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Uncle Sam's Trout
written by James Card

Public-access fishing on American military land holds lots of wild country, lots of rules and regulations, and hard-earned fish.
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I was looking forward to fishing the trout streams of Fort McCoy. The last time I waded the waters on this U.S. military reservation was when I was a kid at a Boy Scout jamboree. One of the activities during the weekend was to help with an ongoing trout stream restoration project. Looking back, all I can remember from that weekend is hauling bundles of brush while neck-deep in icy water.

Silver Creek

A nice place to compose nature haikus, but poor water for hooking into sizable fish.

While pondering this old memory, I turned a corner and my truck fishtailed. A thick layer of loose pea gravel covered the asphalt, and when I hit the brakes, everything happened in slow motion. Like the gentle tipping motion of a pendulum, the nose of my truck leaned into the ditch and plunked into a chain link fence post. I was stuck. 

The fence post dented my front bumper, and the angle of axis was so acute that my rear wheels spun uselessly. Other than that, the truck was fine. A civilian guy stopped by and said he'd get some chains. Perfect, I thought. 

Twenty minutes later, off in the distance, I heard the sirens and saw lights flashing in my direction: one ambulance, one fire truck, one squad car and two military police utility trucks. Army slang for what happened next is called a cluster-something or another.  I spent the next hour filling out numerous forms and writing statements while my precious morning fishing time dissolved into the midday doldrums.

Lesson 1: Never forget you're on military land

Since 1972, the Fort McCoy fisheries program has been keeping 71.2 miles of streams in good health, with 70% ranked as Class I trout water. Along with standard conservation practices like controlling erosion, monitoring water quality and doing fish surveys, the fisheries program has been keen to install over 400 L.U.N.K.E.R. structures, an acronym for Little Underwater Neighborhood Keepers Encompassing Rheotaxic Salmonids. 

Sign reads,

Iraq or Wisconsin?

A positive "rheotaxic salmonid" is simply a trout that faces upstream; a negative rheotaxic fish faces downstream. These structures serve a dual purpose: to stabilize streambanks and to create a near-perfect hiding spot for trout. 

Lunker structures are made of oak slabs that are wedged parallel into the bank and spiked into the streambed with steel rebar. Another slab is cantilevered over oak pylons and it forms a tunnel-like environment that funnels drifting food to the well-protected trout.  The wood is covered with rock and dirt and seeded and, in the end, is the ultimate ambush point for a trout hunting its food and for an angler hunting the trout.

I drove to the Pine View Campground to get a fishing permit.  Nearly all U.S. military lands that are open to public hunting or fishing require extra paperwork and a bit of cash.  The lady asked to see my state fishing license and asked what kind of fishing I would be doing. 

"I'm looking for trout," I said.

"Oh, right down here at Trout Falls has lots of good trout fishing."

"Where is it?"

"Just down past the campground."

These places are known to all anglers.  Places like "Bass Lake" or "Pike River."  One who is new to an area might suppose that Bass Lake holds a lot of bass. But that is what everybody thinks, and most likely it was named that long ago, back in the days before it became fished out.

The stream was the headwaters of the La Crosse River and my trout sense wasn't picking up any signals. No darting shadows, no rises, no flickers of fish. The noon sun put a harsh glare on the water and any fish would be down deep. I made some half-hearted casts while scouting the stream and left angry that I fished the most obvious spot, especially one near a campground out of all places.

Lesson 2: Avoid all bodies of water named after fish

Moss Covered Lake

"An algae slick made casting a floating fly line useless, and reaching open water demanded water in my waders." 

I decided to check out another place called East Silver Lake, a man-made impoundment of Silver Creek, which is home to a naturally reproducing population of brook trout. It was deep within the military reservation and I figured that might discourage anglers of lesser ambitions.

Getting there required some thoughtfulness and mapwork. The free map given to me at the campground office was useless, and it looked like it was drawn by the village idiot with a box of crayons. By cross-referencing the map with my DeLorme atlas, I navigated the gravel roads with signs warning about wearing Kevlar beyond certain points and black-out conditions. Other signs were written in Arabic and used as props in training missions. According to one sign, Baghdad was 450 kilometers away.

Lesson 3: Bring your own map

I only had the afternoon left and wanted to make the most of the remaining day. The water surface near the shoreline of East Silver Lake was covered with an algae slick that made casting with a floating fly line useless, and to reach open water would demand water in my waders. 

Picking up a trail at the lake's edge, I hiked up to the inlet stream figuring there would be a gurgling creek with riffles and undercut banks. I found it just like I imagined, except on a miniature scale with ankle deep water over a sandy bottom. It meandered through a sandy marsh at the upper end of the lake and would make a nice place to compose nature haikus while drinking bourbon, but it was poor water for hooking into sizable fish. Two-inch brook trout fry scattered at my footsteps as I started the hike back. 

Lesson 4: Headwaters of trout streams not always best

With my fly rod stowed in my backpack to make better time, I hiked to the other side of the lake following a brushy deer trail and found the tailwater coming out of East Silver Lake. It was a small woodland stream with a sand and rock bottom and loaded with mossy deadfall. The tree canopy bathed the trout stream with shade and fended off the penetration of sunlight, which gave rise to enormous ferns and the primordial stink of rich, moist soil.

After a few minutes of careful stalking and making the occasional cast, I spotted foot-long brook trout hovering under an impenetrable tree stump that created an all-natural L.U.N.K.E.R. structure. I cast a parachute ant and let it drift into the tangle of tree roots. The fish slashed at the fly with enough aggressiveness that no hook-set was needed. I slide through the ferns, down the bank and into the water to gently bring him to the net. With an hour of sunlight left, it was the only fish caught that day and that was enough. It was all I came for


U.S. military installations are scattered all over the country. Some allow public access for fishing and hunting and others don't. It's a case by case basis.

To locate government land that is used by the military yet open to the public for fishing, head to www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/index.html. This site provides in-depth descriptions about U.S. bases and camps. Although there may only be a brief mention if the facility is open to public fishing, descriptions of the places will give you some background and a starting point to narrow your search. 

Another related resource is the National Park Service's "Federal Lands to Parks Program" (http://www.nps.gov/flp/). Surplus Federal land is transferred to state and local governments to form nature and recreation areas that allow public access. One point of their guidelines is to protect boating and fishing access.

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