Six weeks ago I went fishing with my grandson Jakob. He's my daughter and son-in-law's oldest. That is if you can consider a five year old oldest at anything. In his mind we were off on either an expedition or another one of Grandpa's waste's of time. Lucky for me he's an understanding kid. Willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. S'pose he'll eventually outgrow that.
The drive was a five blocker to a small city lake. My plan was to be a good grandpa and bend Jake's twig in the right direction. Maybe throw a couple of bluegills in for good luck. Bought him a half-decent spincast rig, about the right length for a half pint and wanted to see if he could handle it. Yeah, he's a tad too young to hold his own in the front of a canoe on a Canadian lake yet and by the time he can I'll be wearing Depends. But that doesn't stop me from dreaming. Seems there's still a maybe swimming around in my head. Something about him being twelve years old and me being seventy-one. After all, Allan was only twelve when we did the Boundary Waters the first time. As for me…. Well, guess we'll have to wait and see how that pans out. Just maybe, the good Lord willing, me and my grandson can still catch us a few smallies up on East Pike Lake, sleep in a tent and sip a little Jim Beam. Probably best drop the last part. I don't much like whiskey.
One thing about grandkids is they'll give you your third go around on learning the concept of time and distance. Learned it myself. Watched it dawn on Annie and Allan. Now Jakob. So when we pulled up to the little lake after two minutes and fourteen seconds on the road, Jake asked, "Are we at the cabin?" A simple, "Nope, the cabin's a lot farther," worked nicely. It's tough on me dealing with such innocence. Sarcasm runs in my blood. Always has. Probably always will. However, the idea that we might be at the cabin and Jakey wasn't phased by the idea, bodes well for next summer or one of the next.
Of course I had to take the first cast. Old guys like to play too. The next five were Jakob's. Went so well he must have been practicing when I wasn't looking. Deceitful little bugger. Good distance and pretty much on the mark. But no fish. We'd have moved around till we found 'em but he laid something on me that couldn't be ignored, "I've got to pee Grandpa." Since the City of Minneapolis frowns on grandparents allowing five year olds to urinate in a park or pretty much anywhere outside, we headed home. Don't remember Lee Wolff, John Gierach or Roland Martin ever using that as an excuse to stop fishing.
The point of this intro and the reason for the title has to do with Jakob's middle name, Dean. When his mom and dad came to naming him there was no choice as to what Jake's middle one would be. His dad's was Dean and his dad's dad was Dean. Coincidentally, Jakob's Uncle Eldon, not in the line of fire at all, carries the middle name of Dean. Where the idea for Dean arose I s'pose only a traveling salesman and many a lonely house frau in Northwest Iowa know. But that's just my guess. No offense meant.
For the last five or six years - by now you might have noticed that I lean toward guesswork when it comes to time. Continually throw around words like about, around, or so and of course, five or six, a lot. And to think I've managed to stay clear of six of one, half dozen of the other for nigh onto a year. Seems I've become more approximate than more accurate as I've grown older. No doubt the scars of having been wrong so many times. Those kind of erroneous numbers weigh on a man. On the other hand, a whole lot of stuff has happened in my lifetime. It all tends to jumble together in the oatmeal that is my brain. Should have taken the time to document it all. What a waste of my life that would have been. So my history tends to break down into the recent, five or six years ago and a long time ago. The long time ago I typically have no problems with. e.g. New Years Eve 1967 had a windchill of sixty-five below. Ain't that swell?
Let's give it another go around: For the last five or six years I've been doing a June, cabin-centered, fishing trip with in-laws. As in son-in-law, his dad and his uncle. Ryan, Larry and Eldon respectively. First off, though Ryan lives in Sioux Falls, all three of them are Iowans to the bone. As most everyone knows in this part of the world, an Iowan is a Minnesotan with a little more dirt under the fingernails. We're a little wetter behind the ears. Stands to reason, we've got the lakes, they're buried under deep rich soil. Minnesotans like to make fun of their southern neighbors. Mostly that's 'cause we're hopin' to high heaven, while knowin' it ain't the truth, that someone out there is more hinterlandy than us thirteen lined ground squirrel lovers. Our disagreements were summed up unintentionally by The National Lampoon with two figures of death fighting over a pickle. Not sure what that means but it seems to fit.
To me, in the context of this essay, what matters is that Iowans fish for bullheads. Period. No doubt that's my ignorance and prejudice, but I doubt it. Also figure they'd fish for lakers, muskies and walleyes if they could. But, like I said, they've got bullheads.
Oh they try to pooh-pooh that notion. Over the years the three Deans've told me time and again about Grandpa Dan, Iowa personified, and his quest for walleyes on Spirit Lake, Lake Okoboji or some other God forsaken, overstuffed farm pond down there. But to the best of my knowledge no walleyes were ever hooked or landed. All I've heard about are sinking boats and the incredible length of Grandpa Dan's cigarette ash. Seems the cigarette was always dangling from his lower lip, the wind was always up, the boat was always sinking and the ash always at least two inches long. Not a walleye was ever mentioned. Watching that ash no doubt took my future fishing partners' minds off skinnin' a bucket of bullheads.
During the few years our knowledge of each other overlapped, I met grandpa Dan a few times. Always seemed a mellow old guy with a permanent smile on his weathered face. Weathered's an understatement. One look told you that man had spent his time out in the weather. Good way to look. Also seen photos of him as a much younger man. Looked like a man on a mission and you were in his way. Attitude in work clothes. First time we met he said, 'Heard you're quite a fisherman." Made me feel good. But I had to be honest with him even though it'd sound like I was being falsely modest, "Nope. But I've spent a lot of my time finding lakes where the fish are dumber than I am." Meeting Grandpa Dan got me to thinking. In the old photos of him he had the look I've seen in black and whites of canoemen back in the '50s. No pretense in their dress. Stringer of lake trout tying them together. Not much giving a damn how big the fish looked. They were big and there were plenty of them. Those guys were a different breed. And Grandpa Dan would've fit in nicely.
Don't remember exactly how the up to the cabin trips came about. So here's my guess: Back in the early days of Ryan entering our family, he and Annie used to come up north once in a while. Ryan seemed to like it in the woods. For fun we played golf. No resort courses for us thank you. Dirty blue collar, back in the woods, courses. If your ball strayed into those woods you left it there. Too hard to play out of the poison ivy. Also, in Ryan's case, golf didn't bring bullheads into the equation. Anger, frustration and mosquitoes maybe, but definitely no bullheads.
Then, magically, one day he found himself in the front of my canoe with a bass on the end of his line. Ooh, bass. Not a whisker on its head and it was okay to throw it back in the lake. No more nailin', slittin' and skinnin'. A fisherman was born that day. Or at least uncovered. Ryan had so much fun the next thing I knew his dad was along for the ride. The great June Fishing Trip, with food and beer, was born. Larry was instantly hooked. That first year there were two trips. The second one in the fall included Ryan's uncle Eldon. Also hooked. So it came to be. R. Dean, L. Dean, El. Dean and me.
That first year it was Ryan and his dad in the canoe together. Logical and a chance for gettin' out the pointless bitching a father and son need once in a while. Being ten feet apart in an Alumacraft can sometimes be a little close for comfort. With the weight bein' on the guy in the back. Gotta learn to drop that rod tip when the man up front is buggy whippin' pointed steel on a side-arm cast. Also a tad nerve wracking when that rod tip's pointing between your eyes. I've been behind Ryan and found it fascinating the way his rod tip figure-eights right at me on the back cast. Comes so close on occasion that I find myself checking out the wraps on his squirrel tail, cross-eyed. Hasn't drawn blood yet but I've given some thought to buying him a five foot rod.
As for Larry, it was both a fatherly and a self-sacrificing act taking the back seat. They've done well together over the years considering their initial lack of canoe experience. Learned a lot even though they still zig-zag even more than two drunks trying to walk a straight line. Never really asked them how they felt being the only canoemen on the Minnesota lakes we've fished. And they've never actually said anything about it on their own. I hope it's made them feel a cut above all the noise, nonsense and pollution. Though, for them, it might actually be an exercise in humility.
As for the fishing, like I said, they were bullheaders not game fishermen. Whether they asked me or whether I forced my will on them, "My cabin, my way of fishing. Like it or lump it." Either way, I figured they'd have a lot more fun catchin' than being skunked. I knew their predicament. When I was a kid, bullheads were a way of life during the summertime. Red and white bobber, hook and and worm. So I set 'em up with a slip bobber rig. The slip bobber was as much a revelation to them as it had been to me when my wife's cousin turned me on to them. Thanks, Gary. No single hook though. Sixteenth ounce jig and a tiny power tube. Set it shallow, fish it in the pads and horse 'em out. It ain't pretty. No grand fight and acrobatic leaps. They eventually came to putting the canoe in so tight as to be shore fishing. Holey-moley did they catch panfish and bass. They still tend to fish that way as a means to learn a lake.
The second trip was in the fall. And Eldon came along to add a little more color to the already colorful woods. El. Dean had this thing about canoes. Didn't like them one bit. Something about ending up in the lake every time he was briefly in one. What a whiner. So he ended up as my partner 'cause I promised him in as casual a manner - like rolling a canoe had never happened to me and never would - as possible - in a voice like Chuck Yeager would've used to explain that the wing had just come off his experimental jet - that he'd be okay. And catch a washtub full of fish. Now, the truth was, I was pretty sure we'd be okay together. But saying never is like dancing with the devil. Set him up with the same rig as the other two Deans.
Being partnered up in a canoe too many times with the same person is a lot like being married. You have to watch what you say. Don't want to be too domineering or you'll piss your partner off. Too passive and you piss yourself off. Like me. El. Dean gets me to swearing quietly to myself once in a while. Partly my fault, partly his. His end rides a little too deep in the lake for me. Simple navigation, a trim boat rides a little high in the bow and gives the paddler in the aft a little more control. Ours moves nose down. Plows the waves, pivots at the front. I figure if I paddled hard enough, we'd rotate like a pinwheel. If we were kids on a see-saw, I'd be the one on the up end, legs dangling, crying, "C'mon, let me down!" Guess gravity likes El. Dean more than me. Why not? He's a likable guy.
The my fault part is partly Allan's fault. We've got a few thousand canoe miles behind us. His idiosyncrasies and bad habits have become my standard for a front man. Al motors, I approximate our direction. I flail both sides of the boat, he paddles on the right. Always. Says the left side pains him. So I never a need to call out directions unless it's an emergency in big waves. Since he's always on the right, he never steers from the front. If we veer a bit off course, he knows we're okay 'cause my mind is wandering and all's right with the world.
El. Dean and I have never worked out our mental balance. Paddling a canoe seems a simple task and it is. But it's a teamwork thing. Two people moving one boat. El needs direction but I don't do that well. Like I said, never had to do that. Don't know where to begin and don't want to piss him off. Too good of friends to squabble over near nothing. Not that big a problem really. We don't fish big water together. Rarely travel more than a mile. So it's not much more than an annoyance. Still, I'll occasionally descend into mumbled cursing. As much at my failure to communicate as toward him.
Maybe I need to throw a fifty pound boulder in the stern. Or introduce El. Dean to Jenny Craig. Look what she did for Marie Osmond (I think she's a Jenny Craig grad). Religion and politics aside, if El. Dean came out looking as good as Ms. Osmond.... Or get him away from his wife, who's way too good a cook. Her pastries are an invitation to an early but happy death. So I guess the odds of us doing a real canoe trip together are directly proportional to his chances for divorce. Doubt very much that "too good in the kitchen" would constitute acceptable grounds for divorce.
Besides difference of bulk, our pasts carry a lot of shared weight. Both of us were in the Army at the same time. Creates a bond that goes beyond throwin' lures in a lake or having shared relatives. El. Dean never made it to Vietnam. But that's the crapshoot of the military. Some go, some don't, but we all wore olive drab. And all had to put up with the same shit. By and large career soldiers weren't a happy lot in those days. Just ask El. Dean. Yup, it does flow downhill in the Army. Both of us married, two children, grandchildren. Seen a lot of the same things. We make for a good fit.
He's an easy going man. Likes his time up north. Looks forward to it all year. I can relate to that. He'd be the first to tell you that what he needs is more time in the woods and on the water. But there's no spare time burnin' a hole in his pocket. No sir. He works for a living. And Lordy how a time clock'll put a crimp in your time. Personal experience tells me the only thing that sucks more than workin' for a dollar is being unemployed. You've got a job these days, you don't walk out on it. Odd how that works.
So we find El. Dean, a family man with bills to pay. And not lookin' forward to retirement anytime soon. It's a dilemma and looks never ending. Enough to make a thinking man a bit bummed once in a while. Don't know about him but I sure didn't see it coming when I punched in at age sixteen. Thought I was the Golden Child. Dame Fortune would take care of all my problems and leave me roses. Most of us have been through that drill. Most of us know it could have been a whole lot worse. Don't think El. Dean would disagree but that doesn't buy him an extra minute of spare time just for being grateful. So we get along fine. Unless he spills the corn. Or anyone else does for that matter. I like home packed sweet corn. You come to the cabin, don't spill the corn and we be just fine.
For my part, I'm among the fortunate. Retired, not starving and finding my time up at the cabin with the Deans one of life's pleasures. Always is. Gives me another fixed point on which my life turns. But, you see, Barb Lake is still up there in Grass River Provincial Park. Unseen, waiting and eight miles paddle and two miles of swamp portage away from the Iskwasum lake access. As Bob with the Black lab told me and Allan, "It's a walleye a cast, eh." Yup, it's sittin' up there, waitin' on me and I'm down here watchin' my window of opportunity slowly close. The cabin's fine but not where I really want to be in the first half of June. I miss the tingle of adventure.
Last note before we go and catch us some fish: Canoe fishin's about partners. Besides Allan, there are few I'd care to drive nine hundred miles with, much less spend a day or two paddling deep enough in just to get a taste of wilderness. Grass River's not what I'd call wilderness but you can smell it from there. I'm not asking for the real deal, just something close enough so I can pretend. As for the Deans, I'd go with any or all of them. L. Dean in the back of their canoe knows his limitations. That and his innate honesty are about all you can ask of a canoeman. R. Dean can motor, listens to instruction and loves to fish. It'd be a thrill watching him tie into a thicket of walleyes or three foot pike. El. Dean, like I said, would need to push away from the table. But his laugh and companionship would be worth a creative canoe trimming.
Last June's trip had it all. From a hundred fifty bass day to a four man near skunkathon. Two days in particular:
Back in the old days, the Road to Every Lake days, touted by characters that would have fit nicely onto Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, a Minnesota man, a few of those lakes were missed. Small, out of the way, bullhead infested ponds deemed unroadworthy. What the Chambers of Commerce had in mind was a photo of fifteen red and black plaid covered hunters standing in front of fifteen gutted, steer-sized bucks hanging on a rack festooned by garlands of ten pound walleyes. Caption reading, "Come and Kill Your Share in Minnesota." They weren't looking for a bunch of on-the-cheap SOBs like me and the Deans. Those roads were made for Packards and full wallets. That they left a few sloughs untouched was a Godsend to us canoe boys.
In the following decades - now this is purely my fantasy and may not have any connection to reality. You have to remember, I came of age in the sixties. reality was optional. Groovy! - the locals came to feelin' squeezed out on the accessible lakes they grew up near. Also, the fishing wasn't as easy as dad and grandpa said it'd been. A thousand acre lake with a couple of dozen motorboats trolling about didn't seem to have much 'away from it all' to it.
So they took matters into their own hands. On a good day they'd keep some of the bass, pike and panfish they caught, stick 'em in a cooler of water and dump the lot into some out of the way bullhead pond. They knew just the right ones. Got the pickup stuck on the two track logger's roads while rumbling in for some duck hunting last fall. Small but deep enough to not freeze out. Tough enough driving to get you thinking about your oil pan. Kept the riff-raff in their Lincolns and Cadillacs out. Usually had the water to themselves. And if they did have to share, they knew each other and their dogs by name. Might be a hundred or two such ponds scattered across the North Country.
Those are the lakes I seek. It's my talent. Remember what I told Grandpa Dan. Besides, it's much easier pretending you're in the boonies if the lake you're fishing has no cabins. So if you live in Blackduck, MN, decide to head out for an evening's fishing on a nearby hidden pond and find an old fart in a plastic canoe, give him a wave. Might be me. Promise I'll put 'em all back and won't tell anyone where we are and what we're doing.
So it was on one of those lakes me and the Deans found ourselves. Been there before. Knew what to expect, a good lake. But me and El. Dean were playin' with a new deck and, since it was my deck, I was hoping I'd remembered to pack all fifty-two cards. Wasn't so much passing on knowledge as I was experimenting. And using El. as a guinea pig. Didn't let him know that though. Of course our usual plan of attack was throwin' a #3 spinner tight to shore and starting to crank before she hit the water. El. Dean never took to that tactic as he's a right hander all the way and has to switch hands with the rod. Churns the bottom before his slack is on the spool. Catches a lot of weed and branches that way but not many bass.
Our angle of angling this time be tubes and jigs. Don't drag me into the great controversy of polluting with plastics in pristine ponds. Cutting it to brown sparkly tubes is as close as I'll let my delicate northern soul approach the purple worms of the Great South. For now. Tubes are mostly weedless. Since you work them slowly along the bottom, El. Dean's already got the technique down pat though he's highly skeptical. Man of little faith.
We leap frogged R. and L. Dean and headed a ways down the beaver-branch strewn shore. Overcast, pockets of lily pads throughout the twenty acre bay we're in, surrounded by pine and birch tight to the water. Could be in the western Boundary Waters for the way it looks. And we're alone on the water. Perfect. El. Dean's got the general drift of what to do. Picked up a small bass right off and put a look on his face that says, I sure didn't see that coming. Then settled into casting practice for a while. I'm catchin' a few. So El. moved into the comfort of business as usual on a great bass pond. Got lazy and didn't work the tube like a real fisherman ought, instead simply threw the rig and let it sink to the bottom. Then didn't do squat for a half minute, maybe a minute and settled into enjoying the scenery. Finally, more out of boredom than anything else, started to reel slowly, real slowly. And began two hours of bass catching like I'd never seen. Not big bass. This lake holds nothing much over two pounds. On the other hand, few are under a foot. Looked like he was catching the same fish over and over. Around his fifth bass we began to count figuring El. was in the beginning of a day of days. We quit counting when he hit fifty.
Hate to admit it but after a dozen or two I realized he was onto something beyond my ken. Time for me to learn from the student. I sucked it up and asked El. his method. So simple. Tells me it's all in the feel and drag. When he starts reeling sometimes he feels a soft nibble. Like a bluegill messing with your worm. If so, he lets it sit than waits a few seconds and sets the hook. Bam! Like Jimmy Houston without any bass kissin'. Different laugh also. If no immediate nibble he drags the tube slowly. Any nibble along the way is cause for a few seconds wait. Then it's bam time again. El. Dean was a true bass-o-magic that day. Not like like the one in Dan Ackroyd's routine. Ackroyd's a Canadian. And they don't know diddley about largemouth.
Oh yeah, it was fun even if they all were thirteen and a half inches. You have to question our sanity. Like a couple of pre-pubescent twelve year olds. Days like that one can spoil you for a long time. We finally had to pull the plug and seek out R. and L. Dean. Tell 'em how wonderful we were but had no effect. They were doing every bit as good as we were and had the same goofy smiles stuck to their faces.
The next day we finally found it. Not where it was supposed to be according to the DNR. But a two minute hike told the tale. Couple of years earlier we'd tried the same game on what was supposed to be the right two track only to dead end at a wall of woods. Done that a few times in the past. Back in the late '90s, Allan and I gave what we considered our best shot toward finding a lake named Bag. A thirty acre pot hole really. None of our maps showed any type of deer trail or forestry road heading that way. But I knew in my marginal bushwhacking heart of hearts there had to be a way. This was Minnesota. Bag was a lake deep enough to not freeze out. Been there since the Ice Age so there must have been plenty of folks as idiotic as me who'd have forged some kind of way in.
We started off in the right general direction. Found a two track. Almost too easy. Off we went on a trail that had a mind of its own. Five minutes in, our direction was in doubt and the track narrowed to a hair under a Jeep's width. It seems hazel brush has a thing about running sine wave tattoos down the sides of slightly lost vehicles. When the path opened up, it also disappeared. We found ourselves looking down into a pristine valley pretty as all get out. Birch, red and jackpine. Old, mossy floor with columbine, dogwood, ancient singed jackpine stumps that could've been there for many decades. Gnarly, tough buggers, thick with pitch, they'd be there for many more. Their nut like cones wouldn't think of opening without a forest fire. See, fire's our friend so long as it doesn't get too cuddly. The valley was pretty enough in the filtered light to get out and dally a minute before backing slowly out. Figured there must be another way.
That last paragraph was more or less true. Problem was I tried to get all poetic and don't do that well. Just ain't me. Poetic is supposed to come from a fertile mind and eye. My fertile's a lot closer to compost without the aging process. Get to readin' other authors - oops, gotta remember, I'm a writer not an author - and thinking damn, I sure wish I could write like I knew what I was doing. That leads to all kinds of what I consider profound thoughts. Then I write them out and see their naked reality. Time to whack myself across the knuckles a couple of times and stand nose to the wall in the corner for a half hour. Guess I've finally grown enough to no longer need nuns. Mea culpa.
Over the next twenty minutes we dead-ended twice more. "Got a problem city boys? Most anyone 'round here could find Bag with their eyes shut in the dark, on a moonless night, stone drunk. Sheee-it. Maybe it'd help if you got outta the fancy jeep once in a while for a look-see." The wisdom of age takes failure in stride. We packed it in and headed for the Nasons.
Me and the Deans must've passed the access road/mud hole five times that week before L. and R. Dean finally walked in. The track wasn't but a couple hundred yards of pot hole and rock. Ended at a sign saying the road that had been, wasn't there any more. But enough room to park. The lake sat thirty feet below us down a path nobody, but nobody could back down with a trailer, much less pull it back up. The lake was as tiny as advertised, sixty acres, but looked nothing like my mind's eye thought it would. So what else was new?
Let me tell you about what the DNR reported and what I'd heard some locals describe about what we were looking at. The lake is a Y-shaped cut in a valley. Fifteen years ago it was described as a "great place to take to take kids fishing." Nothing but bass. Small bass. Lotsa bass. Then a dozen years ago someone dumped in a few pike and bluegills. I suppose the intention was to thin out and increase the size of the bass. For a few years it worked like a charm. Not as many bass but some were pushing four pounds. The pike grew like they were on hormones. That's why we were there. Big bass, big pike. Some fun, eh?
The access was perfect for us. If you couldn't haul it down by hand, you'd best go somewhere else to wet your noodle. I was pumped. Hope floats on new water. This pond was shallow but we expected that. A minute on the water, El. Dean was reeling in his first small pike. Then his second, his third, fourth. All pike, all small. And so it continued. L. and R. Dean were having the same luck. Our two canoes worked the entire lake to the tune of endless small pike. El. broke his boredom by throwing a Gordian knot of a snarl which kept him busy like a kitten with a ball of yarn. I switched to a slip bobber rig hoping to find some of the bluegills. Instead found a few of the tiniest perch I'd ever seen. Each had a look of terror on its face. Like they lived in horror-filled dreams of pike teeth and an early death. We finally put the rods down, cruised and enjoyed the evening. L. and R. continued to throw spinners.
So here's the story I was more or less told, with an aside or two: From the beginning of our fishing trips, L. Dean's biggest complaint was having to spend a lot of his time doing boat control while R. Dean hauled in fish. L.'s own fault really. They could've switched positions. But L. always said, "Nah, that's okay. Being my son, you've been putting a crimp on my style for closing in on four decades. Why should a couple of days in a canoe be any different?" On the other hand, L. Dean seems to catch the lion's share of the big pike. He set the bar in the first year and has upped the ante a few times since. Turned out his two biggest came while El. Dean and I were smelling the roses on the night in question. Back to back in the far corner of the lake. Of course there were no pictures. No measurement. Nothing but their word and, like I wrote earlier, L. Dean's innate honesty to go by. Their original estimate had the pair at five feet each. A minute's dickering, like we were bargaining for a life-sized statue of Emilio Zapata sitting on a rainbow colored unicorn/donkey in Tijuana, dropped them to a reasonable thirty-six inches each. I could accept that. Big fish for a tiny lake.
S'pose the lesson is that if you add some eating machines to a lake's mix it isn't always the smartest thing to do. Pike like to eat. Especially when the food happens to be a bunch of innocent bass that'd never seen a pike. Now the lake can be described as "a great place to take kid's fishing. But first teach 'em how to use a jaw spreader."
Our few days up north usually fall short of enough time for doing all we want. Breakfast in, lunch out, cook supper to the tune of a few beers, fishing inbetween. A good time always. And I'm already scouting out new water for next year. It'll be a humdinger.