It’s a funny feeling, trudging through waist deep powder in soaking wet waders while carrying a couple of fly rods in the rain. The deep snow suggests winter, but the steady rain smells like spring. I suppose the presence of both means we’ve turned the corner, and that winter is starting to wither away. At least, I hope. Today I visited the Kinni, too excited about the start of the catch-and-release trout season to care about the rain. To no surprise, I caught nothing. But, small black stone flies were in abundance, the water was cold, clear, and rising, and I didn’t have to remove ice from my line guides even once. These are good things that mean spring is well on its way. The fishing can only get better from here.
Almost four weeks ago, Caity and I drove to Kinnickinnic State Park on the Western side of Wisconsin to explore the river and get some fresh air. It’s a place my father took my brother and I as kids, but the memory was all but gone. We left the Twin Cities, somewhat reluctantly, in the middle of the afternoon thinking we would enjoy a sunset on the banks of the Kinni. When we arrived at the parking area, not another soul was in sight. The sun was still relatively high in the sky as we entered the woods, but not high enough to prevent some shadows from creeping down the rocky hills and into the woods. The coolness of the blue-gray shadows felt extra quiet, only our boots and breathing breaking the silence. Looking ahead as we bobbed and weaved through the shadowed trees I could see the river bend hard to the right — into the sunlight. As I broke through the last scrawny branches of the forest, I crossed the threshold between shadow and light, and in that moment I looked downstream at the Kinni babbling through the woods and along the bluffs and I suddenly remembered the place very well; running through the woods with my brother and father so many years before. A memory once dissolved, revived again by a simple sight. It’s funny how the mind works that way.
Later, Caity and I stood atop a small beaver dam in the center of a frozen pond. As far as I could tell, it was the last place in the entire river valley still bathed in evening sunlight. As the temperature dropped and shadows crept ever higher up the bluffs, an eagle hovered over the mist-covered pond while we shared a cup of steaming tea before hiking home.
Fishing seasons are highly regulated in the Driftless Area of Minnesota and Wisconsin (compared to my former home in the Colorado Rockies where the season never ends). The SE Minnesota winter trout season opened at the start of the New Year, but early season catch and release doesn’t open in Wisconsin until March 3. Regardless, out of excitement and curiosity I made my way to River Falls, WI today to scope out the Kinnickinnic River, which seems to be the most highly coveted bit of water in the region. Above the town of River Falls, the river winds through pastures and small forests, moving slowly over sand and silt. Below River Falls the Kinni is wider and faster, running over gravel as it flows into Kinnickinnic State Park and then into the St. Croix. I was happy to see large sections of well-marked access points, including parking lots and easements, and am excited to explore it with a rod next month.
My second winter trip to Hay Creek was equally as unsuccessful as the first trip. If you haven’t read about the first trip, I can summarize it in a sentence by saying that it was a relaxing day, but lines were not tight.
I picked up my friend Ben Moren on January 28 and we drove southeast from the Twin Cities at around noon. Skies were overcast and it was once again the first “warm” day following a multi-day cold snap of near- and below-zero temperatures. The forecasted high was 33 degrees with little wind and there was a heavy fog advisory throughout the bluffs region surrounding Red Wing.
We arrived at the creek to find a few cars parked along the road, a welcomed sight that we hoped meant fishing conditions would be favorable. Before suiting up, we made our way to the bridge at 325 St. to see if we could spot any activity. At the northern, downstream side of the bridge lies a slow moving pool where we saw nothing. However, to the south, or upstream, just beyond an old railroad bridge we saw numerous fish rising. It was hard to contain our excitement, but we slowly stalked our way along the river’s edge, Ben on the East side while I covered the West. The world stood still as we crawled through the fog towards the feeding fish, mindful not to make any sounds or sudden movements. When we were finally in range for some delicate casts, a dreadful feeling of deceit and failure engulfed me as I realized that what I was seeing was most definitely not fish rising, but rather water droplets hitting the surface of the creek every few seconds. The temperature was at its high point, and I looked up towards an overhanging tree branch to see that ice was melting from above, causing water droplets to fall into the creek and fool us.
Later, having fished upstream through the silent fog without so much as a nibble, we were about ready to turn back and call it a day. From streamers to pheasant tails, woolybuggers to flashbacks, scuds to stoneflies, and bwo’s, nothing could draw a fish. We stood next to a benign looking fence feeling tired and dejected when I turned upstream and used my rod to point towards a pool that I wanted to show Ben. Before I could even comprehend what was happening, a loud electrical sound had me tossing my fly rod high into the air while I did a pain dance in the middle of the creek. Ben was doubled over laughing while I yelped in sweet surprise and my fly rod sank to the rock strewn bottom. Turns out I had pointed my rod over a live cattle fence, and the current arced upward into my rod tip, through my fingers, and into my soul. The elusive Hay Creek trout have won again.
Minnesota’s winter trout fishing season opened with the dawn of the New Year, so I made my way down to Hay Creek to see if I could land anything in the bitter cold.
The spring fed creek, roughly 65 miles southeast of the Twin Cities and 6 miles south of Red Wing, maintains a relatively constant temperature throughout the year. This means that trout stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer and, most importantly, can actively feed at all times. On this particular mid-January day, the expected high was 28 degrees. When I arrived at the parking area near the bridge on 325th St., the sun was shining through patchy clouds and I was looking forward to working with some active fish, gorging themselves on insects after a period of inactivity during the first cold snap of the year.
Two guys were fishing a riffle below the bridge, so I made my way upstream, encouraged by the sight of a small brown trout swimming lazily through a long, shallow pool above the road. I paused for a moment to watch it float effortlessly through the slow moving current before disappearing amongst the shadows of an old railroad bridge. I followed a well trodden path along the river’s edge, collecting burrs along the way and keeping my eyes peeled for trout hiding in the thick green creek grass, moving like a snake in the crystal clear water. Suddenly, out of nowhere a large group of small fish flashed through the stream, frantically searching for places to hide from my rod and I. It was as if I had stepped on a twig the wrong way, setting off an underwater bomb. Now I knew the fish were there, even if acting a little skittish. I paused again to let the natural underwater order of things return to normal, moving slowly and pouring myself a cup of steaming coffee. Minutes later, I noticed a ring of water on the stream’s surface about 50 yards up from my resting location – a clear sign that the universe was back in order and that the fish were feeding. I crept slowly along the bank into casting range, eventually unleashing a long, powerful cast. My fly whipped through the air, shooting out towards the ring I had seen, then landed effortlessly on the surface of the water. But nothing happened, time and again.
Eventually, I walked back downstream empty handed. When I returned to my truck, the other fishermen I had seen were long gone. Nugget, our lab, was sitting on the back seat, staring at me through the rear window and as I hiked over the last few feet of frozen farmland and into the rock hard dirt lot. I grabbed his ball from the truck bed, opened the back door, and hurled the ball high into the air. Nugget scrambled out the door and bolted into the fallow field, pausing only briefly to ascertain where his beloved ball would land. As my eyes moved upward to track the lofted ball, its path crossed that of a bald eagle, cruising back and forth along a section of stream not far from me. I put my hands in my pockets, leaned up against the cold metal of the truck, and watched the eagle hunt until he flew off into a stand a trees with an empty stomach. Before leaving, Nugget and I hiked upstream and into a forest with no ball and no rod, only curiosity. Large elms reflected off the mirror-like stream, broken only by short sections of riffles, while small winter insects swirled around in an eddy. We sat still, listening to the sound of the water and the sound of the winter wind blowing hard in the upper reaches of frozen, creaking trees that were bathed in evening light. It was the golden hour of a golden day, and as we stood to leave a large white tailed dear bolted from a stand of brush, sprinting quietly away.
Once, twice at most, during any given year, men from this part of the world make a mad dash West to the Dakotas and the biggest, widest skies they know.
This year, like in years past, the trip began at dusk on a brisk Thursday evening in Mid-November. With a dark drive looming ahead, introductions are short as old friends shake hands once again. Dogs, just as eager to get to the fields, are loaded into kennels, an abundance of guns are slid into truckbeds, and the journey begins. 400 miles is a long ways to travel at night in the Midwest as lights on the interstate are rare, and the darkness seems impenetrable. At the wheel, there isn’t much to see as wide headlights illuminate small sections of now-fallow farmland. Wisps of snow whip across the road in a stiff wind, and the brown earth, gray asphalt, and white snow become a colorless blur, interspersed with flashes of brilliant red; the remains of courageous deer. The minutes morph together to hours, and finally we arrive at the small town of Kennebec, just off I-90. Stepping out of the car, the ground is frozen solid under a brilliant black sky, and the frigid air tastes crisp and burns my eyes. The budget inn is about as simple as motels come, with two levels and maybe 24 rooms, each with an outside door. The parking lot, to no surprise, is filled with powerful, muddy trucks. Pheasant feathers drift across the hard ground as I crank the heat inside the dim room and fall into a pleasant sleep.
The next morning comes too soon and my eyes snap open thanks to the bright morning sun and stiff, cold, western breeze. I shovel down some bread and eggs, then inhale a watery cup of black coffee while hopping into my father’s Silverado. After a short drive to a private stretch of farmland, I find myself standing at what feels like the center of the earth, jamming shot gun shells into the pockets of my fleece-lined Carhartts. The six dogs that join us for the hunt are going wild in the gravel driveway, playing with each other and searching the nearby shrubbery and grass for birds. Shock and sound collars quickly quiet them, at which point they know it’s time to work. Meanwhile, I’m standing off to the side of the group, my over-under .12 gauge broken and in the crook of my arm, while the last rays of golden morning light warm my hands and the cold metal of the gun. Next to me, a group of cattle calves stare at me silently. I turn my attention northward where a lone strip of red milo stands out in an endless field of brown, shin-high wheat stubble. At the south end of the wheat stubble, the milo intersects a strip of pine trees and thick grass where I can see hens and roosters already flying up to get a good look at us. The guys decide to hunt this first, and I’m assigned to block the west end of the tree strip, as they’ll be moving towards me from the west. In theory, I’d gun down any escaping birds. As the group, with the dogs, approaches the west end of the tree strip, I see 20 or 30 hens and a couple of roosters escape through the northeast corner of the trees, and into the milo strip. So much for the blocking plan. One lone rooster, holding tight in dense grass, makes a last ditch effort too escape the dogs, but too late. With one bird in hand, the land owner’s old Ford drives the group up and around to the North end of the milo strip.
As we pull up to the strip, I see the little heads of pheasants moving quickly away from us, to the south. This time, the blockers at the end of the strip will get some action. I fan out deep into the wheat stubble on the east side of the milo, somewhat ahead of the dogs. When everyone is in position, the dogs are given the command to start working the narrow strip, zig zagging back and forth. Almost instantly, a group of roughly 10 birds flap their wings and take off into the wide open sky. They turn into the wind and fly east, straight into the sun, and I can’t tell the difference between the silhouettes of roosters and hens. No shots fired. After walking for another minute or so, my mind is quickly lulled into a state of hunting complacency by the vista ahead of me, and the next time I hear a bird make a move, it’s too late for me to take a shot, and too late for the bird to survive. I hear the distinctive sound of a pheasant making a break for it and my mind quickly snaps back to reality as a small shot of adrenaline surges through my body. The rooster flies 20 feet into the air and into the wind. I raise my gun, instinctively flick the safety off, and sight. In the brief moment before the rooster turns downwind and before I pull the trigger, someone else fires and the dogs start their race to the downed bird. In many ways, bird hunting is a lot like fly fishing — complete relaxation, a commanding view, and long days filled with many moments of absentmindedness and missed opportunities.
When it’s all said and done, the day is spent walking through fields, nothing more. And when I think about hunting on a time scale, it likely takes just a few seconds of the long day to reach our limit of 21 birds. Even so, the appeal of bird hunting strikes me at the end of the day as weary men in muddy boots with achy legs stand at the top of a small knoll and sip ice cold beers as the ice cold sky slowly fades to lavender, then black. The last rays of sun meet golden haybales, and listless shadows crawl across the flat orange land to the horizon while innumerable stars pop out of the abyss. Deer, having spent most of the day bedding down, can be seen in the distance ambling through fields of feed, while a flock of Geese fly overhead, calling to each other in a perfect “V” shape, making their late fall migration to warmer weather. A small pond in a nearby field begins to freeze at its banks, and the mirror of open water at its center reflects the heavens. For an extended moment, it’s as if we’re the only humans in existence.
Sometime around 1998 or 1999 I had my first surfing experience. I was at a summer ski racing camp at Mt. Hood, Oregon and our team was staying at a Boy Scouts lodge in the middle of a high alpine forest in the middle of no where. We had been training for a week; a bunch of pre-teens spending their summer vacations getting up at 5 am to ski on a sheet of ice high above the clouds in the Pacific Northwest, to then return to the lodge and spend the warm afternoons working out. Standard and ideal summer breaks for 11 year olds. Towards the end of the first week, our coaches, who were largely nothing more than adrenaline feins in their early-mid 20s, announced that we would be heading to the coast to camp, surf, harvest crabs, and play in the dunes for the weekend, and every weekend thereafter. A trailer full of foam longboards and worn out wetsuits seemed to appear out of thin air, and the next thing I knew I was spending my weekend continuing the pre-sunrise summer break wake up call. The only difference between waking up early on Saturdays and Sundays at the coast versus during the week at Mt. Hood was effectively no difference at all. We traded speed suits, skis, and frozen water for wetsuits, boards, and water that was only kept in its liquid state thanks to the churning North Pacific. Aside from a bunch of children, some in wetsuits, others not, being battered by the cold Pacific ocean and attempting to surf, I recall very little of that first weekend in the water. I do, however, remember feeling overjoyed on a board. I knew surfing had become a lifelong hobby.
Several years were swallowed up, and by 2003, when I was 15, I was no longer attending ski camps in Oregon, though a strong yearning to surf still brewed in me. That summer, my parents rented a cabin on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. On a thoughtless whim, I typed something like “great lakes surfing” into a search engine, expecting to find nothing. To my surprise, I found one website (that evidently no longer exists) devoted to surfing on the lakes. A tiny community of unfamiliar names posted weekly to the forum, discussing exploration of the coastlines of the 5 Great Lakes, and weather patterns that would bring waves. I saw photos of hearty Midwesterners in thick wetsuits, icicles dangling from their suits and beards, surfing in the dead of winter, and knew that I had come across something worthwhile. My family was set to drive to Michigan roughly two weeks from the day of my discovery when I encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to my new endeavor: I did not own a surfboard.
At 15, I was low on dollars and couldn’t afford a brand new board from one of the major surf coasts. So, I had a Clark blank, several yards of fiberglass cloth, a gallon of polyester resin, and surf fins shipped to my parents door in Minnesota. I had just over a week to build a board, though I knew absolutely nothing about them or what to do with the materials that showed up in a big brown box. In hindsight, what ensued was the most embarrassing attempt at an age old craft that one can imagine. But, with the garage door closed, power tools humming, and large amounts of fiberglass resin in an unventilated, dark room, I thought I was the coolest kid on the block. I sincerely thought I was progressing the sport of surfing. Days later, when the dust cleared and the garage door opened, the final product was nothing short of the ugliest, sorriest excuse for a surfboard known to man. It was an attempt at a 6’0″ fish, but was too wide, too thick, and too heavy. Regardless, the bright red board, later dubbed “Big Red,” was my trophy, and I was as proud as ever as I slid it into the back of the car. With a little luck, a big storm rolled across lake Michigan during our vacation, and I paddled out the next morning and caught one messy wave as it crashed on the sandbar. If I recall correctly, I looked towards my mother on shore and fist pumped wildly.
Big Red has since been retired to the rafters of my parent’s garage. Though not forgotten, other boards have replaced it. After five years spent living and surfing on the east coast, I recently moved home to Minnesota, and within days had a chance to surf the Great Lakes again, this time on Lake Superior, which is what all this is leading up to.
It was November 10, the 37th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and, as local surf lore tells it, the 37th anniversary of the first surf on Lake Superior. I was driving North with my good friend Ben and 3 boards. The weather was foul, and only got worse as we ventured further from the Twin Cities and closer to Duluth the Big Lake. Though we are used to being just about anywhere with boards strapped to the roof, it is still an unusual sight to most, which were made aware of at a gas station in Hinckley, MN.
Attendant: “That your car out there with the surfboards?”
Me: “Yes, ‘mam, we’re heading up to the Big Lake.”
Attendant: “To surf, eh? We call your kind crackheads. Have a good time, be careful.”
When we pulled off the main road at the North end of Duluth to have a peek at the waves, the wind was blowing sideways at 25 knots and a cold drizzle blasted our faces as we opened the car doors. It was easy to understand why some might think of us as crackheads. We threw on our jackets and strolled down to the rocky shoreline to find that a couple of surfers were already in the water, fighting against the wind and currents to stay in position. Meanwhile, more cars pulled into the muddy parking lot and a hearty group of Minnesotans laughed as they chatted about the weather and stared at our inland sea. Nearshore, almost-perfect waves broke in a nice lefthand fashion, while in the distance an ore freighter plowed straight North, in and out of a dense fog, and head-on into the gales of November. It looked like chaos as massive swells and whitecaps crashed in all directions. Leaning into the wind, listening to boulders shift in the crashing freshwater waves, I smiled as I thought about the start of another winter surf season, and the fact that it felt good to be home.
Well, I’m back online after a few months that can best be summed up as a whirlwind. We hit the road and departed Colorado on August 23, spending just under a week winding through the great states of Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Then, on August 31, we hopped on a plane to Chicago, then a 747 from Chicago to Hong Kong, and a final jump from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam where we began a 6 week jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. When we arrived back in the States on October 12, we enjoyed a few days of perfect fall weather, moved into an apartment, and started a life in the midwest. Hopefully over the next couple of weeks I can pick apart this awesome transitionary adventure, including some of the first exploration days in Minnesota – surf, shooting clays, and fly fishing.
As I look through photos and videos from the past 14 months, it hits hard that life is really good, and it’s only going to get better. Caity, Nugget, and I have decided to make a big move, and we’ll be heading back to the Twin Cities at the end of this month.
As we wrap up our last weeks of work, organize our belongings, and pack up the cars, I don’t think there will be much time for writing.
That being said, here’s a glimpse of what’s on the horizon: a long roadtrip including stops in Steamboat Springs, Jackson Hole, Yellowstone National Park, and the Badlands, a muli-week overseas trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Bali, and a new home in the Midwest with plenty of open space to explore the Outdoorman’s Dream.
Without a doubt, there will be much to write about, so stay tuned.