WILDERNESS JOURNAL

First canoe camping trip of 2015
Mark Walters • OUTDOOR COLUMNIST

I had a simple plan that would involve canoe camping on an island and fishing for northern pike with a rod and reel.

This plan was to take place on Whalen’s Grade, which is located in Columbia County and is fed by Rowan Creek and the backwaters of the Wisconsin River.

Tuesday, March 24

High 41, Low 28

I had no plan of doing this trip until I heard from three separate people that 40-plus-inch gators were being caught the week before by ice fishermen. Whalen’s Grade and the Rowan Creek watershed are perfect spawning habitat for northern pike which spawn in early April. So I thought perhaps I could break the 40-inch mark and do it in my canoe.

The first thing that happens is the Lake Wisconsin side of “The Grade” (as it is commonly called by locals) is a sheet of ice. This means the boat landing is blocked off and I will be the only person on this piece of water.

Second, I load my rig with enough gear to live for a month on the very remote island that I will call home, once I paddle to it. There is a snow/sleet/rain forecast, so I have to be ready.

Third, and folks I grew up 10 miles away in Poynette, so I have been here before, this is really important for local outdoorsmen and women to know. The back part of The Grade is growing a healthy crop of wild rice. This has been happening for years but now it is creating some significant changes which would put a pretty physical twist to my experience.

When Rowan Creek enters The Grade there is an area of maybe five acres where the wild rice had been growing in about a two-acre section. That area has grown to about three acres and now that silt from the creek is not filtering through the rice. Mud flats are being created where you could drive a boat three years ago (a mud boat would not have worked this week).

As I said, my canoe was very loaded and when I went through this area I had to do 50-yard pushes while wearing chest waders. I would sink to mid-thigh in mud and this workout is so physical it is almost indescribable

So with my trusty pup “Fire” sleeping nearby, I build a hardy camp with a three-season tent which I tarp and then I rig up three poles for fishing with shiners and a fourth for casting.

My plan is to paddle up the creek, cast for gators (northern pike) and then head down to The Grade and watch bobbers where I was told the 40-inchers were caught.

There were thousands of migrating ducks and Canada geese everywhere. Up the creek, it was mallards on the open water and it was thousands of ringbills and a few canvasback.

The wind is strong and out of the east which is a bit of an issue and after no luck up the creek I anchored on The Grade with very high hopes.

The gators had lockjaw but my mind never stopped thinking. When I was a kid, my dad, brothers Mike and Tom and myself spent at least a dozens days a winter out here ice fishing for northern pike and playing hockey.

Dad would be up two hours before daylight, cook a big breakfast and have us chopping holes and setting tip-ups just as first light was touching the eastern horizon.

In recent years I have slept in my canoe and trout fished up the creek and two years ago I camped here for two weeks and trapped and duck hunted.

I have caught lots of 40-inch gators but never one out of a canoe. Today in a hard wind I tested my body and never had a bite.

Wednesday, March 25

High 42, Low 30

Last night I listened to sleet and wind pound my tent and I was perfectly comfortable.

Today I gave my body and my bad hand, which in January was injured in a wood splitter, a really good test. I fished in four areas of this beautiful wilderness area and spent most of the day in a crouched position while wearing chest waders in my canoe.

I did not have a single strike on a minnow or while casting. The wind was horrible in the afternoon and when I got out of my canoe my right foot had been numb for so long it took several hours for it to wake up.

Though I did not catch a fish, I tried. I endured some harsh weather, I had an important revelation on the wild rice situation and most importantly I had the best movie a person could watch and that was hundreds of awesome memories reenacted while sitting in a canoe.

Get outside! Play hard!

Sunset


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