Matt Dickerson: Big and small discoveries of 2016

One of my first discoveries of 2016 was that it is possible to catch trout in Indiana.
Some of my earliest (and fondest) fishing memories come from Indiana. When I was a teenager attending family reunions in the 1970s, my Great Uncle Bill would take my brothers and me out fishing in his boat, patrolling the local quarries for bluegill, crappies and rock bass. It was good fishing. Though even more than the fishing, I remember the massive breakfasts he fed us at 5 a.m. to make sure we had enough energy to sustain us through the morning. Bacon and eggs and biscuits and pan fries and toast. It was all I could do to walk to his car after the meal.
But it was not trout fishing, and nothing I ever saw in Indiana would have led me to believe that the state even held trout.
Then a free weekend in the midst of an early February speaking trip gave me a chance to spend a day chasing steelhead on a Lake Michigan tributary with Trail Creek Guide Services. I landed one of the brightest-chrome, hard-hitting lunkers of a steelhead I’ve ever had on the hook. Though I hooked no more fish that day, and never saw another angler hook one, I did sit at a low artificial waterfall built to prevent the migration of lamprey eels, and over the course of 10 minutes I watched a half dozen steelhead leap up and over the falls. Incontrovertible evidence that Indiana has trout. In fact, since I released the one I caught, I have evidence that there are seven trout in Indiana.
Another discovery was that Iowa has trout, though my evidence was somewhat shakier. Unlike Indiana, I had never fished in Iowa. I don’t even think I’d spent a night in Iowa until April of 2016. But there I was with my fly rod, a fishing license and a weekend to spend with my nephew.
A day and a half of fishing didn’t lead to a single trout in the net or even on the line. But near the end of the second day, fishing a little stocked stream that cut through a state park, I spotted one: a foot-long brook trout in a deep pool under a log. I saw it as clear as day. And I spent about two hours trying to drift a nymph past its nose in a way that looked natural. I did, on perhaps four occasions, elicit a second glance and a half-hearted rise from the fish, but it never did put its mouth on my hook. All I had to show for my efforts was an expired out-of-state license, and a memory — not even a photo — of a trout under a log.
A third discovery was that high quality sunglasses really make a big difference. With most outdoor equipment — fly rods, tents, hiking boots, socks, rain gear — I’ve always thought it worth paying for high quality gear. It doesn’t pay to be cheap. For some reason, though, I never applied this thinking to sunglasses. I’d just take the least expensive pair on the shelf as long as they were polarized.
Then this year I discovered Costa sunglasses. My first weekend with them was that April trip to Iowa. I fished with them. I spotted a trout with them. I drove with them across the plains of Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. Though I think the Costa eyewear brand is more famous (and more heavily marketed) among saltwater anglers than inland river fishermen, I took them up to 11,600 feet in Wyoming’s Rockies for a month of camping in thin air and bright sunshine. Wearing them, I saw the world with a clarity I had never imagined before. Perhaps more importantly, I could see under the river with more clarity. I could see more clearly through the sunglasses than without them.
Speaking of gear, I also discovered Korker’s wading shoes. To be fair, Greg at Vermont Field Sports has been telling me about them for a couple years, raving about the great design. But then my nephew Brad, in Alaska, started praising them also. And Brad is the sort of person who doesn’t buy any outdoor gear until he has researched it for days or months to find the very best quality, and then researched for several more days to find the lowest price. When I want to buy some new item of outdoor gear, I almost don’t have to do any research myself; I just call Brad. So with his endorsement, I went back to VFS and bought a pair.
I can’t yet speak to durability, but the comfort was as good or better than any pair I’ve ever owned. The extra feature that really made them stand out was their system of interchangeable treads. On the same boots I can use tungsten-spiked treads for extra grip, or swap them out for non-spiked treads when I’m going to be in a boat (to protect the boat bottom), or old-fashioned felt (which are my favorite treads for slick rocks, have been illegal in a few states because of the risk of the spread of invasive algae, but were recently made legal again in Vermont). It takes only about a minute to swap out one set for another — a feature I have already made good use of.
I also discovered that Oklahoma has trout — which was even more surprising to me than the presence of trout in Iowa and Indiana. If I didn’t have a friend living in Oklahoma, I wouldn’t have imagined the state holding any trout. But it does. I actually held one in my hand. But all I could prove in Oklahoma was the existence of one trout. Because after that one trout I discovered how unfishable the Little Illinois River becomes when the hydro dam starts generating.
As for 2017, of course I have no idea what I’ll discover. Maybe it will be some innovative new item of gear. But what I’m really hoping for is some wonderful new river that holds a lunker trout.

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