Driftless Expectations

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By Max Wilke | TMTB Contributor | Featured Image by John Westrich
May 23, 2018


I was in the the Driftless.

The area got that name due to the lack of glacier drift deposits over the landscape from the last ice age. The Driftless is full of wooded bluffs and spring-fed streams bubbling up from a limestone bedrock. It was early April, which usually means one of two options weather wise around here. It’s either raining and windy, or one of those bluebird days that lend spring an air of life.

If if was the latter, I’d hear the chirps of the first red-winged blackbirds as they came home to the Driftless.

Both weather scenarios would bring the first blue-winged olive hatches of the year. I suppose that’s what matters most.

After all, I wanted a picture of a trout with a dun stuck in its lip – in classic Instagram fashion – and it felt like a possibility.

Neither option showed up that day, since it registered as one of the colder Aprils on record in the Driftless. Snow, a thirty-some degree high, and strong, gusty winds equated to frozen fingers and feet that were starting to ache from standing in water that barely had reached 40 degrees.

The fishing was kind of lousy, though only in comparison to April days in years past. With so much cold lingering, the creeks hadn’t warmed up to their normal temperature levels for that time of year. The Blue Winged Olives hadn’t hatched yet, either.

driftless fly fishing stream

Photo by Max Wilke

I didn’t want to waste precious heat fumbling around with my fly box. After I pulled out a size 12 Pink Squirrel from its contents, I put the box away in the front pocket of my waders. I started casting to a slow, deep pool that still sported an ice shelf. The water was deep and still, and a sheer limestone outcropping on the far side of the pool rose into the overcast sky.

I’m a new fly angler. Like many, I suspect, I got started at the local pond. I threw whatever flies looked cool to me to bluegill, and I was lucky the pond was only a few blocks from my apartment at the time.

Once I had my feet wet, I decided it was time to chase trout. The Driftless was the ideal place to start, so I planned a spring trip around some of its creeks.

I was thoroughly skunked for the first five outings.  For the sixth trip, I ventured to a different stream, one slightly further into the hilly, Driftless. That’s where I caught my first trout – a thrilling experience unburdened by any knowledge that comes with time.

It was one of those warm, bright days in May, with everything looking and smelling green. A truly proper, peak of spring day. This particular stream was a bit more open than the previous one. It cut through a valley that ran North from a small town on the highway, bordered by dairy farms and pasture land.

I had hooked and lost a fish earlier, so I’m sure I shouted a bit too loudly when I finally put a plump nine-inch brown in the net.

driftless brown trout

Photo by Max Wilke

After hooking my first trout, the obsession began; or rather, it kicked into high gear. After all, I had gone fishing five times before, without so much as a bite before finally landing that modest trout.

Like any normal millennial, that passion spilled over into the internet and social media. I found a plethora of blogs, photos, websites, YouTube videos, and of course Instagram. Everywhere I looked, stories and photographs of beautiful trout and smiling anglers all alone in some remote corner of the world stared back at me.

That virtual reality informed my expectations about fishing – and raised the bar for what I expected in The Driftless. It was only a matter of time until I’d be out there catching 20-inch trout as if it were nothing.

Those pictures – and social media at large – was all I thought about when I saw that perfect pool on that chilly April day. I knew there had to be one of those Instagram-worthy fish swimming around in its depths.

And maybe there was.

I proceeded to haul out a handful of creek chubs and a brown trout measuring eight or so inches. I caught a couple more fish, all about the same size, and all on nymphs dredged along the bottom. Within a couple hours, my stiff fingers finally reached a point where I could no longer thread tippet through the eyes of my hooks, especially after tripping and catching myself with my hands in the snow.

It certainly wasn’t a day filled with grace. I only snapped one photo of a fish that day, and it was more out of a sense of duty rather than to capture the beauty of the moment.

There is a bit of irony to how much pressure I’ve put on myself to catch those big fish. Sure, some of it has been self-driven. I’ve always been a competitive person. I can’t help but dream of moments that would be worthy of a fly fishing magazine cover.

Clear, beautiful skies, sixty-five degrees in late April, and some snow capped mountains in the background fill the dream. In it I make a tricky, forty foot cast through complicated currents, drifting my dry to the mouth of a feeding trout. He sips it on the third drift and I come up tight on him.

We fight for a minute or so. I palm my reel until I can net him. It’s a brook trout, measuring 17 inches, with brilliant red spots and vibrant blue halos. I snap a quick photo.  The trout is only out of the water for a second, and then back he goes, to perpetuate the species.

brook trout driftless

Photo by Spencer Durrant.

I suppose social media has helped create a dissonance between the perception of catching fish and the actual catching of fish. We know that reality is not what we see in the digital world. Even so, we still allow it to permeate the possibilities of our own experience. It happens almost without our awareness, in a way that is both hard to control and to sequester.

When does the technology become so entwined in our lives that it becomes a mandatory part of the experience? When does the media experience become the foundation of the real experience?

When I returned home that evening I found that I had lost my beloved fly-box somewhere in that cold stream.  I took a photo of the empty pocket where my fly box normally sits. It never got posted to my Instagram account.

Two days later I returned to the stream bank and spent a couple of hours trudging through thick, tall, dead grass looking for my fly box.  I never did find it, but maybe not all fishing excursions need to conclude with a storybook ending.

Max is a new contributor to The Modern Trout Bum. He lives and fishes in Wisconsin.