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?