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Gardenhäckle

Fly fishing is a philosophical pursuit. It is more an approach to life than sport. You find yourself alone on a creek. You get to thinking the river is like life, moving always and without pause to that one final destination.

If you’re like me, that destination is Chub’s Creekside Tavern in Pierce County, Wisconsin.

If this isn’t the deep thinking of a Hegel or Schopenhauer, remember the average angler has a limited selection of flies, so to speak, to catch the truth. This sounds profound until you think about it. Then it sounds silly.

But let’s return to fishing. Life is about choices. You can spend a sweltering afternoon throwing line at completely disinterested fish (if fish have the power of disinterest, and I believe they do) or you can sit in Chub’s and drink a pint of Bud Light while eating stale popcorn and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox. Behind the bar, cheap cigars and pickled eggs are displayed. A pool table waits if you get bored, but I don’t move once I get planted. The locals are friendly. One hot afternoon I listened to a plump, chocolate-haired beauty tell me when her divorce comes through she’s taking up fly fishing. I was wearing a fly vest, making me an obvious expert.

“Is it hard to learn?” she asked. “After all, my house is right next to Little Boy Creek.” She leaned close, violet eyes warming me like a space heater.

I’ve always wanted to fish Little Boy Creek. There are no bridges or any way to the water except through private property. Here it was being handed to me on a platter— very attractive platter. However, I’ve been married a long time and intend to stay married. So I simply enjoyed the pleasure of her company and sound of her voice and allowed the conversation to go no further. I did ask if she saw any trout feeding. I couldn’t help it.

And since we’re on the topic of fidelity (we are?) I believe the worst cheating a fly angler can do is fish with bait. I take that back. This might be worse:

I had taken ten minutes on hands and knees sneaking up on a pod of rising brown trout. They nipped something dark and tiny, and hiding behind a rock, I tied on a minuscule Trico. Just as I was about to cast, a spin fisherman in an orange poncho walked past, whistling. He started chucking and retrieving a Mepps #5 Comet into the pool. This is a wrench with hooks. When I (politely) complained, he said “Hey, I ain’t stopping you from fishing.”

He carried a plastic shopping bag. Inside were dead trout. Big ones. I asked a buddy, a spring creek expert who works for the Wisconsin Bureau of Fisheries, how it was possible to catch fish like this. “It’s territorial,” he said. “The trout don’t respond to the first, second, or third cast. But finally enough is enough. They attack. It’s very effective, if that’s how you want to fish.”

I didn’t. And I don’t use seine nets or Fourth of July cherry bombs, either.

Or the aforementioned live bait. Gardenhäckle, as the Germans call it. I have never used nor have I seen a real fly angler (fliegenfischer) use minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers, grubs, crickets, wax worms, red worms, earth worms… You get the idea. It’s not sporting. It defies the concept of presenting a matched artificial to discriminating fish. We just don’t do it.

Unless no one is looking.

There are days when your arsenal of delicate, carefully selected flies appears woefully inadequate. The river is flat, lifeless. The sun beats down. You have wandered far, all the way down the Kinnickinnic River where it empties into the mighty St. Croix. Here the Kinni runs deep and slow with purple-black holes. You know there are trout down there, big ones. You can feel it. But nothing wants your Muddler Minnow. The reason is obvious. It doesn’t look like a minnow. It looks ridiculous.

But you don’t give up, pounding pool after pool. Scrambling over deadfalls, you overturn a log and there they are—great big squirming angle worms. Now you can ignore this and continue endlessly, hopelessly throwing that goofy minnow imitation or…

I grabbed a worm and tied on my smallest fly, a zebra midge. Figuring I needed more weight, I added split shot. Then I walked up to one of the biggest holes. Hooking the worm once, twice, I threw the whole works in. I prepared to light a cigar when a vicious strike nearly took the rod out of my hands.

I either had a fish or a sixty-pound snapping turtle. But sixty-pound turtles don’t swim thirty miles an hour. The fish rocketed away for the wide open waters of the St. Croix River, where pontoon boats and party yachts waited. It would have made it if a sand bar, water trickling over the top, hadn’t blocked the way. The fish turned around and came back, staying deep. I ran with it, keeping on the pressure, or as much as I dared with my four-weight rod bent double. The fish found another river-cut hole. It went deep and just stayed.

I scrambled onto downed timber and got right over the top of him, rod tip pointing straight into the pool. A few times I thought I was wrapped on a rock. Then the fish would shake his head and I knew he was just waiting me out. I also knew at some point he had to come up.

And he did. A foot, then two, then showing a great white belly he rolled to the surface, exhausted. I slid him onto the sandy bank. I won’t tell you I landed a 13 pound brown trout. It was not my proudest moment, and I won’t compound it with a lie.

Here’s the truth: I caught a catfish. A big, brown-backed channel catfish. And a meaner-looking beast I’ve never seen, with flared stingers the size of hypodermic needles and small, angry-black eyes. I carefully removed the hook. Gripping the tail, I released him back into the hole.

It was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught, and I didn’t even take a picture. Or tell anyone until today. Because by using gardenhäckle, I’d done it all wrong. I hadn’t been honorable. Or ehrenhäft, as the Germans would have it. I hadn’t been ehrenhäft at all.

What I did was drive to Chub’s Creekside Tavern. It was time for some serious thinking. A cold one would help, and if I was a little hard on myself, so be it. That’s the beauty of philosophy. Or fly fishing. You don’t do things the easy way. You do things the right way.