Friday, May 30, 2014

Wide Pine

     That's the plan.  I've fished the lake a dozens of times but now it's time to learn it.  End the pretender business.  Headin' north tomorrow.  There's mowing to be done plus the usual cleaning.  The Deans are to arise from Iowa in ten days and I'd like to be ready for them.
     Already packed in the truck are my oldest rods.  That they throw flies is part of the plan.  The other part is catching fish.  Ain't done that in a while.  Maybe I've already caught my share and my future will be filled with days of skunk.  Become like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea.  I figure if he'd been satisfied with bluegills his luck would have been better.  Maybe not.  As far as I know there's not a lot of bluegills in Cuba.
     Last time up north I once again reread Hemingway's, Big Two Hearted River.  Again it struck me that Hemingway's tale was a precursor of Dr. Seuss's, Green Eggs and Ham.  Both wrote a complete story with only fifty words.  Of course that's an exaggeration.  Hemingway used more words but doubt he had to crack open a thesaurus.  On the other hand, Seuss wrote his in verse.  I'd call that a push.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Oiling Reels

     I believe the count is nine spinning reels and five fly reels.  I think of most being 'new' but when it comes time to clean them I realize their average age is seven or eight years.  And they're not as smooth as they once were.  Regardless, they work, so once again it's time to crack 'em open send them to grease and oil heaven for another year.
     My mind wanders when doing these kind of things.  Not supposed to.  Good thing I wasn't a neurosurgeon.  The idea is to focus, do a good job, not drop any of the tiny screws on the floor and most of all, not have any parts left over.  But it's not always the reel I'm seeing and the screws do occasionally fall.  Lines from songs pry their way into my head and won't go away.  Lately it's been Dylan's "I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff."  What the hell that's doing up between my ears is beyond me.  Maybe there's a message hidden within the lyrics?
     Couldn't resist, looked it up on the internet.  The song is "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues."  In it Bob seems to be having a hard time.  The world's a dangerous, unloving place and no one seems to be his friend.  Huh, who'd have ever thought he'd felt that way back in '65?  Oh yeah, I almost forgot, a lot of his songs kinda fit that mold.
     So, how does that tie into oiling fishing reels?  Well, I was off in my own little room even if it's not in Juarez like in the song, away from the rest of the world but there was no wine involved.  'Specially not burgundy.  Gives me headaches and bitters up my tongue.
     Okay, okay, I couldn't leave it alone and had to read the Tom Thumb fairy tale.  In short, the moral is there's no place like home.  At the end of the song that's exactly what Dylan was doing, heading back to New York.  Guess he didn't think much of his days growing up in Minnesota.  And in the fairy tale's return trip the little feller goes through a whole lot of crap just like Bob does in the song.  Makes me want to finish oiling so I can wind some new line on the spools.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Portages

     I've written before about the big one that got away, the Four Mile Portage out of Grass River Provincial park in Manitoba.  Allan and I were up for it, no doubt about that.  Humping our two hundred, fifty pounds of canoe and gear over the length of the length and back had us psyched up as only pure misery can.  Maybe we were lucky big Reed Lake was frozen over.  I doubt the portage would have killed us but Reed sure could have.  On the day we'd've been on the return across the ten mile span the wind was up, way up.  Thirty miles an hour straight out of the north.  Sure it would have been a tail wind but the rollers would have been in the four to six foot range.  White and hissing.  Yup, we'd've had to choose between sitting on the shore and swimming alongside a flooded canoe.
     However, long and miserable that portage would have been, boy were we disappointed when we saw the shore to shore ice and knew it wasn't in the cards for us that day.  Doubly disappointed 'cause we'd have had it waiting for us on our return.  Sitting here thinking about it at age sixty-seven I still get a little adrenalin buzz and question myself if I could still do it, "Oh yeah, no doubt about it."  Guess it's never too late to be stupid.
     Back in '66 my buddy Rod and I did a half dozen portages in what came to be part of the Boundary Waters.  Those were my first.  Actually, what we did was carry our gear and fiberglass canoe over and around places we couldn't boat.  Don't know if Rod knew we were portaging, I sure didn't.  We made a big deal out of how hard the work was when talking to others.  'Course for a couple of late teeners it was no big deal.  We puffed a little when carrying the loads but recovered in a half minute.  Actually, the ordeal part of the trip was having to eat our own cooking.
     Anticipation.  Simple as that.  Four miles down a lake and it's time for a change.  You wouldn't think having to move a couple hundred pounds of stuff for a half mile could be seen as something you'd want to do, even look at as fun, but it is.  Oddly enough, by the time the carry is nearing the end, being back on the water is looking mighty good.  Up and down on the sine wave of enjoyment.  It's all about getting from where you are to where you want to be.  In my case the goal usually involves fish.
     Sweat is directly proportional to good fishing.  Most of the time.  Maybe that explains our trip on the File River in Manitoba.  Over eighty miles we never had to portage.  It'd been a dry winter.  The lake and river levels were way down.  We were always on the lookout for moving water 'cause that's where the pickerel would be in the early spring of the far north.  Over the entire stretch we found but one set of rapids.  All the entering streams shown on the map were either dry or nothing but trickles.  Had the water been up we'd have no doubt had to do a few carries and also had much better fishing.
     Though they weren't the longest, the two carries into and out of Claw Lake were the hardest.  As usual for our two week trips we had a lot of stuff, especially food.  Stove, gas, cooking gear, pack, cooler, ice and food totaled eighty-five or more pounds.  We were pansies who had to have all the amenities even if it meant misery on the portage.  Seems I recall two trips on which we added three twelve packs of pop to the load.  Something wrong with that.
     I really don't know how long the Claw Lake portages were, probably no more than two hundred, eighty rods each.  But they were through bog, over jumbled deadfall and were flooded in places.  Crap like that tends to keep the riffraff out.  Had we known about the abandoned railroad right of way crossing the northern stretch of park we could have driven and camped close by.  Also would have missed the beauty of thirty-five miles of portage, lake and river.
     Now that's a trip I could still do.  Drive to within spittin' distance of a fly-in lake, sleep in the back of a truck and have what passes for true wilderness fishing.  Cut me some slack here.  I'm no longer the middle aged pretend voyageur I once was.  But I can still drive and paddle a canoe.  Anyhow, it's a thought.
     'Spose the truth is my portaging days are in the past.  I wish that wasn't true but it is.  'Course, if for some strange reason should a younger blood relative, or in-law, say "let's go," I might just say yes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Aberrations and Odd Ducks

     Lakes II had me thinking of large fish in small lakes, the ones that take you by surprise.  More often than not they start off feeling like there's nothing unusual on the line.  Then, as the fish realizes something is going on, she goes all crazy and grows to her real size.  The monolog goes something like this,  "Fish on!  Feels decent.  Whoa baby!  She's a hog!"  That's followed by the required run under the canoe, rod pointing straight down to keep the pressure on and not let your line become pinned on the bottom of the canoe where it'll no doubt break off.  Then a few runs.  Four or five adrenalin pumping minutes tops but seems about twenty.  Always a good time and rarely forgotten.
     Whenever I check out a lake on the DNR web site I'll always scan to the bottom of the page.  Once in a while the analysts mention the largest of the netted fish.  A thirty-six inch pike will catch my attention, a forty incher will provoke a "my, my" accompanied by  an eyebrow raise.  Catching a twenty pound pike in Minnesota, 'specially on the little lakes I fish, would make my day.  Make that my year.  And provoke another mildly excited "my, my, wasn't that something?"  Guess I no longer get as excited as I once did.
     I wouldn't bet the farm on any of those twenty pounders swimming in sixty acre lakes.  Maybe they do in private, Purina Fish Chow waters but not in any I've been on.  Fifteen pounders, maybe.  Six or seven pound bass, more likely.  Big bluegills and crappies, for sure.  Maybe even eight pound walleyes though I've never really tried for them.  What I do know is the farther down the food chain, the better the chance you're going to be someone's dinner.  Guess that means a pike has the upper hand in a pond unless papa or mama is hungry.  As far as I know predator fish don't recognize their offspring as anything more than another source of food.  Not very civilized as I see it.
     My first hint that big fish little pond does happen came on the first small, backwoods lake I fished with my son Allan.  When we paddled out all we knew for sure was the lake looked deep enough to not freeze out in the winter.  Up in the northland winter plays a major role in the life of a forty acre lake such as the one we were on.  A frozen lake with an early and prolonged snow cover can lose all its vegetation and the fish suffocate.  Yeah, a lot of them freeze out now and then.  Could be the few surviving fish have an edge on the field and become the hogs.
     The lake was South Stocking.  Most of the shore is lined in lily pads.  Once outside the pads the lake's bottom falls out to a depth of forty feet, a scar left by the glaciers.  The locals know it as crappie water though there's also pike and pumpkinseed sunnies.  Had we known what we were fishing for we might have changed our tactics.  As it was we tied on small spinners mostly 'cause that's what we like to fish to check things out.  Were we trout fishermen on a new stream we'd have gone with an Adams or a Royal Wulff, the idea being, "If you don't know what they're eating, throw 'em something flashy and confuse 'em."
     Took an hour of patient casting to find our first crappie, followed in the next hour by a few pike and sunnies. The pike were good old fashioned keeper size.  These days they're more of a 'nice fish, eh?' size', followed by a release.
     But the sunnies were another story.  As I recall there were only four of them, all around a pound.  Like I said, they were pumpkinseeds, the smaller cousin of bluegills.  Allan says they're the closest thing we have to colorful tropical fish up here in the northland.  Big ones are always worth a photo.  Somewhere buried in one of our boxes of snapshots there's one with me dangling an eleven incher alongside my head.  I'm the dull one on the left with his eyes shut.  Eleven inches is about a pound and a quarter.  Close enough to the state record to put it in the hog class.  And caught on a number two spinner.  That's one aggressive sunnie.
     The fishing was more surprising to us than good but wasn't the whole story.  That day was the beginning of a decade of good days and I could feel it.  A new world of lakes without developed accesses was foretold on South Stocking.  There were others in the area, in other areas nearby and even over the border.  A world of water overlooked by the experts.  Little, ugly waters with unexpected treasures.  Searching for the overlooked was a good part of the reason behind our trips to Grass River Provincial Park.  The lakes there weren't unknown by any means but they were unknown to us.  Hadn't heard of the park before and no one I talked with knew anything about it.
     Could have been five years ago me and the Deans went out looking for Little Bass Lake.  That's it's actual name but in a state with more than a dozen Little Basses I might as well call it Long Lake.  The DNR listed it as being remote and lacking a developed access.  Sounded good to me.  We knew where the lake was but the back roads leading toward it were sketchy to say the least.  That it might involve a portage through grown over trails, even better.  Anyhow, that's what I was hoping for.
     Turned out this was one of those times where my expectations made life a lot more difficult than necessary.  We headed down what looked to be a likely track and took it till it ended at a wall of forest. Obviously we were driving no farther.  Fortunately there was the shadow of a trail heading in the right direction.  Me and R. Dean hoofed it to see what we could see which turned out to be never ending trail.  And in the process gathered enough wood ticks to start us a bug circus.
     Long story short, we backtracked and found a sand road leading right to the lake.  The boat launch wasn't great but would have been no problem to back a bass boat into the lake.  Not good.  By then we'd screwed around long enough that our early morning start had turned into high sun and blue sky.  Strike two.  But the lake looked great.  Points, bays, weed beds, everything I looked for in good water.  Except for the fishing.
     I was, as usual, in the canoe with El Dean.  The two of us were alternately throwing spinners for bass and slip bobbers and tiny jigs for panfish.  After an hour, had we been in competition, we'd have been knotted up at 0 to 0.  But it sure was a pretty place to be skunked.
     A half hour later I tied into the only fish we caught.  Of course it was a pike.  Big enough for us to suspect it had eaten everything in the lake.  She did the usual pike routine of making a half dozen reel burning runs.  Finally, like a long sought lover accepted the inevitable 'cause it was easier than continued rejection, let me release the hook.  To this day I figure the average pike in Little Bass average close to fifteen pounds.  Thirty half pound bluegills would have been more fun.
     Haven't written about the Nason's for a while.  Could be my last trip was the run-in with Granny who let me know I was an asshole.  Up till then I'd had my suspicions but having it voiced by a total stranger came as a shock.  Seems the truth always slaps a person's eyes open.  Those little puddles have always been a favorite of mine.  Not having been back in two years is a hole in my life I need to patch.
     The Nason's are an aberration in themselves, much like the man I've named them for.  They're not majestic, just four oversized puddles in a swamp.  Of course those puddles are over twenty feet deep, maybe even Minnesota's version of Florida's spring holes.  Heavily weeded along their floating bog shorelines.  Once you're out on the water the only way you're going to step ashore and take a leak is back at what the DNR calls a user developed boat launch.
     The fishing is good, 'specially in the evening when the owner of the Whipholt bait shop comes paddling out in his homemade mud box.  Don't know if that's what it is but it sure looks like one.  Next time I see him I'll have to ask.  There's nary a walleye in those twenty eight acres but there are panfish, pike and bass.  A body times it right and there's lots of them.  Time it wrong, like on a cloudless mid-day and you swear the lake is lifeless.
     I've caught a couple of outsized fish in the Nason's.  At least I thought they were till the mud box man told me of a bass he officially weighed in at eight and a half pounds.  By Minnesota standards that's a seventeen pounder in Florida.  I've been told the bass down there are a different breed than the ones we have up here.  I'd prefer to think our fish are tougher and leaner 'cause of Northland winters.  Up here chunky, chord down fall bass turn into skinny spring fish that've survived by eating a diet of mud and stick bark.  They're not as big as their southern cousins but their growth rings are much tighter.
     My longest bass and crappie both came from the Nason's.  And both looked like they'd been through a war.  Maybe they were only nearing death from old age, blotchy, scarred and torn up fins.  Both of them ugly fish but big, ugly fish.  Not the kind that'd look good in a wall photo.  Maybe they were simply putting on their best ugly look like they were diseased and had no interest at all in being eaten.  Seems there's an old Chinese story about a deformed young man who's rejected by the army in time of war.  Who'd have thought fish were up on asian mythology?
   

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lakes II

     Eight minutes from the cabin and gravel all the way.  Don't know why I call the local roads gravel, since they're nothing more than native sand.  Sand does the job nicely if you don't mind driving slow over the inevitable washboarded sections.  When I head out on my bike it's necessary to do a lot of zig-zagging around the biggest waves.  Even with shock absorbers over the front wheel it can be a tooth busting experience.
     I'll call this one Wide Pine Lake since it's nothing more than a slow down in the Pine River.  Wide Pine's not a great lake but it holds fish.  At times it can be the site of some pretty decent fishing, 'specially if you're in the market for bluegills.
     Not many people fish the lake, about as many who duck hunt it in the Fall.  The ducks are there for the wild rice which covers a quarter of its eighty acres.  Wide Pine is a weedy lake with patches of coon tail and cabbage so thick by mid August I can tie the canoe to them.  Two cabins on the lake, only one of which can be seen from shore.  Yup, she's a locals only lake.  An ugly duckling of water which can turn into a swan now and then.
     The river enters from the east end and exits through a pair of good sized culverts under the road on the west.  In the early spring, which arrives no less than two months past the one on the calendar, the culverts are a hot spot for sunnies and bass.  Not unusual to see a family of locals sitting there on lawn chairs catching dinner.  Nothing wrong with that.  Beats the pants off being inside with reruns of Two and a Half Men.
     The culverts are a usual stop for me when I'm on a bike ride.  Pop the kickstand down, walk out on the metal tubes and check out what's down there.  Can't truly say how many times I've done that.  Dozens at least.  I've mentally fly fished both sides of the road more times than I've stopped.  Why I've never actually thrown a fly there is a mystery to me.  One of these days I'll talk it over with myself. See what the hangup is.  But I better do it before the first of June when the wild rice comes on like gang busters.
     Wide Pine was the first area lake I fished.  Fished it once then left it alone for better than a decade.  One hammer handle pike wasn't reason enough to go back.  Can't say for sure what brought me back, probably time.  My son Allan and I were up north for a weekend.  We'd caught more than our share share of bass and pike Friday evening and Saturday.  Sunday dawned sunny and warm.  Not necessarily a good sign for a morning on the water but we had time for a couple of hours before heading home.  Like I said, Wide Pine is eight minutes from the cabin.  It had water and maybe even fish so that's where we headed.
     The first hour was quiet, dead.  This was back in the days when I was starting to pay attention to currents on the water.  I had it in my head that currents in a lake were similar to the ones in streams.  Fish would hang around on the relatively calm edges waiting for food to come floating by.  Don't know if that's true and suspect it's not.  But on that day it seemed to work.
     Yes, there's a lot of pike in Wide Pine.  Mostly small but there are a few we used to call keepers.  Al and I caught a round dozen in the next hour, the largest at thirty inches.  We took it pretty nonchalantly.  Canada had spoiled us for what on an eighty acre lake would be considered good fishing.  Probably Adam felt the same way when he raised his first crop of big boy tomatoes, "They're okay I guess.  Nothing like the really big ones back in Eden.  Maybe I need more manure?"
     Five pound pike are really decent fish.  They fight like their big sisters.  Even strip a little line when they're fresh.  And give you the evil eye when they're finning alongside the canoe.  Nasty in a little way.
     Another of my nephew and son combinations took a ducking up the south shore from the culverts.  Have to admit they took it well considering they had to swim and wade their way through a mass of shoreline slime and weeds.  His other son and I were half a lake away when it happened.  Too far to have been any help had they been in danger and way too far to have gotten a decent photo.  Would have been nice if there was a big fish story to go along with all the fun but no, it was a simple learning curve screw up.
     I should have asked them if their entire lives had passed in front of their eyes on the way from dry to wet.  The time I did the same thing in the Boundary Waters, one moment I was in the boat, the next in the lake.  No life flash at all.  Maybe that doesn't happen when you're gonna survive.  Maybe it never does.
     In their case I'm glad the roll over happened.  Seeing as how they were skunked that morning, the unexpected swim gave them something to remember.  Guess that's an upside to a downside.
     Upstream a quarter mile there's another widening.  Not as big as the first but still thirty acres at ice out before the rice sets in.  One Fall day a couple of duck hunters said the little opening had been full of V's under the water.  Couldn't have been fishermen or they'd have known they were spooking fish.  My mind said pike but they could have been bass, walleyes or even panfish.  Regardless, to me they meant a trip up river was on my someday agenda.
     Only made that paddle once since then.  Lois had dropped me off for three hours of water time while she went elsewhere.  Anywhere would have been a step up for her seeing as how canoeing and fishing are nowhere on her list of things to do.  That it was forty degrees even dropped it farther so I was on my own.
     It was nearing ice up and all of the rice was done for the year.  But the dead brown stalks were still there, some standing, most bent over or floating in the water.  Paddling through them to the small opening was a challenge.  So much mass in the water it would have been much easier had I stood and poled my way along like a respectable outdoorsman.  First off, I don't stand in a canoe and even if I did the water in Wide Pine was at least as cold as the air.  So I sat, paddled and did what I do best, bitch about it.
     Bitching is a release valve.  I tend to do it at the drop of a hat when I'm alone and things aren't going as smoothly as I'd like.  It's what I do when there's nothing to be afraid of and I'm a little frustrated.  Like mucking my way at a mile an hour through a marsh of floating crud.  Organic, yes.  Organic as all get out and smells that way.  On the upside, I wasn't going to fall out of the canoe and was heading someplace I wanted to be.
     Okay, here's where this stumbles its way into a non-story.  I did make it to the upstream pool and it definitely was there.  Even got in a few casts.  Then patiently spent a pleasant three minutes per cast cleaning the thicket off my lure and line.  Didn't see any V's either.  But I did scan the area and saw nothing man made.  Got the feeling I was in the middle of one of those empty spots the civilized world hadn't yet squeezed out of existence.
     One of these Springs, long before the lake is in bloom, I'm thinking this is prime water.  Great spawning habitat.  She's on my nonexistent bucket list and way more appealing than bungee jumping.
     On another evening while fishing with R. Dean I may have caught the largest pike in the lake.  It had the head of an eighteen pounder and the body of an eight.  Definitely undernourished.  My guess was twelve pounds.
     Sure took me by surprise.   I'm fond of trumpeting to most any fool who'll listen that each fish holding lake has its aberrations, something way bigger than the rest of the pack.  If there's bass in a lake there'll inevitably be a few wise old veterans who've survived through wile or luck to reach wall hanger size.  Maybe it's simply a case that I've seen a few of them 'cause I always drag my partners onto small lakes where the occasional hog tends to take us by surprise.  Don't know why it should, spending enough hours on small water sure does up the chances of finding the rare big ones.  Likely it's a case of pure blind luck that we've found a few of those aberrations.
      Not all good things happening on a lake involve fish.  My son-in-law R. Dean and I watched a spectacular sunset one evening.  The full range of pastel tinted rainbow colors lit up every cloud in the sky.  Though I know it happened exactly as I remember it, my mind's eye has the sun setting in the east.  I've even pulled out a map of Wide Pine just to make sure.  Yup, in the east.  If my memory is correct then all those glorious colors were no more than a footnote to a reversal of the known universe.
     Maybe I shouldn't shun the lake any more.  Possibly make it my home water.  It's not like I've been a shooting star in the galaxy of fisherman.  I've had my share of good days and been skunked more times than I'd admit.  Could be the two of us are made for each other.
     Spring is slow to come in the northland.  At the cabin this weekend and things look right on schedule for late April.  The lakes are free of ice but the water remains frigid.  Not a leaf on a tree. Even the brush is bare.
     On Saturday afternoon I drove over to Wide Pine with the idea of catching a single bluegill to begin the fishing season.  Didn't work out that way.  The lake was free of weeds, the swamp across the road in flood.  All was as it should be for me to stand on the culverts with my shortest fly rod in hand and pitch a small dry fly to the sunnies that'd be gathered there for an easy meal.  Yup, even my casting wasn't bad.  But the water was barren.  Not a fish to be seen alongside the water rushing through the culverts.  In short I was skunked.  Again.
     I had company for my last few casts.  A spry woman in her late 70s out for a stroll asked if what I was doing was called fly fishing.  Hopefully she wasn't being sarcastic.  Didn't think of that till now.  One comment led to another till I climbed off the culvert and we talked of the lake.  She and her husband had a house nearby.  Been there since the late '60s and knew the water well.  Yes the Spring was late.  Yes the water was still frigid and nothing was biting.
     Sounded a lot like the Winter and Spring of '96-'97.  My cousin Gary had gone into a nearby bait store late in May and asked what was biting.  Bait shop owners are never shy on information, 'specially when the customer is there simply to buy what'll work.  The owners answer was simple, "Nothing, not even crappies."  He was right.  Our five days on the water produced a few small pike and a handful of bluegills.
     Inevitably the water will warm and the fishing will improve.  If not, at least it won't get worse.
   
   

Monday, May 5, 2014

Lakes - Big Jake

     Big Jake Lake is not its name.  My grandson Jakob has fished two lakes up north.  This one is the larger of the two, hence the name I'm calling it.
     Like most of the water I fish up north Big Jake is in the neighborhood, a big neighborhood.  Forty-five minutes one way.  But there's not a dull mile and the fishing tends to be outstanding so I don't mind.  The paved part of the drive winds around and over wooded hills, past a half dozen lakes and ponds and through one small town.  The town's a fishing town, no doubt about that.  Used to have a freezer in the window of the bait store featuring the most recent wall hangers.  Occasionally there'd be a good sized dog fish or eel pout to add a touch of humor.  I suppose how funny depended on your point of view.  Never saw any of the frozen dog fish with a smile on its face.
     Another five minutes takes me to a poorly marked turnoff.  Forestry road from there on.  In spring the track is rutted, winding and wet.  In places runoff streams meander across.  When it's just me and the solo I like the road at least a little wet.  Without going into details as to why, I simple stuff the canoe into the back of my SUV and cinch the tailgate down.  The boat's not going anywhere but the door remains open about a foot.  When the back roads are dry the car fills with dust.  A mess to clean up but that's just the way it is.
     Coupla stretched out turns later and I'm there.  With luck the access is empty.  Usually is.
     The rumor I heard a dozen years ago claimed Big Jake was once a fine walleye lake.  As far as I know it may have been a real humdinger.  Experience tells me it's not anymore.  One walleye in twenty plus trips.  But that's no problem, I'm there for the bass and the big panfish illegally introduced by outlaw locals.
     There are at least two ways to fish the lake.  Arguably it's simpler with a spinning rod.  Casts are many and quick.  Fling the lure out and with a little skill, in the right place  When I'm in the canoe it's all about boat control.  When there's a breeze, getting the lure out and back before being blown into shore or out in the lake makes life a lot easier.  And brings more fish to the canoe.  I like that.  I'm lazy and easier is good.
     But it's the fly rod that draws me.  More work.  Demands attention and patience.  Slows me down to the pace of the elements.  A body can't just flip a fly.  Gotta whip up some momentum then work the fly in like the tiny living thing it's supposed to imitate.  Properly done a fly on still water takes close to a minute to complete the cast.  Slow down old boy, slow down.  You're where you want to be, doing what you want to do.  Savor the moment.
     The launch passes through a lily pad bed.  Shallow and muddy.  No matter how many times I've paddled out, the first few yards reminds my sense of balance the world's a different place with my feet on the ground.  I guess it's a moment of regaining my sea butt.  Give the canoe a couple of wiggles and I'm ready to go.
     Once free of the pads I paddle right.  Years ago the left shore told me there's not much to be had that way.  Ask me why and I'll say it just doesn't look fishy.  Must look the same to the bass I'm after.  Besides, the right shoreline is a series of points and bays, lily pads and weed beds.  Looks fishy.  Caught a lot of bass in that direction.
     Can't say there's any naturally savvy fishermen out there.  I sure wasn't born that way.  When it comes to fishing, fish are the teachers.  Makes a man question the order of things.  Adam was supposed to have named all the animals but I figure the fish were wearing name tags.  Even wrote them out themselves.  These days they'll not only tell you their names but also where they are and what they want to eat.  They don't visit so you've got to pay them a visit, wherever that may be.  Sooner or later even a slow learner like me figures out a few of the patterns.  Enough time on the water and enough fish on the line and things begin to click.  Doesn't always pan out that way but what worked on one lake might very well work on another.  So, on Big Jake I point the canoe's nose to the right.
     Right off I'm in a half moon bay.  Holds fish but they tend to be small.  I'll usually pass it by and cut across to the first point.  Nice lily pad bed there.  Everything about it tells me there's fish there.  So I begin casting tight to the bank.  Don't know why it is but the bass in Big Jake seem to hold in the shallowest of water.  A good cast is within a yard of dirt.  If you're throwing a spinner like I usually do you'd best be winding up your slack on the lure's descent.  The bottom is lined with mud, weeds and sticks (this is beaver country).  If you want to catch bass on Big Jake you better have your spinner moving the instant it hits the water.
     A decade back R. Dean and I were fishing this very same spot on a warm summer day.  Good thing it was warm 'cause there were passing showers in the area.  Every so often the area they were passing was directly overhead.  Rained so hard it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the air began.  Years earlier I'd stashed a sponge in the bow of the canoe.  Over time it had molded some but still worked to sop up the pool under our feet.  On the upside the fishing was as good as it gets.  Wet drawers were no problem.  Rain be damned we just kept right on flinging our spinners.
     Most everyone I fish with is right handed.  On Big Jake that means setting up a left handed reel.  I've  been shown time and again some righties just can't seem to reel left handed.  Don't ask me why.  As far as I know in their case it's genetic or maybe biblical or maybe 'cause they're Dutch.
     Whatever the reason, those that can't, have to be rigged to compensate.  That's why El Dean is the master of the tube jig.  No matter what, his lure is going to end up on the bottom by the time he switches hands on the rod.  The tube is nearly weedless and works like a charm for him.  Surprised the hell out of him when it did and me too.  It was around the corner from this first point that El began to get his feel for the tube.  Now if I could only get him to upgrade his thirty year old Snoopy spincast combo.  Seeing as how he's been a Peanuts fan since age nine I don't think that's happening.
     The following quarter mile of shore holds three bays and a point.   Five years ago it also held a downed tree.  That tree, I recall it being a mature, beaver dropped aspen, was the scene of a strained father-son relationship.  There L. Dean and his son R. Dean had a heated moment 'cause R. was hammering bass like they were pigeons sitting in the branches of the sunken tree and he was throwing them popcorn.  L. was in the stern on boat control.  R. would cast, get hung in a limb and his old man would paddle in to free the spinner.  When L. would start to back out R. would cast again and hook up with a bass. In short, the son caught a dozen bass out of that aspen and his dad never got to pick up his rod.  Now, it's possible it didn't happen exactly that way but during R's run of luck, his dad caught little but grief.
     Big Jake has two main bays.  The north bay I've been talking about is the small one.  No more than forty acres.  First couple of times on the water told me there were no fish in this end.  Caught not a one even though it looked good.  An ancient couple in an even older boat and motor showed me differently one fine June evening.      
     The bay's not deep, no more than six feet.  Here and there are pockets of lily pads.  The good ones with big leaves and white flowers.  Pretty to see and for one reason or another, probably food, they seem to hold bass pike and sunfish.  Small beds also pocket the middle of the bay but for some reason working them is a wasted effort.
     Acre sized beds can be a hoot to fish.  'Specially in a canoe.  R. and L. Dean have a predilection for the big beds.  They'll park themselves tight to shore and bobber fish the small openings between pads.  Their method is always good for bluegills and bass, particularly on those bluebird sunny days in the middle of the afternoon when nothings happening out on the open water.  Maybe it's the shade under the pads that attracts the fish.  Whatever the reason the fight is usually short.  You either yank the bugger out of the cover immediately or lose it to the weeds.  Sometimes that four pound bass turns out to be a panfish and a wad of green.  Either way it's always fun even if the fight only lasts three seconds.
     The big south bay is entered by a hundred yard long channel.  Not deep, sand bottomed and a thicket of lake grass from end to end.  The shallow bay to the right as you leave the channel was where I caught my first Big Jake bass.  Seems there's always fish along the shore.  Never caught any bigger than a foot but catching some's better than just casting.
     Truth be known there are no wall hangers in Big Jake even though the DNR has had catch and release regulations in force for better than a decade.  To my eye the big end of the range has moved from fifteen to sixteen inches, maybe.  That's the disappointment of Big Jake.  But I keep going back in hopes those sixteen inchers might someday sneak up on twenty.
     About a decade ago I made up my mind to never fish Big Jake again.  I'm one of those fishermen who likes to have the possibility of catching the fish of a lifetime flying out there with the next cast.  That hope doesn't paddle the waters of this lake.  Lots of bass, a few walleyes and now bluegills and crappies.  But no large bucketmouths.
     I stuck to my guns for better than a year.  What brought me back was a string of bad fishing days with the Deans.  And the truth of, "Oh well, there's always Big Jake."  So we went and we caught.  Hammered 'em actually.  Then I looked around the shore.  Three kinds of pines, red and white oak, birch, aspen, hills, boulders, deer coming down to drink, beavers working the woods and shore, ospreys and bald eagles above.  All pretty much like it would have looked five hundred years ago.  No docks, no water-skiers, no cabins or buildings of any kind.  What the hell was wrong with me that I wouldn't come back because the bass weren't big enough?  My problem not the lake's.  So I came back.  Again and again.  Damn fine water, simple as that.
     Last time on Big Jake I was there with my nephew and his son.  It was a mid-summer Saturday in the afternoon.  Normally the lake is empty of fishermen but not so that day.  What could I do but apologize for the crowd of three other boats?  I wanted to show the lake off for what it normally was.  But three other boats?  Hard to take.
     My idea was for us to tour the entire shoreline.  Catch so many bass in the process they'd be stunned speechless.  Dumbfounded.  Leave the lake mumbling something like, "Never wanna see another bass no matter how long I live.  Gonna have the bass terrors in my sleep tonight."
     But no tour for us that day.  The two best bays were claimed.  Strangers had camped out on my lake and didn't look like they were ever moving.  Oddly enough Brian and Sean were impressed with the fishing.  Blessed are the innocent and ignorant.
     The right shore turns from sand to rock bottomed at the end of the first bay.  Everything about it says smallmouth to me except the lack of smallmouth bass.  Same goes for walleyes.  On the day with my nephew I did a lot of putzing along this shore.  Explored the bottom to see what was there.  Not a bad idea the first time you're on any lake.  See what could be there and fish accordingly.  It was there I saw my first Big Jake bluegills.  Looks like the DNR wasn't kidding when they reported panfish.  Next time I'll be ready.  Go with the fly rod first.  If that doesn't work it'll be slip bobber time.
     Though walleyes of size are supposed to swim in the lake I've never taken them seriously.  Maybe it's a gut feeling.  Maybe I just don't give a damn about walleyes.  That's a sinful attitude in Minnesota, the home of quality walleye fishing, but I'll just have to live with it.
     The far south end has enough of a sand beach to land a canoe and empty a bladder.  There's not enough beach to do much more than stand but after a few hour's canoe fishing, being upright is a pleasure.  As is peeling my underpants off of my butt.  That's not as simple an operation as a non-canoer might think.  Three hours of upper body weight will squeeze the flesh right through a cotton blend.  Removal is akin to removing an incredibly large bandaid and proportionately painful.
     After a rest we usually hit the first bay on the east shore.  And there's always bass to be had from the first lily pad on.  It's more or less pocket water that's worth a cautious approach.  We start deep and drift our way in.  The entire structure's not more than fifty yards wide.  Six or more bass is usual but, like I've said, they're not big.  If there are any four pounders in Big Jake, this bay and its exiting point where the lake drops off are where we'll someday catch them.  Maybe their size will be the result of the introduced panfish.  Or a doctored tape measure.
     Out from the point is the deepest part of the lake.  Maybe twenty feet if it's been a snowy winter.  Heading back toward the channel there lie clusters of cabbage beds.  I've worked them a number of times but have had little luck.  Another mystery yet to be solved.  I guess the answer is to fish the lake a whole lot more.  Get to know all the angles between ice out and freeze up.  Become the foremost expert of Big Jake Lake, a truly meaningless but fun thing to do.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Animals - To, From and On

     There are times when a man tries to do his best and it doesn't work out.  And those who were there never forget.  And have a good time laughing about it.

     Might have been five years ago me and the Deans were driving back from a good day's bass fishing on one of those little lakes I like so much.  Could even have been the day that El Dean caught numberless largemouth by simply dragging a weighted tube along the lakes bottom.  Leave it to El Dean to get the most out of the least.  But it was a hoot sittin' in the back of the canoe watching him boat fish after fish.  In short it was a day I'll carry with me till senility comes to visit.

     We were traveling south in two vehicles down a narrow sand road in the national forest.  A good one as far as those roads run but still a forestry road.  Smooth enough to carry a fair amount of speed if you were willing to risk death on the blind turns.  Could be it was R. Dean who was riding shotgun.  Maybe not.  Could be senility is closer than I think.

     The area has more than it's share of pine squirrels.  Lots of pine cones for them to shred and more than enough acorns for them to grow fat on before the near endless winter of the north takes hold.  On this day the one scampering from the brush and onto the track was mid-spring trim.  Fast and agile.  And facing a fast approaching Jeep.  Had I simply held my course the squirrel would have been fine.  But we reacted to each other like mirror images.  Left, right, left.  Then another right.

     I believe it was my passenger side, front tire that crushed the little feller's head.  And just the head.  The squirrel was dead but its tail didn't acknowledge the fact for five seconds.  Waved back and forth like a little Fourth of July flag.

     Forty five minutes later, back at the cabin, I was praised by the boys in the trailing truck about my dexterity and intuition as to which way the squirrel was going to dodge.  And to top that off, my clean kill.  I tried my best to tell them I was doing what I could to be humane but they were having none of that.  Maybe the sadism has to do with their home in Iowa.  Too much corn on the brain.

     Of  course sometimes the animals get their revenge.  Just ask the wood ticks and deer ticks up north. Or the leeches and too small to be seen vermin that inhabited my body in the Mekong Delta.  I figure all of those guys will eventually do me in.  Or at least bring me down.  Arthritis or brain death as they bore their way deep into important places.  Truth is I have no idea which invaders are still hidden and waiting their day.

     Seen my share of bears, only the black ones and they've never been a problem.  Even scared a pair out of camp one night with a simple kissing noise.  That they never entered the tent might have to do with our fragrance.  The bears took one sniff and thought " No food in there, only dead people."

     El Dean.  I rarely do him justice.  Constantly give him crap in a humorous kind of way.  Truth is he's always been a fine canoe partner.  Inexperienced at first but he's improved a lot over the years.  Same could be said for his fishing.  Like most canoe partners I'm as familiar with the back of his head as I am of his face.

     Yeah, he always sits in the bow seat.  During the early years his choice of seat had to do with fear of a dunking.  El made it quite clear well before our first trip that on those rare times he'd paddled out in a canoe he'd never returned to shore dry.  Assured me several times he wasn't happy in a butt wide boat.  It was my job to assure him all would go well.  Easy to say but I had my nagging doubts.  Still do.  But, so far, we've managed to stay dry, not including occasional downpours.

     These days he still sits in the front, probably 'cause he feels secure in the fore seat or 'cause the best fishing is there.  Either way it's fine with me.