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Wisconsin fishing opener: Friendship and fishing never grow old

ON WISCONSIN'S BRULE RIVER -- Everything looked right. Rick Moss laid a tight loop of lime-green fly line against the soft green of the cedars.

His muddler minnow lit like a feather on the dark water of this fabled trout stream. Moss, of Wausau, Wis., began stripping in line.

He was casting from the bow of a canoe, and in the stern sat his longtime friend Tom Heffernan of Port Wing. The two of them had decided to spend Saturday's Wisconsin fishing opener in the same way they had spent countless days and nights over the past 35 years -- in a canoe on the Brule.

The two met in college in the mid-1970s at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"In the summers, we'd spend four or five nights a week fishing," said Heffernan, 54, who now is an art teacher at South Shore School in Port Wing.

Those nights were spent fishing the upper Brule's elusive brown trout. By 1980, both men were guiding fly-fishers by night for those browns, and they guided for many years.

Saturday, Heffernan and Moss were looking for some brookies at a wide spot in the river where they know the fish live. The two men have released hundreds of fish on the Brule, but Heffernan had made it clear that if any of the day's brookies exceeded the 10-inch minimum size limit, they were bound for a frying pan.

"Rick and I are pagans," Heffernan said. "Rick refers to brook trout as spiritual vitamins."

Those frisky square-tails are as handsome as any fish in the river, but they also crisp up nicely fried in a light batter.

Elsewhere on this 45-degree opener, anglers were zipping across lakes in their boats, seeking hotspots for walleyes or northern pike. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle was on the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward, busy not catching any fish.

But Heffernan and Moss had this stretch of the Brule to themselves. Out of sight around a bend, a handful of anglers worked the fast water below a set of riffles.

Jim Bryce of Cumberland had been pitching lures with spinning gear for a couple of hours.

"I had a lot of action. Smaller fish. Little browns," he said.

He had met another angler leaving just as Bryce arrived.

"The guy I met going out had done well," Bryce said. "He had his limit."

Nels Peterson and his son, Steig, 14, of Marine-on-St. Croix, were gearing up for fly fishing at the spot Bryce had just left.

"Some of us have been coming up here for 15 or 16 years on the opener," Nels said. "Some years there are no fish, but it's always a good time."

It's always a good time because it's the Brule. Protected by the Brule River State Forest, coddled by fisheries managers, watched over by those who own stately homes on its shores, the Brule remains a tremendous fishery.

"Not many things stay the same," Moss said, "but the Brule seems to."

The fishing has been consistent through the years.

"Last year, in late August, we had great fishing all day long one day," Heffernan said. "We ran into an ant hatch. ... We probably caught 30 brookies."

An angler has to cling to memories of days like that on days like Saturday. No brookies were interested in the flies they were offered, at least through mid-morning.

Everything else about the opener on the river was just right. An osprey

yammered from its perch in a dead birch. Canada geese worked up and down the river, and kingfishers worked across. In the woods, grouse thumped for dates.

Finally, Moss quit casting. He and Heffernan just drifted in the canoe, telling stories as old friends will do.

But they hadn't given up on a skillet full of brookies.

"Maybe this afternoon," Moss said.