Night Fishing In Cooks Run

Bill Hall

When a friend asks, “What do you do at your summer place?” I respond, “ I play nine holes of golf in the morning, fly fish for trout in the afternoon, and drink gin and tonics in the evening.” “Whoa,” he’ll reply, “You can’t beat that.”

The summer place I’m referring to is our “cottage” at the Big Sand Lake Club in Phelps, Wisconsin. It’s right smack on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP). Most of my summer fishing is done in the UP where the Paint River and the Iron River are within fifteen to thirty minutes of the cottage depending on the access point.

It should be clear from the description of my day that my fishing is done in the daylight. This concentration on daylight hours places certain limitation on the characteristics of the fish I catch. They’re predominately brookies with an occasional brown. The brookies average seven to eight inches in size and a fourteen incher is a lunker (the size of the biggest brook trout I’ve caught in these waters in the past 25 years). As for brown trout, my biggest has also been about fourteen inches, certainly not a lunker for this species of trout. When I have been able to catch a lunker brown (20 inches or more), I’ve had to travel long distances and at great expense to such venues as Montana, Chile and New Zealand. Little did I realize there were brown lunkers available to be caught in the UP within a 15 minute ride from our cottage.

My education began this past summer, and its really not my tale. It’s the tale of the Kinners, father and son, Rodney and Ethan. For me, it began a few years back when my eyes began to fail because of macular degeneration. It reached the unhappy point where I lost my driver’s license. No longer could I drive my Explorer to my favorite Paint River access points. To make matters, I could no longer tie a fly to the tippet. What to do? Well, what
about Ethan?

For many years, Rodney has taken care of Ann and me. He has opened and closed the cottage, put in the dock and boat, and done numerous other chores. Ethan cuts the lawn and keeps the wood bin full on the side porch. At the start of my blindness, Ethan was in high school in Iron River. So I asked, “Ethan, what do baby sitters get paid up here in the North Woods?” After he told me, I said, “How would you like to be paid $10.00 an hour to take me fishing while I teach you to fly fish?” And so began a lovely relationship between the old man (now 80) and the young man.

We started with casting lessons in the driveway, knot tying instructions (the clinch knot and the double surgeon’s knot), and we practiced working the water. He drove my Explorer to many of my favorite access points on the Paint River and its productive tributary, Cooks Run. He became an avid learner and began buying new gear as he observed my trappings (waders,
vest, net, creel, etc.). It became a rewarding companionship between the two of us. Ethan even began tying flies, the ultimate in trout fishing lore.

With Ethan working at home this summer, he and I were on Cooks Run in the “Meadows” area, which is a canoe-able section with some deep water and much stream improvement work by the DNR to deal with excessive sediment build-up. We had caught a few brookies and were approaching the car when Ethan stopped and peered into the water at a big bend just below where the car was parked. “Mr. Hall,” he exclaimed, “there must be thirty fish down there, and some of them are pretty big.”

He waded upstream, crawled down the bank and exclaimed, “I’ll betcha there’s at least three that are twenty inches.” Of course, we cast flies at them, but no way would they take any offering on the surface or below. So Ethan decided he had to try something else, something more productive than my methodology. He’d give night fishing a try. “Want to come along, Mr. Hall?” “No thanks, Ethan, you do it and let me know how it turns out.”

Let’s pause here briefly to describe the waterway known as Cooks Run. It is a spring-fed stream which begins in a meadow south of US Route 2 and winds through the Ottawa National Forest and occasional private property until it flows into the South Branch of the Paint River. It flows eastward to a trout rearing pond, then north under Route 2, curving east again where it runs
under FH 16 on its way down to the Meadows. After the Meadows, there’s a long run of great fishing water with a rather new stream improvement section towards the end. Finally, it turns north under the old Northwestern railroad right of way and into the South Branch of the Paint. In recent years it was heavily overrun by beaver dams which were destroying the fishing.

Fortunately, the DNR, under Bill Ziegler’s direction, removed the dams and the beavers to restore the stream to Class A condition. During many afternoons, in this stream, I’ve caught my share of brookies (and a few rainbows which have escaped from the trout rearing pond) plus an occasional brown of modest size.

Well, in June, Ethan was reporting to me that he was getting some humongous hits after 10:00 pm on Cooks Run. One of the first browns he caught after a long tussle was 18 inches. Since he wanted to share the fun and I was reluctant, he turned to Rodney. I’m told that Rodney was ready to hit the hay when Ethan walked into the bedroom and said, “Dad, you’ve got to come
with me. The fishing is unbelievable,” So what did Rodney do? He dressed, gathered his fishing gear, and made a 10:30 pm jaunt to Cooks Run.

Well, folks, here’s how things turned out for the Kinners. Between June and September, Ethan and Rodney caught about 30 browns between 14 and 22 1/2 inches in length. They also lost about a half dozen fish that tore off the fly. Typically, they fished between 9 pm and midnight. The mosquitoes and fish bit the hardest in June and July, with a marked tapering off for both
of them in August and September. Ethan wore face netting. Rodney endured. He said that it wasn’t too bad, but I don’t believe him. I tried one early evening outing on the Meadows with Ethan and came home with quite a few welts.

So, you fishermen say, what did these guys use to catch these fish? Well, first, dear reader, they did not use spinning gear, metal lures, or bait. Remember, I’d taught fly fishing, which Mike Royko once described as fishing with “gnats and fleas.” So what kind of gnats and fleas did the Kinners use? They used muddlers tied with marabou hair, streamers (imitating sculpins,
which are plentiful in these waters), leeches, and home-made dries (size 16 white Wulff and miller moth). Most fish they released, but some they kept as trophies and some that went belly up after a long struggle. The latter made good eating. Ron Lax, the taxidermist in Conover, Wisconsin, has three fish he’s going to mount this winter, the biggest being the 22 1/2 incher. In the bellies of the trout they killed were an assortment of insects, snails, and even a small mouse.

They tried different locales on the stream, the best one having pools more
than waist deep. As an aside, I’ve fished these spots in the daytime with
nothing to show for my efforts other than a few small brookies. This is not a big stream by western standards but it obviously has plenty of room for some hefty trout if you have good night vision and can tolerate mosquitoes.
It’s paradoxical that as I write this little treatise I’m flying to Missoula
pursuit of large trout, knowing full well that there are plenty just as big within 15 minutes of our summer home. The difference, of course, is that I can catch big fish in the daytime out west, with my lousy eyesight. Yet, it warms my old heart that Ethan and Rodney can match me inch for inch and pound for pound just minutes away in the UP’s Cooks Run.