This past Friday I sat down at a table in The Joshua Cup for some conversation and coffee with long-time angler and fishing guide, Chad Miller. He grew up fishing Sugar Creek, learning how to fly fish from his Dad, Pete Miller. That led to a life on the water, fishing streams here and abroad. For some years, he owned and managed Wildcat Creek Outfitters in Zionsville and Lafayette so he could stay close to his lifelong passion. He never planned, though, to become a fishing guide. One of his regular customers kept bugging him so tirelessly that he relented and took the guy out for a day on the creek. It turned out to be a good day—the fish were biting and both he and his customer had a good time. He thought to himself, “I could do this,” and so he did. He became a fishing guide, and acquired that faraway look that suggests that he is contemplating a particularly interesting stretch of water, or wishes to be. He has fished on five continents and owned, until recently, two fishing lodges in southern Chile—the Cinco Rios on the west slope of the Andes and the Estancia del Zorro on their eastern slope.
There are fine, clear mountain streams to fish there, but, in the next breath, he will insist that of all the streams he has ever fished, Sugar Creek is the best for smallmouth bass.
I asked him why.
He considered the question for a moment, and then replied, “Sugar Creek has everything a smallmouth bass needs. For starters, it’s the right size for fly fishing, the substrate is ideal, it has varied topography, and the stream quality is excellent.”
That variation in topography means that there are significant falls upstream before the Creek flattens out near Crawfordsville. Around the Morris & Jack Bridge it falls more swiftly again and has cut a deep canyon. Varied terrain means varied foliage, and a plethora of niches for the critters the smallmouth feeds on. This also means Sugar Creek is a great spawning river. In its quieter stretches, it has the gravel or rock bottom where the males can prepare their nests. There the females will lay their eggs, and the males do their thing—not just fertilize, but guard the nests until the eggs hatch. All this makes Sugar Creek a world-class fishery, and a bass angler’s dream.
“And the bass fishing,” Miller concluded, “has even gotten better over the years!”
“Seriously? Why is that?”
“I would say, though I can’t prove it—it’s because of the farmers.”’
I raised a quizzical brow.
“Their no-till practice has really improved the water quality of the Creek. In my opinion, farmers deserve a fine slap on the back, and a thank you!” He added, “It’s also been important that we have the 20” rule on Sugar Creek. (That means, an angler can only take one 20” or longer smallmouth during a day’s fishing.) Whatever the combination of factors, the fishing the last few years is the best it’s ever been.”
I asked Miller what makes a good angler.
He came up with a distilled answer: “You need to understand the whole process of how to fish, and then refine it. But first of all, it’s about the fish - it’s an ethic. And I’d insist that without the smallmouth bass, the fishery we have, there would be a lot fewer people who would care about the Creek.” He glanced meaningfully at the Friends of Sugar Creek t-shirt I was wearing.
We seemed to be getting pretty quickly into religious territory, and so it didn’t much surprise me that when I asked Chad what he likes to read, he replied simply, “Theology.” So I mentioned Norman McLean’s, A River Runs Through It, that great novella, and the not-so-great film of that name, about God, family, and fishing the Big Blackfoot River of western Montana. Its closing words sometimes recur to me they are so beautiful - of that river “cut by the world’s great flood . . . ,” that river “that runs over rocks from the basement of time.” McLean continues, “On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs . . .”
I like to think of Sugar Creek in a similar vein, with its steep, flood-cut canyons and its more ancient crinoids, and the smallmouth bass lurking in the quiet, shadowy stretches, guarding their precious eggs. And that fisherman with his wand of a rod contemplating the living stream.
Marc Hudson is Editor of "Currents".