Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning Curve '99 (Part Two)

     The next morning Al went and screwed things up. It was Al's fault but my ignorance that did the trick. To that point we'd had a near perfect fishing record in Canada. Nine plus days and a few dozen smallish pike to the boat. On the scale of suck, we were a near perfect vacuum. A record a man could hang his hat on and I was feeling cocky as a dragonfly about it. Al Lindner and Roland Martin, eat your hearts out. Seemed to me most anybody could go five hundred miles north of the border and hammer themselves some bigguns. But try and average 1.4 pike per hour over eight days. We stood atop the Everest of craposcity. Most everyone who ever held a fishin' pole stood so far below us they couldn't see us with a telescope. We were magnificent!
     Then, like I said, Al went and ruined it all. Came as such a shock we just sat there gape-jawed trying to figure it out. In the back of a small muddy bay, more or less a slough, Allan finally sank to the level of throwing a Rapala. I'm not knocking Rapalas in any way, shape or form. They're about the finest thing to come out of Finland since Paavo Nuurmi and the sauna. But you see, Al fishes red and white in-line spinners with a squirrel tail. Mepps at first. Home-made later on. When the spinner stops catching fish, he simply clips on a new one. Figures fish like the smell of fresh steel once in a while. Seems to work for him. Way too well in my opinion. As for me, I'll fish a red and white interchangeably with silver or brass. The two of us do have a love affair with the rotating blade.
     Honestly, when that pike hit Al's rapala, neither of us knew what to make of it. Call it an out of body experience. Like it was happening to somebody else and we just happened to be there at the time. As for me, I didn't know what to do. Yelled a few dumb-ass inanities like, "Keep your tip up." Should have been attending to boat control but hadn't ever had to do that before. Al was clueless and asking advice from someone in the same boat, in both senses. A couple of thrashing runs later the hook was spit and she was gone. Maybe forty inches long. Hard to estimate when there's no mental ruler. But she was big. Less than a minute and she was no more than a memory.
     I could get all philosophic about now. But I'll pass on that. Call it being in the right place at the right time on a lake with some big fish in it. That Al was the first to hook one was only appropriate. Between us, he's the better fisherman. That he lost her had more to do with the rapala's smaller hooks. Had he been fishing a spinner, the hooks would have penetrated the jaw and he'd have landed her. Simple as that.
     Even with Al's big pike, I'd lost faith in Simonhouse. One fish does not a love affair make. The continuing volume of boat traffic didn't help much either. Too close to civilization. We moved out on a sunny Sunday. Up the ever narrowing arm until it joined with Second Cranberry about mid-lake. Most all the lakes in the far north are interconnected. Aren't so much lakes as they were widenings in the rivers. That is if you're willing to go along with lakes up to a few hundred thousand acres as widenings. Same here on the Grass River.
     Have to admit I was bummed. Most likely Al was feeling the same way. But he has a way of picking me up when I'm down. So he wouldn't let on even if he was in the pit. Either way, there we were, putzing up the same shore as last year, under the same bright sun, heading to the inevitable but not thinking about it. A few hours later we found ourselves in the one place I'd never wanted to be again, The Rock. Crap. This was the bottom. And it seemed worse the second time around. The dust was dustier, the dirt dirtier, the jack pines more decrepit and the cracked tent slab looked like it'd eroded a little. Thank God all the stone spikes were still there for our backs to curl around. Oh well. It was June this time. The fish were out there waiting for us. Who knew, maybe....
     Fish or no, at least there, a dozen miles farther into the park, boat traffic was reduced to us two bozos from the States. And the fishing did improve. At least numbers wise. Only the dozen hammer handles seemed hungry enough. Oh, did I almost forget to mention the walleye Allan landed in the near dark? Couldn't make up my mind to that point whether he really was the better fisherman. Mostly I was leaning toward his fortunate choice of fore-paddler kept putting him into the rare good spot. Either way we'd finally worked our way up to decent Minnesota fishing.
     Don't get me wrong. I wasn't complaining about the situation. Just befuddled and somewhat deflated. Its like this: A person waits for three seasons. Lines up the dominoes, tips the first one and it falls flat, no more than a hair short of number two. So close but so far. Our time together in Grass River was good but the spark of anticipation was being replaced by accepting pointlessness. That our next cast might be the fish of a lifetime didn't seem to be in the cards. That's not quite it either. But there was a hole somewhere. We were trying to find it and fill it up if we could.

     Monday popped up like a day at the beach. Where the hell was the Canadian plaid shirt weather? Water sparkled, sun hammered down, way too warm for the forest green northland. No doubt about it. The Rock was the wrong place to be. Like the metal box in a 1930s prison yard. Only we didn't have to be there. No shade, with overtones of lethargy surrounded by water and wooded hill.
     In desperation we trolled the lake for pike, walleyes, tarpon and bluefin tuna with equal success. Figured if we weren't catchin' nuthin' we might as well broaden our horizon of failure.
     Afternoon found us laid out on the slab. Shirtless, pants rolled up. Al on his stomach, me on my back right leg over left. Words arose about heading back to the cabin. At least there we knew the score. Didn't want to stay. Didn't actually want to head back. Didn't really want to do anything.

     Maybe out of boredom. Maybe 'cuz he'd been planning it all along from day one. Whatever the reason, Allan spit out the words I needed to hear. "Nothin' better to do, let's check out Wedge Lake." Our world turned on those words. Instant shot of adrenalin. Half hour later we had it broken down, packed up, in the canoe and were pushing off. We were pumped. New men finally gettin' it right.


     Rarely are lakes named what they're named for no reason. Take my word for that. For you useless skeptics I give the following examples. Deadman Lake by Markie's cabin received its moniker from a man who needlessly drowned there. East Pike Lake for its profusion of smallmouth bass. Not sure I understand that but a guy sittin' on the curb outside a Grand Marais bar said that was true as the snot in his beard. Wedge Lake was dubbed as such because of a Voyageur tradition. Rarely did the Frenchmen of days gone by venture off a designated route to explore the surrounding turf. Time was far too critical to waste traipsing around and smellin' the roses. The large meadow on Third Cranberry's Alligator Island was a time honored stopping point on the Grass River. From there, first-timers would be sent down their merry portage way to a neighboring lake said to have gold nuggets the size of a man's fist. When the new paddler would reach the end of said portage, he would be surprised by a group of veterans who'd yank the man's trousers up to his Adam's apple as a kind of initiation for some obscure French-Canadian reason. Over the years indiscriminate cartographers shortened the name to Wedge.

     Seriously, I knew where we were going. Hell the portage was no more than four miles away. The odds on me getting turned around in the dozen islands in our path were.... Let's just say that Al finally pointed the finger and said, "Go that way old man." You could say we were finally on our way to where my mind started heading thirty-four years earlier at the U of M.
     Rocks, pole dock or slab? The choice of landing was ours. The dock reminded me too much of the log bridges in the Mekong Delta. In muddy boots they were true testicle destroyers. Not doin' that again. Jagged rocky beach meant stepping into fifty degree water and being wet for a couple of hours. Yes I am a wimp. Slab it was.
     The portage was a fake. Pole dock and Honda ATV could have told us that. It was there to provide the sports stayin' at the Viking Lodge access to Wedge Lake. End of story. A real portage was part of a highway in the forest. Natives traveled from lake to lake in search of food, clothing and shelter. The idea of hacking a trail for a few big pike wouldn't have made much sense to them unless their dogs were starving. But to us, this was the highway to heaven we'd been seeking. A nauseating analogy but the best I can think of at the moment. The path was mostly level, wide and through a shaded thicket of skinny spruce.

      Maybe two hundred forty rods. Took about an hour to triple portage it. Had we been five and a half foot, herniated Frenchmen we'd have done her in fifteen minutes tops. I'd take the hour any day. On the shore of Wedge we once again found ourselves amongst an aluminum hatch of boats and LaBatts cans. Oh Canada!
View from Wedge Lake campsite

     The lake? She was a thing of beauty, that she was. Looked better than on the map. So crowded with islands there were no long vistas. Intimate in every way. Sometimes a first look says you're home. Our camp had been Xed by the Ranger back at the Cranberry Portage Coffee Shop. Good man. Down lake a half mile, hang a left, another left on the big side of the lake and there it was. A tad bigger than The Rock but a world of charm apart. A fitting site for such a lake. At most a hundred feet by thirty. Lake level landing at one end. Micro forest at the other. Splitting the two, a slab rising slightly from lake to channel side. The channel, a full spinner cast wide. It had taken eleven days but we were home at last.
Wedge Lake Camp, My Hat on Tree

     No hurry. The fire grate on the channel side of the slab became the family room. Lakeside, the inclined tent slab. The slope helped gravity pull us down hill at night. By three AM we'd inchworm back up hill. Small price to pay for this treasure. We savored dinner. I was in no hurry to force the issue. This was push coming to shove time. If we couldn't make it here, it really would be time to pack it in. Dishes done and polished to a gleam, camp trim and the canoe fishing ready. At least four hours of daylight left. With a simple. "Time to rip some lips" and a "Hearty, hi-ho Silver!," we pushed off.
     Began with the normal plan of Al throwing spinners while I worked the boat. 'Bout the first thing I'll say when you're in the canoe with me is, "Pick up the rod and get ready." No different that night. After thousands of casts Allan could drop a Mepps in a bucket at sixty feet more times than not. No more than fifty yards from camp he turned loose. First cast into a small pocket along the shore flanked by brush. Nothin'. I quipped the obligatory, "No fish here. Might as well go home." Second cast, the same. More than used to that. Third cast, the charm. "Fish on!" A small pike but the fastest hookup to that point. Fourth cast. 'Nuther small pike. Hmm.
     By now we were off a small point protecting a bay. There I picked up my rod. Tried the lakeside and found a two to three pound walleye. No doubt this was finally the real deal. What we'd been looking for. That first night on Wedge provided never ending action. Yeah, we might go a couple of dozen casts between fish but then it was fish a cast for ten minutes. No point keeping count. Simply call it classic Canadian fishing.

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