NEAR BRULE, WIS. —Dave Zentner and I slumped in his truck as lightning gamboled across a shadowy sky. This was about 8 o’clock on Monday evening and already we should have slid the canoe into the blackened river and put our shoulders to an hour of paddling. Then we would have reached the heart of the matter, trout rising and mosquitoes swarming on a mirror-finished river. Having made the trip before, we could imagine this and imagine also startling deer on a riverbank or mallards from their roosts as we rounded our way upriver. But the storm held us up. Rain was falling. We were in the truck.
“Let’s wait and see what the weather does,’’ Dave said.
The mayfly we would fish hatches in waves seasonally, beginning in mid- to late June in northern Wisconsin lakes and rivers. Summer progresses and these explosions of hexagenia limbata march up the latitudes, including along Minnesota’s North Shore, before appearing farther north still, in Ontario. After mating, “hex’’ spinners fall back onto the rivers, which attract trout, oftentimes big trout, which slurp them. The trick for the nighttime angler is to hear the rise, imagine the location and cast flies to it, mimicking the real thing.
More immediately the trick for Dave and me was to find a hole big enough in the gathering tempest to launch our canoe into the river. We would need three to four hours round-trip, typically arriving back at our truck after midnight.
“You remember a couple of years back on that Fourth of July night we fished,’’ I said. “Lightning was everywhere. But it was farther away than this.’’
“The bugs never came off the river that night,’’ Dave said. “And it rained some.’’
“The rain I don’t mind.’’
“The rain is all right.’’
The day had been hot and humid, and the night was warm. No other vehicles were parked nearby. So we doubted anyone was on the river, a rarity for the date. If however we did meet another canoe deep in this wet country, a nod or slight wave would acknowledge the encounter. After dark, no one is on these rivers by accident, and some spots along the way are coveted. An angler from nearby, perhaps from Iron River or Ashland or Duluth, or perhaps from farther away, from the Twin Cities or Milwaukee, might have history with a particular wide deep pool. He might have landed his biggest brown trout there, and perhaps during the hex hatch in June or early July for five years thereafter he paddled to that same spot, fishing the memory. So it can be personal. Or proprietary.
Either way, if you encounter a double-ender tucked against shore, perhaps outlined by a pine or spruce that has gone roots-up, that spot is taken. You nod. You paddle on.
I said, “I’m not sure we’re going to make it tonight.’’
I was looking at the radar on my phone. The evening’s thunderstorms appeared in red and yellow.
I had driven three hours, and Dave, who lives in Duluth, had traveled an hour.
Dave, who first fished this country as a boy with his father, recalled the old Wards Sea King his dad kept in the trunk.
“We didn’t have a boat,’’ he said. “But we had a motor. We rented the boat. That’s how we fished.’’
A couple hundred yards away the river flowed imperceptibly over supple declinations. Raindrops dimpled its surface.
Sensing targets within, mosquitoes conspired on the truck windows. The heat hadn’t subsided and the truck was stuffy.
Everywhere around us were the bogs and generalized low country that bracket the rivers flowing to Lake Superior. The great fishing writer Robert Traver headquartered at about this parallel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He knew trout. Also of course Aldo Leopold was no stranger here, nor Gordon MacQuarrie and his Stories of the Old Duck Hunter. Pines once towered in all directions, replaced now by hardwoods, leafy and green with the rain. Timelessly, the rivers still flow cold, eagles arc against the sky, ospreys dive for fish, wood ducks arrow into the setting sun and whippoorwills carol their nighttime refrains,whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.
The rain fell harder.
Lightning fractured the sky.
Nine o’clock had come and gone.
“I think that’s it.’’
“I think so.’’
We rumbled over back roads to an A&W in a nearby small town, arriving from a place where fish and fishing are everything, to a different place entirely.
“We’ll find another night,’’ Dave said.
Dodging deer, I angled toward home.
Dave drove back to Duluth.