Wading the Namekagon River is not a walk in the park.
I’m up in Washburn and Douglas counties in northern Wisconsin this week with a TV crew. We’re shooting footage for a documentary on two of Wisconsin’s National Parks properties for a documentary being co-produced by Milwaukee Public TV and Wisconsin Public TV. Sometimes rivals, these two entities are cooperating on this joint venture that will air this fall as a companion to Ken Burns’ new documentary on the National Park system.
Last night, after we surveyed our starting point for this morning, my crew (Michael Garvin and Gail Grzbowski, of MPTV) headed back to Spooner, while I stayed to fish the river for awhile before dinner. I donned my waders, grabbed an 8-weight fly rod and stepped into the river at the Earl Park landing. I had quite an adventure before stepping out an hour later.
The Namekagon begins at the outlet of Lake Namekagon in Bayfield County and flows southwesterly for about 100 miles to its confluence with the St. Croix. The St. Croix rises in Douglas County and flows to the Mississippi. Along the way, it forms the Wisconsin Minnesota border for many miles.
Together, the Namekagon and St. Croix are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 as the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The two rivers flow undammed for some 200 miles through country that was greatly altered by logging and development over a century ago. Many of those scars have healed, and today’s visitor can canoe, kayak and fish pristine rivers with very little sign of human settlement.
At Earl, which is located a few miles north of Trego, the Namekagon is flat and fairly shallow. I waded easily on the sand bottom, casting to bank cover and deep runs for about 45 minutes with no sign of fish. I was throwing a big chartreuse fly brother Mike tied for me. He catches bass and muskies on his original creations, but this one did not appeal to any fish, so I switched to a smaller, mostly black fly with a dash of chartreuse and a few strands of flashy tinsel.
Two or three casts later, a decent fish took the fly as I paused on a strip retrieve. It did not jump, but bulled in the current for awhile, while I juggled rod, line and camera. I wanted to record anything I caught, which is always a challenge when fishing solo. It’s more challenging in a light drizzle when you are up to your waist in dark current, feet in shifting sand with a bass that has not read the script on the line.
I managed to grab the fish and snapped a couple pics, then released it and began casting again. On my second step downstream, I realized the river was deeper here than I had thought. Until this point, one side or the other had been shallow – perhaps knee-deep. Here, the Nammy was waist deep with no prospect of shallow water ahead.
Wading downstream is easy, but when I turned and started wading upstream for the first time, I realized how much current the river carries here. Sidestepping cuts the force of the current about in half, so I faced the far bank and gingerly crab-walked upstream to shallower water, then waded across to a path that comes down to the river.
Clambering onto the bank, I could hear the laughter of the group of canoe-campers I had seen at the landing. I was just a few hundred yards downstream from them, but if I had stepped off into deep water, I might have floated away without anyone knowing I was in trouble.
The potential gravity of my situation did not strike me until about 4:30 this morning when I awoke and relived tiptoeing those last few yards down the river. Had I not hooked that bass when I did, I might have blundered into deep water and floundered for who knows how long until my feet touched bottom again and I could walk out.
Back on the bank, the Namekagon looks serene and kind, but a river half this big can kill you. I was not wearing a wader belt, either, which could have proved disastrous as anyone who has waded a big river knows.
This morning when we launch our flotilla of canoe, kayaks and driftboat, I’ll take a good look at the spot where I stopped last night. If the deep water continues there as I think it does, I’ll say a silent thank-you to that little bass that halted my downstream progress and may have averted a disaster.