Dennis Anderson: It's wild on the river

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 11:29 PM

Wisconsin's Chippewa River, an underused fishery and an over-the-top destination.

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Larry Mann prepares to net a muskie hooked by Todd Sether while fly fishing on the Chippewa River in northwest Wisconsin.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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ON THE CHIPPEWA RIVER, WIS.— Fur traders were among the first whites to see this country, and afterward the loggers -- men of strange languages even among themselves: German, Norwegian, Swedish.

Some were choppers, or tree cutters, others sawyers, teamsters or lumberjacks. Each had come to find a winter's hard work in logging camps whose shanties barely held the cold at bay, their wood-burning stoves glowing all night, wet socks and foot rags hanging from ropes.

By comparison, Larry Mann, Todd Sether and I had it easy Wednesday, floating the Chippewa in shirtsleeves beneath a nearly cloudless late-summer sky.

We had launched Larry's drift boat in the tiny community of Ojibwa, and soon enough were aswirl in the river's soft currents. Fly fishing, we swung long lines toward shore, looking for lunkers. Or whatever might take our poppers and other flies.

The owner with his wife, Wendy Williamson, of a Hayward, Wis., fly shop and guiding business -- Hayward Fly Fishing Co. -- Larry has been on the Chippewa many times.

But for Todd and me, this was a first.

"When Wendy and I came to Hayward and started fishing the Chippewa, the Namekagon and the Flambeau, the locals looked at us like, 'Why don't you get a Lund and fish a lake?' " Larry said. "River fishing just wasn't that popular.''

This was in the late 1990s, and Larry and Wendy had returned to Hayward, Wis., her hometown, after her father died, bringing with them a drift boat of the type commonly used for trout fishing out west.

The two had met while guiding trout anglers in Colorado, where Larry knew something also about harder work still, guiding visiting sports to their elk and deer in October and November.

"Before I came back here with Wendy, northern Wisconsin was not on my radar at all,'' Larry said. "But you meet a girl, and things happen.''

Being river people, Larry and Wendy were soon keen on the area's waterways in ways similar and dissimilar from their love affairs with Western rivers.

"My first impression,'' Larry said, "was that these are root beer-colored waters. And it took me awhile to understand that to fish them, different types of fly rods and reels and leaders are needed than are typically used out West. But fishing is fishing. And almost immediately I knew I made the right choice in coming here.''

As Larry reminisced Wednesday, he bent to his boat's oars, shifting us expertly among large boulders while urging Todd and me to punch our frog and other imitations as close to shore as possible.

We were hoping this pretty river would serve up its smallmouth bass liberally. But we'd trade a dozen of these fish for a single muskie, the slash of which in shallow water at a retrieved fly can hold center stage in a lifetime of dreams.

"Muskies can be good on all of these rivers in early June,'' Larry said. "But now through deer season in November is the best time for muskies.''

The arrival of Wendy and Larry on northwest Wisconsin's river scene a dozen years or so ago was serendipitous, and coincided with a growing interest, regionally, in the pursuit of warm water fish by fly.

The late Tom Helgeson was just then finding an eager audience with his Midwest Fly Fishing magazine and springtime Twin Cities conclaves that featured vendors, outfitters and guides exhorting not only underutilized Wisconsin rivers but those in Minnesota (the Mississippi, St. Croix, the Zumbro, Rum and others), Michigan and elsewhere.

Nationally, interest in fly fishing Midwest rivers for bass, muskies and northern pike was also growing.

Recognizing a business opportunity, Larry and Wendy opened their Hayward fly shop.

"I'm sure some people gave us 6 months, tops,'' Larry said. "That was in 2004. We're still going.''

Some days -- Wednesday being an example -- Larry is on a river, guiding clients. Wendy also guides, as do a few others in their employ.

Other days, Larry, Wendy or both are in the shop, caught up in the minutiae of ordering, stocking and selling.

Catching-wise, Wednesday's fishing wasn't on fire. The occasional popper was taking the occasional smallie while we slid evermore downriver, chromatic birches, aspens and pines passing by on either shore. Quite a few casts were made between these hookups. But time seemed not to matter. The sun was warm, the day dreamy, and if a circling of tepees had appeared around the next bend, I wouldn't have been surprised. Nor to see a logging camp and a band of weary ragamuffins around a campfire singing "The Shantyman's Life.''

The shantyman's life is a worrisome one, though some call it free from care. It's the ringing of the ax from morning 'til night, in the middle of the forest fair. While life in the shanties, bleak and cold, while the wintery winds do blow, as soon as the morning star does appear, to the wild woods we must go.

Instead on Wednesday, most memorable was the sight after lunch of the Chippewa River boiling beneath Todd's fly as a muskie rose from havens unknown to lay a whoopin' on his feathery bait.

As quickly, his line went tight, his long rod bent nearly parabolic and the fight was on.

In this wild country, everything has happened at least once, and will happen again. But this was Todd's first muskie on a fly, and nothing that had come before on this river, nor would follow, would be as important.

Not to him.

Larry Mann netted the fish, released it, and turned the boat again downriver.

Knowing well where the Chippewa flows, he was eager to see what might happen between here and there.

Dennis Anderson's Twitter name is @dennisstrib danderson@startribune.com

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