Embers from the Fire
A weekly blog by Deacon Dan Wagnitz for the Quad Parish Community
Blackberries & Brook Trout – 8/28/2020
A dust snake coiled up behind the pickup truck and stones kicked up by the tires clunked the
floorboards as my friend Pete and I made our way down the final stretch of road leading to his
family’s cabin tucked in the woods near Crooked Lake. Neither of us appreciated at that
moment the importance of this fishing trip.
It was the final week of summer after our senior year of high school. The next week Pete would
head down to UW Madison while I was staying home to attend St. Norbert. We had come to
fish for trout on the local streams that he and I had been trampling along together since grade
That evening we headed to McCauley Creek. It was a tiny slip of water where it passed quietly
and mostly unnoticed through the culvert in the road. Too tiny to warrant even a real bridge.
We put the canoe in. The plan was for Pete to paddle the canoe upstream alone – for two
reasons. First the stream couldn’t float the canoe with both of us. Second, there were a half a
dozen spots on the way upstream where a careful approach and a small wet fly could induce a
brook trout to dart out from under the bank which was a floating mat of laurel.
All signs were for a great night as I had three fat brookies by the time we reached our
destination – the spring pond that fed the little stream. Out on the pond it was just a matter of
paddling to the three big springs that were outlined by thick lily pads. The springs were best
described as wells – deep clear water. The rest of the pond was silted in and weedy. But those
three wells we had discovered previously were full of gold. Not coins tossed in by wishers, but
trout circled around in those wells. You could only take one, maybe two; then the rest got too
skittish after the commotion of the fight. We made it count as we took turns. Each spring
yielded a fat brookie for the stringer.
The next day we were on the North Branch of the Oconto. It is a stretch that I have only
showed one other person in all these years. You have to have a truck that you don’t care about
scratching up and some skills to creep along the boulders that threaten your oil pan as you
creep down the two-track. Usually Pete would go downstream and I would go up, but this day
we fished side by side, again taking turns at each pool with the first cast.
They hit grasshopper imitations with abandon. It was the only time we ever fished that piece of
water when we caught brooks, browns and a rainbow trout that had somehow found his way
from wherever he came from to the bottom of my creel. It was a perfect day. Even the big one
did not get away. He was a brook trout of fourteen inches, his flanks bright red and his bottom
jaw hooked and ready for the spawning season that would soon be underway. I pulled the fly
out while he gasped in my net and then I did something I had never done before with such a
nice fish. I plunged the net deep down into the water and turned the handle. The trout slipped
out and quickly darted back down deep. “What did you do that for?” Pete asked. “I don’t
know.” I said shrugging my shoulders. “It just felt like it was the right thing to do.” We left it at
that as I had no better explanation.
That afternoon on the drive back to the cabin we saw some roadside blackberries. They were
plump and plentiful. We picked a hatful each. That evening we feasted.
We lit a campfire and watched the flames. We laughed about our boyhood adventures. We
went to bed when the fire died down. We slept well.
I wouldn’t have predicted it. I didn’t expect it. But Pete and I went our separate ways after we
headed home. That weekend – that perfect weekend – was the last real time we spent
together. Pete didn’t stay in school at Madison, but he stayed in that area and made his life
there. I learned that in every life some things are left behind.
At this time of August, the same time of year as that weekend, it seemed fitting to write this
down. If Pete would somehow come across it, I would like him to know that I still cherish our
boyhood. I still remember that special last weekend. And through the years I have come to
understand why I let the big trout go.
May God bless you my friend.