My Uncle Emil has a way of paddling though my mind when I'm out on the water. 'Specially on a day like today out on the Nason Lakes. No way that's their real name. Can't be lettin' on to that. And the real one doesn't mean diddly to me. Nason does. Turned me on to them. Doubt he knew what he was brewing when he brought them up. An unexpected gift from my point of view. They turned out to be a treasure. The small kind that makes a life worth living. Like finding a stand of wild asparagus in a ditch, just right for the pickin'. Or the Perseid Meteor Shower. First time we saw that was in Northern Wisconsin the night before the Paavo Nuurmi Marathon, "Did you see that? Wow! There's another." And so on 'til the mosquitoes drove us into the tent. But the Nasons keep on giving. They're there waiting whenever I want to head on up and pay 'em a visit. Have to share them with strangers, usually locals, once in a while but mostly they're mine all by my lonesome. I'd take you there but we'd have to share blood. Or at least be respected in-laws. Even then I blind fold them when we leave the cabin.
Most anyone would drive right by those pot holes in a swamp. Unexpectedly deep ones. Don't know whether they're sinkholes or the result of glacial chips - actually big-assed chunks - that fell off during the retreat, smacked a dent in the planet, then quietly melted (got that image from a fellow pall bearer at Greg's funeral). Then sat there patiently for a few thousand years and waited for some good ol' Bohunk Minnesotans to throw in a handful of pike, bass and panfish. And to my eternal gratitude, that came to pass.
Couldn't think of a better place to spend the tenth anniversary of 9-11. Had my share of needless, violent death in Vietnam. When it comes to crap like that and the World Trade Center I don't have to be told to remember. Problem is I can't forget. Better to be out on the Nasons up in the Northland. Mid 80's and near glass on the water. A maple here and there starting to put on fall colors, the sumac already blaze red.
I'm in the puddle-jumper, a fourteen and a half foot solo. Fun, fun boat. A challenge to move in a straight line but you can spin 'er like a top. Only canoe I've sat in that actually does float like a leaf on water. Doesn't so much move on the surface as she slips. Takes no more than a puff of breeze and you're headin' down lake. Not so much a problem as it's an asset that I intend to make use of today. Appears I've got a plan in my pocket sayin' how me and the Nasons are gonna play today. Nobody along to come up with anything different. Not that I'm knocking fishin' with others but once in a while it's nice to screw up on my own.
Once in a while I do the smart thing. I'm itchin' to fish but I know the best tactic in a canoe is to paddle to the far end and fish my way back. In a general sense. No doubt there'll be variations on that theme. It's about fifteen minutes to the end of the deepest pool. Plenty of time to watch the world go by and let my mind travel about. Most of my life my mind and body have been in different places. Most of the movies I've seen were for my eyes only. I see the never was and talk to the dead all the time. Guess that makes me normal. So whether I let it or not, my mind is gonna drift.
Emil used to preach balance in his later years when I came to know him best. On a day like this one he'd often grow a subtle corner mouth smile. That was the signal telling the world his mind was churning something over. Wasn't any hurrying him through the process. Emil wouldn't speak his piece 'til the last word was put in order. Might not be poetry in the offing but whatever came out, it'd have to pass his test of worthiness. If she didn't work out right he'd toss it on the compost heap where it'd most likely provide fertile soil for new stuff to grow.
Took me a while and a lot of stupid 'something on your mind old man?' interruptions when his lips were curled, for me to finally learn to shut the hell up. Once in a rare while the curl would arrive hand-in-hand with a short, violent snot blast. Knew I was shortly in for a treat coupled with a quiet prayer, 'Lord, give me the power to see what he's seeing behind his eyes.' I knew for a fact it was downright disgusting, sexist and completely incorrect in any sense. The kind of thing that'd get him fired in modern society. But for sure it would be funny as all get-out. At least to him. With a little luck and no coaxing he'd let me in on what he saw. Most always, lacking his mental vision, it was hit or miss as to how funny it'd strike me.
Anyhow, midway down the second pool, Emil comes out of nowhere, enters my thoughts and recalls a fishing conversation we had years ago, " Seems I spent most of my youngest years wishin' I was older. And a fair amount of my older years wishin' I was younger. In the middle, wantin' to be somewhere else most of the time. Somewhere along the line there must have been a balance point. Coulda been a Wednesday in '40, about 2:37 in the morning. Snapped awake with a big old grin on my face. For about a half minute everything seemed just right. Woke up the next morning thinking my best years were behind me and I'd pissed 'em away. The 'someday I'm gonna' turned into 'if I had to do it over again' in about ten minutes and I'd nearly slept through the best part. 'Course I'm makin' most of that up. Well, not all of it. Then I met your mother, the war came along and I had to go like the blazes just to keep up. There's a point in there somewhere. Beats me just what it is. Guess it takes more than one lifetime to figure things out."
Back on the Nasons I picked up the fly rod. It's a putzy way to fish. On flat water a spinning rod covers a whole lot more water and catches more fish. But fooling them with a homemade popper's a lot more fun. Wasn't much foolin' them today. Obviously the fault of the fish. Lately I've been in to dickin' around with a six and a half foot glass rod by Wright and McGill. Twenty three bucks of noodleness. The cheap end of the cheap end. What I'd originally been looking for was an affordable and serviceable bamboo rod. Guffaw! Affordable and bamboo are oxymoronic. Had the money for a Heddon Black Beauty, a work horse of the '40s and '50s, but my form of putz didn't justify a piece of storied history. The W and G has been built since the '50s. Likewise the Pflueger Medalist reel holding the line. The initial idea was to have a fly rod for use in the back of the canoe that was short enough to both cast and, at the same time, avoid ripping an ear off the unsuspecting innocent up front. The six and a half footer fit the bill nicely.
For some unknown reason, holding the rod with my index finger pointing up the pole, ala Lee Wulff, works like a charm. At least as far as the casting goes. The fish don't seem to agree. The popper's a small bass size. Easy to throw with a nine foot rod. Not so with the short one in my hand. When I do get it out there all I'm hearin' is the constant 'chuk' of a bunch of too-little sunnies trying to suck down a bug bigger than their mouths. It's a neat sound but not what I'm hopin' for. What exactly am I hopin' for? Beyond what I've already got that is. There's food on the table, roof overhead, a family to love, sun above and I'm on my favorite lake. What I seem to be missing is a seven pound bass at the end of the little yellow noodle in my hand.
In shame and embarrassment I reach behind and switch rods. Maybe that bass is looking for a medium sized, homemade spinner. I've chickened out on the fly rod but am at least sticking with my plan of attack. Paddle tight to the calm side. Work it 'til the breeze finally takes me across the small bay and then work that. One of the pleasures of a thousand hours in a canoe is knowing there's nothing to worry about so long as the boat is right side up. So I keep fishing 'til there's no more lake. When I bump the shore it's time to paddle back across.
There I finally find a tight pocket of fish. The first fights like a small pike and I catch myself calling for it to surface like a bass. Yup, pike. Sucked it down. Spreaders out and it's quickly released. Then it's bam, bam, bam. A fistful of bass under two pounds. Nice to feel life tormenting on the end of the line.
Spent most of my time in the far pool. The fishing's not up to par but the sound of the sunnies chuking away makes it a good time. I like being able to hear the sound of fish sipping. Tells me up front that this is an out of the way corner of the world. One of Minnesota's graces is that such places still exist. Being able to hear a four inch fish try to eat a one inch popper is a gift plain and simple. Think about it. Nearly all of us live in a noisy, crowded world. Another story out here on the Nasons. Just me, the soft breeze, grasses and cattails.
The long rod came to me by way of Uncle Emil. Out in the boat he went with the standard rod and reel. But when his feet were on the shore or wading in the lake he always worked a fly rod. Saw him fool a dinner plate bluegill with a group of admiring fishermen standing close by. Not a one of them could do what he was doing and they knew it. In my mind the fly rod separated him from the crowd.
He nudged me in that direction when I was about twelve. Set me up with a casting bobber, beetle-bug and trout sized pork rind. We'd work the shoreline together. Most of the time he'd let me have the sweet spots. Seemed to get a big kick out of watching me fish. Maybe that was because he didn't have a son to do guy stuff with. Like peeing standing up. And doing something useless like fishing. It's a putzy, kid kind of activity that doesn't sit well with the way the world works. Not justifiable. Unless your sharing your time with a kid. Especially one with no father. Great excuse to be on the water.
Don't know how long he'd been fly fishing. Don't know why he started. Didn't know why he kept at it. To my way of not thinking, he just did it. And I thought it was an unquestionably beautiful act. In the early beetle-bug days I never thought to ask Emil if I could give it a try. Didn't think I'd take it up some day. Didn't think I wouldn't. But the seed was planted.
Bought my first fly rod at an Army-Navy surplus store. Eight feet of olive drab fiberglass complete with reel and genuine, weight forward floating line. Didn't take any lessons. Who took lessons for anything besides music back in '64? Besides, I was seventeen and already knew most of everything. Thankfully, my hours with Uncle Emil had put a wrinkle in my brain. So I knew enough to hold the rod by the fat end. And then just started buggy-whippin' it. Always had a good throwing arm and a natural instinct for using my body in the process. A few hundred casts moved me from dropping the fly on my head to feeling the rod load. When that revelation came about I started humming that puppy like there was no tomorrow. No ten to one old school casting for me! Load the rod and smoke it. Catching fish wasn't the point. Learning to lay the entire line out on the water was. No finesse at all. Big time line speed. It sure was fun.
The rod was stuffed away in my mom's garage when I went in the Army. Didn't pick one up again 'til the cabin was being built. We were near water and it seemed a necessity to resurrect the long rod. My daughter Annie and I spent three days together at the cabin when she was six. Outside of a woodtick that burrowed itself in her ear, we had a pretty good time. I'd say great time but Annie may remember differently. After a day of driving nails, for a six year old she was a demon with a framing hammer, the two of us would head to a nearby lake where we'd trespass on lakefront property for sale and there shore fish. That we were surrounded by blooming pink Ladyslippers was a nice touch. Off a small point we found a thicket of spawning bluegills. I'd flip an Adams to them with my fly rod. When one would impale itself, Annie would take over and reel in our dinner. Yup, Old Catch and Release turned into Catch and Kill right in front of his innocent little girl. Didn't know how she'd take it. In an effort to temper the process I said it was okay to kill the fish only if we ate them. A matter of respect. Probably I was making a bigger deal out of dinner than was necessary. We ate 'em all.
Most every winter I make a vow to get better at casting a fly. Brings to mind something Jimmy Carter said about wanting to become a better fly fisherman after leaving the presidency. Well, for me it ain't happened yet. I've lost the habit of wanting to be a good caster and get too hung up on catching fish. Ah, but the fishing season ain't over yet. There's still hope. Slim though that may be.