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Jungle Trout and Jungle Rods

By Bob Meiser

I grew up in an area of the country that never lacked in finny diversity, nor in devoted sportsmen. The upper Great Lakes is just plain loaded with an incredible variety of game fish, and between friends and family, I was constantly exposed to one kind of fishing trip or another, on a year round basis. We fished the same waters whether they were encased with three feet of black ice, or mirroring the calm of a mid-summer sunrise.

The crew I fished with knew their home waters well, and we had a seasonal routine of fishing trips that were as diverse as the critters we were after. The decision of where to go for a three day holiday weekend, and what to fish for, was always decided by the older and wiser guys. There always seemed to be an endless amount of data that needed to be fed into the formula before a final decision was made. Things like advancing storm fronts, wind direction, safe ice, stream levels, weed growth, post spawn, pre-spawn, boat ramp crowds, peppermint versus ginger schnapps, first shift second shift work schedules, grand kids, wives, power augers, Zebco 33s, Mitchell 300s, or tip-ups, leeches, crawlers, shiners, Rapalas or Mr. Twisters. All very complex stuff, that warranted serious discussion. Most importantly though, was which resort near by, had the best polka bands, Pabst on tap, and Friday night fish fries! These were all important considerations, and these sage decisions had to be made by our most experienced souls.

As a boy, and beyond, one of my favorite summer weekend camping destinations was a small county campground on the Mt. Morris chain of lakes. Located in Waushara County, the tiny community of Mt. Morris is in the middle of central Wisconsin's legendary sand country. These lakes are typical for the area ; Ultra clear, spring fed, and tucked into the beautiful surrounding Oak and Pine hills. Their shorelines are fringed by towering stately groves of White Pine that shade modest, well kept summer homes and, a few youth camps. These are very pleasant, quiet lakes, whose silence is usually broken only by nothing louder then the mellow grumble of a 5 horse Evinrude outboard motor, or the distant laughs and giggles of the church kids from across the lake. A thick layer of long, soft, White Pine needles covers the floor of sand country, and it seems to muffle the sharp edges of most sounds. I've always loved this place. My parents and a couple of friends got together and set up a little 16 foot Mallard trailer on a small campground in Mt. Morris. Between work vacations, holidays, and weekends, we all kept the trailer occupied for the whole summer.

As a grade-schooler, I spent two summers there myself, and I got to know the lakes pretty well. The Mt. Morris chain of lakes were not really targeted by many serious fishermen. You occasionally heard stories about some camp kid being yanked from the dock by some monster Northern that decided the kids nearly landed pumpkin seed was breakfast! But, if you knew where to find them, the chain was loaded with big Bluegills, slab Crappies, Bass, and a surprising number of 36" plus Northerns. The number of these stuffed leviathans hanging above the back-bar mirrors of the local resorts testified to their healthy existence, and over the years we caught a few of these big guys, but come the full moon of June, we were after bull Gills on the beds. They were my earliest fly rod experience, and armed with my first store bought 8 ft. Heddon Pal, a level line, and a foam body Dickey Spider, I'd load up on these little brutes. I swear, if Bluegills got to be 10 pounds, it'd take a come-along to bring em in!

One late morning while cleaning a mess of these guys, I noticed a new camp set up across from ours. Leaning over a big cooler mounted on the open tailgate of a rust bucket station wagon was a newcomer to the park. He was an old guy, with a rumpled felt hat, a pug pipe, and a severely patched pair of rubber hip boots. On his fire pit, was a boiling pot of coffee, a fry pan full of spuds and onions, and three or four nice sized sizzling Brookies. He noticed my interest, and invited me into his camp with a nod. I couldn't refuse the invite, he had trout, and hopefully he'd share a few secrets with an anxious kid. He certainly looked like a wise old fishermen to me, like one of our own elders.

Waushara county is laced with miles of little sandy bottom spring creeks: The Willow, Mecan, Pine, White, and a few others. All chuck full of Browns and wild Brookies, but at this point I didn't have much knowledge of these creeks, and was antsy to learn. Once I got close enough to this old gent checking his cooler, I knew I'd really hit pay dirt, because in it was the most beautiful batch of Brookies these young eyes had ever laid on! My intense stare obviously did not escape his notice, as he offered me a place at the fire to join him for breakfast. We talked, drank coffee, and ate trout, but more than that, I got invited to join him on a section of a nearby creek, he called the "Jungle." This he'd said "Is where these trout were caught, and that the recent rains had put the fish on the bite." We'd fish together the following morning.

It turned out, that compared to this guy, we were the newcomers to this campground, as he had been using this area as a mid-way camp en-route from Chicago to the trout streams of Michigan's Upper Peninsula for over 25 years. He had a brother that lived in Mt. Morris, and the trout that he had on ice in his cooler were destined for his brothers freezer. He would pick them up on his return trip, and along with the accumulated keepers from the U.P., would return home for an annual 4th of July trout fry with his friends and family. Sounded right to me.

As I was returning back to our camp, he asked about the rod I'd be using in the morning, and I returned with my new Pal. "Nice rod" he said, "Any flies?" and I showed him what I had. "Good, but you won't be using them tomorrow, too much brush, they don't call it the Jungle for nothing! We'll be using garden worms and crawlers, you can borrow one of my cane rods." I was fine with this, as I had been fishing every hand-me-down bamboo rod I could get my hands on. But, I was proud of my new fiberglass fly rod, and asked him if I couldn't rig it for worms, and pass on the bamboo offer.

He said "Son you can bring whatever kinda rig you want tomorrow morning, but if you wanna catch Jungle trout, I'd take the offer. Your rod won't get you into the really brushy, deeper, dark water shadow holes, and under cuts where the bigger Brookies are. Let me show you a few of my cane rods. You'll see what I mean. I got a few started at my brothers place, and I need to get them done for him before I leave for the U.P., he fishes the Jungle too! Go ask and see if you can drive over to my brothers place with me." This Jungle business was sounding more intriguing all the time, especially the "deep dark hole" stuff. I definitely had to do this!

I was introduced to his brother and family, and was led to an old weathered, cedar shingle clad building on the lake shore, that served as a boat house, and work shop. Its sun lit wooden plank floor was full of benches strewn with tools, and fishing gear. The exposed, ruff sawn rafter and ceiling joists above us, supported long lengths of 4" thick air dried Pine and Oak planks, ancient wooden landing net frames, bags of duck decoys, wooden oars, and calendar girls. Cob webs held small piles of pine needles suspended into every corner, and in the afternoon heat, the building gave off the friendly smells of old out board gas, Borkim Riff pipe tobacco, and pine shavings.

On one cleared bench top, were three bamboo cane poles, each about 6 to 7 foot long. Not split cane rods, but cane poles, like no other I had ever seen before. The old guy called them "Calcutta" cane, and said "For this purpose, Calcutta is the best cane to use. They have smoother nodes, are straighter, better tapered, lighter and stronger then the regular cane poles one can buy at most any tackle store."

He was right, I was very familiar with the tackle store variety of cane poles, and these looked more like a stout piece of tapered oat straw. I didn't really know what a "node" was at the time, but I got the idea. These poles had a much smoother surface, and the node segments were spaced much further apart. The three poles he had on the bench were in various fazes of construction, with one nearly finished.

It was this one that he handed to me. It was very light, and had a gentle flex to it. It had a highly polished Oak wood seat fastened into the hollow butt end of the cane pole. On the seat were two polished copper rings made from " wide sections of plumbers pipe. These held the legs of an old single action skeleton frame fly reel in place. The grip above the reel seat was formed from a taper covered winding of heavy cotton cord, of which each end was lashed with a 1" long wrap of fine, single strand copper wire. The rod had only one agate guide on it, and it was located just above the grip. Just above this single guide, was a smooth, feathered back, tear shaped slot bored through the rods surface, with another similar (though much smaller) slot, 6 inches or so bored below a mounted tip top. The whole rod assembly was finely wrapped and varnished. A fine braided casting line went from the reel, through the guide, and entered the inside of the rod at the lower slot. It exited the rods interior at the upper slot, and went through the tip top in the normal fashion.

I had never seen anything quite so impressive, nor confusing! My first question was: "How does the line get through the inside of the pole?"

"I burn out the node membranes with red hot steel, then finish the inside with extended rat tail files and reamers" was his reply. "That's what were gonna do this afternoon, and your welcome to stay and watch if you wish."

This I had to see!

The steels used to burn out the membranes were in various lengths and diameters, made from 1/2" to 1/8" diameter round stock. They were heated on the burner of a white gas camp stove until the tip glowed, and then quickly, plunged into the interior of the pole. The membranes burned out quite easily, and smaller diameter stock was used as he progressed towards the tip. The membrane edges were than cleaned up on the inside dia. of the pole using an extended series reamers or files. The reamers were made from square stock steel, with the edges ground and sharpened. Again for this purpose, various sizes of square stock were used to match the I.D. of the pole. They were set up with a "T" handle and turned by hand. Very simple. The tips of these poles were a shy 3/16" O.D., the butts maybe 1" or so. He made the rod in two sections, cutting the pole at a mid length node. The sections were then butt joined, and outside sleeved with a glued in place, edge tapered, collar of bamboo. This he over wrapped with silk thread. Beautiful!

Upon completion of the nearly finished rod he'd shown me earlier that day, he handed the rod over to me and said " Here you go laddy, the perfect Jungle Rod, if you wish, you can use this one tomorrow." I didn't bother to ask him why he went through so much trouble to build a rod with no guides. I felt sure he had his reasons, and I also figured that it surely had something to do with this mysterious Jungle business. I'd find out about this stuff tomorrow.

As instructed, I met him at his campfire at sunrise. His breath was visible over a hot cup of coffee, and little was said as we both waited for the sleep to leave our eyes. When we finished our coffee he said, "Let's go son, the trout await us " The creek section we drove to was not on public land, and I will say no more (as a solemn oath I made to him then, and still hold to this day) other than that it is a section of water between Mt. Morris Hill and Lake Poygan. We parked the car well off the road, hidden from the view of passerbys.

When asked why he did this, and chose to walk down the road for nearly half a mile before we crossed the bridge, his answer was, "Sometimes people follow me or my brother, to see where we're gonna fish!" Now, I'd heard stories of guys like this. Seemingly paranoid guys, that leave their driveways before sun-up with their lights off, so as not to alert the neighbors of their departure. Guys that when followed enroute to their favorite fishing holes, lead their uninvited guests on a merry chase throughout the unlit back roads of rural Wisconsin, for miles on end, only to return them back to their own driveways! Could this old coot be one of these legendary guys?

There was no visible trail as we left the road to enter the brush that engulfed the creek, and the fact that my guide, and mentor, carried two items in his hands : a trout rod and a machete, lent some ominous twinge to this ordeal. I had never seen such a thick jumble of buck brush and tag Alder. In fact, I don't think I could have imagined it. It looked in every sense of the word: Impenetrable! We entered the brush on our hands and knees and tediously crawled our way back towards the creek.

At one point my, what I now considered to be my quite possibly crazed, and seriously deranged trout guide said "I have a trail blazed through this thicket just ahead. I don't cut the trail right to the road because, if I did, every local within 50 miles of here would be sneaking in and following me and my brother's trail to our best holes." I remained unresponsive to this explanation. At minimum, I just wanted to see a trailhead, or at least be able to proceed vertically. At maximum, I was considering the fact that I might be on the verge of becoming some weird tabloid statistic!

As foretold, the trail did begin just a short distance ahead. It was a narrow, barely shoulder width, winding passage, with thick edges reaching well above our heights. The alder branches had obviously been pruned back for years. Shortly, the trail led us to an untrammeled grassy section of under cut meadows.

"This" he said "is where we'll begin. This hole is deep, so don't use a little garden worm, use a big crawler to get down deep enough. Go off to the side at the top of the hole, and weasel your way into the brush. Don't spook the hole. Poke that rod right through the brush, and feed out line downstream into the undercut, and watch the line closely. If it even twitches, set the hook. If it stops, or starts moving up stream, set the hook, if line suddenly starts screaming off the reel, and heading up stream, don't bother to set the hook. It's a big trout, and he's yours!"

I did as instructed to the letter, and immediately realized the advantage of this rod. The line never got tangled in the brush as it was fed out, nor did it tangle up as line raced through it with a good fish on. And boy I hooked a beauty on that very first drift, in fact I hooked several that morning, all thanks to the fact that the old guy let me have first crack at nearly every hole we came to.

It turned out that he and his brother had been grooming this trail for many years, and in fact, they each lengthened it a bit every year or so to open up new holes. The trail followed the creek for more then a mile and a half. Right through the entire length of the jungle. The trail never really went right to the creek bank. They cleverly placed secret trail markers, so you knew where the cut offs were that led you on hands and knees to exactly the right position above each hole. In many places, you could be literally 6 feet away from the creek bank, and not see it. For this reason, Jungle trout rarely saw a hook, and they grew bigger then the average Brookie found in the near by public waters, and there were greater numbers of them. Over the following years, I too, with their permission, cut a few lengths of my own trails down to the hidden, tangled banks of the Jungle, and told them what trail markers to look for. This went on for many years, and I don't think more then 5 people actually fished this water on a regular basis.

I know both brothers are now gone, this was over 25 years ago. But I do return to this neck of the woods every few years, and I still fish these same secret holes. The creek is still full of nice Brookies, and it's now the only stream left that I will allow my over-inflated fly fishing ego to use bait on. The Jungle trail is now in the hands of a loyal, un-named guardian, and I trust its whereabouts will always remain a secret, except to a chosen few. I don't think it's possible to fish this water with anything other than a Jungle Rod, and I am told it's present river keeper fishes with one of his own, made in the traditional Jungle fashion.

Three cheers to our clever, departed, rod builder, and his Jungle trout. May his legacy continue forever! ~ Bob Meiser

About Bob

Perhaps this early brush with rod building sparked an interest in rod building. One never quite knows these things for certain. Bob however is a fine rod builder, but not of cane rods. His speciality is Spey rods. You can see his rods at: R.B. Meiser Rods.

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