Last Best Streams: #612.

March only felt like it crawled by. Now we’re halfway through turkey season, better than halfway through the white bass run, smallmouth are spawning. Another month, six weeks from now and it’ll be too hot to chase muskies. Things are still happening, even if we’re stuck inside.

I picked up a copy of Blue Highways while on lockdown and did my own ambling over two-lanes, with gas at a buck fifteen and the first paragraph of the state Stay at Home Order making provisions for recreation. The highway cantered northeast across table-flat former prairie, just beginning to green among the headstones of old country cemeteries. The fields themselves were brown, barren, disced and harrowed to receive seed of corn and soy. It seemed awfully brave to plant, given the current economic climate, but the seed and the fertilizer’s already been bought, and even industrial-scale farmers still live on hope.

Another hour toward the river the country became rougher, more dissected. The farms smaller, their sloping ground less amenable to massive half-million dollar implements, more pasture and cows and goats than rowcrop. Along the steepest slopes you still see the regal crowns of old open-grown white and post oaks- wolf trees, foresters call them, for taking up so much space. Vestiges of open woodland and savanna.

We’re in that space on the map where the stream could be a muddy prairie ditch, a clear, cobble-bottomed upland stream, or practically anything in between. The river winds a tortuous path- thirty miles as the crow flies, double that by water dropping off the prairie to carve steep limestone paths on its way to meet the big river. That diversity of deep prairie soil and shallow rocky uplands, the stream’s proximity to one of the nation’s largest rivers, accounts for its diversity- easily more than 50 fish species, probably upwards of 70. I could conceivably catch largemouth or smallmouth bass, warmouth, crappie, any number of other panfish species, white or striped bass, gar, carp, freshwater drum, even walleye or sauger.

It’s also the space on the map at the fringes of exurban development, where million-dollar McMansions butt up against working farms and vintage house trailers. One of the latter has a stockade of pallets stacked side-by side along the road for what feels like a hundred yards. Towers and grottoes and jungle gyms of pallets on the inside, a child’s playset or a militia’s obstacle course.

There’s two cars in the haphazard parking lot, a group camped on the upstream gravel bar pitching rigs for catfish and day drinking. I work downstream, managing casting and the dog. The fly stops in a seam, the rod comes to life.


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