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Sending Back the Souffle

by Dave Karczynski
Jumping Trout

photo by Secret-Creek

It’s Monday morning, the first glorious day of spring break 2013, and I’m having an identity crisis. My shooting-head wallet is not yet dry, I’ve got a mess of soggy possum-head mega sculpins squirming at the bottom of my slingpack, and my switch rods are a game of Pick Up Sticks just waiting to be played in the rear windshield of my car. Nevertheless, here I am in Southwestern Wisconsin, a size 22 midge emerger latched to my three-weight, creeping over a snowy hill to a spring creek two cows’ lengths across. In the flat, sun-soaked water below a tail-out, wild browns are tippling their lunch. I can see them clearly in the afternoon sunlight, little browns the size and shape of plump cigars; they waver calmly in the slow current, rise dimplingly to dispatch one of the hundred or so insects they’ll eat that day, rest, digest, and repeat.

The contrast between this particular moment and the others that have been making up my fishing life of late is a little dizzying. Two weeks ago I was swinging beefy streamers and T-14 through late-winter runoff; next weekend I’ll be throwing musky-sized meat on 350 grain heads at browns with half-dollar spots and donkey DNA. I planned this trip thinking a little midging might be a nice change of pace, but a part of me is starting to fear it’s a case of too much too soon—or rather too little, too subtle, too soon. I feel like someone accustomed to scarfing braised bear and whisky now being served a soufflé and Chablis. It’s a tough transition, and I feel like I’ve skipped a step or two. Or, as I attempt a Turle knot with the 7x, three.

Taking these fish will require a downstream presentation, so I take to the ridge to get above them, flushing a turkey in the process. Re-entering the creek I move slowly into position and cast, but the tuft of CDC I had hoped to follow is no larger than a speck of sunlight, a fleck of foam, and there are many flecks and specks to contend with. As it enters the riffle I feel like I’m on the wrong end of a shell game, and set the hook at the next riseform I see. Nothing. Five similar drifts, still nothing. I decide to cheat a little, and hang a tiny peacock-herl soft hackle off the back of the dry. I let the rig swing out at the end of the next drift, and hook up with a little Cohiba of a brown. As delicately as I fight it, the battle puts the whole pod down.

After a quick release I stand there midstream, ruminating, deliberating. Fact: it has taken me twenty minutes and a lot of creeping, a lot of turning-into-the-Invisible Man, a lot of calorie-burning to catch this fish. Ahead of me, at the end of each riffle-hole-run sequence, there is the possibility of doing the same. The question is: do I really want this?

A few years ago the answer would have been a hands-down yes—and bring on a second helping, please. Needing to prove something (and we’ve all needed to prove something at some point in our angling careers), I would have sweated and suffered for those fish, taken one or two from each run, and complimented myself on my sophisticated palate, my finesse, my delicacy, my restraint. But now I feel entitled to be a little more honest with myself, and the truth is this: while I may very well enjoy the delicacy that is midge fishing in the future, right now I want to consume some brute aggression, I want to scarf down some deliberate nastiness, I want a stick-to-your-ribs type of experience. I don’t want many fish. Heck, I don’t even want two—I want one fish that wants to kill something. Having taken a bite of soufflé, I want to change my order to moose haunch, seared over an open fire, served in a bucket of gravy. So I trudge back to the car, grab my six weight and a few of my less gaudy steelhead sculpins, and head downstream to the bigger bends.

I bypass a few pods of risers till I arrive at the undercut bank I had in mind. I identify the sweet spot where the main current veers off, leaving a cozy, slack nook where the alpha fish of this bend will be holding. Then I start casting, feeling out the current, working my way to the sweet spot.

Before I even get there a good-sized brown flashes from behind a rock, knocking the sculpin off track but missing. Then does it again. I miss him twice, but my heart’s pounding. My second cast, right through the sweet spot, is met with a solid slam, a truly good fish, a fish so strong there’s a moment where I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep him from turning into a cutbank fugutive. But I do, and he eventually comes to hand, a nice 17-inch brown that decided he didn’t feel like eating midges that day. I feel a special kinship with him, and pay a high compliment as I breathe him back into the flow: “You’ve got damn good taste.”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Dave Karczynski is the author of From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers, an Orvis Series book published by Lyons Press. He is also the co-author of Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Tactics, Tips and Techniques, published through Stackpole Press. A regular contributor to Outdoor Life, The Drake, and many other magazines, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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  • skywayra

    That’s what I’m talkin’ about Dave! Yesterday on our home river in N. Georgia, we went for bruisers. Different fly than yours, but a beefier morsel nonetheless, and the same result, at least for my buddy Jay. He handled and released three nice fish, including two browns like yours. I missed my chances but had two on and experienced the adrenalin rush that goes with it. We can seek the sippers on spring afternoons and evenings. For now it is the time for heavyweight wrestling. Stonyb

    • Dave Karczynski

      There’s a time and a place for everything, but I hear ya, when it’s streamer time it’s streamer time. This weekend I’ll be busting out the 8 weight and swinging for the fences. Hope to have some good things to report for next week’s column.

      • skywayra

        Look forward to it.

    • Benbow Cheesman

      Stonybrooks: are you, by chance, a member of the Cohutta Chapter of T.U.? My late father was one of its founding members in Marietta.

  • Steve Moss

    Mr. Karczynski,
    Another well-finessed approach. It allows me to find a rather satisfying comfort in the realization that as isolated as I may enjoy thinking I am inside my own sets of experiences, there are others, yes even those who can alliterate eloquently a surprisingly parallel line of thought, obviously due to their surprisingly parallel sets of experiences. Who would’ve thought?
    That being said, I must at this point register a modest expression of disagreement ( am told it makes for lively discussion).
    My winter fishing grounds, as much as I hate to admit, allow me to be true to my somewhat bi-polar approach as I squint into the emerging light of each new day. As much as I like to face each day as ‘the master of my domain’, the syrupy whisper of reality (based on the real world of infinite design) conveys subtle warnings. I can be swayed sometimes, wondering whether or not to take heed to these intrinsic attempts to dissuade me. More often I defer, taking umbrage in routine; a black bunny strip leech outfitted with dumb bell eyes (also black, of course) is nearly always good voodoo in the pre-dawn of morning. Nothing like a bow wake and a couple hundred volts to start the day before temperatures rise, slowly but surely kicking the cycles of a ghastly variety of invertebrates into gear which will at some point later in the day either bring me to my knees or to the peak of exaltation should I choose the right door. That being said, there is always that initial quest for the sanctity of affirmation. IF or when that is accomplished somewhat satisfactorily, then it will be time to extend one’s comfort zone and actually do some thinking. It’s always nice to be able to make the drive home with something good to look back on. At the very least I’ll have a story to relate.
    Still, there are those moments, as I slowly, quietly approach my favorite starting position wherein I may encounter ambient thoughts; those rings opening languidly across the widening tail just off the bank, a cloud of midges seeking safety in my nose as I part the tall reeds…
    The syrupy voice insists. I gingerly, gently set aside my leech rod, release one of the 2 size twenty four chironomids dangling about 6 inches apart from the keeper of my second rod, and strip line.
    So much for routine, and maybe for affirmation. Maybe that will come soon anyway, but that’s never a given.

    Thank you, sir. I look forward to your next installment.


    • Benbow Cheesman

      This, on the other hand, is a classic example of inflated verbiage. Had I engaged in similar scrivening when submitting a brief to the court of appeals, it would have been thrown back in my face with an admonition about “succinct”. Granted, it’s poetic in places, but even there, it is excessively so.

      • Steve Moss

        Thank you, Mr. Cheesman, for your freely given judgement. Always nice to be recognized even if it IS an ego-driven stuffed shirt that’s noticing. I’ll take your critique to heart, and even offer you a tidbit of my own except that it’s hardly printable on this platform.

  • B P

    Yup. I’ve been fishing the Driftless early seasons 26 years and the odds are like roulette. Played conservatively, with those carefully tied midges, you will win – maybe half the time. However, you won’t win big, or even consistently, if you bet only red. Bet on the sculpin or a nice bugger on the right pool, then head for the buffet already satisfied, and figure out tomorrow’s strategy.

  • Benbow Cheesman

    Forget the fishing: that is one king-hell mountain of a bit of superb writing.