If you can catch fish in Wisconsin...
I was told this early in my learning to fly fish by George Close - my great uncle, a valued mentor, and one of the best and most traveled fly anglers I have known. I later heard it from Bob Blumreich, another mentor, great angler, and traveled angler. And I heard it from several other anglers. But I had little idea what it really meant until I traveled elsewhere to fish. Soon I found out that it was absolutely true. Sure, it often took some adjustment but the fundamentals that I learned in Wisconsin served me well elsewhere.
If you will indulge me in a bit of a remembrance...I had just moved to West Virginia from Wisconsin in 1997 and was eager to try some of the famed Pennsylvania streams I had read about. After the history of U.S. fly fishing began in the Catskills and the Northeastern U.S., Pennsylvania is the next chapter. Pennsylvania's "limestoners", as they call their spring creeks, were unlike the Catskill streams and required some refinement of flies and techniques. The importance of terrestrial flies; Ed Shenk's flies like his sculpin, Letort Hopper, and cress bug; Vince Marinaro flies and his books; Joe Humphreys and any number of other anglers are part of the history of Pennsylvania fly fishing. For me, as a guy that had fished spring creeks, Pennsylvania was the Holy Grail.
I made my first trip to Pennsylvania as soon as I could; it was to Fisherman's Paradise on Spring Creek, near State College (for a much more detailed article about Spring Creek and its history: Link). This is a historic piece of water which I am I sure hosted anglers from literally all over the World. I get there and it defied my exceptions - both good and bad. First, for whatever reason, my research did not turn up the fact that Fisherman's Paradise was a no wading reach of Spring Creek. These were the fairly early days of the internet. So I fished it from its well manicured banks. And I caught fish, after fish, after fish - I should add a few more "after fishes" there. I was having one hell of a day. It was like fishing a Wisconsin spring creek but with larger average sized fish on a much larger and easier to cast to stream. But holy cow was it crowded!
I had tried a bit of everything - nymphs, streamers, and dry flies and it was all working - it was a magical day. I even sight-fished and caught a small pickerel on a leech pattern. As I worked my way upstream - which you do really slowly on Fisherman's Paradise as you are NEVER going to have much stream to yourself - I saw a nice fish rising. Then I saw a guy on the other bank watching that fish so I stepped back to watch. And in what seems like one Hell of a brag, he tells me that he wants to see me catch that fish as he's been unable to after a few fly changes. I had on Ross Mueller's BHP (brown hackle peacock) beetle in a #18 and on my first cast, the eighteen inch brown comes up slowly and sips it in. In a bit of disbelief, I hook, land, and release the fish. The angler across the bank remarks on how he's never seen anyone catch fish so regularly on Fisherman's Paradise and how I must fish here often to which I replied, "No, it's my first time". Had I only been quick enough, I would have commented that I fished all summer in Wisconsin. And I was just coming off HansClave where we fished with our friend Hans Weilenmann of The Netherlands in Wisconsin just days before. I was at the top of my game, for sure.
I know this all comes across as braggadocio and I do not mean it that way...well maybe a bit, but the larger point is the title of the post, if you can catch fish in Wisconsin you can catch them anywhere. And there is no doubt that statement is true.
Moving Outside of Spring Creeks...
I had fished the freestone streams of northern Wisconsin before moving East but if there was a large difference, it was fishing the mountain streams of the Eastern US that are so much swifter than I was accustomed to. The first few times I felt like I was stripping line as fast as I could just too keep up with the current.
It took some getting used to fishing mountain streams. Between the obvious step-pools were small runs and riffles that held fish - and the fishes had to make quick decisions. Trout in mountain streams do not have much time to inspect their offerings, the bigger challenge was keeping a tight line. It was a struggle at first but I figured it out (don't cast so far! and use the rod to help take up the slack).
Similarly, going West presented some of the same challenges. Fishing mountain streams - after not having fished in that style for many years - takes some time to get reacquainted with. But much of the fishing was quite familiar.
On my first trip to Colorado, after some DIY fishing on New Mexico's San Juan River and some streams around Pagosa Springs, we had arranged to meet up with Ty Churchwell, the San Juan Mountains Coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Durango. He took us to the gorgeous high meadow stream that the whole drive up he is downplaying about how it is small and "techie" and how a lot of people don't like fishing it. But we were on our way to catch Colorado River Cutthroat Trout, a subspecies of Cutthroat that have been greatly diminished in range. As we turn the corner and see the tiny, "techie" stream, all we can think is, this is a Driftless stream. The cow pasture had been replaced by low growing, high meadow vegetation. So Henry and I proceed to get into Cutthroat Trout before Ty and Rich are even descending the hill to fish. "Fuck yeah, you 'Sconnie guys can fish" we hear Ty yell from the road as Henry and I each release our second or so Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. Then later Ty showed us some pocket water fishing - that was some change of pace for us 'Sconnie guys but we caught some fish.
Western tailwaters were something entirely new. Long periods of seemingly nothing punctuated by bug soup and rising fishes for maybe an hour. One better be ready and able to figure it out quickly as the hatches are only going to last for so long. Or at least that was our experience on the Frying Pan. But the tailwaters fish a lot like spring creeks so figuring those out is not too tough for the angler accustomed to fishing spring creeks. Between the hatches, we drifted nymphs under bobbers or threw streamers - and we caught a few fish. During the hatches, it just required a bit of observation to see what they were taking. And once we figured it out, we caught as many fish than anyone around us, probably more.
And in my estimation, Smallmouth Bass fishing is always a little different but they'll eat minnows everywhere and crayfish and large nymphs like hellgrammites and stoneflies in rocky areas. Find some areas out of the heaviest currents and you will likely find actively feeding smallmouth. And in West Virginia, we figured them out on larger rivers like the Cheat and New Rivers and smaller streams like the Greenbrier River and Dunkard Creek.
If You Can Catch Fish in Wisconsin...
I would guess that the statement is true of most places one learns to fly fish. Early in learning to fly fish, we were all dealing with issues like working out our casts, stealth, and line management. Hell, I am still working on the line management side of things. And it is about honing in that search image for fish holding water. That water looks a little different everywhere. And the large rivers can be really intimidating but experienced anglers break them down into smaller pieces. Over time, the somewhat observant angler starts recognizing patterns - trout are not in the fastest of water, but adjacent to it. Or they find tiny little refuges in the heaviest of flows. And they find the spot within the spot - the depression that is maybe six inches or a foot deeper than the surrounding area, the tiny bit of bank cover that is a little different than the rest, or the midstream rock that provides just a little bit better hiding spot than the rest.
I certainly gravitated to the spring creek fishing of the Eastern U.S. - central Pennsylvania, the Cumberland Valley, tailwaters like the Savage River in Maryland, and my favorite West Virginia stream was certainly the Elk River. Without question, having fished the Driftless and Central Sands of Wisconsin prepared me well for these sorts of streams. The delicate presentations and stealth needed for these Wisconsin streams serves the angler well most everywhere. There are certainly places that present unique challenges that are rarely present in Wisconsin streams but for the most part, the Wisconsin angler is poised to succeed anywhere. Some places - like the streams flowing down Eastern mountains and the more impressive Western mountains - will take more getting accustomed to. But at the same time, the fishes in these waters are often willing participants. In my experiences, anglers often experience difficulty adjusting to "stealthier" waters which we tend to have in abundance in Wisconsin.
What is your "If you can catch fish in Wisconsin..." story?