Al said it and the truth was obvious. "Why not head to East Pike? You know for sure we'll catch fish there." Almost too obvious. Problem is that I like trees. Get so into them sometimes I can't see how they all come together to form a woods. Seems I heard something like that once.
That might have been the original idea on where to go had we camped at any of the first five sites. But now we were better than forty miles from the Little John entry point and any thought of fishing East Pike had moved over to the dark side of my brain. If Al hadn't said anything I'd have no doubt led the boys on another wild fish chase.
As it was we quickly found ourselves loaded and on Highway 61 heading up the big lake to the turn for the Arrowhead Trail in Hovland.
The Arrowhead Trail is my favorite gravel road in the state. Starts out with a six hundred foot, rolling rise up from Superior. Then winds its way close to twenty miles inland to the bluffs above McFarland. A dozen miles in she crosses the valley cut by Portage Brook where me and Rod caught our first trout. There's a vista there that's worth the drive.
Like most beautiful country the Arrowhead is land to linger in, not just pass through. Journey and destination thing. In my mind stopping to smell the roses doesn't mean you have to stop and smell them all. Enjoy seeing them as you pass by but choose a few somewhere down the road to live with for a while and get to know. That's what the jaunt into East Pike was about.
The entry at Little John is nothing fancy and the lake fits its name perfectly. Little and unassuming. But the air's fragrance will grab you. Pine and cedar line the shore and give the brief passage an aroma that incense tries poorly to duplicate. Air so sweet you can taste it. And the sound of paddles splitting the water, a lullaby.
A half mile in, Little John narrows to a brief stream. A hundred yards of rapids that might push being a number two poses no more threat than making a northbound canoe occasionally appear to be heading south. Dumped us into banana shaped John. A sharp right would have put us on the Royal River toward Canada maybe three miles north. But we were heading west down the two mile long lake and the portage to East Pike. Memory lane for me.
We were all pumped up about what we were doing. My brother especially 'cause of the portage. Never done one but he'd heard the stories. And the clock was ticking for him at age sixty-one. Though certainly not a wearing out kinda sixty-one. Still a 'hoss' in both his mind and body. The idea of carrying weight over a good sized hill for five-eigths of a mile was something he was relishing. Put up on the wall. Been, done and crapped in the woods along the way.
We weren't prepared for the carry. Three canoes, fishing gear and a snack should have been short order for six men. But it was a disorganized mess. Took us two trips over. And the one time stroll back for the canoes.
I took a first cast at the entry onto East Pike and came up empty as I have every time since that first fruitful one in '66. Didn't much matter. Me and Allan knew for sure the waters still held a lot of bass.
The access is a basalt slab sloping down into the lake that was laid down before the dinosaurs. Across its face are scratches left behind by mile thick glaciers. In '66 I stood there with Rod. '92, me and Allan. Now there were six of us. Why not? It's a spot to share. Would have been enough to know that, pick it up and head back to John. But seeing as how we'd made the trek for bass and a personal desire to spare myself a merciless beating, we went out fishing.
My brother and Rob, his son-in-law, immediately tucked into a nearby corner of the lake. Anchored there and never moved. It looked good to Rob and he had the stern paddle. "Don't like my choice? Too late. The anchor's down."
His idea was and for all I know still is, that you find a good looking spot and work it 'til its time to pack it in for the day or Armageddon, whichever comes first. He figured if the spot was good, the fish would come to you. Said it worked for him though I figure it's a better idea to move around a bit and let the fish let on where the good spots are.
As it turned out they were skunked but had some action. To this day Rob says he had and lost a muskie. Now, there are two lakes in the Boundary Waters with planted muskies. East Pike is one of them. They're there alright. My cousin Gary caught one and the DNR netted a forty-two incher. Rob said muskie and I think he was right.
Brian and John, my nephews, headed farther down the east shore and worked the water just like they'd been smallmouth fisherman all their lives. Outside of the fact they weren't catching anything, they were doing fine.
As for me and Al, we worked the same shore but fifty yards farther out. Spinners of course. Al stuck on red and white and me throwing brass. And had the same luck as the other four.
As opposed to Rob I'm an antsy fisherman. If not here, then over there. I'll switch spinner colors 'til I find what, if anything, works. After fifteen minutes of casting I switched to a silver blade. And hooked up on the first cast. Al did the same and we were in business.
A yell shoreward let my nephews join in the fun. Five minutes later Brian roared out, "It's a shark! It's a shark!" Well it wasn't but a twenty inch bass but his yell told us how much fun he was having.
Around this time I had one of my fishing story moments. The bass wasn't all that big, maybe two pounds but I never saw it so you'll have to take my word. Made a run or two then fell into a pattern of me gaining a couple of yards followed by the smallie making a brief run and taking it all back. I cranked and tugged. She ran, always down. Maybe a dozen times before I noticed how close to shore we'd drifted. Huh?
A closer look and a moment's thought told me it might not be a coincidence that my taut line was pointing right at the anchor cord. To this day I'll swear I'd had a bass on the line 'til it used the anchor as a means of coming loose. Of course the rest of the boys simply say I'm an idiot 'cause they know I'm not a liar.
So we caught a fair amount of bass and kept enough for a meal. Back at the access we posed as a group and did a couple of timed photos. No fish in the shots, just fisherman who'd had a great time. Mostly it was a remembrance of family together in a place they all wanted to be.
John wandered off a few yards back in the woods to take care of necessity. There, he came upon a sheltered snowbank. Ah Minnesota, bless you for not knowing Summer has arrived. We filled my ragged orange daypack with snow and fish and were off. Don't remember who carried the fish pack. Probably not me or I'd remember the wet shirt and butt.
Like all families on an outing we had ourselves a squabble. I wasn't there but got the lowdown from Allan. Seems a couple of nephews got into dispute over who was the best at filleting fish. Kinda wish I'd been there 'cause that's a subject I'd never heard argued.
My thoughts go back to a man named Ben Bialke who ran a two man commercial fishing operation on Lake of the Woods back in the mid-50s. Spent a week with the man when I was an eight year old. Now that man and his partner could filet fish. While smoking and carrying on a conversation. Doubt very much whether he'd consider cutting the meat from a walleye, or bass, a fit subject to get hot over. Simply work done in seconds.
Anyhow, my nephews found themselves handicapped by having no filet knife. Not that we didn't have one. Mine was in my box along with a sharpener. But since neither asked I figured they had one.
As it was they did have a hunting knife. No doubt they argued over what was the proper way to sharpen a knife also. Regardless, we had a seriously good meal of smallmouth bass that evening. Breaded and fried in inch deep oil. Mmm, mmm. Keeps a man regular.
Come morning it was time to pack it up and head home. By then we were in agreement that next year's destination was camping on East Pike Lake. My job was to have the permit application in before the January draw and hope for the best.