“Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the church at Magnesia on the Meander, a church blessed with the grace of God the Father in Christ Jesus, our Savior, in whom I salute you.”
The quote above comes from a letter written by early Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch around 107 A.D.) I read it one morning a couple of weeks ago in the Divine Office, which I pray daily as one of my commitments as a Deacon. The series of letters that Ignatius wrote to the major churches that he passed by on his journey to Rome to be executed for his Christian faith are insightful and inspiring. The opening of this letter in particular always inspires some deep reflection that I am positive Ignatius never intended.
No doubt that it is the trout fisherman in me that always notices the description of the church that he is writing to: the church at Magnesia on the Meander. On the Meander. I can’t think of a name for a river that sounds more inviting and more peaceful. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the area that Ignatius ministered in, and I am certain that there are no trout within hundreds of miles. Nevertheless, I always pause my prayer long enough to consider an image or two of some of my favorite streams. I would even argue that any pause in prayer to consider a favorite trout water is really no pause at all.
I cut my trout fishing teeth on the streams and rivers of northeast Wisconsin. I like to think of them as singing waters, as for the most part they don’t usually hesitate for very long in deep and brooding pools; instead, they rush headlong through rocky stretches raising a siren song that beckons every heart that craves the beauty and the sounds of wild waters.
But there are quiet trout streams that rely on the coldness of their wellsprings rather than swift movement to maintain a home environment suitable for trout. These are the many streams that wind through the bottoms of the seemingly countless valleys of the Driftless Area in the southwest part of Wisconsin. I have visited the Driftless for the last seven years or so. I have usually found the five-hour drive to be a worthwhile investment. On one trip in particular I experienced the most fantastic trout fishing I ever had. And it proved the old theory that I should have known better that anything that good was too good to last.
The stream is Tainter Creek. It is hardly a secret that Tainter Creek holds decent trout, or I would never have mentioned it by name. Much of my success there has been due to my willingness to fish the much more difficult stretches near its headwaters. Down below, the stream widens out, meandering almost picture postcard-like through pastures and farm fields. I have enjoyed many successful hours of wading and casting in that postcard.
But upstream. beyond the last (or more appropriately, the first, bridge that crosses it) the creek narrows as it disappears into a jungle wall of alder and willow, wild grape vines and blackberry brush. It can be a frustrating place because when you do happen upon one of the few little pools or undercut banks, the brush can make attempting any kind of cast of a fly next to impossible. I fish it because in all the years I’ve visited there, I have never seen any sign, such as the impression of a wader boot in the mud, to suggest that anyone else is crazy enough to do so. When I trout fish I crave solitude as much as I crave the fish itself.
Three years ago, I banked on just that reality as every other bridge I had pulled up to that day had a vehicle or two already parked nearby. As I neared the jungle stretch of Tainter Creek I was pleased, though not surprised, to find I was alone in my stubbornness. I pushed on even farther up than I ever had before. As I slowly worked upstream, I began to notice that the water seemed shallower than normal. Strange. Soon after, I came into an opening I had never been in before. That’s because it hadn’t existed before.
What I was looking at was a very impressive beaver dam that was higher than I was tall. I climbed to the top. There before me was what amounted to a little pond, maybe 25 yards across and about 75 feet long. As a longstanding member of Trout Unlimited I had helped with a lot of stream improvement projects. I knew that beaver dams in the long run damage trout streams. The slowed water flow causes silting to build up, smothering many of the aquatic insects that trout feed on. The slow current also allows the water to warm; again, ultimately hazardous to cold water loving trout. I had helped the DNR several times to remove beaver dams.
But, I also knew that for the first year of two that the trout that were in these ponds could grow fat and happy. I cast my fly to the far edge of the dam. Wham! Pure electric! I landed a 14-inch native brook trout that was starting to show his autumn spawning colors. Cast after cast I caught enough brook and brown trout to stop bothering to count them. It wasn’t hard fishing. It was downright easy, but I enjoyed it immensely. I fished until nearly dark, leaving with just enough light to make it back to my truck.
The next morning was my last for the trip. I didn’t even use breakfast time to study the trout waters map of the region as I usually did in order to pick out the day’s destination. I knew I had to return to the beaver dam. And I did. Again, the fishing was sinfully easy. I relished it.
The next September I was back for my annual trout fishing assault of the Driftless. Without hesitation, or even steering it seemed, I parked at the first bridge of Tainter Creek and headed upstream. I didn’t bother fishing the few fishable pools as I was headed to the beaver dam. But when I got to the place I found that the dam was gone. Whether it was the DNR or a local TU chapter, they had done a thorough job. Fresh green grass even covered up all of the silt and mud on the reclaimed banks. A first-timer would never have even known there had ever been a dam there.
The stream was open and moving again like it should be, but I was disappointed. The stream would be much healthier in the long run, but I was disappointed. The stream restoration work no doubt was difficult and done with the best interest of the environment in mind. Still, I was disappointed. There was still plenty of great water to fish, but I was disappointed. The fishing here was really too easy. There is more satisfaction in coaxing a wild trout of two out of a small pool I knew, but I was disappointed. I knew better than to be disappointed, but I was anyway. Knowing better doesn’t always feel better, not at the time anyway.