Three Rivers by Moon

Three Rivers by Moon

  • By: Dave Karczynski

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The guy asking me this, Justin Carroll, who wears size 2 drakes tattooed on either side of his neck, is stamping down a length of rusted barbed-wire fence to help me over. It’s the third such obstacle we’ve crossed since our launch point, a rest stop deep in the country on the Minnesota side of the Driftless Region, that unglaciated land of humping hills and lost valleys where wild trout seethe in each creek and seep. We’ve been walking a ridgeline for about 30 minutes and our point man, Carl Meine, is already making his cragged-coulee descent into the valley of green pastures and frigid springs. In the day’s last light he lumbers beneath a backpack full of more beer than is recommendable—perhaps even drinkable—in the full moon of an early July night.
“Hexing for gar on the Mississippi backwaters was good last week,” Justin says as we hike down. “But this is the start of my favorite season.”
It’s my favorite season, too. In a world where it’s increasingly impossible to find undiscovered water, mousing for trout after dark affords the opportunity to fish uncharted worlds. The country of 3:00 AM is a land stalked by demon browns you would never otherwise see or hear, a lawless expanse with no shortage of elbow room.
We catch up with Carl where he’s stepping tentatively over a feeder creek and squinting at a pasture to his left. His boots are covered in cow shit. So are Justin’s. So are mine.
“This is where the bull that ran me off last year torpedoed from,” Carl says. “I have nightmares about it. I’m always getting trampled, or almost trampled. You know how it is with dreams: You can’t experience something until it actually happens in real life. I always wake up before I get hoofed.”
We arrive at our water with just enough time for me to know it in daylight. Cut deep into the sand banks like a pressure washer through angel food cake, the river alternates between cobble-stoned sluices and sprawling plunge pools. On one side, pasture. On the other, a dark press of forest crowding down the hillside to the water’s edge. The moon, a full one tonight, will labor overtime to get above the ridgeline, which will extend the window of our best fishing by half. But it’s not yet dark enough to fish—we can still see the color green—so it’s time for beer and stories and waiting for the light at the end of the world to drain off.
Carl’s fascination with mousing began a full decade before he caught his first fish on a furball. “My dad always had this one critter in his fly box that never moved,” he says. “All spun deer hair, two little beady eyes. As a kid it was such a bizarre idea: a fish eating a mammal. Then one day I caught a 16-inch brown with what appeared to be a growth in its throat. Turned out to be a mouse, with another right behind it, tail sticking out of its throat. That night I broke 24 inches for the first time. I don’t fish much in the daytime anymore, not in the summer, at least.”
A few beers later full-on night is upon us, and the guys set me up in a prime spot at the base of a plunge pool.
“You’re going to need to be inches off that far bank,” Carl says. “There’s a deep cut with a ton of timber—whatever’s going to happen is going to happen right there. I’ll be the next pool up, Justin down.” I nod and obey.
It’s not long before I hear the first good roll of the night from Justin, down below, then from Carl, up above. You know when your mousing partner is hooked up if silence follows the roll. But nine times out of 10, foul language is the only thing brought to hand. I myself move five fish in the first few minutes, missing four and landing one, a plump low teener. Moving down 10 yards, I land two more. In the starlight they look like ghosts, or lake-run fish, silver trending to blue. If there were trout on Neptune, I imagine they’d look something like this.
The next few hours have us working in a steady groove. We migrate to a fresh set of pools, work said pools, catch fish, swap notes, repeat. When the fat moon finally clears the ridge it catches everyone a little by surprise, swamping the valley like a sluice, a bright light so much more sudden than a sunrise. We take a break and let the fish—and ourselves—adjust to the light. Carl extracts a small box from deep in his pack. “Snuff?” he asks, tapping a little mound of dark powder onto the back of his hand. My first hit is a little too big—rookie mistake—and for a moment the world cants, the stars spill from their sockets, but a moment later all is right again. Even righter than right. Sinuses sparkling and clear, I wander off through the new bright world to find fresh pools and ready fish. I’m more comfortable now, a nocturnal creature moving fluidly in this empty medium, this abandoned palace of night. When a nearby pack of coyotes goes to town like they’ve just scored a touchdown—or a calf—I don’t even flinch. I’m just as much a hunter as anything else. Tapping my fingertips on the point of my hook, I head off in search of moonshadow and monster browns, no rush to my step.
It’s going to be a long night. It’s going to be a long summer.
By the time September rolls around I’ve got about 20 nights under my belt on a lot of different water. There was central Wisconsin’s Little Cambodia, a warren of deep, clear streams crawling through thatch-thick understory. There was the Big Water of the Au Sable, where we caught two marble-eyed walleye for each brown. But with the end of summer looming I still haven’t caught a fish commensurate with my nocturnal efforts, I still haven’t caught The One. So I call the fishiest guy I know: Tom Lynch.
“I can take you to a watershed where we could score something dumb big,” Tom says. “But you can’t talk about where.” His list of exactly what can and cannot be revealed about this place is so complex I consider retaining a lawyer. I make a joke about how desperate parties might file a Freedom of Information Act inquiry into my cell phone GPS records. Instead of laughter, the other end of the line goes silent.
“No phones, either.”
We meet at a gas station in a region I am permitted to describe only as Somewhere in the Midwest. Our photographer, Perry Rech, shows up with his three Brittanies and so much camera equipment you’d think we had a hot lead on a Sasquatch orgy. Tonight we’ve got a legit shot at something almost as rare: a wild, 30-inch river resident up top.
I climb into Tom’s Tacoma; Perry follows in his Wrangler. I’ve driven on a lot of two-tracks, but this is more like an old riverbed sans river: cutbanks of root and sand, crushes of leaning white pine overhead. For one half-mile stretch the riverbed tilts and we manage a vehicular angle usually seen only in music videos and theaters of war.
It’s not too terribly hard to breach Middle-of-Nowhere, Wyoming, or Boofoo, Montana. But discovering End-of-the-Earth, Midwest takes scholarship and obsession.
“I knew this place existed for five years before I found it,” Tom says. “You know how to see certain stars you have to look off to the side? It was like that. You had to listen to the edges of conversations, the peripheral hints and clues and codes. The guys who fish this keep it tight, and for good reason. I got a 29-inch fish two weeks ago. Last week I lost something at least two inches bigger. Just couldn’t turn it in time.”
Our 30-minute drive is followed by an equally long hike through dense woods that ends with the sudden gaping of the river valley, a widening splash of stars. Before we see the water, a beaver kabooms with its tail as if to ask: Who the hell are you?
Tom breaks down tonight’s approach—fan casting from very limited windows. “Too much wood in the water to wade, too many trees on the bank to walk. Cast 20, 30, 40 times. A brown at night is a different animal. It’s curious. Keep at it and you can literally chum them up.”
Tom starts off downriver, then pauses, turns around and whisper-yells: “Whatever you do, do NOT get bit by a beaver.”
And just like that he’s gone—the only guy with any clue as to where in the world we are. I can hear but not see Perry setting up his tripod, just as I can hear but not see the river flowing just inches from my feet. I’ve fished a lot of new moons, but the dark seems darker here, the corpuscles of night thicker.
“This is the most nowhere I’ve been in a while,” Perry says.
I work my water over an uncountable number of times. Time passes by. Minutes? Hours? In Jurassic Park on a new moon, time plain doesn’t matter, the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I’m not a college writing teacher with my first class of the semester 11 hours from now. No: I’m a hunter at the center of an eternally expanding present moment.
Then we hear it, from the distant dark comes the sound of water shattering. Tom’s fallen in, I think. Another thrash, a swallowed scream. And he’s drowning.
“Big fish!” a scream streaks past us like a comet. “Big fish!”
I fling my rod aside and bolt through the darkness, scrambling over beaver holes, running into trees, homing to the sound of river getting trashed. When I find Tom his rod is bent to the cork and he’s winching something heavy out from the undercut. The fish breaches and Tom leaps in, grabs the fish’s tail, gets the Boga on his beak. Perry huffs up to see what every photographer dreams of seeing at two in the morning in the middle of nowhere: a beaming big-game hunter tethered to a pissed-off fish.
We holy-shit and high-five and ogle and stare, snap some photos and then it’s back to fishing. I work hard until 4:00 AM, that mystical manic hour, before kicking back on the grass and soaking in the last few minutes of pure dark before the world lifts with light. Who else is staring up at these stars at 4:00 AM? What other activities license this kind of madness? Backyard astronomers called it quits long ago. Hikers are fast asleep, tents tight to smoldering embers. The bear hunters who’ll be running this valley in a few hours are brewing the day’s first coffee, feeding the hounds, but they’re still in their pajamas. Maybe that’s the final answer, the reason we all do this: Nothing but mousing flings you out so deeply and wildly into the night and asks you to bring your all.
At dawn we head back to the gas station. On Perry and myself the toll is visible: necks slack, backs humped, eyes cartoon-droopy. Tom’s eyes, by contrast, glow like the tip of his Marlboro Red. He scowls at the sunrise like a vampire, shakes our hands and rumbles off to his next engagement, a guide trip on a watershed some three hours away.
I fall into my car and slump over the steering wheel. In exactly eight hours I need to be showered, dressed and lucid for my first class of the semester, several climate zones away in Ann Arbor. I wonder if my colleagues and students will know what I’ve been up to, if there will be some telltale sign in my eyes, my hands, my voice. But for now I need sleep—even 20 minutes—so I set three alarms spaced 10 minutes apart and lay my head against the window.
When I tell my friend Tim Landwher, undisputed Smallmouth Czar of the Upper Midwest, that I want to go deeper into the night this summer than ever before, he points the business end of his Hamm’s at me and says, “Damian Wilmot. Bois Brule. He’s been at the night game for 25 years. He’s as good as it gets.”
The Bois Brule had been on my shortlist of rivers to fish for the past few years, but I’d never gotten around to it, tucked away as it is in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, that part of the state that looks like it wants to skip town and elope with the Lake Superior coast. The Brule is often referred to as “the river of presidents” (it was the preferred summer haunt of Grant, Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower), but it would be just as logical to call it “river of night,” given the tradition of night-fishing dating back well more than a century. Perhaps the most famous Brule night angler was James Jesus Angleton, head of counter-intelligence for the CIA during the Cold War era. He fished almost exclusively under cover of darkness, alone but for a pint of whiskey and a sidearm or three, since only then did this famous paranoid feel safe from the Russian moles it was his job to ferret out. A famous night fly, the Angleton, is much talked about but—perhaps appropriately—impossible to locate, probably locked up in a top-secret CIA vault somewhere in D.C. Or Moscow.
I meet Damian, two of his guides and the best-behaved bird dog on earth at his camp for a traditional Brule Fry, a meal that has been a part of the night-fishing tradition on this river since the first midnight waker was flung out into the darkness. It’s typically served as a midnight interlude between bouts of mousing, but today we’re doing it a bit early in order to get some storytelling done. Over potatoes, onions, bacon and steak cooked in a skillet with 25 years’ worth of flavor, I hear about how the first timber prospecting expedition caught coaster brook trout on shreds of red flannel, and about an infamous band of Finnish poachers who dumped Clorox into deep holes and hid their salted contraband in the same saunas where they ran their prostitution rings (an early attempt at a theme restaurant).
After some time the conversation turns to actual fishing, and I ask Damian how he got started with the mousing game. “In my early 20s I was working for my future father-in-law,” he says, “and one day he came up to me holding another guy by the shoulder. ‘Damian, you know how to catch fish at night on mice, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ even though I had only ever Hexed. ‘Great. I’d like you to take my friend here out tonight.’”
“How’d you guys do?” I ask.
Damian gives me a look and smiles: “So well I did it for the next 25 years.”
At the bridge launch, the first thing that strikes me is the lack of people. If this were Michigan, there’d be a flotilla of kayaks, canoes and driftboats coming off the water. There’d be a queue of cars in the lot.
“Where are the people?” I ask.
Damian shrugs.
“The fishery is incredible, but the fly-angling pressure just isn’t here. Plenty of guys throwing Rapalas and plugs in the big water downstream. The upper river needs more friends.”
A light but confident breeze is coming up as we nose the canoe into current, and the river is coming alive. This year’s steelhead—small needles of silver stitching the film—are getting happy with the evening Tricos; below us, green weeds swoon and sway over fist-sized cobble. The only camera I’ve got handy are my eyes. Night fishing lays bare the limits of photography. You can’t capture the way cedars and tamaracks fade to dark, losing their color first, hanging onto texture till the last. The way early starlight glints off an alpha brook trout’s vermiculation. Then there are the sounds, the churs of whip-poor-wills, pulses of crickets, peals of wolfsong.
Soon it’s time to start fishing. My go-to mousing setup is my Z-Axis 7-weight and a fur-and-foam mouse, but Damian’s got something else in the boat: a 6-weight cane rod made by a local builder named Phil Johnson, to which is tied a Hank’s Creation, a short, stout, snub-nose entity from the era when men were men and all gamefish ate red-and-white lures and flies. It’s no contest. I lay down the Z, raise cane.
“When you bought a box of Hank’s Creations back in the day, it was understood that you could not open it until after sundown,” Damian tells me. “To do otherwise would rob the fly of its mystical power.”
We start rolling fish with regularity and—no surprise—at the end of the first hour have a handful of nice mid-teen fish to hand. But the best water, Damian tells me, is much farther downstream. We need to cover some ground. One of the great pleasures of fishing at night is the boatmanship you see on display. In the daytime, the river is navigable by lay people, terrestrial folk like myself. But floating a river at night is a mnemonic enterprise bordering on sorcery. During the day one recognizes and responds, but at night one paddles through a living memory, anticipating each seam, each boulder, each root wad until it becomes real—willing, in a way, the world into being. From the back of the canoe, with no assistance from me up front, Damian sluices us through narrow chutes and short rapids, cleaves boulders, pivots around sweepers, all without the use of a headlamp or flashlight.
Damian’s voice falls to a whisper. “The brook trout have completely disappeared from this area. Pretty sure a big brown has moved in. Nice midstream boulder at 11 o’clock. You can bounce your Hank’s right off of it.”
On my second cast we hear it, the sweetest sound in mousing. It’s not the deafening toilet-bowl whoosh—that’s an adolescent brown at play—but the calm, cool, baritone ploonk that comes from a fish so big and smart and efficient it tipples back rodents the same way it once sipped Baetis.
I do everything right. I don’t lift or set. I turn into a statue and wait for the weight of the fish. But it doesn’t come, and a second later I’m bringing in my Hank’s Creation, empty and forlorn. Such is night fishing, a game of high stakes, midnight apoplexies, and oh, so many misses.
By 3:00 AM we’ve rolled some 35 fish and boated 11. We’ve knocked on the door of 20 inches a few times, but our donkey, our toad—whatever you want to call it—eludes us.
The moon peaks as we come upon an impossibly wide area known as “The Lake,” a silver plain across which scud a few tatters of fog, quiet as a held breath. The night is so settled, it now feels like the river is a permanent extension of it, that if we were to skip the takeout and keep on paddling the sun would never rise—we’d just keep slipping downstream into darkness all the way to Gitche Gumee, big and black and deep and cold.

Dave Karczynski won the 2012 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award for his “Awake in the Moonlight,” published in our Autumn issue of that year.

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