Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Smallmouth Trip from Hell

The Smallmouth Trip from Hell
(Four Smallmouth Rivers in Five Days)
By Harry Blessing

This story tells how we survived The Trip from Hell, what fish we caught and the flies that caught them, where we stayed and the relationship to the Cicero mob.
Six of us took The Smallmouth Trip from Hell: Joseph Meyer, owner of One More Cast fly shop in Countryside, who organized the trip, Steve Culen, a retired Union President and Catholic Charity President and a member of a Medical School Board, Ralph Loza, from Underwriters Laboratory, Craig Winter, a retired businessman, Stan Zarnoweicki, who owns a restaurant supply business, and me, a retired telephone switching system designer. Joseph and Stan drove.

I’ve fished with my friend Joseph before in Florida and Michigan. Ralph, Stan and Steve are friends from the DuPage River Fly Tyers (DRIFT).
We traveled with our three drift boat guides: Bart Landwehr and Matt, from Tight Lines fly shop in De Pere, Wisconsin and Kip Vieth, owner of Wildwood Float Trips in Edina, Minnesota.

Here is our itinerary: we drove to the Menominee, stayed overnight, and then fished the river. After fishing we drove to the N. Fork of the Flambeau, stayed overnight, and then fished the river. After fishing we drove to the St. Croix, stayed overnight, and then fished the river. After fishing we drove to the Mississippi, stayed overnight, and then fished the river. After fishing we drove home to Chicago, arriving at two in the morning. Driving or fishing all day, then driving every night is why this was called The Smallmouth Trip from Hell.

I caught about a dozen smallies, from twelve to nineteen and one half inches, each day, mostly on poppers, but some on streamers, as did the other guys.
Wednesday night we stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort in Pembine, Wisconsin. It was originally built by a railroad baron from Milwaukee who went to jail for using the railroad's money to build the resort and went bankrupt. It later burned to the ground, was rebuilt and operated for many years as a private resort for wealthy Chicago businessmen.

This is the same Golf Resort that later gained notoriety in a criminal case against Betty Loren Maltese, Cicero town president. She was convicted, along with seven others, some of whom were mob guys, for investing five million dollars in stolen money in the golf resort. They were convicted of stealing a total of twelve million dollars from the town of Cicero. They stole most of the money from the town employee’s health insurance funds. Their goal was to build a gambling center on the eighty acre Menominee River Island where the resort is located.

The resort was confiscated by the government and sold at auction. The new owners resold it and the next owners invested an additional six million in the property.
Thursday, the Menominee fished wonderfully for Stan and I and we saw an Eagle nest with a large (chick?) in it. I have two more float trips, a two day and a three day, scheduled on the Menominee this summer.

Friday, the North Fork of the Flambeau was especially beautiful to me. I fished with Steve whom I fished with before in Canada. Our guide Bart claimed we missed a number of fish because we didn't want to set the hook while delivering a joke punch line.
Saturday, there were no homes on the beautiful St. Croix which is a Designated Wild and Scenic River. It’s much wider than the other rivers. In one spot we had to get out and walk downstream while the guides walked the boats through some shallow, tight, whitewater. I enjoyed a great day’s fishing with Ralph.

Saturday night, Stan, outrageously, treated the guides and us to dinner in a private room at his brother-in-law's wonderful downtown Minneapolis restaurant, to the tune of $600. We all chipped in for a $200 tip. I had a cocktail, fork tender Kobe-Beef pot roast, and wine with dinner.

Sunday we fished the Mississippi. It fished very well but I was tired and fell asleep. Joseph cracked up when Kip woke me at a good popper spot and I stood up and shook some line out to get ready to make a cast. My popper went under; I set the hook and shouted, "A big smallie just committed suicide on my hook". The nineteen and one-half inch smallie was my trip largest.

We drove home afterward and arrived at Joseph's shop at 2 am, Monday morning.
I'm glad I went because I scratched some old itches, seeing four good rivers I've been dreaming of. But I won't sign up for next year's Smallmouth Trip from Hell until I catch up on my sleep and rest my casting arm.

Trip from Hell - Details on Tackle and Techniques

I used a new eight weight, 100 foot, Rio Clouser line the whole time. It casts wonderfully, has a two-step body and shoots very well.

We used eight weight rods because we needed to stay about fifty feet from the bank in the clear water, cast large popper and streamer flies, and keep the false casts to a minimum to minimize arm fatigue over four days of casting.

We cast tight to the bank in the quiet water for most of the trip. The best water seemed to be where there was a rocky shore especially if there were lots of big rocks/boulders above and or below the water. Skinny water next to deep water was good also. Some eddies were good and some weren't.

The guides kept us at a good casting distance from the bank and told us where they knew of especially good spots to cast. They wore sandals so they could jump out and maneuver the boat through shallow stretches or drag the boat ashore.
Each guide had a very large supply of flies. One guide had about six double sided foam lined attaché cases, each stuffed with a particular type of fly, e.g., poppers, divers, streamers, etc.

The foam poppers were just foam cylinders. They were not cupped in back or hollowed in front but some had a slight downward nose taper for easier pickup. They had very full synthetic fiber tails. I used chartreuse with a matching tail most of the time for ease of visibility.

I would usually only pop the fly two or three times before casting again. The guides said to wait five seconds after a pop before popping again or picking up to recast to give the fish a chance to find the fly.

The streamer flies had light-weight plastic eyes, not lead dumbbell eyes which cause flies like the Clouser Minnow to sink to the bottom and turn upside down and become semi-weed less. This allowed us to fish the middle of the water column instead of the top of bottom.

The streamer flies were fished with a twitch followed by a pause, in a wounded minnow way, similar to a Fluke type lure on spinning or casting tackle.
I was able to cast the eight-weight all day without straining my arm and shoulder too much. I did take an ibuprofen when my casting fell off on two of the afternoons and shortly after my casting picked up again. I didn't cast continuously, unless the bank looked fishy.

All the flies I fished were barbless and I had to keep a tight line or the fish would get off if I couldn’t strip fast enough.
The drift boats were all Clackacrafts and they were comfortable to fish from. They have a front leg brace for locking two legs while standing and casting. The rear brace was for locking one leg and worked well for me.

The guides had big coolers, portable tables and benches. They supplied lunch and Joseph made sure they had plenty of diet soda, water and the whole wheat bread sandwiches Steve and I preferred, since we are both diabetic.
I got to see four rivers I've dreamed about fishing. They were alike in many ways with hardwood trees on both sides, unlike the cedars and pines of the Michigan Rivers I more frequently fish for trout and steelhead. I'd like to do a fall trip when the hardwoods are in color.

It was a very tiring trip because of driving each evening after fishing unloading in a new motel then reloading in the morning to go to the next destination.
I might go back to the Mississippi to fish the Fort Ripley stretch with Kip. I went to Ripley several times for National Guard Summer Camp and have wondered about the fishing ever since.

Joseph is organizing a trip to the Mississippi in August and Kip said he'd guide me on the Ripley stretch but I've got a lot of fishing scheduled already this year so I’ll have to go another year.

If you go, bring a fast action 7-8 weight capable of casting BIG poppers, lined with a Rio Outbound or Clouser taper and perhaps a sink-tip fly line, finger stripping guards, Polarized glasses and a broad brimmed hat. A selection of LARGE Popping bugs with rubber legs, some LARGE (4 inch) Clouser or Murdich minnows, a few large Woolly Buggers and some stout leaders (7-8 foot 0X/10-lb.), sunscreen and insect repellant, a waterproof boat bag and you’ll be all set.
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