‘THIS IS MORE THAN FISHING’
USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN
WAUSAU - Kyle Zempel received a fly rod among the gifts from well-wishers for his graduation from Wausau West just over a decade ago. Since then he has carried a fly rod with him to fish for trout on the Animas River in southwestern Colorado, bonefish in the Bahamas and peacock bass or payara — the vampire fish — deepinto the jungles of Colombia.
He has traveled to 42 states, but his favorite fishing spot remains in his home state.
"If I had one day left and had to choose where to fish, I would choose the Wisconsin River for small mouth bass with a fly rod," the 2006 West graduate said.
The lower Wisconsin River and the Driftless Wisconsin Area, located in the southwestern corner of the state, are the staple waters for Zempel, who is the owner, guide and photographer for Black Earth Angling Co. a fly-fishing guide service which he op-
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erates just outside of Black Earth.
"The most consistent and maybe the earliest hobby of mine has been fishing. I have always enjoyed it," Zempel said. "My passion for fly fishing goes hand-in-hand with my passion of moving water. There is something about moving water that relaxes me and brings me peace.
"Fly fishing requires you to pay very close attention to your surroundings — what insects do you see, what is the substrate like, what is the temperature, the clarity (of the water) and the flow," Zempel said. "When I step into a river with a fly rod in hand, all these thoughts go rushing through my head and I often find myself at a heightened sense of awareness that I only get when I am streamside. I am best immersed in nature."
The 29-year-old started the business five years ago which formed out of two of his passions — fishing and photography. The former grew out of summer fishing trips to the Tomahawk or Minocqua areas with his two grandfathers as a kid. The latter developed in fifth grade when he was selected as the top safety guard at his elementary school and was rewarded with a trip to Washington, D.C. His mother gave him a camera for the trip and he shot more than eight rolls of film. Zempel guided 83 fishing trips and spent 160 days on the water this past year. He described the lure of fly fishing as taking in the information that nature is giving you and using it to decipher where to be, what to use and where to cast along with designing the perfect fly in order to trick a fish into thinking fur and feathers is a food source.
"It’s a beautiful thing," Zempel said. "It is an all encompassing experience that is hard to put into words. The ability to repeat this is what keeps me coming back for more."When guiding becomes your life and you spend the majority of your days on the water, you begin to realize that this is more than fishing," Zempel said. "It is a connection between you and the nature around you."
He spends the offseason giving talks on fishing and attending trade shows. He gave a presentation at Sconni’s Ale House in Schofield to the Wisconsin Valley Trout Unlimited group about fishing opportunities in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin. The local appearance came on the heels of Zempel spending the weekend at a trade show in Iowa City, Iowa. He is headed to the Bahamas on Feb. 28 with a small group of clients whom he guides in Wisconsin during the summer. It’s the fifth trip to the Bahamas in the past five years.
It wasn’t that long ago that Zempel was supplementing his business with a bartending job at night. He said this could be a turning point year for the business in which he hires an additional guide.
"It made for some long days," Zempel said. "I would be up before sunrise and head out for the day (of guiding). Then I would come home and change and go in to bartend until close.
Zempel said he had an entrepreneurial spirit. Growing up in Wausau he started his first business, selling nightcrawlers to fishermen out of his family’s garage with his brother.
"We would put up a sign up on Stewart Ave with arrows pointing (to the house)," Zempel said.
He was a business administration major at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and said he tried to work, "a few desk jobs" after graduation. It wasn’t a fit, however.
"It really wasn’t for me. I needed to be outdoors," Zempel said.
He got the fly rod as a high school graduation present, but truly learned how to fish with it while working as a zip-line instructor in Colorado as a summer job during his college years. A cook at the resort Zempel worked gave him and a few of his friends on the intricacies of the sport.
Zempel moved down to the Madison area after graduation and was a frequent visitor to a fly fish shop in Cross Plains. When he found the shop was closing, he took the opportunity to start a business as there was a demand for guides in the area.
He started the operation with his two housemates in Black Earth at t he time — Wausau natives Mark and Eric Pavlovich — and it grew from there."I was kind of in between jobs and decided to take a leap," Zempel said The Pavlovich brothers eventually moved on to other professional opportunities, but Zempel has remained on the water. He has guided for clients as young as 8 and as old as 86.He admits fly fishing can be a challenge. Zempel was a self-taught fly fisherman who struggled to catch a fish in his first year."People will ask, ‘Why would you make (fishing) harder for yourself?’ Hard is not a word I like as much as I do challenge," Zempel said. "The casting part (of fly fishing) is difficult and you have to learn how to cast before you can be able to actually catch a fish. It’s that whole step and it’s like learning how to shoot a bow or any skilled thing .
"You have to learn the basics before you can have success. For hockey, it would be learning how to skate before you can have a stick in your hand," said Zempel, who played hockey at Wausau West. "You have to have that base and one of the things that attracts people to (fly fishing) is that it is an active thing you have to work on and a skill you have to practice. Fly fishing you have to understand the mechanisms and how to use the lineand rod first."Zempel compared the process of learning to fly fish with developing anefficient golf swing."You can really compare fly fishing with a golf swing when you think how much time and money people spend on golf lessons and time on course," Zempel said. "If you were to read a golf instructional handbook and then substitute the word fly fishing, or cast or rod, it’s actu ally extremely similar. It’s a good way for me to explain it to people, "Some people just don’t get it the whole idea of casting a silly rod at first, but once they kind of do it, get a hang of it and get some success, it can really hook them."
Tim Johnson: 715-8450731, or timothy.johnson @gannettwisconsin.com; on Twitter @timmyjo11