Fishbrain in the field: An education in Wisconsin

The Fishbrain team took their fly rods to test the waters of Wisconsin in search of smallies, pike and the legendary muskie.

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Fishbrain in the field: An education in Wisconsin

Forest fire smoke created a haze in Milwaukee as Fishbrain’s Jack Mckinney and I searched the airport curbside for our fishing guide. 

We were a week into June, but mustache May at the Fishbrain office still paid off as our Guide, Joe Davies, recognized us by our upper lips and fly rod cases.

We threw our bags into Joe’s car and were instantly worried. The car was far too clean to be a fishing guide’s. After years of guiding and knowing guides, we expect a certain amount of mess and disarray in a quality guide’s rig.

We were relieved, however, when Joe told us he was borrowing the vehicle and the true guide rig was at his house. 

The urban sprawl of Milwaukee gave way to rural Wisconsin shockingly quick. Green agriculture fields were broken up by forest and every once in a while we got a glimpse of some gorgeous looking smallmouth water.

We came to Wisconsin specifically for the Milwaukee River, smallmouth and our guide, Joe Davies.

A native Wisconsinite and self proclaimed fly fishing bum, Joe was a professional skier and a member of the US Olympic freestyle ski team in his teens. Later he took to ski coaching, calling Utah and New Zealand home. He has skied all over the world, including Finland and Russia, surfed in New Zealand and wrestled legendary tarpon, on the fly, in Costa Rica. 

Now settled back in his home state and home waters, he helps run Milwaukee River Fly Fishing guide service where he continues to explore all the Milwaukee River offers. Smallies, pike, carp and even the fabled muskie were all waiting for us and filling our imaginations.

Joe is easy going, laid back and knows the river system better than the back of his hand. He is quick with a joke and endless supply of stories about skiing, fishing, surfing and overall being a world class talented dirt bag.

We stopped at Joe’s house to drop our bags and switch to the guide rig. A pile of rods hung from a hammock on the roof of the SUV and boxes of flies were stacked in the back. It was the kind of vehicle that gave you immediate confidence in your guide. 

The sun started sinking behind the woods and Joe took us to a pike hole for the evening and our first casts of the trip. 

We parked in a small pull out, put our rods together and picked from a pile of flies. A path along the edge of a sprouting cornfield then led through the woods and onto the bank of a slow moving creek with overhanging trees and deep pools. 

We stood on the edge of the water both admiring it and looking for the best pools when a splash erupted upstream, underneath a low hanging branch.

“Something just died,” Joe said coolly, referring to a feeding pike.

Joe pointed out some areas he hooked fish before then we all waded into the warm Wisconsin water.

The water was low for June, making it extra clear and the fish extra weary. The sun was setting fast and we all casted toward brush covered banks and the low branches. Every now and then a wake would follow our flies, only to veer off at the last minute. We were starting to feel a skunk setting in without a hook set.

Joe and I stepped out of the water and started talking about dinner, while Jack made several last casts. Then the quiet Wisconsin evening was interrupted with the sound of splashing and victorious cries coming from the water. 

Setting just under an overhanging branch, the pike grabbed Jack’s fly and gave  several spirited runs after.

After getting gassed from a couple sprints, Jack had the pike in his hand and while it was hardly a trophy, it more importantly broke our fishless evening. We slapped hands and took photos and in true Wisconsin fashion headed back to the car and back to town for a fish fry.

We woke the next morning, hooked Joe’s stealthcraft drift boat to the guide rig and headed toward the Milwaukee River.

The effects of spring drought were painfully obvious as soon as we pulled up to the boat ramp. The immediate launch site was more river rock than river and would need considerable dragging before we could begin floating. 

The low water issues from pike fishing the night before were still an issue on the main Milwaukee too. Clear, low water had smallmouth seeking cover in shadows, in underwater snags and under low hanging willow and cottonwood branches. 

Anglers are slaves to the conditions they face and the behavior of the fish they seek. Cast after cast came back with little more than a lazy follow by our quarry. We changed retrieval cadences, switched out flies and completely changed our presentations to that of a near dead drift, all for nothing.

Joe was the only saving grace of a slow fishing day. A quality guide isn't always measured in their ability to get you on fish, but also for the laughs and memories made on the boat. 

 In between fishing holes and from the rowing seat on the boat, he regaled us with stories of being pulled out of his freshman year of high school to join the olympic ski team, sneaking into bars in foreign countries and skiing the best conditions he’s ever seen in Russia. 

We finally found some fish willing to chase in the afternoon. Once again acting as our savior, Jack found a deep pocket of water pressed against and shadowed by a wooded hill full of juvenile, yet spirited smallies. 

Later in the afternoon Jack had another chance to be the savior of a tough day when he threaded a needle, landing a beautiful looped cast far underneath a tree and at the edge of the river bank. 

The perfect cast was almost instantly rewarded with an eruption of water and a tight line. Jack’s line was set up for smallmouth and lacked a bite wire to prevent this toothed predator from biting through his line.

He fought the fish gently, as Joe anchored the boat and got the net. Joe laid eyes on the fish while wading in the water  and shot a stern glance back at us.

“Hey, I don't want to make you panic, but do not lose this fish,” he said. 

Jack played the fish as gently as a trout and Joe made several attempts to net it as gently as possible. 

Joe followed back and forth across the river as the fish made a run after every net attempt, but finally the line wrapped around a rock and several sharp teeth cut their way through the unprotected line. 

Joe’s  shoulders slumped at the sight and turned to us again, more dejected than serious. 

“That was a Muskie,” he said. "That was only the sixth Muskie I've ever seen hooked on the Milwaukee."

We could all feel it, especially us from Montana who’ve only heard stories about the fish of 10,000 casts. In a way though we were still excited to have had a glimpse of this unicorn of a fish.

Sometimes the excitement of fishing lies in the possibilities and sometimes the one that got away will stick with us more vividly than the one we held. 

The muskie’s legend lives on far longer by not being caught, remaining a topic of barroom conversations, bucket lists and our fishing dreams.

The end of the day was as quiet as the beginning with only Joe catching what was possibly the world’s smallest pike just before the boat ramp.

One of an angler’s worst enemies is a sharp change in weather and the next day didn’t bring much hope for a change in fish behavior as we woke to a downpour. 

Joe had a spot up his sleeve, however. Near the city of Shorewood we parked, but were transported back to rural Wisconsin as soon as we set foot in the river. The Milwaukee river ran through a deep canyon with thick trees hiding any notion of the city that sat behind them. We waded downstream over shifting river rocks and boulder strewn banks with rain jackets to protect from the constant deluge. The water temps were warmer than the air, giving you a chill every time you stepped out of the river. 

We were rewarded for the rain soaked effort with hookset after hookset on smallies. We never hooked up with a sizable smallmouth the Milwaukee is known for, but Joe knew the plentiful fish were the remedy for the previous slow day.

On our last day in the badger state we woke to cloudless skies and warm sun. We decided to try the float from two days prior hoping the previous day’s rain put more color in the water and made the fish a little braver.

It didn’t and they weren’t.

We floated down river hoping for the sound of our drags screaming, but instead were treated to singing cardinals set to a backdrop of sunbeams making their way through cottonwoods. Regardless of our success, the river rolled on and the laughter from our boat was the only sign of people anywhere on the river.

In the afternoon, Joe spotted us a school of almost 15 smallies held tight against the bank and hiding in the shadows of a willow tree. Jack and Joe pulled streamer after streamer, experimenting with dark and light colors through the school without as much as a follow. 

Thinking back to similar frustrating situations I’ve had smallmouth fishing, I waded back to the driftboat and tied on a shrimp pattern I tied a few years back. After Joe and Jack gave up in frustration, I casted my shrimp fly upstream and dead drifted it perfectly into a patch of sunlight where I let it hit the bottom and sit. Almost instantly I saw fish move into the area to inspect the fly. One particularly bold smallie slowly approached the fly and, with subtlety you would never feel on your line, took the fly.

I set the hook and kept my tip as high as possible as Joe splashed through the water to bring me the net. It was my day to break the skunk. 

Sometimes it takes a slow day for you to truly appreciate the lines and colors on a fish. We slapped hands and marveled at the black lines laid across the green body that seemed to appear from nowhere in the sunlight.

Another run through the same hole with my shrimp fly yielded a similar result, but with an even bigger fish. 

The two catches seemed to lift an incredible weight off our cumulative chests. The rest of the float had a lightheartedness that seemed to lack earlier in the day. 

In a few hours we would head straight from the boat ramp back to the airport. Regardless of our inevitable date with the hell that is air travel, nothing could take away from the slice of heaven we found on a sunny day floating the Milwaukee River. 

Now let's go fishing. We'll bring the best fly guide in Wisconsin.

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