would never be the same again.

     The Woods Creek would haunt me. Was the stream truly ruined? I had to find out and so 23 years later I finally revisit the Woods Creek. I am surprised and overjoyed to see the stream had not been ruined and the rejuvenating effect time has to heal even works on trout streams. I delight again in the sounds of water rushing over rocks and the smell of pine, fern and sand on a warm, sunny summer day. And we caught fish. It was like I remembered it.

     The Woods Creek was always the ideal trout stream to me. It was easy to fish. There was no muck and sand to get bogged down in. The bottom was all stone and gravel. There were always lots of little pockets and holes that held brook trout. The overhead trees blocked out a lot of the sun and it always seemed cool and refreshing, even on the hottest days.

     As I fish downstream, it seems like little has changed. I recognize many of the holes and little pools from the days when I fished here as a young man. It is indeed pleasing to see that hasn’t changed. It seems once again anytime I find a deep spot near cover such as an old log or pile of brush, I get a strike. I continue to catch fish and they are all deep dark purple flanked, orange bellied brookies.

     We fished for a couple of hours when I first hear the sound of a car on the road. I knew we are getting close to the bridge. My visit to Woods Creek is coming to an end. As we get closer to the road, the canopy of trees above us began to thin out. I break out of the brush and the bridge is in front of me. Just below the bridge is a pool. It is the largest pool on that stretch of the Woods Creek.

     It is the last bit of water I will fish so I swing my bait out in front of me letting it drop in the rushing water. I instantly feel a jolt as a fish hits and my line moves in the water. I lift the rod tip and father’s old fly rod comes alive as the fish pulls steadily against it. The fish darts back and forth across the pool and I let it fight against the rod before starting to bring it in. The fish continues to race back and forth across the sparking water, splashing across the surface. I finally get the fish alongside of me and reaching down, I grabbed it. It is the biggest brook trout of the day.

     I leave Becky at the bridge while I hike back down the road to get the car. It feels wonderful to once again walk down that road. When I stop at the car to take off my waders and put away father’s fly rod, I realized how lucky I am to have those memories and to once again revisit the Woods Creek.