EAGLE, Wis. — They stood at water’s edge, buffeted by an icy breeze, and exchanged New Year’s greetings.
Larry Wirth peeled off a layer and waded right in.
“Feels fine,” said Wirth, grinning as the water rose to his waist. “In fact, it feels great.”
Some resolutions are easier to keep than others.
While throngs of anglers plunged into Lake Michigan on Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach and other locations, Wirth and a dozen other anglers gathered at a spring pond in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit for their own traditional start to the year.
“We don’t have anything against those Polar Bears,” said Greg Schick. “But this is cold. That might be crazy.”
Sensible clothing, including neoprene waders, and the relatively comfortable spring water makes the difference.
The site is Paradise Springs, a 3-acre liquid jewel tucked amid the oak-covered hills of the Kettle Moraine.
There are many definitions of nirvana. But for avid fly anglers ready to ring in the new season, this place is aptly named.
“I’ve been waiting to do this for three months,” Wirth said, casting a fly line over the calm water. “Couldn’t get here soon enough.”
The water flows clear and clean and 48 degrees, filling the pond before tumbling over a dam and into Paradise Creek.
Paradise Springs is a catch-and-release trout fishery managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, the property features a spring pond, nature trail, fishing pier and creek.
While most trout water won’t open in Wisconsin until March, Paradise Springs opens Jan. 1.
Schick and fellow members of the Milwaukee Lake and Stream Fly Fishers club have gathered at the pond each New Year’s Day since 1997.
“There’s a social component and a fishing part,” said Schick, club president. “And yes, we often spend more time on the social part.”
Schick and club member Mark Reisner stand on the pond’s wooden casting platform and string up their rods.
It’s no easy task with the wind humming at 20 mph out of the west and the air temperature at 18 degrees.
“You couldn’t pay me to do this,” Reisner said. “But since it’s my own decision, here I am.”
It’s an exercise in suffering, sure. But also an homage to the outdoor life, to fishing, to a pretty spot in the Kettle Moraine, to clear water and the fish that live in it.
And it’s shared.
“It’s mostly a friendship thing,” said Jay Zawerschnik, walking the pond perimeter, looking for trout.
The clear, spring water makes that task relatively easy. Foot-long trout are seen gliding beneath the surface; every few minutes the surface of the pond is dimpled as a fish takes a meal.
The clear water, however, also makes it easier for the trout to scrutinize anglers’ offerings.
The conditions call for long, fine tippets and small flies.
Schick pulls out a new favorite fly. He calls it the “Dust Buster.”
“It sucks up all the fish in the water,” he says, holding back a laugh.
That’s part hyperbole, part angler dream.
Despite the tough fishing, the optimism is palpable.
After 15 minutes of casting, Wirth hooks a trout. The fish dives toward a weed bed and then splashes at the surface as he gently leads it toward shore.
It’s a 10-inch brown trout, solid and handsomely spotted. After a quick swipe with his hand, Wirth unhooks the fish and it returns to the depths.
The history of the site is well documented back to the late 1800 s. It has variously been home to a hotel, a horse track and a business that sold water under the name Lullaby Baby Drinking Water.
The DNR has managed the pond since the early 1980 s. Regulations require the use of artificial lures and immediate release of any fish.
Though the water temperature and quality is trout-friendly, the bottom substrate is less hospitable; very little natural reproduction occurs.
To maintain the fishery, the pond is stocked with rainbow, brook and brown trout. Most trout are stocked as yearlings and are about 10 inches long, said Sue Beyler, inland fisheries team supervisor for the DNR’s Southeast Region.
There is far more fishing than catching on this opener. After a couple hours of fishing, groups gather to share cheese and sausage, warm drinks and a few cigars.
The sun has made itself scarce this morning. The rounded hills of the Kettle Moraine have offered some protection from the biting wind, but the wind chill is surely in single digits.
There is some debate about the best pattern of the day — egg, caddis, midge or leech — but there is no disagreement over the success of the outing.
“How can you beat it?” said Schick. “We’ve got the rest of the year to get warm. There is only one New Year’s Day.”
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