HAYWARD, Wis. – Our pastor friend thought it sounded like an awful idea, a close approximation of hell.
“What sin did Wendy commit to get assigned this float?” asked Don Wisner, a semiretired Lutheran pastor and longtime fly angler from Eau Claire, Wis.
He was talking about our other good friend, Wendy Williamson, a guide and an owner of Hayward Fly Fishing Co.
This horrific task: Take me, my wife, Kathy, and our two small boys on a daylong float trip — in a tiny drift boat built for three, down the Namekagon River.
“Are you bringing Taj,” Wisner said sarcastically of our frenetic 12-year-old Brittany spaniel. “You might as well bring the dog, too.”
Williamson huffed, “We are going to have a great time.”
In many ways, the trip was set in motion long ago by my dad, Tom, who spent the better part of his life completely and passionately in love with fly fishing Midwestern rivers and streams. He relished sharing their majesty, particularly with me and my sister, Carrie. Fly fishing nourished many of his deepest friendships — like Williamson, her husband, Larry, and the pastor.
When Dad died nearly three years ago, he had become an evangelist for the sport, the environment and the larger fly-fishing community.
We hoped the float trip would deepen our boys’ appreciation of rivers, the outdoors and give them their first taste of the sport their grandfather had planned to share with them. Kathy would get her first real chance to fly fish, too.
There were no guarantees floating with Grayson, 6, and Zachary, 4. They were enthusiastic, but could easily run out of patience in 20 minutes.
Wendy planned for this. She chose a stretch of river that she could row through in two hours, or if the boys held up, we could fish hard for much longer.
Wendy is an accomplished guide and instructor, so I opted to keep quiet and let her help Kathy. Fly fishing can be a bit like driving a manual transmission for the first time; best not have too many instructors or onstream critics.
As Wendy loaded the boat into the water, she told Kathy to practice casting on the grass. Time was short, so Wendy just stressed the basics: Keep the casting motion compact, the rod tip high and relax.
We knew the trick for the boys would be to keep them engaged, active — which can be tough on a drift boat barely longer than a canoe. The boys are too young to fly fish from a boat, so we tried other ways to keep them involved
As we pushed off, Wendy noted a couple dragonflies lifting off over the surface of the water. She told the boys to be on the lookout for more. A good hatch of dragonflies can be a smorgasbord for smallmouth bass and good fortune for us.
A little ways down the river, a 14-inch bass darted from under a rock, flashed in the sunlight and slammed my minnow imitation. The boys shrieked and cheered.
Wendy grabbed the net and quickly snatched the fish from the water.
Grayson excitedly peered into the net, but Zachary became spooked and hid behind my leg as Wendy released the fish.
The Namekagon is a 101-mile stream that runs like a glimmering blue ribbon through some of Wisconsin’s most scenic, forested landscape. In the stretch we fished, the river holds smallmouth bass, pike and muskie.
Floating on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, we did not see a single home the entire float.
As we rounded a bend, a giant bald eagle swooped overhead and landed in its aerie. The boys found binoculars and watched the eagle’s head emerge from its enormous tangle of branches and debris as it surveyed the area.
Fishing had been slow. After the initial bass, I had a few strong takes, but nothing more.
Kathy kept casting.
Breaking a long silence, Kathy whooped: “Ohh! Ooooohh!! Oooh!”
Kathy lifted her rod and the tip arched toward the water.
“I think I got a hit!” Kathy said as the rod tip darted around.
It occurred to us that we never prepared Kathy for what to do if she actually caught a fish.
“Now keep pressure on the fish,” Wendy said. “Good. Good.”
It quickly became clear she hooked something much bigger than a decent bass.
After a brief fight, Wendy netted Kath’s catch: a 28-inch pike.
Both boys were enthralled with Kathy’s giant and toothy catch.
We took a couple quick photos and Wendy released the fish. The boys looked over the side as it swam back into the glimmering depths.
That night, we had dinner with Wendy and Larry and one of their guides. Wisner and his wife, Janice, joined us.
Fresh from the river and telling stories about the day, Grayson and Zach were already talking about coming back next year. Wisner and I made plans to float Wisconsin’s Chippewa River before fall.
A week later, Kathy stood in our neighbor’s yard with friends, practicing her casting.
Baird Helgeson is a political reporter at the Star Tribune. His family owns Tom Helgeson’s Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo.