True Confessions from Black Earth Creek


By Claude Clayton “Bud” Smith

AS A KID in Connecticut I went trout fishing once a year—with my older brother, father and grandfather—on Opening Day, April 15th. We got up at four o’clock, as sleepy as on Christmas morning, and were at the Pomperaug River by five, standing elbow to elbow in the cold and fog with hundreds of other fishermen, waiting for someone with a wrist watch to announce that it was, finally, six o’clock, and time to wet (and tangle) our lines. In all those years I caught but a single trout, tossing a goldfish lure with my spinning rod, a brown trout a measly eight inches long.

Fast-forward sixty years, and I’m no longer an adolescent but a retiree, having downsized to a condo in Madison, WI, where I was happily prowling the local lakes for bass in my fishing kayak until a good friend, as pure a trout fisherman as the immortal Ted Williams, introduced me to Black Earth Creek, of which I’ve been a devotee ever since. Never mind that, unlike my friend, I still fish with a spinning rod and don’t wade in the water. I’m here to tell you that Black Earth Creek has some of the best trout fishing in America.

I’ve fished its shores from that little waterfall in Cross Plains (beneath the bridge on County P, just off Highway 14) west to Salmo Pond (where I once took a fat 24-inch breeder rainbow that hardly put up a fight, knowing I was going to toss it back in anyway), clear on through Black Earth and Mazomanie. Fishing mainly on weekdays throughout the year, I rarely encounter another fisherman. And I rarely get skunked.

A short while ago an article in the Wisconsin State Journal described the exploits of a fisherman enjoying the winter season at a stream about an hour north of Madison, where this guy was thrilled to catch an 18-inch “monster brown.” Monster? Not hardly. Nice fish, but not a monster. I’ve taken many 18-inchers from Black Earth Creek, as well as many smaller ones less than 12-inches, which I’m allowed to keep and fillet for my wife after the first week in May. The real monsters are the ones I’ve lost in Black Earth Creek, fish that have got that big because they’re too smart to be caught, leaping high out of the water to rip free of my Roostertail or Panther-Martin lure the instant they sense it in their mouth. These trout run in excess of two feet, and believe me—I will get one of them. I know they’re in there, along with some big northern pike and smallmouths, which I’ve caught from time to time as well. At Black Earth Creek—winter, spring, summer or fall—I never know what each outing will bring, but I know it’ll be exciting.

Some tips. After it rains, wait at least three days before fishing, although I’ve broken this rule and caught fish in muddy water. (Fish gotta eat, just like we do.) And you don’t have to get up at four o’clock! In winter it’s too cold, and the ice on your guides can get annoying. (Try WD-40 in a travel size spray bottle; Pam, or Vaseline.) It must be close to 30 degrees before I venture out, with warmers in my boots and gloves.

In summer, the early dew will drench you. I’ve caught most of my fish between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., the same hands of the clock through which I toss my lure, letting the current take it a bit before I reel it across the stream. Fish the holes below the riffles (duh!). And watch out for that big puppy dog along Wolf Run, the size of Marmaduke. He will come galumphing up behind you out of nowhere. The first time I encountered him my heart nearly stopped. Now I can hear him coming. He’s just happy for company, will splash in the water right in front of you, then go galumphing off.

Last summer I got what I thought was a brilliant idea—I’d fish Black Earth Creek from my fishing kayak. Never again! When I put in behind the Shoe Box in Black Earth, I sunk in black muck up to my shins and lost one of my Crocs, which I only retrieved by getting my arm black-mucky up to the shoulder. There was a sign posted nearby—something about keeping to the right a mile downstream. I ignored it. Then, a mile downstream, I encountered a wire fence blocking the way like a badminton net. Keep to the right? There were half a dozen cows to the right, where I was supposed to lift that fence over my head and proceed. Instead, the tail of my kayak—a 14.5 foot Native Ultimate—swung into the middle of the stream, and suddenly I was going sideways. So I grabbed the fence, nearly tipping, and held on for dear life, until somehow the rear end got free and I was headed downstream. Backwards.

Even when I got turned around, the stream was too swift for fishing. The only way to fish was to ground myself, which became tedious. Later, having run aground on a gravel sandbar, I capsized when I got out to drag the kayak into the stream. Stumbling, I fell and swamped myself while grabbing for my paddle, which had set off on its own merry way. Only when I’d bailed the kayak did I realize that I’d lost my fishing rod, a two-piece Ugly Stick, which is still out there somewhere with a SilverMax spinning reel full of 6-lb. test Trilene line on one end, and a shiny Panther-Martin on the other.

And—who knows?—one of those Black Earth Creek monsters pulling it along.

Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, is known as “Bud” when he goes fishing, which is often. He has brought his Connecticut childhood fishing skills to Wisconsin in retirement, to test them against the Madison chain of lakes and the trout streams of the Driftless Region. To read more of his writing, visit


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