Spring Coulee (Part II)

There is one way to get in or out of  Coon Valley: State Route 14, which you pick up right outside of Madison, Wisconsin. S.R. 14  will take you through the towns of  Cross Plains  and Black Earth, through which flows the legendary Black Earth Creek. You will pass through Spring Green, site of Frank Lloyd Wright’s  iconic Taileson Studio; and Richland Center, the actual birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright. You will notice that the landscape is changing — dairy farms, corn fields and gently sloping pastureland giving way to hills, bluffs and promontories as the road begins rising and falling like a roller coaster writ large.

After passing Amish farms with white, unadorned  houses and surprisingly large barns topped with windmills, you will drive into Viroqua , where the stewards of those farms — disconcertingly urbane Amish wheeler dealers — are selling fresh produce, honey, balms, elixirs  and scented soaps at the Farmer’s Market. The black carriages that brought the Amish vendors into town are arrayed in a neat row in the adjoining alley while the horses, tethered to the carriages, eat from feedbags strapped to their necks.

Leaving Viroqua, you continue on to Westby, where a fair portion of the signage is in Norwegian. Just past Westby, Rte.14 begins its slow 9-mile descent into Coon Valley. During the course of this drive you may see wild turkey, white-tailed deer, coyotes, bull snakes seeking warmth on the pavement, and the occasional small, fleet-footed critter — weasel? marten? mink? — that appears as a blur in your peripheral vision and then leaves you mildly awe-stricken with the realization that you have been blessed with a glimpse (or was it just your imagination?) of something wild and elusive.

About the time you start feeling a touch claustrophobic by the dark, pine-covered ridges rising on either side of the road, you will round one more sweeping bend and then you will break into sunlight. Your first vista will be of a russet church steeple, peeking above a canopy of maple trees. When you’re down in the valley proper you will come upon the church cemetery, where every detail, from the red geraniums resting on polished marble grave markers, to the knee-high filigree, wrought-iron fence girding the cemetery, is straight out of Central Casting’s Department of Americana.

Next, you turn onto County Road P and pass several neat, wood framed houses, and just like that, you will be back in the country, trying to keep pace with speed limit signs that increase or decrease by 10-to-20 mph seemingly every 50 feet . You slow down when you catch sight of the sign announcing “Spring Coulee Public Fishery” because you remember that Spring Coulee Road is s an inconspicuous turnoff just beyond the sign and almost at. the point where County Road P makes a broad sweep southward with a vista featuring dramatic bluffs. It’s easy to imagine how someone unfamiliar with the area could overshoot the turnoff while marveling at the scenery.

You’ve finally made it! Spring Coulee Creek cuts from one side of the road to the other in switchback fashion — broad, quiet pools alternating with stretches of dancing riffles.  Paul Kugat’s  house is just up the road.

I’m at Paul’s “golden pool,” a stretch of  Spring Coulee that runs slow, broad and deep for nearly 75 ft. thanks in part to reinforcements of rock fill  and wood bracing, courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Any hatch or related aquatic event happening anywhere on the 4.5 miles of water constituting Spring Coulee Creek, likely will be happening in the Golden Pool.

What I’m observing are trout responding to some  manner of hatch. It’s April 26, the weather’s sunny, the water temperature is 52 degrees F. The logical hatch should be tan caddis flies, which would be right on the seasonal timetable. But I’ve also observed fish jumping clear out of the water, which suggests they’re feeding on ahead-of-schedule crane flies, notable for their tendency to hover several inches above the water.

I’ve tried both crane fly and caddis patterns to no avail. Still, the feeding activity continues, nothing dramatic, but steady. This is immensely heartening because upon arrival a couple of hours earlier, I couldn’t even get one cast  off before I sustained a “mishap,” my euphemism for when I notice in preparation to casting or upon casting that part of the picture is not as it should be — for instance, my leader is looped around my rod; or my fly has caught on my pants leg; or my fly line has affixed itself to one of the Velcro strips on my vest. The perverse beauty of a mishap is that it almost always presents to clear choices: You can be Gallant (who remembers Highlights for Children magazine?), and calmly invest the 20 to 30 seconds needed to  unwrap the leader or free the snagged fly, etc.;  or you can be Goofus, and proceed to “shake” free the looped leader, “whip” the snagged fly free, or “accept and subsequently work around” the affixed Velcro strip.  Considering that the raw materials of angling include, among other things, hair-thin monofilament line and a barbed implement designed specifically to penetrate things and not come out, why in the world haven’t I learned that going the Goofus route is guaranteed to transform a small problem into a big problem, with the added bonus of new, wholly unanticipated wrinkles, or, as I like to put it, “Are you friggin” kidding me?”

The particular mishap with which I grappled is the bane of all fly casters–  the snagging of your fly during the back cast.

The proper strategy  prior to casting is to ensure that you have an unobstructed casting lane, both behind and in front of you.. But even when I’ve been on top of my game, I’ve struggled to hold my eagerness at bay when a hatch is on. In this particular instance, I got off a respectable back cast,  which, had its forward progress not been impeded by a willow branch, would have shot over the pool and made a soft landing inches from the still visible ripples where a trout had just sipped a juicy morsel. Instead, I was forced to contemplate my size-18 tan caddis emerger lodged about  eight feet behind me and, oh, maybe ten feet  overhead. A bummer, to be sure, but I probably could have bent the supple willow low enough to free the fly, and then proceed to make another cast.

Instead, I repeatedly whipped my rod to and fro, lodging my fly even more securely into the willow until my tippet finally snapped. This time I wisely opted to simply tie on a new leader,  but in my haste to uncoil the new leader, I snarled the hair-thin tippet at the terminal end, effectively rendering the leader useless. So what perverse impulse compelled me to attempt to unsnarl the leader rather than simply grab another and take better care in uncoiling it?  Because the hatch was on and I needed to get a fly on the water ASAP. Needless to say, opting instead to unsnarl a bird’s nest of tippet already knotted in several positions is what we in the teaching profession refer to as a “poor choice,” tantamount to a student choosing  to fire up a blunt while his teacher is urging hi to focus on his test.

When I finally threw in the towel and tied on a third leader, I was stunned to see that the hatch was still on. But, as I alluded to earlier,  I couldn’t figure out exactly what the trout were rising to. One big problem was that, since my stroke, I no longer had the mobility and balance to get into the water, which would enable me to drop my fly in places I couldn’t access from shore. Nonethes I attempt to tie on a size-16 crane fly.

“Screw it,” I mutter, after I realize that I seem to have lost the ability to tie a small fly in the falling light. I tie on a larger crane fly, and, putting my rod aside, I lay back in the corn stubble and contemplate the place I  have traveled 270 miles to reach. One thing is sure, I think. No sound beats the burbling of water over rocks. Barn swallows buzz the pool, periodically swooping to snatch from the surface film whatever is hatching. I close my eyes and begin drifting off, but I am soon nudged awake by Paul’s dog, who after reacquainting his nose with my body odor, presents his head for a pat.

Paul can’t be far behind, I correctly predict.  “Good to see you, Tom.”

“Hey Paul,” I reply.  I struggle to get on me feet.

“No, no,” he implores. Stay right where you are.” With a grunt, he drops beside me.

“It’s always such a pleasure to see you, Paul says, clasping his hand in mine. At that moment, a distinct “whump!” resonates from the pool. ” I think I know that fish,” Paul says.

I smell a “fish story” coming on. The thing about Paul’s fish stories, though, is that their credibility is reinforced not only by the hundreds of hours he has devoted to studying every nuance of his stretch of Spring Coulee Creek,, but also by his propensity for keeping detailed notes..

“A big storm blew through the valley two weeks ago,” Paul says. “Everything  was under water almost to the steps of the house.” (Paul’s house sits on a terraced ridge about 20 feet above the stream). “But the real impact of the storm was it actually reconfigured the stream. The gravel bed that ran along the inside channel was swept away. That was prime spawning habitat.” Paul gazes wistfully at the pool.

Whump!

“That old girl’s honing in on crane flies,” Paul observes.

“I take it that’s a big trout,” I venture.

“I’d say eighteen inches, at least, Anyway, that storm carved out the channel, upstream and downstream. There were a couple of days when all the trout in this pool were swimming around in the corn field. Then when the water came down and the trout came back, they found a pool that was way different from what it was.”

I mention that the feeding activity did seem to emanate from unexpected parts of the pool.

“You’re absolutely right,” Paul says. “This time last year, there would be five or six nice trout lined up along the crib I put in at the bend. Now there’s just one big trout,probably blew down in the storm.  If you get up on the bridge (spanning the creek just above the pool), you can probably see it.”

Pre-stroke, I would have dashed to the bridge, checked out the monster trout, and then dashed back to the pool, eager to try my hand at catching it. But that was then. The sad truth regarding “now” is that I have expended my energy trying to undo the mess I made when I had first arrived at Paul’s pool. Suddenly, I have a dispiriting revelation: There’s no doubt in my mind that once I get back on my feet, I’m going to call it quits and head to the car.

Paul, bless his heart,probably also realizes that I don’t have the stamina to hike the fifty or so feet to the modest foot-bridge, so he tactfully switches gears, inquiring about Suzanne and the kids. But then,

Whump!

“She’s really going to Town,” Paul observes and suddenly I am gung-ho to stalk that trout  – in my mind, at least . Physically, I am still out to lunch.

I turn to Paul, “Take my rod, See if you can get it.”

“I’d love to see you get it,”.

“I don’t have the range or the accuracy,” I protest, “but I know you do.”

I:could see that Paul is flattered. In truth, he is the best caster I know.

“You sure?”

“I insist.”

Paul takes my rod, steps carefully into the water, soaking his pants nearly to the knee, and then stands motionless. “Talk to me,” he beckons.

Whump!

“Gotta be crane flies,” he calls to me. “what luck!  You got one tied on.”

Paul makes two false casts and then shoots the line forward letting it glide between the thumb and forefinger of his non-casting hand. The fly looks like it might land on the opposite bank, until, with the slightest flick of his wrist, Paul halts the fly’s trajectory and drops it exactly where it needs to go.

Kabluump! Just like that, Paul is holding his rod high over his head,”Whoa, she’s big” he shouts. The trout clears the water, looking like a brown torpedo. “Oh no you’re not,” Paul mutters as itstart s swimming toward the  far bank. “She’s heading back to the crib and there’s not a friggin’ thing I can do about it!”

True to Paul’s prediction, what my “floating” fly line begins sinking. When the it reaches a depth of two feet, it stops moving. Paul slowly tightens the line, presumably to gauge how the trout might respond. The line becomes taut and then suddenly goes slack. “Really?” Paul mutters sarcastically. With remarkable calm, he reels in the line. “Check it out,” he says with surprising tact. “She didn’t break the line. She just pulled the hook off the line.”

I had tied a shitty knot.

“She’s probably not going to be that easy again,” Paul says, philosophically. “But one of us will get her, eh?”

Paul drapes his arm around my shoulder. “You coming back tomorrow?” he asks.

“I might get an early start home,” I reply.  “They’re talking about rain and all.”

I hope to see you!” Paul exclaims. “And please tell Suzanne, not to be a stranger!

By nine o’clock the next morning, I am on my way back to Evanston. The weather is gorgeous.

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