Boats Featured Travel

Barefooting for smallies in the wilds of Wisconsin

As soon my friend Josh Fiester and I got the text from Hannah Matousek upon landing in Madison, Wisc., last week I knew the next couple days were going to be special.

Hannah, one third of the team that makes up Black Earth Angling Company, let us know that she took the liberty of picking us up some incredible sammies for the drive to the rented cottage on the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River, where we’d be staying in for a few days. Apparently we’d be fishing until dark and dinner wasn’t going to be served until 9 p.m. We had pile of smallies to catch until the light ran out, and she wanted to make sure we were fueled up.

I had booked this unique trip with head guide and owner of Black Earth, Kyle Zempel, pre-COVID a couple of years ago. It was of course, canceled last year, and while we struggled with the idea of travel this year, we decided to go for it. Thank goodness we did, as it might have been one of the most authentic, relaxed and unique guided fishing experiences I’ve ever had.

The program is simple. Fly to Madison, drive an hour to a fairly remote and well appointed cottage on the banks of the Wisconsin River. Meet your fishing buddies, kick back a few incredible local beers, slice off a piece of Milwaukee mudflap, causally rig rods, and hit the river until dark. Repeat the next two days, with a mid-day siesta, and some of the most delicious and locally sourced and prepared food by guide and chef Ben Lubchansky–for all three meals. In this case our fishing buddies were artist Jake Keeler and new-found friend Brian Koll, a firefighter from Milwaukee.

Half of what makes this trip so unique is the fishing style. The center of attention are schooling smallmouth bass (yes schooling) that willingly slurp down frogs solo or blitz baitfish when fired up. These are fish so hot, that even a 13-incher puts the wood to you and your 8-weight. We also caught sizable pike, white bass, maybe hooked a muskie (at least I’m telling myself that) and even walleye (one on a popper).

The scenery is first-rate with sandhill cranes, pelicans and bald eagles around every corner. And, hundreds of nighthawks migrated though in the evenings. While most of the fishing is done from tricked out jet boats, the wading experience is like none that I’ve ever done on a river. The bottom is basically sugar sand. Glass bottles are illegal on the river, so barefoot wading is strongly encouraged and lovely to do. In fact, I might have slipped on my sandals once or twice for my entire stay–the boats are covered in a SeaDek material making them barefoot heavens as well.

The fishing is honestly so good that there’s really never any pressure to fish. You catch so many freaking bass, that just sitting on the boat, cracking a beer and taking it all in is almost as satisfying as a big ol’ smallie on the end of your line.

The other half of the puzzle at Black Earth was the immediate camaraderie I felt when entering the “lodge.” I’d never met most of these guys and almost at once I felt like we’d just gotten the band back together again for the 10th year in a row. The guides have a deep knowledge of the land, water and food they serve, and while fishing is the main attraction, the simple telling of stories around the fire at night and at lunch breaks comes in a close second.

If you’re in need of a trip that’s different, and some of the most unique small-jaw fishing I’ve ever seen, check out Black Earth Angling Company. You won’t be disappointed.