Bratwurst and Musky on the Chippewa Flowage
In the northernmost part of Wisconsin, after the long cold spring and prior to the hot dry summer, there is a brief time where colors from the yellow, pink and white flowers explode on the sides of every roadbed. Not only was there this gorgeous scenic backdrop as I drove from Pembine (east) to Hayward (west) and back, but during this magical visit there were almost no flies or mosquitoes, so it was a perfect time for me to visit the Chippewa Flowage to fish for Musky.
Driving into the town of Hayward brings back childhood memories. In my mind’s eye I pictured us in the Ford station wagon with Dad driving, as I relished in the vision of each unique town through the big window in the “way back”, with all the luggage. Alone, and away from my sisters, yes, this is where I was happiest. Approaching these towns and drawn to the rivers as we crossed bridges, I would look really hard to see if kids were fishing under these bridges, and at waters’ edge. To my regret, we’d never stop at these rivers. Instead Dad would always make a bee-line for the town feed mill. A grain trader, Dad always made a point to visit the men running these mills along the way who, in most cases, were delighted to see him.
Hayward, Ohio has a mill in the middle of town that I know my Dad would’ve loved to see, standing tall and well maintained; this big red mill was the landmark that led me to my destination on this trip many years later: the Angry Minnow Brewery & Restaurant.
Like the old mill with a new coat of paint, The Angry Minnow Brewery is in an old building with a new tenant. In 2004, Jason Rasmussen and his brother Will decided to follow in their Grandfather’s footsteps and open a “next-generation” watering hole. The boys had grown-up down the road from “Metro’s Ski Inn” near the town of Cable. Their grandfather owned Metro’s, and built the business when cross-country skiing became popular in Wisconsin after World War II. As wise locals, the Rasmussen brothers chose the town of Hayward over Cable. Not only because the American Birkebeiner, (the largest cross country race in North America), runs from Cable to its finish in Hayward – but because Hayward is fast becoming known as the Musky capital of the world.
It seemed to be in their genes to build a brewery with a restaurant serving locals, weekenders, and tourists alike. The Rasmussen’s began by restoring a 100 year old brick building from a former timber company, on an established landmark on the west end of town, across the street from the mill. Serving beer and burgers has expanded into a substantial operation, which now includes a state of the art “North Woods” brewery, a well-appointed bar, dining room, gift shop, outdoor patio and a statewide wholesale distribution center.
Interested in the local offerings of Boulder County and Hayward, I reached out to my friend and fishing guide Erik Thue who led me to an avid fisherman named Jason Rasmussen, the brewmaster of the Angry Minnow. When I arrived at the brewery, I was greeted by the two brothers and had a tour of the whole facility including its “engine”, an impressive boiler system which operates in a building fifty feet behind the brewery.
This system supports the restaurant’s water heater and heating system that warms the brewery, restaurant, and Will’s family home above the kitchen. With this system and well as burning scrap wood from their father’s saw mill in the north woods of Wisconsin, this is one impressive feat! It is the kind of operation that inspires me, not only because everyone I met was happy, engaging, and spiritually attractive, but because it’s sustainable practices are serving the entire community .
We were in the restaurant just long enough to get acquainted and meet the family, when our guide Erik whisked us off to the Hayward bait shop for some rain pants and to Lynn’s Custom Meats, all to create the makings for a Wisconsin style shore supper. We were there for Brats and Pretzel Rolls but got so much more. The moment we entered the shop, I was drawn to the large butcher’s case in the center of the room, filled with sausages both fresh and dried. When I asked about the three large containers filled with beef jerky on top of the case, Lynn grabbed my hand and pulled me through the butcher’s work space and out the back door to the smoker. About thirty pounds of jerky were just starting their transition from lean, rare meat to dried, portable hunters snacks.
This was my lucky food day! Timing would have it that we were able to experience the joys of the Hayward Farmers Market. We discovered wonderful local produce, fine spring onions and sweet peas, as well as a full selection of small batch, canned and bottled produce from Donna DuBiel from Ladysmith, Wisconsin. She sold me the most delicious pickled beets and kimchi for our Musky Country salad and a few delicious jars of tomato relish and canned peaches for my mother’s pantry in Pembine. I was winning at every turn and we hadn’t even tied a hook to a line yet.
On arrival in Justin’s kitchen I had a chance to meet his morning kitchen manager, baker, and soup maker Cheryl who was kind enough to share her station with me so I could prep our riverside repast. She was just finishing up her day and the room was transitioning from prep. Obvious to me was the baking, as I walked past a bakers rack filled with freshly baked burger buns, now heading off to tend to her family at home. It didn’t take long to combine the garden fresh produce with Donna’s Kim Chi and parboil the brats and potatoes in Justin’s Scotch Ale.
We then headed out to the Chippewa Flowage, an artificial lake (over 15,000 acres) fed by the East and West forks of the Chippewa rivers, that has become a legendary fishing ground, especially for Muskellunge. We headed out from the launching ramp with great expectations and after a few hours Erik looked out at the horizon and suggested we beach the boat on a small island and fire up the brats. There was rain on the horizon and it wasn’t clear how long it might last.
Using local wood and Justin’s axe we got the fire started quickly and, while it was burning hot, cooked the bratwurst and warmed the potatoes in a cast iron skillet. The pretzel bun added a perfect option for each guy to have a second brat and about two minutes after the last brat was consumed, we were enveloped in a deluge. Happy to have my new rain pants from Hayward Bait Shop and our shore supper complete, I was dry and well-nourished despite the weather.
The rain pounded our picnic table washing down the plates. Leaving as quickly as it came, the rain stopped and it was sunny in minutes.
Now, time to start casting! I had in my possession huge 10 weight Red Truck fly rods with flies the size of my hand. Fishing for musky was new for me – they are a legendary brazen fish that can grow to four feet long. To successfully catch one, you need to understand their behavior and how a Musky interacts with the habitat. Erik taught me a technique that emphasizes completing every retrieve with a figure 8 at the boat, dipping the tip of the rod into the lake to get the fly deeper because you never know if there might be a fish trailing or lurking in the underwater foliage. It’s a contest of wills between you and the Musky and this variety of fish doesn’t turn away when you might expect it to. They can explode on a fly ten inches off the boat. Just when you think it’s time to recast, a three foot pike might fire on the fly from under the boat. They don’t spook like trout or other fish that might take off. As Erik says “the Musky is the apex predator”.
We casted for hours. Fishing the Hayward area is a lesson in patience. My arm got tired, so I gave the bow to Erik and he began to cast into the setting sun. During that time we talked about life in the Northwoods and emphasized how much we love the Hayward way of life. We watched a gorgeous sunset and saw only one fish rise to a fly. I learned that the bar and grill business is in Erik’s family too, his father-in-law operates a place called “Up North” about a half an hour away. We were patient but still no fish.
The next morning, we rose early and got on the water fast. Again casting at the shore line, and then into the “cabbage beds” (submerged foliage which provide musky with great cover for hunting smaller fish and just about anything else that swims in this great body of water). We began casting for hours, and initiated the talk of most patient fishermen; life, family, fishing… while waiting patiently for the tug. By the afternoon, with only one hit from a small northern pike, Erik suggested we switch our strategy. There are small rivers throughout the flowage that often hold fish. He told me it’s a different kind of fishing; no long casts, no deep water. These river beds are full of logs, which cause fish to break off the line, but it was worth a try all the same.
As we pulled the boat from the water and admired the surroundings, I was encouraged by Erik’s positive attitude. They call Musky “the fish of 10,000 casts”, (ironically), and between Jason, (who was now back in the brewery), myself and Erik, I figured we were in for about 2,000 tries. The day wasn’t over, and no one was giving up. We drove deep into the woods and finally pulled up to the end of a windy dirt road. Setting up the 10 weight fly rod before proceeding down a long path to the river, Erik told me that it was important to employ the same technique: don’t pull your fly from the river without working up steam and then back again, similar to the figure 8 by the boat. He reminded me that these fish tend to get angry and they don’t spook easily when fired up.
With little to no room for a back cast, (thick woods all around us), and no real experience using a heavy fly rod in close quarters, I asked Erik to demonstrate and get us started. Using a large yellow and green fly dubbed the Lambeau after Green Bay Packer colors, it was almost instantaneous. After three short casts he had a 36 inch fish on! The fight was explosive and intense. In an attempt to avoid the logs and unseen debris below the surface, Erik landed the gator-like fish quickly and efficiently. Now it was my turn, casting into the fast moving water above a deep pool. Since I was a bit long, I hooked a log. With some instruction, and whipping extra line down stream, I was able to free the large fly and cast again. This time, hitting the seam on the far side of the river, I striped slowly as the fly danced through the pool. At the end, quick strips into the shallow water above the pool, I attempted to work the fly for as long as possible. Suddenly a green flash appeared, and at the end of my rod, not 10 feet from where I stood, a forty inch Musky slammed my fly! The fight was on. I don’t recall ever having a fish this explosive on my line! It lasted about a minute, and then, following my guide’s directions, I pulled the big fish into his net. We finally accomplished our goal – my first Musky. Excited and emotional, (and almost in a dream-like state), my hands were shaking from the thrill of it all. I ended this excursion a different man and fisherman, for sure!