Look at any map I've got, and you'll find marks in the margins. Sometimes the marks are descriptions (the words of a sign, short reminders of turns or pull-offs, mistakes to remember not to make again). Sometimes they're depictions (drawings of trees, of bridges, of churches, houses or hills). They seem as if they're meant to get me there again, but they're seldom needed for that. More, they're reminders of what I can never revisit: the moment of discovery.
05: THE NAME
Sometimes, never having known of a thing’s existence, an image of it floods to mind with the mere evocation of its name. I came to know this stream that way. I knew of it for years before I ever set foot on its banks. Without having laid eyes on its water, easily stained in the runs, but clear in its riffles and turquoise in many of its deep pools — imagination had filled in the open mindspace it flowed through with striking clarity. I had a picture, too, of its wooded banks and a valley surrounded by high, forested hills. Waist-deep in the flow of my dreams, I could see casting into the midday sun, a ribbon of open blue stretched out above my head. Why it took so long to make it another forty-five-minute drive from the streams I’d fished for a decade or more is one of those unexplainable mysteries of life. There was just always so much water between home and the banks of Mississippi. I had not been to the coulees or to the Kickapoo yet either. Just so many miles of stream and such precious little time. Then came a Sunday afternoon in October when my trusted fishing buddy and I sat on his back patio drinking whiskey, while our wives talked in the kitchen. Windows open, we could hear their chatter flutter, muddled on the wind. Golden light drenching the colors of the leaves and the last of the Fall shine on the bark of the trees. Realizing that Wisconsin’s season was now closed to us, but that our first weekend to fish together since the onset of Spring was the one ahead of us — I moved my fingertip west on the map, to territory full of spring creeks unknown to both of us. Iowa. I dared not even speak its name as I circled the stream on the map. He nodded, “Looks like we can camp there.” Less than a week later we lifted off the western edge of Wisconsin and crossed the sparkling Mississippi into a whole new dimension of the Driftless. A half mile past that old river’s western bank, the highway sails up around a hillside, and a dirt road cuts down and away, into the valley along the stream. First sight of it is where it runs along the road, down a sheer bank about 25 feet or so, off the driver’s side. The dirt path is about a car and half wide for a good stretch, until you get to the only house in this part of the valley, a sweet location right on a prime run. The rest of the way it’s campground. There’s a huge open grass pasture off the passenger’s side, then railroad tracks, then two small pockets of more rustic bankside sites. We pulled in to a spot in the corner, big enough for both our tents, with a fire pit and a picnic table. A nice, long run beside us. It being off-season, there was no one else there. We pitched camp, then geared up and hiked off in search of shadows. Everything about this place has always been mystical to me. Probably because this stream was born in my dreams. But since first laying eyes on it, I have felt connected to it. That trip was the first we ever kept anything. We said one each for dinner, but it had to be regulation, naturally, and we had to dispatch it ourselves. Not a problem once you’re used to it, but for a couple of strictly catch-and-release fly fishermen, it was not the simplest of tasks. We did, though, and cooked them in a cast iron pan over a campfire. I have had horrible, gray days where the water was chocolate and nothing was happening. I have had glorious, bright-shining days where the water danced and the trout were tugging constantly at the line. I’ve hiked upstream and down, fished here alone and with new and old friends. And that night, that first night, not realizing we had pitched right down the seven-foot slope from the tracks...or that the trains ran through the campground at three in the morning, all steel-on-steel sound and fury bouncing off the canopy above, shaking the ground beneath our tents and drowning out the entire natural world for a solid five minutes. It makes you feel alive, and, once it passes, is replaced again by the gentle turning of current and slurping of fish feeding on moonlit mayflies. Bloody Run.
04: THE DAYDREAM
A lot of spots along this stream, but the one we’re headed to is the oldest in my soul and still the first to come to mind, always. Soon we’ll turn off 18 and head north. The route is simple. True of the way to so many trickles through southwestern Wisconsin. The highway has a tendency to flatten things out a bit. You can see some of beauty of what’s around you but you have to look. Often hard with all the gettin’ there chatter and Foucault reverberating. But once you turn off, you start tracing the contours of the land. You feel the rise and fall of the rolling farms. The crops close in around you. But before that happens here, you cruise casually through a stretch of “the big road” running through a small town neighborhood. This is not the main part of town, just a neighborhood. A few two-stories but mostly wider one-story houses with big driveways. It’s not a big stretch, just enough to take it in and think about what it might be like to live here. To grow up here. For some it might seem a world away from anything. But knowing what’s ahead, it might just as easily seem enviably close to the only thing. It’s right about when this dawns on you that the neighborhood ends. The road opens up. You pick up a little speed and the feeling really hits. The next house we notice will be the one that marks the spot. There are a couple more houses along the way but they won’t stick in your memory because from this point it’s the land stretching out to the horizon all around us that sucks you in, and it's water we’re looking for. First glimpse is coming up. We take this long dip, rise, and fall again like a slow motion roller coaster. And at the bottom of
03: THE WILD ONE
I’ve known the bridge you’re standing on as long as I’ve known how to tie on a fly. If you look east from where you are, back down the gravel road you drove in on, you can see a couple of modest houses on the opposite side of the main road. I remember when there was only one. Look west, up the gravel road, and there’s a farmhouse with a handful of horses milling about. Sometimes the farmer who owned it would be out working, and might give a wave. He was never much for swinging a jawbone, as the man says, but he always seemed like a nice guy. Anyway, I suppose I always took it as enough that he was willing to share the hundreds of feet of prime trout water veining his land. Point of fact, this is common culture across the Driftless farm country. Farmers, for the most part, have productive, even progressive relationships with their Departments of Natural Resources, conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, and fishers themselves. That said, the guy who lives there now thinks the land and the water are his, and he might just chase you down on his ATV, gun slung across his back, to rail against big government and tell you to get the hell out of his yard. I guess evolution sorta ebbs and flows. Look north and you’re headed upstream, though you only see a short stretch before it bends into the scraggly, high-grass bank to wind its way up through the sparsely wooded base of the western hills. Look south and you’re facing downstream as the wily little creek wriggles a random path a crow-fly mile or so through
02: THE EXAMPLE
The senses start to get a little twitchy as soon as you turn onto the county road off the main two-lane, across from the Sport & Liquor. This is the last county road before you get into town. You take it, then you snake around about another eight miles to the big spring head at the base of the hill from the Lutheran church. An idyllic white wood church house overlooking a rolling green valley. This is the apotheosis of a Driftless limestone springhead. Flowing up from beneath thick cover at such a force it creates a small, pure-filtered, consistently chilled brook that runs down to where it converges with the larger stream, having zagged its own way down through the hills, playing hide-and-seek with the road as it weaves along. The bed of the trickling brook is a collage of black, brown, rust, gray and tarnished-gold pebbles, while the water itself is damn near invisible. It’s a staggering, mystifying, humbling thought that this spring, and others like it have been bubbling up like this since the Pleistocene era. The tenor of the stream itself, though, is not quite as unwavering. Given its varying current, its largely silt banks, and its exposure to the cattle land of this valley, it can sway wildly from lightly colored to stained to flat out muddy.
01: THE ORIGIN
There are three ways in to the origin of my fly-fishing universe, at the intersection of Q and "Two" in southwestern Wisconsin's Iowa County. 43.039709 N, -90.254839 W—though those coordinates have shifted since its own origin. Maybe only by a distant decimal digit, but enough to make the point that there is no pinning this (or any other) stream down. The continents are not where they used to be. The waters carving through them are no different. We just haven’t existed long enough as a species to notice. So it takes caring to look beneath the surface of things. And, beyond the gear and the beer and the pictures and the fish tales and the camaraderie, that’s what this sporting tradition is about. Spitting distance west of the intersection, there’s a bridge where Q crosses the stream. A little further yet, a large stile entering onto a wide swath of knee-high flora slanting down from the treeline to the banks. The other county road heads downstream. Upward, the creek traces to Black Hawk Lake. Named after the Sauk chief who fought the battle of his undoing on a stream not far from this point. He was fighting not for personal survival or preservation but for that of his people and the land they called home. Personally, he and his band of followers were defeated. But to him, the fight was not what was lost. It was the future. I think about this when I’m up here. When I turn over a stone to check the signs of bug life beneath, or when I pick up a beer can somebody didn’t pack out, or when I see a collection of trout hunkered in a bend pool with a railroad tie buried into the bank below the waterline. I think about what it means to know land and water as beautiful and fragile as this.