It’s easy to think that you have to travel great distances and forge paths into the middle of nowhere to find the wild. A lot of my efforts take me to those sorts of places and I find experiences that will last a lifetime; but you don’t always have to go to the ends of the earth. Sometimes wild places are hidden right under our noses, and the search for them is always rewarding.
I’m lucky enough to have a few good friends in different places. This is a huge plus for anyone keen to see the outdoors away from their home turf – often getting off the beaten track is the biggest hurdle for any traveller. So when my mate Anthony mentioned Muskie in a description of the public land we were heading to for a deer hunt on the Wisconsin River in Wisconsin; my ears pricked. When his uncle Steve told me about a good campsite out there the decision was easy. A few days sleeping on the ground would suit me just fine.
A few days later Steve and I tentatively stepped out onto an almost overflowing beaver dam in the near dark, crossing onto an island formed between the main river and a smaller flowage where I’d be camping.
“Don’t trip, cos the beavers chew the sticks like spears and jam them in sticking up”.
Steve’s words were heeded and I hoped the dam wasn’t close to bursting and throwing us both out into the main current.
We were pushing fairly hard as a thunder storm was bearing down on us. As the wind picked up we got the tent together, and as Steve turned to leave, skeins of Canada geese – unseen in the gloom – filled the air with their honking as they came in to roost for the night.
“Doesn’t get any better than that!” were his last words as he took off into the dark.
I managed to get a feed cooked over the fire just before the rain came on and retreated to the tent as lightning lit up the walls and droplets drummed against them. Not bad to fall asleep to.
The next morning was an exploratory trip. Upriver, huge carp were plentiful in back eddies and pools, feeding on the surface. It would have been nice to have something to throw at them, but I settled for watching. The far end of the flowage I’d crossed the night before held massive concentrations of bait and while some fish were preying on them at the entrance, I couldn’t convince anything to bite.
Making my way back downstream I found some hard fighting smallmouth holding on snags along the bank, and largemouth inside the flowage ponded by the beavers. Hunting up this little drain I spotted a shape amongst the shallow weeds. Casting the perch coloured Rapallo I was using to the shape told me it wasn’t a fish; but then a monster of a pike cruised into view as it stole in on the lure. Unfortunately the thick weeds and shallow water had put me at the end of my retrieve and the fish lurked underneath the floating lure. Edging it away in little jerks I got it back for another cast and the big girl followed it again but couldn’t be coaxed into striking. She cruised off into the weeds.
Excited about the encounter I continued to probe little pockets amongst the weeds and hadn’t gone 10 metres before the lure disappeared in a swirl of fins. I could see another big fish in front of me but sadly no hooks bit and the lure popped back to the surface. The fish followed but decided against another attack. When it turned I suddenly realised I’d just had my first encounter with the fabled muskellunge!
The overcast and windy day cleared into a beautiful evening. As I started a fire and boiled the billy, geese came honking in in their hundreds again. After dark, the yips and howls of coyotes were a welcome chorus as I lay by my little fire under the Great Bear and North Star while the rest of the world bustled about only a couple of kilometres away in any direction.
A frosty morning found me back at the shallow weedy waterway. As the sun started to break over the low scrub the clash of antlers echoed through the woods. With the rut in full swing a pair of whitetail bucks fought it out. Deer activity was high; adding yet another source of fascination. Wild turkeys yelped now and again as I made my way.
Sneaking along the bank I found the big pike lying just where she’d been the evening before, but I still couldn’t get more than passing interest in the stealthy soft plastic presentation I offered this time. Shallow water (shin deep) pike are finicky customers. I spooked quite a few decent fish that morning and otherwise couldn’t interest them. Finally emerging at the eastern end of the flowage I found bait in thick balls again and fish actively pursuing them at the confluence of currents. When a big Muskie burst a ball at my feet I realised I was in a good spot. But, try as I might I couldn’t get them to grab. The fish of 10 000 casts lived up to its reputation despite being right in front of me.
I did finally manage a smaller pike on my way back down the flowage, caught using a soft plastic and spinnerbait blade dragged over the top of the weeds. I was happy with that fish for the effort it took to find.
Another dead calm evening found me catching channel catfish with a few worms I had along with me, and watching a pretty interesting surface rise. I don’t know what they were feeding on, or whether they were just doing it for the sake of it, but walleye were breaking the surface all across the river. There were some pretty big ones in amongst them too.
We all know what to expect when we trek out into some far flung destination. But the surprise of finding the wild experience hidden on the outskirts of town, hemmed in by roads and farmed fields, is different altogether. When I woke in the morning shrouded in thick fog, hoarfrost blanketed the scene. When I pulled camp it took me about half an hour to pack out onto a bitumen road. All the while the fish, the deer, the turkeys and the geese just kept making the most of an unseasonably warm November.