Categories

Content Type

Sources

Paul A. Smith: Wisconsin's Bibon Swamp area delivers natural fireworks [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

MASON, Wis. - A distant rumble accented the gathering twilight recently at Bibon Swamp State Natural Area near Mason.

Closer at hand, dozens of lightning bugs painted orange-white streaks over the marsh grass.

And from the White River at our feet, meaty mayflies fluttered into the sky.

Soon after we saw the first of the flies, a heavy splash - the equivalent of a trout cannonball - emanated from a dark stretch of the river nearby.

"These are my kind of fireworks," said Bill Heart of Ashland.

It was 9:30 p.m. on July 4.

Elsewhere in Bayfield County and across Wisconsin and the nation, shells burst overhead and entertained throngs of our fellow citizens.

Heart and I paddled deep into Bibon Swamp for a different kind of Independence Day celebration.

We set out to honor our public lands, one of America's greatest assets, and hunt for some of the White River's big brown trout.

The Bibon Swamp State Natural Area is 9,599 acres of the wildest, most remote land in Wisconsin. I'm proud to call it "mine" and "ours."

Some might refer to it as a godforsaken place.

But the nearly 15 square miles is a rich fish and wildlife habitat, replete with bogs and muskeg, white cedar and black ash and speckled alder.

The White River winds through it, providing the best access to the Bibon's most remote sections.

Late June and early July is the traditional hatch of Hexagenia limbata, the second largest mayfly in North America.

The mucky swamp is perfect habitat for the "Hex," which often stretches 2 inches from head to tip of abdomen.

When the Hex hatch peaks, it's enough to bring the biggest trout out of hiding.

Coincidentally, the bugs often emerge at 9:30 p.m., the same time as many municipal fireworks displays.

The Hex is notoriously fickle and Heart and I didn't know what to expect.

But thanks to four access points and parking lots installed around the public property, we knew we'd be able to visit the Bibon to find out.

We hauled a canoe down to the water and paddled about a mile through the White's curling path into the swamp.

Heart, 69, said he first fished the White in the late 1960s.

The river so captivated him that he moved from Green Bay to Ashland in 1978 so he could be closer.

"If this is the last place I ever fish, I'll be happy," said Heart, who has experienced some of the best trout fishing in the Western Hemisphere, including in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and Argentina.

Now retired, Heart has served as Trout Unlimited's state council chairman for three years. He also was the Wisconsin representative to the Trout Unlimited National Leadership Council for five years.

No commitment can keep him from the White, however.

"I come in by myself, mostly," Heart said. "It's so much fun."

One year during the Hex hatch he caught a 25-inch brown trout.

The fish had been rising erratically, making loud splashes as it engulfed Hex spinners, Heart recalled.

He worked the trout for the better part of an hour but failed to hook it.

Finally Heart decided to change things - he began casting erratically. The fish hit.

Heart battled the brown in the dark and landed it at 15 minutes before midnight.

Just an angler, a wild piece of public land and water, a star-filled sky and the trout of a lifetime.

One year, Heart was fishing after dark in the Bibon when heavy footfalls sounded from the opposite bank. He then heard a snort and the large animal, likely a black bear, moved off.

Last year on the Fourth of July, Heart saw a shooting star cross the dark sky above the swamp.

The streak lasted for 10 seconds.

"Better than anything you'd see in a city," Heart said.

A summer fishing trip into the Bibon Swamp comes with a guarantee of bites. But it's the anglers who will be bitten.

The wetland is home to millions of mosquitos. But also thousands of dragonflies, swallows, bats and trout, which put a dent in the insect population.

Heart and I were most interested in the finned bug eaters.

Our Independence Day night began about 7 p.m. as we paddled into the Bibon; golden sunlight slanted across the swamp. For two hours, we cast streamers to various runs and alder-chocked shores.

We saw not another human angler.

About 8 p.m. a big, waxing moon appeared over the spruce and ash.

Heavy rains had moved through the area over the last week and the river was a little high and a little more off color than usual. Fine grains of sediment formed on the fly line and coated our fingers.

But there are few more intact wetlands in Wisconsin than the Bibon Swamp. The White ran well within its banks.

We beached the canoe in a bed of marsh grass; the opposite bank was lined with alders.

The Fourth of July festivities began in earnest at 9:30 p.m. in the swamp and many other American locales.

After the sky reverberated to the sound of a distant shell, trout began exploding in the White.

A veil of mayflies flitted on and over the river's surface in the gathering dark.

Heart waded in and began casting a Hex spinner pattern upriver.

On his fifth cast, he lifted to resistance.

The fish tugged deep and pulled line from the reel. Over the next minute, Heart was able to work the trout into a waiting net.

The brown was about 17 inches long and, befitting the occasion, wore red spots.

It, like the others we hooked over the next hour, was quickly released to resume its life in the wild swamp.

By 11 p.m. the hatch dwindled and trout activity ceased. We loaded up the canoe and paddled out under the light of the moon.

Fireflies helped illuminate the banks and bull frogs called from the shores.

For Heart, me and millions of Americans with similar sensibilities, public lands such as the Bibon provide recreation, clean water, clean air and high quality fish and wildlife habitat. And what's more, they provide a critical connection to nature and spiritual refuge for U.S. citizens.

"My favorite place on the planet," Heart said.

When it comes to celebrating our freedoms, support for and use of public lands is as patriotic as it gets.

___

(c)2017 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.