We found ourselves on the shore of the lake but somehow still in the woods. And were forced to load and launch the canoe in a sapling thicket (I'd have written copse but figured once was enough for such a high falutin' word). For the first couple of minutes we zig-zagged and pulled our way through tree to tree, sometimes having to back up when we dead-ended in the maze. Some lab rats we were. Once through we slid onto the egress stream, paddled up river past a collapsing trapper's cabin (or maybe just an old plywood shack thrown together with an eye for ugly. Ah, Wilderness!), and finally onto the lake.
A mile ahead the map showed a campsite somewhere on the tallest island in the lake, also the only mature stand of pine and spruce for a dozen miles. Twenty years earlier a forest fire had burned off the northwest corner of the park. A few towering stands remained randomly scattered about to remind us of what it had once been like. The land had greened, mostly poplar, since then but this far north a couple of decades doesn't allow for much growth.
Our landing was another of the low ledges we'd become familiar with over the years. Once ashore we found ourselves at the base of a hillside steep enough that Allan had to climb it like a mountain road with cut-backs. Below I wandered around searching the steep shore for the campsite that wasn't and couldn't be there. A call from above told me he'd found it. A minute of huffing and puffing and I joined him.
Wow! What a site. Fifty feet above the lake, grassy, and level. Best of all a thermometer was nailed to a tree above a classic plywood and two-by-four, collapsing table. The bouldered and forested island rolled and sloped gently in the remaining three directions over its four acres. Should we be wind bound, a half-dozen places along the shore offered access to fishing. Looked like we were set for the next week. Camp went up, the stove fired, and a half hour later we sat down to Emeril's Roasted Red Pepper spaghetti and wolfed it down in time for Allan to trot off into the woods, trowel and paper in hand, where he bellowed out a 'Bam!,' just like Emeril would've. Funny kid.
As it turned out the wind blew for the first two days and we came to know the island well. Most of the time Allan fished and I read aloud. Figure his luck at about a pike or walleye every seven pages, heavier on the pike. Don't know if that's a normal rate though I doubt such a rate exists. Regardless, it's not often a man gets to take part in ground breaking, original activities. A wise man might've tried something involving money or fame or love but I guess fish per page is more my speed. That it required a team effort, a bonding of father and son, made it a fete to be cherished. I'd write more about our accomplishment but am getting all teary-eyed and fear I might short circuit the keyboard.
We discovered several things from our observation point. The four men we'd passed on the portage returned on each of the next two days. They were walleye dredgers looking for trophy-sized fish but had to be satisfied with nothing more than dozens of twenty-inchers. Allan and I had a hard time feeling sorry for their poor luck and were thankful for the entertainment they provided when passing back and forth in front of our island.
Finally one of the boats pulled ashore to see what was wrong with the fools on the island. After all, here we were on trophy water and spent most of our time sitting on our backsides shore fishing and reading. Turned out they were from Kansas and Nebraska and had been coming north for better than twenty years. When we explained about being wind bound because of our canoe they took pity on us. Turned out this was their last day and they passed over a frozen container of jumbo minnows, a pair of marabou jigs, and two bottles of Molson Canadian ale. Lord almighty, talk about the kindness of strangers. And we weren't even holding up hand-lettered signs saying we'd be willing to work for fishing supplies.
Here's when the fun began. Lacking a better plan -- that's the thing with plans; there's the perfect one and then there's the one you go with -- we rigged a rod with a slip bobber set at five feet and tipped the line with one of the marabou jigs and a single minnow. We took turns. Al's gentle back hand cast flipped the rig no more than twenty feet from shore. In the next ten seconds the bobber stood up, bounced several times in the waves, then slowly sank out of sight. Allan set the hook and an eighteen-incher was quickly reeled to shore. Wow. In short, over the next half hour we sipped our way through the ale and landed two dozen pickerel. Also lost one with a poor hook set. All but three were released. Looked like we had walleye on the menu for the morning.
We'd been able to search a little of Claw's water on the first evening but had no luck. Two hours turned up a couple of small pike. Not much to show for forty miles paddling and portaging. What did catch our attention and also provided an excuse for the crappy fishing was the flooded shoreline. It appeared the lake level had risen between two and three feet. No matter where we paddled trees stood ankle deep in water. Got me wondering if it was possible the small, stationary rain cloud we'd watched from Elbow Lake had dropped this much water in an afternoon's time? Seemed improbable but the shores said otherwise.
On the third evening we were finally able to paddle out for a couple of hours' fishing and to gather water. We'd hadn't filtered our drinking water since the first trip back in '98. When thirsty we simply dunked our canteens elbow deep and filled up. But a couple of quarts didn't cover camp needs so we brought the big plastic jug along.
The wind was barely tolerable once we passed from the lee of the island but the east shore looked like it might be protected enough to get in a few casts. It wasn't and again we were virtually skunked. Our shore fishing said we were on good water so I wasn't disappointed and knew the wind had to eventually give us a break. And on the third day it did. From this point on we had the best pike fishing of our lives. The walleye fishing wasn't bad either.
The third day taught us all we needed to know about fishing Claw Lake. We launched on the rippled water under heavy overcast. Our instincts told us the river mouth was the place to be but fearing it wasn't, I putzed the canoe from island to island with nothing to show for our casting. The egress was another story. Anywhere within fifty yards of where the shores narrowed down and the river formed proved to be pike heaven. And they weren't small pike either, thirty inches on the small end and a solid forty on the big. The action wasn't furious but by the time we paddled in we'd fought a couple of dozen to the canoe.
The remainder of our lesson descended from the sky in the form of a pair of yellow float planes. Most every morning we were paid a visit from one of the big buck lodges in the area. The story was they'd fly their sports in a roundabout manner to the shores of Claw Lake to give them the feeling of an expedition. The planes would skim in, pull tight to shore in mid-lake and, a few minutes later would motor on down and pay the river mouth a visit for the big pike. An hour's worth of hootin' and hollerin' would find them off to the small side of the lake where they'd catch a shore lunch worth of walleyes. That was their drill and we found no reason to doubt the logic. Worked for them and worked for us. Suppose we could've saved ourselves the effort of canoeing in by simply dropping five hundred bucks a day at the lodge and an additional one-fifty/each to fly in. Some would call our needless effort foolishness and I find it hard to disagree. But then I've always taken pride in being a fool. Also, and this is a big also, come four in the afternoon, long before the best fishing of the day, the sports would load up and fly off to cocktail hour and a fine meal back on Reed Lake. We settled for more spartan fare but sure as hell hammered the bejeezus out of the pike and pickerel when the sun lowered to the treetops.
Our fishing on Claw reached its peak on the last evening. The wind was beginning to rise once more so we began by letting the it drift us into a narrow, rock-walled bay. Here we began what turned out to be Allan's night of nights. The action didn't begin hot but Al coaxed a dozen walleyes out of hiding while I did what I do best, boat control. You'd've thought I'd have caught on by now that my son is a pike fisherman who merely tolerates pickerel. For him the bay was simply a waste of calories.
We headed to the river mouth but the wind got the better of me, a cast or two by Allan, me in the stern seat cussin' up a storm, and we'd drift high speed into the reeds. Should you also be a canoe angler you know a brisk wind plays havoc with the boat. Even on a lee shore it'll dive from the treetops and spin you around most every time you cast into tight cover. No wonder the ancients gave the forces of nature human characteristics and considered them gods. Who's to say they were wrong?
So we struck a compromise, paddled into the river where it was both calm and the fishing sucked to high heaven. Ain't that the way it goes sometimes? And it sure wasn't the way we wanted our last evening to go. We'd both floated enough lakes to recognize sterile fishing water when we saw it and this little stretch of river both looked and smelled a complete waste of time. A brief discussion and we went exploring to see where the stream might lead us. Eight days earlier we'd portaged around most of the river and figured we'd eventually learn why.
Half a winding mile the placid swamp bordered stream bottle-necked into a waterfall. Across the throat was a beaver dam with a foot-wide opening blown in the middle. Doubt that happens all on its own. We figured to lodge boys may well have had something to do with it. Looked to us like all of Claw was racing to be the first down the shoot. Below began a series of rapids that curved out of sight through the forest. Looked to be fast, bouldered water and explained the mile-long carry. Once again we slid ashore amid hundreds of bleaching walleye remains. Sure looked like the eagles in the park ate well.
The tumult and view from above was worth the trip but there was more. Backed up behind the dam was a pool maybe thirty yards long and a short cast wide. Figuring moving water might mean fish Allan did a backhand flip across the gullet of the chute and immediately hooked up. For the next minute he chased the fish up and down the pool while I stood aside offering sage advice like, "Don't lose it," and "No, I'm not going to move damn it. I was here first." Call the pike thirty-eight inches. Not bad for a half acre of water. My turn produced a twin, Al's next a triplet, and finally I finished it off with a little five-pounder. Between the eagles and fifteen pound pike it was a miracle there were any walleyes in the lake at all. Damn. Not much more I can say. The oddity of those four pike made this the single best fishing moment in all our trips to Canada. But as it turned out the evening wasn't over.
By now the lake had calmed a little and we headed upstream to the river mouth. There Allan began a string of pike he may never top. In the last hours of daylight under a heavy gray sky he landed fish after fish. One stretch produced a dozen in as many casts, all over thirty inches and a pair topped forty. I simply sat in the stern and enjoyed the show. To me it was a perfect ending to our days on Claw.