His casting looked like he belonged in a scene from the classic fly-fishing movie “A River Runs Through It.” His imposing size silhouetted in mid-stream belied the artful coordination he conducted with a fly rod. His casts landed on the stream like a feather.
As I watched from a distance, I could see that the fisherman was focused, but also at peace. The long false casts, the stream swirling around his thick legs, and green hills rising in the background completed the picture of a young man in harmony with life.
The fisherman is Niko, a senior at Mauston High School. He is one of my students, and at school we usually spend more time talking about fishing than we do “business at hand.” His mother never fails to remind me of this fact and makes her point with a scolding eye-roll.
Niko is a soft-spoken power-lifter, who can wax poetically about the magic in a trout rising to an artificial fly, and understand the importance of spending money at local fly shops instead of at some “Wal-Gander-belas.”
Niko found his passion for fishing at a young age, despite not having anyone to encourage or mentor him. He saved allowance, birthday, and Christmas money to buy fishing equipment and made do with gear that his meager budget could supply.
When many of his friends perfected their video game skills in front of a TV all summer, Niko spent his time fishing below the dam. During the winters, he endured below zero temperatures and harsh winds without the benefit of a shanty while chasing panfish on Lake Decorah in Mauston.
After watching another fisherman casting a fly rod, he decided that he wanted to learn how to do it. He convinced his parents to buy him “a cheap” fly rod, studied You Tube videos and practiced casting in the street and on Decorah.
He educated himself on trout fishing techniques, entomology and fly tying. He plied trout streams around Mauston, but experienced frustration since the waters are not conducive to fly casting because of the overgrown alders and brush.
We discovered that we shared an interest in fly-fishing and I told him about my experiences in the Driftless area of southwest Wisconsin. I suggested we fish there together, but the plan never materialized.
Niko got tired of waiting for me, so he took the initiative and ventured there himself. In fact, every Monday since June, he got up at 4:30 a.m. and drove to the Viroqua area.
Niko got to know the fly shop employees and owners, picked their brains and spent some of his hard-earned cash on flies and other necessities. I imagine they took an interest in this “kid” with the earnest, unassuming and eager attitude who showed up religiously every Monday. Perhaps it was refreshing dealing with him rather than the pompous, hotshot fly-fishing “experts” from Chicago or the Twin Cities who come with open wallets and arrogance.
Niko soaked up their knowledge like a sponge, and week by week, he parlayed that information into success on the trout streams.
A couple of weeks ago, Niko and I finally arranged a fishing trip. Even though I consider myself a fly-fishing hack (I struggle with casting, line tangles and remembering if a 5x leader is heavier or lighter than 3x), I still thought I could impart some fly-fishing knowledge on him.
As it turned out, Niko could have schooled me. Every fishing nugget I came up with, he politely suggested that he already knew it. By the time we hit the stream, I had exhausted all of my tips and resorted to identifying species of birds with the hope he was not a closet ornithologist too.
We enjoyed the camaraderie that is unique to two guys fishing alone on a stream. We alternated from pool to pool, fished close enough to hear the splash of a hooked trout, and share in the excitement of the fight that followed.
As the sun settled behind a nearby ridge, I was about to announce that it was time to go. However, those darn trout continued to rise, eating insects that we had failed to match with our imitations.
The trout taunted us. They brazenly splashed right next to our flies time and again. It was definitely time to leave.
I think that Niko would have stayed all night, but since I am the elder statesman in this partnership, he graciously reeled in his line and followed me out to the road.
Niko is a man of few words; that is, unless fishing is the word. The ride to and from Viroqua was filled with talk about “droppers,” midges and Pink Squirrels; topics most people in our lives know nothing about. We agreed that after a summer of us each driving to the Driftless solo, the ride goes by a lot faster when shared with a kindred spirit.
We made plans to fish together again and discussed a departure time. Niko reminded me of his usual 4:30 a.m. departure. I swallowed hard at that notion, reminded him who the “elder statesman” was, and told him not to show up at my house before 6 a.m.