Midwest: Last Day on the Trout Stream

Yesterday marked the end of trout season in Wisconsin. So, on Thursday, amid scattered snow showers, I drove out to Gordon Creek in western Dane County to throw flies into cold water and see if anybody was home and interested in lunch.

I walked a ways downstream, found some gravel creek bed and an easy descent from the bank and waded on in. I worked upstream, casting and wading along, not expecting much in the way of activity. I tried three different fly patterns. Nothing changed my luck.

Then, a couple hours into my adventure and just about 50 yards from my car, I started to hear the familiar plops of feeding fish. Sure enough, somebody was home in a tricky little pool behind a fallen branch. I took several casts into it, but my offerings weren’t on his diet. Then I heard more plops further upstream. I turned in time to see a tail fly up above the surface and plunge back down. So, I cast at that spot. No takers.

When climbing on the bank I had noticed a big caterpillar nestled deep in the grass, so I switched to the biggest, wooliest thing I had in my box. No dice. Reluctantly, I climbed out of the stream and headed back to the car.

And that’s it. If you were expecting a surprise happy ending, I can’t supply one. I didn’t catch any fish. There were no epic battles. A species with a brain a fraction the size of mine outwitted me again. Or more to the point, didn’t have to make the effort to outwit me. He just scoffed at or, worse, took no notice of all my strategies.

Gordon Creek on Thursday afternoon.

The truth is that I’m a pretty bad outdoorsman. In almost two decades of turkey hunting I have never so much as fired my shotgun. I blast away at ducks sometimes, but do you know how hard it is to hit a duck flying by at 35 miles per hour? Well, it is very hard. I have dispatched a dozen deer in my time, but none in the last four years. In fact, most of my outings would be 100% PETA approved. No animals are harmed in my stories.

But I still had a great afternoon out on Gordon Creek. I took in the sights of a gray, cold autumn afternoon. I worked on my inelegant casting and made it slightly less awful. I thought about where the trout might be hiding and what they might be eating and tried to deliver the meal they wanted where they were dining. The fact of my futility didn’t much diminish the fun of trying to solve the puzzle.

My point is that outdoorsmanship is a lot more than catching and killing stuff. It has to be since so much success is dependent on things you can’t control. That’s one good lesson from these outings: humility. The world is a bigger, more complex place than we can imagine. An occasional reminder of that would be useful in a lot of realms.

Welcome to Midwest, an occasional Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s best to be in the middle? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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