Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Fly Fishing © Dale Viertel

Fly Fishing in the Plover River.
© Dale Viertel

April 2013

Blackberry Winter

When blossoms make us stop and savor the moment.

Bruce Brennan

When I was growing up, whenever anyone spoke of going to the Northwoods, they mostly talked about going there to hunt or fish. But hidden within the beautiful northern Wisconsin wild country also was the opportunity to harvest wild berries.

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries (or the very similar huckleberries) were hard to find. When we ran across them, we usually just picked and ate them on the spot.

Blackberries were different. We had a special taste for the prized berries and they were not hard to find, at least not for us. We hunted rabbits in the winter and rabbits hang out in briar patches, mostly blackberry brambles. So, because we followed the rabbits, we knew where to find the blackberries in the summer and sought out the remote patches to pick undisturbed.

In the spring, bright white blossoms also give away the blackberry bush.

I first noted the blossoms on blackberry briars one unusually cold early June morning while cutting through the woods to get to a brook trout "crick" with my Pa. The white blossoms were fragrant and resembled Ma's rose bush blooms. Pa told me to remember the spot because come late summer, there was going to be a load of blackberries for the pickin'.

From that time on, I tried to keep note of berry patches for hunting cottontails in October and picking plump blackberries in mid-September.

One year, we met one of Pa's friends at a bend of the crick. He was standing next to a huge patch of blooming blackberries. The white blossoms made him stick out like a lone tree on a snow-covered hillside.

Old John already had some chubby flame-red native brookies. He had them stacked in layers of wet grass, which he had gathered from along the crick to keep the trout moist. He caught them on some lively night crawlers that he had picked the night before and he asked if we wanted some. Pa told him "No, but thanks anyway." We had some smaller angle-worms that worked just as good for us in luring brook trout.

Old John asked which way we came in and Pa told him we had cut through the woods instead of taking the old grownover logging road that crossed the stream. Old John had taken the same route. We had passed a positively massive patch of blackberry brambles in full bloom.

I asked Old John if he had seen any other blackberry brambles in bloom on his way in. He pointed his rod, indicating he came across one good patch along an intersecting fire lane and had stopped to look it over while taking in the sweetsmelling blooms. Seeing those beautiful blooms on such a contrasting cold day was breathtaking.

Old John pointed out that most people are oblivious of such a natural event. It is impossible to enjoy such a rare sight if you're sitting in the house.

I guess Pa and John were such good friends and got along because they looked at nature in the same way and would rather be outdoors most of their waking hours.

It was still very chilly. You could see your breath. The "sap" was running from all of our noses and we swathed them from time to time with a long swipe of our coat sleeves. Old John told me that the odd cold weather when the blackberries are still blooming is called a "Blackberry Winter."

I had never heard the phrase before. Old John said his grandparents passed along the name from even older folklore. Old John's explanation for the phrase origin, "Blackberry Winter," was based on the unseasonably cold weather and the masses of pure white flowers, which resembled clinging snow on the vine.

He thought the cold weather helped keep the blooms fresh so people like us could enjoy them longer and hopefully pass on the experience to others. I could sense that he was delighted to have passed along such a remarkable legend to a young 'un like me.

After that enlightening encounter with Old John, it was a long time before I experienced a "Blackberry Winter" again. Old John and my Pa passed away. As time lapsed, I too unfortunately forgot about the unusual occurrence until I went trout fishing with a friend for the last time in Wisconsin before taking a new job in Florida.

Dale and I planned a final fishing trip along our favorite river. It would develop into a bittersweet fishing trip because Dale was planning to leave the state too for a more lucrative job in California. Dale and I had fished for trout all over the county since we met in high school. Over the years, we enjoyed one particular stretch of the Plover River the most.

Dale and I had planned to arrive at the stream before the sun came up. At daybreak, I would fish upstream and he would fish downstream. We would meet at a beautiful deep crystal clear pool that always held some fat brookies that were just long enough to fit in my cast iron skillet.

It was a crisp morning. Trout season had only been open for a few weeks. I donned my chest waders and stepped into the gurgling stream. It was barely dawn as I carefully worked my Mickey Finn streamer. Since it was so cold, I figured dry flies would not work as well until later on in the day when and if it warmed up.

A big brown trout shot out in a blur from under a huge submerged log and took my fly. He darted back for his safe haven as he bent my light fly rod into an arch. I finally had to give him some line to prevent the 2-pound test leader from breaking. He chugged on the line disappearing deeper and deeper underneath the log when the line suddenly became stationary. Despite his desperate escape tactics, the rod had finally stopped twitching. I still had tension and was hooked up but not on that big red and yellow spotted brown trout. I pointed my pole tip under the log and pulled the line tight hoping to get the fly back.

Unfortunately, the trout wrapped my line around some sticks under the log, and then broke off! I slowly withdrew my line from the tangles. Even though big trout had done this to me countless times before, it always gave me a momentary helpless feeling of great loss and defeat.

Fighting the trout had taken my total attention. But dawn had now fully broken and I could see a magical wonderland of snowy-covered berry brush all the way to the next crick bend. Losing a big trout always gets my blood up. But this time I just stood there with my flyless line swaying limply back and forth in the fast water behind me.

A pleasant memory from almost 30 years before came over me. I recalled a wise old man telling me a story. Once again I was standing in the middle of a "Blackberry Winter."

I tied on another fly and slowly fished each hole while taking in the dense white blooms with sweet scent that followed me upstream. It looked like the stream was the road ahead with high white snowbanks on each side. At the final bend before our meeting place the flora crowding the stream abruptly returned to total lush green. I took a final look back, but it was over.

I met Dale around 9:30 and we sat on a big rock in the middle of the stream to clean our brook trout for breakfast. We made a small fire and brewed some coffee, fried some eggs then a few bacon strips. I rolled the trout in a mixture of flour, salt and black pepper then carefully placed them into the black skillet with the sizzling bacon oil. Some of the brookies barely fit in the pan. The melding aromas of the steaming coffee and fish frying in bacon grease was beckoning for two ravenous appetites.

We found a scenic spot near the creek to sit and enjoy our breakfast, laughing and joking as usual. We recalled some of our most memorable trout fishing excursions. Taking pictures of my outings is something I rarely do. But I am glad Dale took some. We broke camp and left everything the way we found it. Dale and I fished around the deep pool catching and releasing everything we caught. We were quiet. It was hard to tell he was there except for an occasional splashing fish at the end of his line.

When it was time to leave, we cut directly through the woods along an old deep deer trail that led to the logging road my car was parked on. As we walked along the trail, I felt sad that this might be the last time we fished trout together in Wisconsin. I noticed that Dale walked with his head down.

I stopped under a big white oak tree to look closer for some blackberry brush blossoms. I had not seen any since just before the meeting place along the stream. I asked Dale if he had seen any blackberry brambles in bloom. He gave me an odd look and said he did not see anything blooming. I pointed to a jack-in-the-pulpit nearby and said there still are some plants blooming wild in the woods.

That day was the last time in 27 years that I saw blackberry blossoms in full bloom. My first experience as a child trout fishing surely amazed me, caught my curiosity and left a strong imprint. The second encounter many years later re-established that memory that had been forgotten and overlooked but not lost. Maybe these special "winters" are only meant for certain people who need that extra little nudge to fully awaken them to truly appreciate and be thankful for our natural woodlands.

Days before the opening of trout season in Wisconsin, I always vividly recall myself trout fishing on those two separate wondrous bygone cold days in spring. By owning these memories like templates, it is easy for me to recreate and enjoy another new "Blackberry Winter" wherever I am.

Bruce Brennan writes about his Wisconsin outdoors memories from Satellite Beach, Fla., where he lives with his wife, Sandy, and their two Lakeland Terriers. Brennan retired a year ago from the Department of Defense at Patrick Air Force Base with almost 33 years of total government service. He was born in Wausau and graduated from Wausau High School before it became Wausau East in 1969. He says, "Ever since my youth, I've been an avid hunter, fly fisherman and skier. Wisconsin will always be my true home."