June 17, 2023

Five Days in the Driftless

My flight landed in Minneapolis at 830am local time, about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The checked bag was among the first to emerge from the darkness and take its place to be claimed upon the conveyor belt. I watched it circle once before lunging to snag the handle. A short tram ride found no line to pick up my rental SUV. I paid for a Toyota, but they gave me a Mercedes. A bit fancy for my tastes, but so far everything was coming up roses.

Day 1: Why is it So Hot?

After an almost 3 hour drive through what seemed like endless construction I found myself in the heart of the Wisconsin Driftless. Hastily lacing up some wading boots and stringing up my tenkara rod, the harmonious melody that was my trip was interrruped by an abrupt record scratch. I couldn’t help but notice how hot it was. 92 degrees. In Wisconsin? The high in Florida was at least ten degrees cooler. It really didn’t matter. Well it did, but not that much. One of my favorite spring creeks lazily flowed before me. And I mean lazy. The water was low, the sun was high, but there were no other anglers to be found, and I was going to catch some fish.

Luckily, enough browns cooperated to make the back sweat worth it. You know the kind of humidity-induced perspiration that begins as a few individual drops rolling down your sides but evolves into a drenching so much that your shirt clings to your torso? Some might even call it moist. That’s a fun word to type. I may have shed the fishing skunk, but I’m sure by this time I smelled ripe.

Needing to check into my cabin, I cut the fishing a smidge short and headed over to the farm on which it was quietly located. Left a nice wet mark on that Mercedes’ haughty leather seat along the way. Did I mention how hot it was?

Now settled in the cabin for the night, a few of my friends (and roomates for the week) began to file in as well. Exhausted, I thought I was feeling the ill-effect of sunstroke. A blur of orange took over my eyes as they rapidly went in and out of focus. Fortunately, it was only Luong Tam walking through the front door.

Day 2: Cowtown

I met up with my friend Dave early this morning. You know Dave. Or likely know Dave’s voice. He’s the James Earl Jones of Tenkara Angler. We decided to drive a bit to fish a creek that is typically quite productive. I mean what kind of jerk would take his friend to a creek that sucks?

Much like the day before, the sun was high and the water low, but we found some riffles and deepish pools during our creekside meander. I’d pick up a fish, Dave would pick up a fish. This continued for about 45 minutes… and then some lifeguards on four-wheelers called an “adult swim” for the cows. All anglers out of the pool! I’ve never known livestock to be cognizant of stream etiquitte, and almost predictably they decided to seat themselves right in a pool Dave was working up to fishing. These were not the browns we came here for.

So, upstream we proceeded and each caught our fair share over the next 3 hours. The fishing wasn’t prolific, but it was good enough to keep our rods bent frequenly enough to avoid too many awkward, fishless silences. Note that I had said this creek was typically quite productive, not always quite productive. Happy with our morning of catching, we exited the stream and walked back to the car. Dave mentioned that his dermatologist would have been proud of him today. If you look at the photos, you’ll recognize why.

Day 3: North of the Border

I have a favorite creek in the Driftless. It’s a good drive north from where I usually fish. It might as well be in Canada. By name, it practically is. It’s lightly wooded and holds both brown and brook trout. It was still to be above 90 degrees this day and the shady spots were going to be welcomed.

This was a solo trip. Not that I keep the location of this stream under lock and key, rather I just wanted a bit of solitude. Growing up an only child, I don’t mind being alone, particularly in nature. Seclusion often authors the most interesting inner monologues. Well, I guess I wasn’t totally alone, as I did find constant companionship at the end of my line.

Later that evening was the main gathering of the Great Driftless Tenkara Campout. It was the total opposite of the morning’s tranquility. There were probably close to fifty people in attendance, eating, drinking, and talking about tenkara. There were raffles, presentations, casting contests, and story telling. I even had an extended conversation about ice fishing of all things. (Note, I’ve never ice fished in my life.)

I like being around people, but if I was to be recklessly honest, I don’t really enjoy group gatherings. They can be a bit much. A group of five is awesome. Ten is okay. But, fifty… well… Perhaps it goes back to that only child dynamic. But I attended for a bit, talked to some, and tried not to be too socially awkward. If I recall, my new acquaintance Bob characterized such activity not as antisocial, but rather nonsocial. That sounds good to me. Type As were seemingly too many to count. I’m fine with sitting back and being a Type X, Y, or Z. That said, my dysfunction should not take away from the fact that the organizers held an absolutely wonderful event!

Day 4: Put a Fork in It

This was by far the best morning of fishing of the trip. Chunky browns and some stray brookies were situated neatly beyond the pastures of a Mennonite farm.

If the water looked like it held fish, it did. Likely, two or three from the same run, given you coaxed them out of hiding just right. Lightly twitching, twitching, twitching, before feeling the sharp rebound of a take and the subsequent mounting pressure. You were nothing more than a flexed forearm away from fourteen inches of butter. It was glorious. And still hot. But I didn’t feel the temperature at all. Being distracted by the tugging of brown trout can do that to a person. I can’t say the same for the yogurt covered raisins stashed in my fishing pack.

A change of location and several hours later, my cabinmates and I decided to take a night out on the town and hit a local restaurant, and then try our hands at fishing the early evening that followed. As one might expect, there aren’t a lot of options to go out and eat on a Sunday night in the middle of mostly nowhere, but we found a welcoming establishment and ordered food. It eventually even got served, and obviously quickly eaten.

The fishing that followed was pretty good for the limited time we were out. A strange haze filled the sky. They said it was due to wildfires in Canada. (The real Canada, not the one from the day prior). It made for a surreal backdrop, not only for the evening, but for the rest of this trip to the Driftless in general.

Day 5: Donny Osmond Creek

Donny Osmond? If you’re familar with the area, you can figure out where we fished. Or just play Sherlock Holmes and look at the road sign in the picture below. This morning I paired with my friend Matt and we both found regular success early on. The cool water flowed through some high banks above and beautiful structure below, while the braided riffles seemed to produce section after section. Matt was fishing wet flies, I was fishing nymphs. The surf & turf combo seemed to be the perfect entree for several hours… until it wasn’t.

As with most mornings, the fishing faucet turned off as the sun rose to its apex in the sky. I picked a final brown out of a narrow section of water before collapsing my rod and exiting the creek by the roadside. There was a gentleman standing by his pickup truck watching me scale the bank. He asked, “how they biting?” I replied, “okay, I caught a few.” As with most fishing conversation, it was neither fully the truth nor fully a lie.

It was probably for the best to stop at that point, as we were going to meet up with our friend Mike, who was dropping in for an overnight stay. Sadly, he was arriving virtually at the same time as I was departing. Even though we squeezed in a brief nightcap that evening, the morning’s outing with Matt was essentially my walkoff for this trip.

The Postscript

Before I knew it, this year’s Driftless angling adventure was over, relegated to but a fond memory. I found myself hurriedly packing my bags and getting ready to depart early the next morning. Delta Airlines was calling me. But not before one final breakfast sandwich from Kwik Trip.

Five days of fantastic fishing. Five days of fun with friends. Five days of fattening food. Five days of fucking hot temperatures. These were my five days in the Driftless.

May 6, 2023

On the Tennessee Side of the Smokies

A few weekends ago I made the trip up to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to meet up with some friends for the 2023 TenkaraCamp at Elkmont Campground. While it wasn't my first time to the Smokies, it was my first time to that specific section and associated water. It ended up being a nice weekend, although the weather was a bit bi-polar. More on that in a bit...

I kind of associate the Smokies with rainbow trout...

I made the long trek from Florida to Tennessee early on Thursday morning. Fortunately, the drive was relatively uneventful, shooting up I-95, over into South Carolina on 26, and then up into Tennessee on 40. Traffic was light, and I was able to arrive at my destination at around 2:30 in the afternoon. I honestly think the biggest delay was caused by dodging pedestrian tourists while driving down the main strip in downtown Gatlinburg. Yikes. If you've never been, well, there are no words. And if you have, you know what I'm talking about.

In any event, once I got past that bit of chaos and down the road a couple of miles to check in at the Ranger station, it gave me just enough time to set up my campsite and then get a line wet for a few hours.

Little River runs right through the campground and made for some really easy access. I fished for maybe two or three hours and caught a little over a half dozen fish. Not a ton, but good enough to start the trip off on a good foot. I was actually surprised that the first three fish I caught were brown trout. I kind of associate the Smokies with rainbow trout (and in the far reaches brookies)... so that was also an interesting way to lead off.

That evening, about fifteen of us that had come in for the TenkaraCamp gathered at one campsite, telling stories by the fire. If I recall, I spent most of the time talking about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other things I can't (and probably shouldn't) remember with my friend Matt. After the early morning wake up, long drive, and afternoon of fishing, I was kind of on fumes at that point. Certainly made falling to sleep very easy that evening.

In my head it sounded fine...

Okay, Friday was glorious. It was also painfully exhausting. But really, it was glorious.

For some reason I thought it might be a good idea to go back and fish one of the tributaries of the Little River. Get away from some of the crowds that were in the campground and general vicinity and maybe bump into some brook trout. I had mapped out a plan to hike back about 5ish miles, fish all day, and then hike back to return around dinnertime. 10ish miles round-trip. In my head it sounded fine. By the end of the day my feet had a differing opinion.

Fortunately, I made new friend at camp the night before, and Paul was more than willing (he actually volunteered) to accompany me on this hike. In retrospect, I probably would have quit hiking long before I did if Paul wasn't there. But conversation was lively, and it made the time go a little bit faster. After about two and a half, maybe three hours of hiking, the two of us split up to cover different sections of water. I went upstream, Paul downstream, agreeing to meet back on the trail at around 4PM.

After a quick snack and drink of water, I popped into the stream and began to fish. And spoiler alert, while I didn't find a single brook trout that afternoon, I did find tons of rainbows. They were super eager too, bringing 3 to hand on maybe my first 5 or 6 casts. They took nymphs, they took wets, they even came up to smack a few dries.

Eventually a pretty steady wind started kicking up and I'm not sure if it was a coincidence, but the fish started shutting down. I was able to pick up a few more here and there, but defintiely not with the same frequency. In all, I think I brought a little under twenty to hand, and played with at least a half dozen more before finding a spot to climb through the brush and back on to the trail to meet up with Paul who I found beaming after catching himself what was essentially a "last cast" trout.

Pleasantries aside, I think we'd both admit that the walk back sucked. I mean it really suuuucked. It seemed at least three times as long as the hike out. Conversation was also a bit more sparse. I think we were both beat and focused on getting back so we could get our boots off and just relax.

Back at camp that evening there was another campfire get-together, this time with a larger turnout circling the fire pit. I sort of remember talking to my friends Bryan and Amanda for a bit, and getting introduced to her friends Rachael and Brock. Brock is a relative newcomer to tenkara fishing but quite versed with a fly rod and reel, so it was fun talking to him about both styles of fishing.

As for that evening... That bit of wind I felt while out fishing was the precursor to a stormfront rolling through the valley. It was a very windy and rainy overnight. While my campsite and tent survived the conditions just fine, I didn't sleep quite as well with that howling wind keeping me company.

It felt good to do nothing...

Not sleeping too well the night before, I decided I was going to take it easy on Saturday. The rain had stopped and it was moderately warm and sunny. It was actually the main day of the limited TenkaraCamp organized activities, with a gathtering in the morning at one of the campsites, a meet and greet, and some streamside clinics before everybody broke out to go fishing.

I basically just hung out at camp. I met and chatted up different people, recorded one of the educational sessions conducted by my friend Rob, and largely just watched people fish. I even took my folding camp chair streamside and just sat back with a cold drink and chilled out, dozing off briefly more than a few times. After running (and hiking) around the prior two days, it felt good to kind of do nothing. Fishing trips aren't just about the fishing.

Oh, then maybe around 2PM it got cold and increasingly dark and windy again. Uh oh.

The morning was sunny and warm enough to allow my tent to dry off... but that was suddenly under threat. Knowing I was going to leave first thing on Sunday morning anyway, I decided to break down camp a little bit early while things were dry. I just didn't want to risk everything getting soaked again. Nobody likes packing up a wet camp. 

Everything packed, and kinda dreading the 8.5 hour drive that awaited me the next day, I decided that I was going to forego the evening's campfire chats, and just head home, grabbing a hotel for the night somewhere along the way to split the trip in half. So I said goodbye to the folks that were at camp, and headed a few hours to Flat Rock, NC where I stayed the night.

A very good run up to the Smokies...

I'm a little bummed missing out on that evening's campfire, I always get a little case of the FoMOs, but I did hear it was a little on the cold side on Saturday night and Sunday morning, so I probably made the right decision. Plus, I was able to get back home to Florida with enough time to actually enjoy my Sunday at home, decompress a bit, and get myself mentally ready for the work week to come.

In all, it was a very good run up to the Smokies. I enjoyed Elkmont Campground quite a bit. In many ways it's a lot like Deep Creek on the North Carolina side that I really had fun at the year prior. I can see myself being back to both at some point in the future.