By Hans Erdman
The creek was running clear, like flowing glass, as I dropped the Tenkara line with a bead-head nymph into the water. As I lifted the rod and the fly drew closer, I lost sight of it, a few feet beneath the bank I stood on. As I started to raise the rod to cast again, suddenly the line went tight. Fish on! The fish fought the rising, thrashing back and forth. I brought the pole to near vertical, reaching for the line, but the twisting fish swung it out of my reach. I tried again; the rod held back in one hand, while the other reached for the furled line with the fish on it. From my angle, on the top of the bank, at first I thought it might be a sucker or a chub, but as the fish finally came into view, I realized it was a trout, a pretty little Brook Trout that didn’t want to hold still long enough for me to get it off the hook and back in the water. I wet my hands, snapped the picture, released the hook, and let the brookie go back where it came from. I was happy. I’d found my Home Waters.
Two surgeries on my left foot over the course of the past two summers have given me the opportunity to do some reading that I might otherwise not have had the time or the chance to do. Of the many books that I read during my recovery, two of them stuck out in my mind, both of which centered on the topic of “Home Waters.” One of them, “Casting Forward,” by Steve Ramirez, I found out about when I saw the movie, “Mending the Line.” The other, aptly titled, “Home Waters,” by John N. Maclean, tells the tale of his family’s history and love for the river made famous in the short story and movie, “A River Runs Through It,” in which the author’s father, grandfather, and uncle were the principal characters.
Reading those books set me to thinking about just what are my “home waters?” I live in Minnesota, but I spend much of my time and do much of my fishing in northwestern Wisconsin. I’ve grown to love Superior, Chippewa, and particularly the Chequamegon National Forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the abundant opportunities they present for two of my favorite activities, mountain biking and flyfishing. (It was mountain biking that drew me to the Cable area of Wisconsin in the first place.) A few years ago, I bought a bicycle that was specifically designed for combining the two; the Cogburn Outdoors CB4 fat-bike. The Cogburn was one of the first fat-tired mountain bikes marketed specifically for the outdoor sportsmen and women as kind of a “human powered ATV.” Because of its versatility and its amazing ride, it has quickly become my favorite means of backcountry travel. The bike was designed to take the hunter, angler, or forager, farther, faster, in almost any terrain, on 4-ich wide tires with 22 gears to get there. As my foot and ankle got progressively worse over the past few years, the Cogburn (and my other two bicycles) became increasingly important as my way to get back into the post-pandemic woods.
Riding a bike in the forest, whether it’s on trails, fire lanes, or just forest roads, can be a relaxing, rewarding experience, just as fishing itself can be. The bicyclist can see, hear and even smell things that escape the attention of a rider on an ATV, side-by-side, or, particularly, an enclosed car or truck. You can smell the sweet scent of the balsam and pines, hear the wind blowing through the trees, and the rushing of the roadside stream over the rocks, pause to watch a turtle or porcupine crossing the road, catch a glimpse of a doe and her fawn at the edge of the trees, or a racoon watching you from high up in a maple as you quietly pedal by. With the help of a phone app like TroutRoutes ®, you can pick your water, navigate to the closest bridge, and hike or even ride a passible creekside trail to find places and pools that could hold that elusive twenty-inch Brook Trout or Rainbow you’ve maybe heard rumors about. Or sometimes you can find more. Sometimes, you can find home.
Finding home waters is a process of searching for something that “feels right.” Riding on the Superior and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests, public lands from which the water flows into Lake Superior, is different every time I ride there, and sometimes what feels right in June, just doesn’t make the cut in August. But if I venture to the same spot amid the flaming maples of early October, it all snaps into place again. Tenkara is like that as well. The Japanese-born style of reel less fly-fishing is often the perfect fit for the “bikefishing” that is my outdoor passion. I’m not the first person to take up bikefishing, I know, but when I discovered that I could take the Cogburn and a light fishing rod, either an ultralight spin casting rod, a collapsible Tenkara, or most recently a six-piece fly-fishing pack rod, deeper into the backcountry, it opened a path I’d never even thought of before. And, if I load on panniers, my solo tent and sleeping bag, I could easily stay out there for a day or two.
The Cogburn is not an e-bike, which is important because most of my riding takes place on National Forest trails where “motorized” vehicles (including e-bikes) are prohibited. I haven’t made the jump to an e-bike yet. As I approach 70-years old, I’m sure I eventually will, but for now, I am the power that drives the Cogburn. Another decided advantage to this is that a 35-pound fat-bike is a heck of a lot easier to maneuver or carry over and around the occasional downed log or protruding rock on the trail than a 65-pound e-bike. Forest Roads, fire lanes, snowmobile and ski trails, and many hiking trails are now my paths to adventure, chasing rainbows, and bookies and browns. (And the occasional smallmouth bass.)
The search for Home Waters took me far from my real home, to the two previously mentioned National Forests, Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, as well as to the Driftless Region of Southeast Minnesota with my daughter and two granddaughters who are both on their way to college this year. Names like Whiskey Creek, Kremer Lake, Root River, and the famous Whitewater River all rolled beneath my wheels, until I finally found myself back where I started, on the western, Chequamegon side of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. On its eastern side, the Marengo River is home to a Trout Unlimited Great Lakes Project stream rehabilitation project and lies only a few pleasant miles from my favorite off the grid Forest Service campground. It’s a comfortable ride that also crosses more trout water at pretty Whiskey Creek. The North Country National Scenic Trail follows Spring Brook in the other direction from the campground, where I had one of my more memorable disappointments while bikefishing. The first time I explored that trail by bike, I happened upon a nice little pond that was probably part of Spring Brook at one time and where the fish were hitting the surface, slurping up small mayflies. I leaned my bike against a tree, pulled out my Badger Tenkara U.N.C. (Un-Named Creek) rod, and had just tied on the right fly but before I could even cast, a big black Labrador Retriever threw himself into the pond as only an enthusiastic Lab can. His owners were very apologetic but, obviously I wasn’t going to catch any fish in that pond that day.
On the other side of Chequamegon lies the White River, a popular and highly regarded Class One trout stream managed by the Wisconsin DNR. In between are several streams whose names reflect the distance they travel from the Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area, flowing northwards to larger streams that end up in Lake Superior. They are home to Brook, Brown, and Rainbow Trout. These waters can be accessed by foot, and outside of the Wilderness Area, by car or bike. In some places, it is possible to pedal into the creeks on old fire and logging lanes, somewhat overgrown, and unused. It is here that the fat-bike excels. The wide tires negotiate the varied terrain with ease, and the multiple gears make all but the steepest climbs almost easy. The trails and the streams are shaded, the ride, challenging enough to make it worthwhile, but not blowing your lungs out. And there are no crowds. In fact, no one at all. Just me, the creek, and a beautiful Brook Trout. I was back where my search began. I had found my Home Waters.
Comments will be approved before showing up.