The truck thermometer read 44 degrees when I hit the meeting spot. I had snuggled into my Simms Polartec union suit early this morning knowing the clouds would be hanging around most of the day, and it would be cool. The Sumac along the roadside was velvet red and the leaves on the trees had been touched by the color changes that come along with the first day of fall. It was gorgeous. A finer day for fishing Wisconsin’s bluff country would be hard to find. Seven days remained in the inland trout season for the dairy-land state, and the pulse of the river ran steady and strong as it had for the majority of the year. The water was clear. The trout at this time of year understand that the steady drop in stream temperature and the shortening of the days signals the inevitable. Winter will come for all life in the North. The spawn will soon come for the Brown trout. Hunger is the trouts response to the triggers.  The feeding period had begun.

The little run was bordered by the twisted trunk and branches of  a box elder tree that had been dislodged from the high dirt bank and eventually swallowed by the high waters of last year’s flood. The roots of the tree still held tightly to the clay bank and its body angled from the bank in typical sweeper fashion. About mid-river a second large log was buried strongly in the sands of the river bottom. The butt of the log and a large piece of its root wad were anchored in place leaving space below it for water to flow under. The upper surface of the big woody alternated above and beneath the waters flow. This largish mid-stream log created a perfect slot between itself and the sweeper on the bank. The water banked and funneled between the two wood obstructions and created a scoop or drop about 10ft wide 3-4ft deep and 30ft long. If I was a trout, I would live there for sure.

The first fish flashed(say that 10 times quickly) shortly after  Charley began working the little run. It was a wake up call to both the client and the guide. The aggressive take, a quick strike reaction by the angler, the fish was hooked. What happened next was the guide’s fault.  The fish darted directly under the sweeper and entangled itself in the twisted branches of the tree. Game Over! After trying all of the standard methods of recovering the fish from the twisted mess either I or the fish broke the line. How is this the guide’s fault you ask? I failed to give Charley the plan.


 I had met Charley for the first time yesterday morning. As a long time guide I go through a routine every time I meet a client for the first time. In the first 10 minutes of fishing I am observing. Observing, to responsibly understand how far along an angler is on their journey through fly fishing. Casting, mending, reaction time,  accuracy, eyesight, stability in the water, technique, terminology, and intuition are just a few things I look to access. Having a better understanding of an angler’s abilities in regard to these techniques and characteristics allows this guide a path to helping an angler not only have a successful day on the water, but more importantly planting the seeds to  learning experiences that will grow through the remainder of their angling days. We all remember who helped us better understand. I diverge slightly.

The plan, the plan! The plan, for this sheltering lie that I have fished a hundred times before on this river, 1,000 times before throughout the world and 1,000,000 times before in my dreams, was that if any fish were to strike between these two beautiful pieces of gnarly wood you must have a plan in place regarding how one would go about landing the fish, before you make your first cast. I was too busy observing and I forgot to impart that knowledge. Usually it is a great lesson plan, the discussion of options on what to do. Well you know what happened to the first fish. No plan no fish. After that fish we discussed options. My bad.

Option one (non-negotiable but sometimes unavoidable)- under no circumstances do you let the trout go to the wood! Take the fight to the fishPull to the left, pull to the right, pull to the point of breaking him off because you will lose him anyhow (lesson previously reinforced, seeds planted).

Option two- While keeping the trout controlled in a 10 ft slot(lofty goal) move him/her down stream and out the back side of the gnarly tree hole. Proceed to slower water. land fish.

Option three (risky option)- If option two is not working and fish begins wildly jumping, hang on! Do your best with option one and once fish has tired, with lips pointing skyward, quickly and confidently slide the fish over the mid-stream log where the upper surface of the log is under water. Do not try to pull trout over dry log section, friction and splinters can be detrimental to landing experiment.


Charley placed the next cast perfectly, one foot out from the sweeper. The current carried the offering under the branches and the indicator darted aggressively. Charley’s cat like reactions hooked the fish and the fight was on. Charley followed the plan in option one  and two to a T. The fish was a nice fat 14″ brown complete with color and spots, a bit larger than the one lost to the underwater branches. I could see the twinkle in his eye as he slowly released the fish back to the wooded water. The next fish followed option 3 and was an inch bigger than the previous fish. We were moving in a direction we both liked. 10 more casts through the hole proved fruitless. The trout were on to us and the excitement of our success was infectious; we would move up stream.

About 20 yards above the gnarly tree hole there are a series of grass covered knobs. The knobs look like limestone from a distance but are actually large areas of clay exposed when the floods swept away the looser, lighter earthen material. The clay banks look like limestone because they are shaped and undercut by the water and are heavy enough to stay in place. On the other hand they are malleable and change much faster than limestone. At the tail out of the clay knobs there was an obvious undercut. It looked like only about 8″, a perfect hiding spot.

Charley once again made the accurate cast, and we were off and running. A 16″ trout is a prize any day on our Western Wisconsin spring creeks and today was the day the big boys decided to eat. Charley landed the fish just above the root wad at the entrance to the gnarly tree hole. A narrow escape because that fish was headed for cover like all the rest. As we walked back up stream to resume fishing, I remember thinking we should probably move above that little undercut because it was unlikely that another fish would be there. The spot looked like a prime lie and usually a bigger fish like the one Charley had just landed will chase other trespassing trout away. We stopped for good measure and Charley threw another cast in the same spot. Again the indicator darted. Again a swift hook set.

The fish that came out from under the bank had to be Walter or Walter’s brother Waylen. In a millisecond this trout, while staying deep in the water, had come mid-stream and  then returned to the undercut taking the leader to what seemed like 3 feet back under the bank. He did this a second time an I could tell he banged his body into the clay because a cloud of mud released from the cut. At this point I checked the bend in the rod, the face of my angler and how close we were to the Gnarly Tree Hole. By the time Charley had lifted the fish to the upper level of water and I got a look at it, we were in the shoot between the two trees. The third to last thing I said to Charley was, “Holy Shit Charley, you Hooked Walter!” At this point I had to button up. The last thing a client needs at this point is some friggin guide yelling at him at the moment of highest anxiety.

Charley had the plan. He had been between these trees before and what ever was going to happened was going to happened. Charley worked the fight wonderfully. He chose option two and the big trout came out the back side of the hole. The second to last comment  I made to Charley was when the trout was coming to hand(neither of us had a net). As Charley went to grab the 5x tippet that the big fish dangled from I cautioned him about Wiley trout’s ability to play possum and explode with one giant burst of power when touched by an angler. I have learned this lesson before and the loss of a fish at this point in the battle hurts most.  When one is so close to holding a fish like that in your hand and releasing it back to fight again, an interjection had to be made.

As Charley cradled the fish, I removed the fly from the roof of the male brown’s mouth. His jaw had begun to kype and we both noticed the beauty of that curve. With my finger inserted into his mouth to push the barbless hook free he chomped down on my finger like it was a night crawler. I cried out as every one of his inverted teeth dug into my index. A bit of payback I guess. Well worth it! This was definitely a Walter. The last thing I said to Charley was something like “Strong Work Dude” as we bumped fists.  

The day ended with a perfect sunset. 

*Since the 1980’s Walter has been used by me as a reference to any large illusive trout. Originally from the movie  On Golden Pond.