Cover Story: Mad About a River

The Mad River inspires dedication

Jon Hughes/

The Mad River's channelization 80 years ago saved some flood-prone farmland but hasn't dampened its supporters' fervor.

Rumbling through my trunk, I check my gear cautiously. Fly rod. Tippet. Wading shoes. Reel. They're all present, the same as they were last night when I packed the trunk and 10 minutes ago when I checked and rechecked.

At 6 a.m., though, my mind is still thick with sleep, and the workings of the previous night are lost in mental cobwebs. I doubt myself and check the trunk again. It's all there. I think.

Darkness dominates as my car putters away from my home. Flocks of glowing orbs zip along the streets. Work. These people are heading to work. So am I.

But my work doesn't reside in an office. I don't punch a time clock. I'm one of the lucky ones, and I appreciate this.

In my car I'm hell-bent on getting to the Mad River. Like the other passengers in the dark of morning, I want an early start to my job. I too slam the pedal and flip blinkers, cutting and swerving.

But then it hits me. Nobody cares what time I show up. The river certainly doesn't.

This desire to hurry has been instilled in me. That's how we work, right? We wake and hurry and rush to toil.

I think of a conversation I had with Jon Hughes some months back. He took the photographs for my cover story on Handle Bar Ranch (see A Way of Life, issue of July 11-17, 2002).

When I picked him up at his home, a canoe teetered on the top of his car. My kind of man. He likes to get out.

As we rambled along to Handle Bar Ranch, Jon and I began to talk about the Mad River. He's canoed it several times. He smiled slyly as he spoke of those float trips and said wryly, "Mental health."

Happy, alone & in control
I laugh in my car with the gas pedal jammed to the floor. Laugh and think myself a fool. I chose this type of work, partly because it chose me and partly because I wanted time. My time.

Those furious seconds that slip silently from our lives, those blips and beeps, I wanted those to myself — as much as possible. Still, in my car at 6 a.m., I'm doing the same thing. I might as well work inside an office in a row of cubicles lit with fluorescent bulbs.

Zipping north on I-75, I reach the Norwood Lateral. The moment of truth. There are two ways to get to the Mad River from Cincinnati. Two very different paths.

The hell-bent fisher inside screams to stay on I-75. The trip is roughly 20 minutes shorter this way. Twenty minutes less in the car and more in the water. Tempting.

Yet I tap the brake, slide right and head that other way, the slow way, the twisting-and-turning-and-bumping-through-farms way. The mental health way.

I can't help but despise myself for initially wanting to rush. The Mad has suffered extensively because of this very same mentality. Because people want quick instead of slow.

I hop from I-71 to State Route 68 and begin the single-lane romp through country hills blanketed in fog. Waves of green trees and white mist.

The gold of sun slips from the horizon, slips and bends and flashes on rows of corn. A farm house sits in the middle of one of these fields, alone and draped in golden light.

I wind the windows down, even though the air is cold. I let the glass slide into the metal door. I want the outside in. I want the smells.

The radio is off. The tires humming along. Silence. A new day is birthed.

I'm struck by the beauty of the land, the simplicity, mere miles from our bustling city. I'm struck by the feeling of a path leading to an oasis.

Perhaps our city leaders should take this very same trip wrapped in fishing vests, shaken daylong in the dark of night, pulled from their slumber and thrust into the open. Into the fog. The green. Out of the commotion. Away from the troubles.

Maybe. Probably not. But what about their mental health?

When I reach the Mad River, an hour and a half after leaving my home, the sun is resting on the ridge of the horizon. Sitting like a rooster on a fence.

I park in a gravel lot next to the river. Again I pop the trunk and rustle through its guts. My gear is all there. I assemble my rod, tie on a leader and a fly and walk down the slope toward the river.

No one else is here. I'm alone. Happy and alone and in control of those seconds slipping from my life.

Rushing from A to B
The morning air is cold and nips at my bare legs. I refuse waders. Refuse to be wrapped in neoprene.

I like the feel of the water, cold and clear and burning my skin. I like the way it instantly pulls me into its flow, the way it whirls around my ankles. I feel as though a part of this river, one small blip in its current.

The water is gin-clear here, unlike most Ohio rivers and creeks. Gin-clear like a veil has been lifted from the water, boldly disclosing its hidden world.

I step inside, move to the center of the flow, my head pointed down to inspect the water, looking for those brown and speckled bodies perfectly camouflaged. Nothing.

Then a thick row of "thwap thwap thwap" startles my motion. Long and lean and gray, a heron thwaps downstream, shaken from its perch by my slapping water walk. It too is looking for the same brown speckled trout as I — the long yellow beak its hook, the lanky curved neck its rod.

I watch then, as the clumsy but graceful bird breaks the air, as the wings stretch and flex and hop a bit downstream before stopping, floating and resting on another barkless log.

Gazing down the length of the creek I'm struck by the beauty it presents. I could be somewhere in Appalachia tromping through the tailwaters of a mountain stream.

Inside the creek, immersed in cold rushing water wrapped with a line of trees on either side, you don't know you're in the middle of Ohio farm country. You wouldn't believe you were in the Buckeye State if someone blindfolded you, shoved you in the back seat of a car and let your eyes take in the light of day only once you were standing in the middle of the Mad.

It's odd, really, this feeling of wilderness so close to home. Yet there are some telltale signs. A few clues if you're willing to look.

The channel of the river is ruler straight. No twists and turns, no letters written in the language of water: Cs and Ss and Us, the way rivers usually sign their name in the land. They bend and twist to elevation and bedrock, curve and slither their name for you. But this river, this mad and straight dash, has no letters.

It's farm country. Has been for a long time. That's why the river runs straight.

Marty Lundquist, a fisheries biologist for the Ohio Department of Fish and Wildlife, informs me that this channelization took place in 1917 and again in 1923. It's not natural. You can tell just by looking.

It has the mark of an Army Corps of Engineers project. Simple. Straight. An engineer's dream.

Farmers surrounding this river lost soil and crops, lost precious time and energy, when the then-meandering and twisting Mad with its slow flows would flood. Water rising and washing farmer's work and lives downstream.

They wanted the channelization, and the Army Corps of Engineers delivered. They came with bulldozers and the like and dredged a new channel for the Mad, ridding the river of its language, forming a straight line that didn't ponder its downward slope in twists and bends but one that rather rushed headlong, point A to point B, as quickly as possible.

Farmers must farm, and we who don't live on farms depend on that. We eat their food or the cattle that eats their food. It wasn't odd back then to cut a straight-line shot into a bed of running water. It saved livelihoods for sure.

The channelization that's straightened the Mad isn't the only man-influenced aspect of this river. The brown trout that swim in its flow were also placed here by humans.

They too aren't natural to this stretch of water. But I love them, travel here as often as possible to see them and hunt them and catch them and set them free again. They're like a gift, really. Something the residents of Ohio might not have had without the Mad.

But how can fish that need cold, clear water survive in a river in the dead pan middle of Ohio? Most of our rivers and creeks are warm and brown with silt, a trout's worst nightmare. But the Mad is different. Unique. A gem hidden in the middle of flatland farms.

Lundquist tells me it's a spring creek, kind of, although the Mad isn't fed by one lone spring at its source. The majority of the riverbed is gravel and porous, and from this porous substrate ground water, cold and clean, leaks continually into the flow. A mystery. A true marvel of nature. A trout's dream.

I walk with the flow of water, downstream, before fishing. On the left side of the bank a pair of white-specked fawns leap and bound, hop between trees and vanish. I watch the spot where they appeared and disappeared, hoping they'll come again. But they don't.

They too like the Mad, come here to lap its cold water. And they're somewhat of a sign, a marking, a signal of the river's health.

Never a day like this
Brian Flechsig, who's owner, operator and founder of Mad River Outfitters in Columbus, has made a living off the Mad. He owns one of the largest fly shops in the country.

"Ever since 1996, the river has improved dramatically," he says, and he should know. He spent eight years researching this beloved stretch of water, eight years that resulted in the book The Fly Fisher's Guide to the Mad River.

I spot trout hovering in the water when I finally stop walking, stop and sit and watch the water before beginning. I see their slender bodies fanning in the cold water. And I smile then, because the river is doing well. Straight as a nun's morality, but alive and beating.

Several organizations have formed to help the Mad, and without doubt this devoted effort has resulted in the river's improvement. There's the Trout Unlimited Madmen Chapter, the Mad River Steering Organization and various local, state and federal authorities. They've all worked together to protect and improve this stretch of wonder in the middle of Ohio.

What faces the trout population of the Mad today is a lack of habitat. Trout need the cold, clear water the river provides, but they also need structure and places of deep slow water.

When you look down the Mad, you see minimal fallen trees in the current, minimal boulders and rocks that divert water and scour pits known as pools. The result is a length of river that runs shallow and straight. Knee deep. And trout, although camouflaged expertly, have no place to hide.

I find a spot downstream that looks good, maybe 500 yards from where I parked my car. It's an old railroad bridge with a clump of trees stuck against the pylons. A clump of trees that diverts the water, throws it across the channel and downward.

The water is almost 7 feet deep in this area. And with branches and limbs dangling in and out of the flow, the trout have a great place to hide. I begin here.

I cast my fly upstream, above the clump of trees that force the water down. I watch as it rolls and tumbles on the film of the water, rolls and swirls downstream.

A few casts, and nothing. I try again, knowing this to be one of the best spots on the river for trout to hide. My fly whirls around the clump of tree, runs along an eddy line and then, slap, water thrust upward and out.

A trout has risen. Strong and determined, it's sucked my fly made of feathers into his mouth.

I land the fish after several minutes. In my hands his body is golden like sunrise, golden with bright blue and red spots. Maybe 12 inches, maybe smaller.

I place his body back into the cold tumbling water and watch as he darts away, back into the deeps, into the mess of branches and limbs.

I sit on the bank of the river in the dirt and check my fly. The trout mangled it, stripped feathers from the shank of the hook. I clip the fly and search for another when I hear air above the water cut with precision. A bird in flight.

I watch as a belted kingfisher slashes through the air above the flow, darts with speed down the length of the river. The black and blue body with the distinctive white collar blurs with speed.

I smile again. The Mad is doing well. She has deer, herons, kingfishers, trout and humans that all depend on her. And in the way of great rivers, she silently slips between trees, rolls and murmurs to herself before fading in liquid contemplation.

I return to the log jam, the rusted pylons of the bridge, and cast a new fly into the water. Another trout is landed within minutes. And another. The last is near 16 inches in length and fat like a football.

I've never had a day like this on the Mad. I've never caught so many fish in such a short amount of time.

'The river needs all the help it can get'
I can't help but wonder if she knows, if the Mad has some sort of understanding about my business up here. It's like she's showing the best, unveiling the heron and kingfisher and fawns and trout, knowing that I'll return home and relay this information in black ink.

I stop fishing again and return to the bank. I don't like to catch a lot of fish too quickly. It takes something away from the activity, deadens our sense of awe and inspiration.

And that's why I come. I like being knocked backward by a silent rolling entity. I like being kicked speechless. I like looking at the water rolling by and seeing mystery flash in front of me.

I'm reminded as I sit on the muddy bank about a piece I read while researching this story. It was written by James Roby in The Dayton Journal-Herald in 1971. Like Aldo Lepold's words in A Sand County Almanac, he seems strikingly ahead of his time.

"Despite the substantial damage caused by farmers who channelized the stream, communities which dumped pollution and anglers who left litter," Roby wrote, "the stream has survived as a treasure, if for no other reason than there is nothing like it in the area."

Certainly those things have happened. We can't deny that.

But today the Mad has an army of people protecting her, watching over her and trying like hell to make sure it doesn't happen again.

When I spoke to Flechsig, owner of Mad River Outfitters, he said, "Farmers in the area have been great and want the river to be healthy."

It seems the mistakes made in the past are just that — in the past. The community surrounding the Mad, and those like me who have adopted her beauty, are keeping a watchful eye on her progress. May she flourish in the years to come.

There are certain things I feel compelled to say in this story. Certain bits and pieces that might seem as though I've hopped atop a soap box.

In no way do I wish to sound that way. But I'm willing to risk it. I'm willing to have people criticize me for preaching. It comes with the territory, I guess.

Here's the crux of the matter. The people who will hop into cars and roll through farm country to see this shimmering and hidden jewel are a doubled-edged sword. It's these very people who, when they fall in love with the Mad, will work to protect her. It's also these very people who put pressure on the river, day in and out, armed with fly rods and canoes and kayaks.

I say come, in masses, come and see it and enjoy. Others might say differently, might object to advertising so blatantly the beauty of the Mad.

These people believe less foot traffic will protect this cherished watershed. Of course, their point has merit.

But a mass of people goo-goo-eyed about a stream of water are the best protectors of that water you can find. Just ask the people at Trout Unlimited or the Mad River Steering Committee. You don't become a member of these organizations without acquiring a crazy, love-soaked grin when first witnessing the Mad.

"There's no logical reason for people to take trout out of this river," Flechsig says.

He's right. Go to Kroger or Biggs or Findlay Market for trout. The fleshy bodies in glass display cases are hatchery raised, but so too are the trout swimming in the Mad. Even catch-and-release is only so good. There's roughly a 10 percent mortality rate even when fishermen release these speckled bodies back into the tumbling water.

With all of this information, I'm led to one conclusion, first stated by Flechsig: "The river needs all the help it can get."

I leave the Mad with numb legs. I walk out of the water and up the grassy bank, turn and look once again at the shimmering water. I had one hell of a day.

If you expect to go to the Mad and catch a slew of trout, perhaps you're mistaken. I've come and left with no fish hooked or landed more times than not.

Like I said, I think the river knew why I came this day. I think she showed me the best she has to offer. ©

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