For the second straight year, Field & Stream has partnered with Trout Unlimited on tours of America’s Best Wild Places. The Best Wild Places is a joint project and offers a unique look at some of the country’s best hunting and fishing destinations, as well as the challenges these amazing places face if they are to remain intact and functional for years to come.
As a writing prompt, Outdoor Blogger Network has asked that we post about our own Best Wild Places.
The following would be one of mine from here in Illinois.
In theory, the creeks that feed the Fox River empty of game fish for the winter.
I already knew that wasn’t quite true.
Granted, the bulk of the game fish do leave, but enough hang around to make catching a smallmouth bass in winter a welcome surprise. I’ve caught them in the past within the first mile of a creek, but now my goal is to see if I can get one nine miles up a creek.
For the past few years I’ve gone out in mid March and caught a small number of smallies from this nine mile spot. They’ve included the usual dinks all the way up to some 18 inchers. I can’t believe that within the first two weeks of March these fish have already migrated this far up the creek. I guess that’s a possibility, but I have my doubts.
This past January the Fox River was pretty well frozen over. There weren’t too many open areas to be found. But I’ve always noticed that this creek and another creek I like have always had open water. I already know they’re spring fed, I just can’t find the springs.
This past January I went to the nine mile spot. Half the creek was covered in ice, but there was still a fair amount of open water. The holes where I catch the mid March smallies were half open. In the shallows swimming around were the usual Illinois Creek Chub Trout. That day, for some reason, I didn’t bring along a fishing pole.
I won’t make that mistake this coming January.
Anyway, this Friday found me with the usual nothing to do and I found myself at the nine mile spot early in the afternoon. I’ve fished this area often. Even though it’s a forest preserve, it’s rare that I run into another person here, so rare that I can’t remember the last time it happened.
And yet, on an early Friday afternoon there were another half dozen people milling around. They were the seed collectors, the people that go around collecting the seeds of native plants so they can distribute them to other locations that are being restored.
All of them were older than me, considerably. I was impressed that they were going to go wander through the woods into areas that aren’t that easy to access. I already knew what they were up against. It’s turned me back a couple of times. I was invited to join them, but I politely declined. I explained to them that my role is to wander down creeks and document what I find in pictures. They actually appreciated my efforts.
On the hike in I came across an old deer stand. It’s been here ever since I started exploring the area, before it was bought by the Forest Preserve District. You’d be a fool to climb it, it’s seen better days.
As I walked away I came across another one. Brand new, hardly looked like it’s been used. I could have swore I was still on forest preserve property where hunting deer is illegal.
Let’s just say it’s under investigation.
The creek was low and crystal clear. The trees along the shore were surprisingly devoid of leaves and color. That’s how this fall has gone it seems. A lot of leaves fell without a show of much color.
The first cast to a slow moving run got me a feisty Illinois Creek Chub Trout.
These things will hit just about anything. They were also all over the creek. Every cast had them following the lure pecking away at it. I considered scaling down the lure size, but I wanted them trophy Creek Chub Trout, not any of those little dinks.
Okay fine, the big one was only eight inches, but when you expect nothing you take what you can get.
I could feel through the waders that the water was pretty cold. This didn’t seem to bother the Creek Chub Trout at all. They were as aggressive as hell. The clarity and the cold had me doubting the chances of tying into any smallies. I would imagine they could see me coming a mile away.
The first of the deeper holes proved me wrong. Deep is relative on this creek and it was actually a long slow run that was about four feet deep. The bite was tentative till I set the hook.
Under these conditions, I’ll take even the little guys.
On the very next cast another smallie made an attempt to grab the lure. But the hit was so tentative that I completely blew setting the hook. The next deep pool was a distance away, so I humored myself taking pictures of things that I’m sure I’m the only one that finds them even remotely interesting.
I found myself fascinated with the reflections on the water while still being able to see the bottom of the creek bed. Gave me a slight sense of vertigo when it was hard to tell the difference between the two as I walked.
The next pool is the deep pool where I think the smallies are spending the winter. Here you can’t see the bottom. I’m estimating it’s at least eight feet deep, which is rare on such a small creek. Sure enough, they were in there, but again the bite was so tentative I kept missing.
I made a cast to the opposite shore. I didn’t feel a thing, but my line started to move upstream. The fish never really took off and didn’t jump, but catching a 16 inch smallie out of a cold creek at the end of October was a nice surprise.
Another cast to the opposite shore and again the line starts heading upstream. I never felt the hit, they were just swimming away with the lure. This little guy didn’t feel any different than the bigger one I had just landed.
I kept wandering down stream trying not to fall over in the reflection laden shallow pools. I kept expecting the bottom of the creek to be closer than it was. I’m sure I looked like a drunk trying to wander down the creek.
By now, even though those wonderful Illinois Creek Chub Trout were still being cooperative, I had pretty much given up on the fishing. For the next 15 minutes I stood in the middle of the creek watching the light change. I had got lucky. One shore was lined with oak trees and the oaks were being extremely reluctant in giving up the last of their leaves. They were also showing off with a multitude of colors.
It was greatly appreciated.