Night Moves

July 1, 2024 By: Richard Donnelly

Art and image by Derek DeYoung

The best trout fishing occurs, as everyone knows, deep in the night. Or a week before opener. Or two miles upstream. I could continue, but it’s easier to sum it up like this: The best fishing occurs when you’re not there.

This came to me as we broke down our fly rods one August evening deep in the Kinnickinnic Valley of Western Wisconsin. We hurried in the fading light. A long climb lay ahead, and we had to navigate a switchback trail with crumbling ledges and rattlesnake holes. It was no time to admire sunsets.

“But the trout are just starting to feed,” Wally complained, stowing his waders into a huge olive pack.

He was right about the timing. He and my other buddy, Bob, stopped and watched as the water on a deep run “popped” with feeding trout.

“I’m staying,” Bob said, opening his tube.

“No, you are not,” I told him. “In twenty minutes you won’t be able to see the end of your fly rod. And we’ll never get out of here.

Grumbling, my two friends shouldered their packs. You have to know when to quit in the outback, hatch or no hatch. We hiked the nearly vertical trail to the bluffs above. The river glistened a hundred feet below. I didn’t look. Sometimes you don’t want to see.

“After those big turns the water spreads out,” Bob said, climbing. “There’s a wide flat. I gave up about halfway, but there was good water ahead.”

“How do you know?” Wally asked.

“I could hear big plunges. It sounded like waterfalls.”

“That’s some country,” I said.

“You got that right.”

We made it to the top and threw our gear into my old Ford pickup. There was one more tense moment as I put her in gear and rolled backward a foot. Then I floored it and we shot away.                                                                                        

The Kinnickinnic runs through River Falls, with quaint shops by day, and booming honkey-tonks by night. The lights and music occasionally foul-hook an angler, and the three of us found ourselves pressed against the brass rail of the appropriately named Deep End Saloon.

“Which part of the river you boys fishing?” the bartender asked. Or rather, shouted.

Bob told him.

“The best fishing is at night. There’s some ungodly big brown trout down there. But it’s too dangerous in the dark.”

“Then how do you fish it?” Bob asked.

“You can’t,” he said. “Why do you think they’re so big?”

I looked at Bob. You could see the wheels turning.

“Hold her steady!” We let out rope, very carefully. We were running out of line. Then we nearly hung up in a big cottonwood, but by backing up several times we finally lowered the aluminum canoe all the way to the sandy banks of the river.

Bob shouldered his pack. Cell phones don’t work in the gorge, but he carried one for pictures. Daylight fell, making deep shadows below the cliffs. Bob finished a bottle of water and throwing the empty into the back my truck, started down.

“You’re sure you’ll be okay?” I called.

“Hell, yes.” He disappeared beneath the limestone ridge.

It was Bob’s plan. A canoe couldn’t be carried down. But we could lower one by rope. He would then fish all night, and Wally and I would pick him up the next morning at the county bridge.

“This is a one man trip,” he said. “I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else.” We didn’t argue.

We heard a hoot and took up the rope. It was almost dark when a paddle banged and we saw Bob far below, steering downriver. The current took him to the first turn and he was gone.

We kept checking watches. The haze had almost burned off when we heard an aluminum canoe bang against a rock. Then we saw the grey hull as it crossed a riffle, scraping bottom. The canoe floated peacefully into a wide pool. It was empty.

I waded out and pulled it ashore. One of Bob’s crayfish imitations floated inside.

“Should we walk upriver and look for him?” Wally asked.

“I don’t know.”

A lot of things go through your head. I grew up with Bob. We fished bullheads as kids, and learned to fly cast together at college. It started with fishing. I wondered if that’s how it would end.

We paced and waited. “Let’s get the sheriff,” Wally finally said.

“Wait!” Up ahead a figure, ducking under branches, walked steadily along the fisherman’s trail.

It was Bob.

When he saw us with the canoe he said, “Good. I thought I’d send it ahead.”

He was cold and wet, but otherwise fine. Drinking coffee, he told us what happened.

“I stood casting on a sand bar, about half-way down, and when I turned the canoe was gone. I knew you guys would worry so I headed back.”

“Too bad,” Wally said. “I suppose you really couldn’t fish.”

“Oh, I fished those plunges.” Bob pulled out his phone. “That’s a little one.”

There is a brown trout mounted in Dillard’s Sports in Highcastle. Some say it’s a walleyed pike painted like a trout. Bob’s fish looked bigger.

“Here’s another.” It was a massive brown, bright-spotted in the flash of his camera, laid over in the heavy grass by the side of the river. The tail was thick as my wrist.

“Didn’t you want to keep one for the wall?” I asked. I knew the answer.

“It crossed my mind. But those big trout have been there a long time. I feel better knowing they’re still there.”

“And you’re still here,” I said to Bob, clapping him on the back.

We bailed and loaded the canoe onto the truck. Bob was starting to stiffen up. It had been a long night. As we got into the truck we saw first one, then several “pops” as small trout began feeding. “Let’s go,” Bob said.

I drove, climbing a gravel road to the highway. “You thought about it, didn’t you?”

Bob put his head back. “I might have.” He smiled and closed his eyes.