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Fishing Wisconsin's Trout Free Zone (Guest Author - Perry Palin)

This is Perry's second article for this blog, his first was about his handmade wood fly rods and lessons from building and using them.

Perry Palin grew up in NE Minnesota and now lives in Wisconsin's Trout Free Zone (TFZ) "up north" which he writes about here. He has published in magazines, journals, and websites as well as having two books - collections of fishing stories - published. His most recent book review of Carl Haensel's book, Fly Fishing Minnesota, is on page 8 of the Winter Minnesota Trout Unlimited newsletter. His books Katz Creek and Other Stories and Fishing Lessons: Stories and Essays from Midwestern Streams are available at The Whitefish Press.

Words and images are Perry Palin's (photo captions are based on his file descriptions - any errors there are mine)

The bears were hidden by the brim of my hat until I was there. Momma lay on her back in a low fork of a big burr oak, ten feet above me. Two of her cubs were nursing. A third cub climbed in the branches overhead. And momma bear was watching me. My options for retreat were few.

A TFZ stream that may be trout free now.
Perry points out that he caught fish here in 2017 but has not done so since. Maybe it is trout free now...

I stood in a narrow, deep, and cold trout stream that ran through a wooded swamp north of home. I shivered in my waders. The leaves on the oaks were just greening with spring, the branches like craggy antlers against the sky. The air smelled of leaf decay and mud. The stream floor was sand and gravel, with big rocks and a few tree trunks buried in the bottom. The left bank, a few feet above the water, didn’t offer a way out. Not that I would climb out on the bear’s bank anyway. The right bank held a woven wall of speckled alders. There was no way to get through the wall, and if I tried to do it and momma bear came down from the tree, she could have done me in right there in the water. I could only wade up the long pool, lengthening the space between me and the bears.

I learned to fish for trout on Minnesota’s North Shore. When I moved south I had to learn to fish again in the Driftless. Almost thirty years later I took a job in NW Wisconsin and found that the fishing was different here than in any other place I had been, and I had to learn to fish once more.

A spot the author once caught a brook trout.
A spot the author once caught a brook trout.

In spring and summer evenings I drove out to look for trout streams. It was an aimless, unproductive search, until one evening I was lost in a warren of gravel roads in a forest. It was near dark, and I was looking for a way out to the asphalt when I came to a small stream. I stopped to look at the water. Before I turned away there was a heavy swirl on the surface. I had a wooly bugger knotted to the tippet on a long rod. I got the rod from the car and hung the wooly bugger in the surface of the water. A heavy fish took the fly and I landed a nineteen inch brown. I was turning toward the car when another swirl occurred in the same spot. I hung the bugger out there again and caught another brown, a little bigger. It was fully dark by then. I found my way out to the main road, and it took a couple of weeks to find my way back to that stream.

Wisconsin’s TFZ, or Trout Free Zone, extends from Highway 8 north to as far as Highway 77, from the St. Croix on the west to as far east as you care to drive in a couple of hours. I have been accused of applying the name “Trout Free Zone” to this part of the state. There are a few trout streams in the TFZ. Just a few. And none of them equal the Driftless streams or those in the Lake Superior watershed. The TFZ does offer a few opportunities. I am not naming streams here. The best part of trout fishing is finding the fish on your own. The best fish are the ones you find through your own efforts.

The trout in the TFZ are brook trout and browns. Some of the streams have one or the other, and some have a mix of both. They don’t see a lot of fishermen, but they are on alert for wading birds, diving birds, mink, and otters. A careless approach or a poor cast means no fish for you. The fish are small, but in a few streams it’s possible to find the rare fifteen inch brook trout or twenty inch brown. The fish are opportunistic feeders. I like to use a Nalle Puh (a Finnish caddis dry) in the riffles, a burnt wing thorax for the risers that don’t take the Nalle Puh, sparse soft hackle wets, and small streamers and bucktails like a Pass Lake. I don’t care for bead heads, and that’s personal. I tried a Pink Squirrel in the TFZ and caught a big brown on the first cast. I used that pattern for three more years and never caught another fish on it.

A fine TFZ brook trout caught by the author.
A fine TFZ brook trout caught by the author.

On a good day I catch some fish, see an eagle, a pair of sandhill cranes, some swans, or a grouse, take a nap under a tree without picking up more than a few ticks, and find the road again without being chased by wild animals or farm animals.

A fine TFZ brown trout caught by the author.
A fine TFZ brown trout caught by the author.

I explored the gravel bottomed riffles and runs of a small TFZ stream, catching a few six inch browns. I was about to head back to the road when I had the misfortune to catch a fourteen incher. That fish raised my interest. A week later I tried what looked to be a slower meadow stretch. A half mile down a woodland trail I turned into a mixed woods of aspen and small birch. Over a slight rise the ground sloped away into oaks and ash, then into pricker bushes. Next, it was a tangle of aspens, and then a willow thicket. I broke out onto the meadow, which was in fact a grassy bog. If I stood in one place for more than half a minute the ground would sink until I was up to my calves in water. In the sandy stream channel there was little cover for trout except for a few undercuts at the bends, and a few logs stuck in the bottom. I saw some trout holding over the bottom in the deepest water. The new spring grass on the bank had been cropped short. Then I was attacked by a wild Canada goose. The bird was big and it was angry. Imagine the excitement of running from a goose over muskeg that promised to swallow you with the first misstep.

The TFZ is lightly fished compared to other parts of the state. This means few angler trails. The streams run through forests and swamps. When I fish here I am standing in the water or I am fighting the brush or tall swamp grass and stinging nettles. It’s good to have a sense of direction. Three different fishing partners tried to lead me back to the car the wrong way, or they admitted they had no idea where they were. One of them kept asking me if I had been there before. I told him I had not, but he should follow me anyway because I was going to the car. One guy used his cell phone to navigate into the woods, and it died when he fell into the water.

A typical TFZ brook trout.
A typical TFZ brook trout.

I don’t care for electronics in the TFZ. I fished on a small stream, and when I got back to the car there was another vehicle there and four young anglers, two men and two women, getting ready to fish. They had long graphite rods and the women were wearing ill-fitting, borrowed waders. The leader of the group assured me that he knew the stream. The water near the bridge had been fished by me, and we discussed other possibilities. He didn’t know the common names of the roads and reaches, and it was clear that his knowledge of the stream came from an app and from satellite images. He asked about the “open” area downstream, and I’m glad he did. I told him that it was not a meadow, but a sucking, silted swamp. The soft bank was covered with sharp-edged sedges where it wasn’t choked with stinging nettles, and the stream bottom had marl deposits that would grab your feet and hold on. I told him that three times I thought I was going to die in there. I said it held the best fishing for miles because no one but me was fishing there, and that each of the men I had brought there all caught fish and said they would never go back. I sent the quartet downstream to a place where they might use their nine foot graphite rods.

A Trout Free Zone brown trout.
A Trout Free Zone brown trout.

I have found a few spring ponds in the TFZ. I fished in one three times and caught nothing but I caught dozens of small brook trout in the outlet stream. In another spring pond I caught brook trout to a foot in length from my little canoe.

It isn’t every day I see a bear in the TFZ, but it happens. I’ve seen bears in the woods and fields and on the roads, and I nearly ran over a cinnamon-colored yearling on three different occasions. There is other wildlife in the TFZ. Most of the wolves I see are crossing the road or dining on a road-killed deer. I hiked around a curve in an alfalfa field one day, the wind was in my favor, and I came within twenty yards of a wolf. She was more surprised than I was, I suppose, and she ran from me faster than I could have run from her. I stopped on a gravel road to look at a badger. It’s unusual for them to be out in the daytime. He turned and snarled at my car, and I drove on. And the deer are everywhere. I’ve hit a few with my car, and I drive slowly. I was wading up a swamp stream one September and two bucks got to their feet in the tall grass. I couldn’t see the deer in the grass, but I could see their racks, a ten pointer and one a little bigger.

A  brook trout from a Washburn County pond.
A brook trout from a Washburn County pond.

In autumn, I fish for brook trout in the Washburn County Ponds. A number of small seepage lakes receive fingerlings in the spring, and they grow fast. A hatchery strain, they die of old age before three years. They cannot reproduce in the ponds, and there’s no guilt in taking a few home. They move into the shallows in October, and the best catches go to the fly fishers. In the ponds the two-year-old fish run ten to fifteen inches and are sometimes larger.

Hatchery hold-over brook trout
Autumn brook trout from a TFZ pond. As the author mentions, these hatchery fish survive three years before dying of natural causes.

The bear with her cubs in the big burr oak watched my slow approach. She was busy with parental matters, which she could have set aside to retreat, but she did not. She could have threatened me in defense of her children, but she did not. She watched me wade slowly up the stream, and she let me pass without complaint. I bumped my toe on a drowned tree trunk. The bear turned to watch me over her other shoulder. I didn’t look back again. I stepped over the tree and waded slowly around the next bend where I crawled out of the water.

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Jimmy Fackert
Jimmy Fackert
Mar 23, 2023

"I told him that three times I thought I was going to die in there. I said it held the best fishing for miles because no one but me was fishing there, and that each of the men I had brought there all caught fish and said they would never go back." - great stuff. I almost spit out my coffee


Thank you for another fine article, Perry. I believe I was with you that day that you encountered that quartet, I was downstream and you came out from upstream of the bridge to catch up with me. I recall you were not impressed with them. ;) Hope we can share some water in the TFZ once again...trout or no trout, just getting a chance to fish with you is a treat.

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