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.
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 that next dip we slow...always slow as we cross where stream cuts under the road. Take a look-see, hope it’s clear and lively, and lick our lips in anticipation. It’s another couple minutes drive to where the aforementioned farmhouse sits just off to the left. Far enough off that you wouldn’t even register it if you were just passing this way. You might see the sheep grazing. Maybe not. But we do. So we turn, onto the gravel road that crosses the stream by a big DNR sign that welcomes all with rod in hand. We gear up on the shoulder of the road. Close up the truck, step through the stile, and hike back. Here, it's been tradition since the earliest days I ever stepped foot on the other side of the stile to trek about a mile or so back, across the valley floor farmland the stream snakes through, to where the thickets and woods begin (though if you work your way on through it, there's more good water to be found. But once at that mark, we would slowly work our way back, fishing every inch of every riffle, run and pool. Over the years I've known this stream, it has had a lot of work done to keep it one of the best in the area. So I have had the pleasure of seeing it change with the times. It has always been a reliably clear stream. Compact in its runs, wider at a few of its bend pools, fast moving, and with a with the exception of a couple of lengthy straightaways, presenting some challengingly close quarters and tight turns. Highly oxygenated, with healthy vegetation and a prevalence of sizable naturally reproducing browns and rainbows. This is a beautiful section of one of the top streams in all of the Wisconsin Driftless. I grew into the pastime fishing this water. Virtually all of the people who have shaped my life through this shared connection, share a connection with me to this water. I was here when a fishing buddy threw a piece of elk jerky to a little beagle that used to live in the farmhouse up at the foot of the hill — a dog we called Copper, who used to run and meet us every time we pulled up — only to have to save its life moments later giving it the Heimlich. When my Spanish mother-in-law wanted to see where I fished and try her hand at it, this is the stream I brought her to. On a trip alone, in the cool of twilight, walking toward a final run to finish the day, I was startled and thrilled by a doe I nearly stepped on. Disoriented by my waking it apparently, and the shattering noise of my hiking through the tall grass, she proceeded to dart full force in four different directions in a flash. Caught equally by surprise, and not knowing how to protect myself against her wild rampage, I stood still in the patch of grass where she had been bedded down (assuming it was the one spot she would try at all costs to avoid). If, in Chicago, in the middle of my commute to work I am to long for being anywhere other than in the clang and clatter of the city, and am to drift off into the daydream of a stream — it's a safe bet this is one in my mind. The Blue.
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.