Thursday, December 30, 2010

Small Lakes (part two)

     So began a quest to float and fish all of the area's tiny lakes. Not all turned out to be cabinless or fishing gems but most were both. I knew none of those lakes were virginal but having a pristine shoreline of tree, hill and swamp let me pretend. Not always were we alone on the water but it didn't take long to learn that on fifty acres, two's a crowd. On each and every time up an access trail I began to scan the ruts for fresh tire tracks and silently chant my 'no car' mantra over and over. On occasion I'd pull out of accesses when finding a single vehicle already parked. Mostly that was motivated by selfishness but also by the realization that others might feel the same as I  (even though I might still curse them to eternal oblivion for having the audacity to be on my lake). When those glorious no car moments did occur - which was most of the time - though it might be raining on the water, the sun would be shining in my heart.
     Being on one of those semi-precious gems turned out to be like looking at the world through a magnifying glass. Little became big. Quiet - for little lakes whisper - could be heard. Subtle felt. Small lakes seemed to like people in no hurry to be anywhere else and were already where they wanted to be. When only one canoe was drifting on its surface the pond could devote all its attention to it. Over time I learned there's a lot going on in the world when a person's opened up to possibility. I'm a bonehead and slow on the uptake, in other words a city boy who has a hard time seeing anything unless its sparkly or hearing anything without a siren. Be it on a little lake by the cabin or in the backwoods of Canada, I don't take nature's hand easily or right off the bat. Takes me a couple of days to grow ears and eyes. Only then is the invisible seen and the silent heard.
     Moments to remember: Early fall. Tiny, tiny lake with glassed over surface though there are zephyrs playing about that wouldn't show up on an anemometer. Occasionally Al and I would see an almost non-existent V-shaped ripple pass by us, each coming from the same direction. At first we payed them no mind but eventually began look for them and wonder what they might be. The V's seemed to be causeless, happening for no reason, the gods messing with our minds once again. Finally, as we closely followed the progress of one for several seconds - bam! - a bass explosion put an end to the little bugger. Obviously the bass could see what we could not and whatever it was, was edible. Eventually, one of the V's passed by closely enough to solve the mystery. Spiders. Itty, bitty spiders, with the lower part of all eight legs turned up, riding on the surface film of the lake with a couple of inches of web silk thrown out like kite surfers. Yee haw!
     Same day. Still fishing for bass but the breeze had now built to a near hurricane two miles an hour. We're in a drift, tight to shore. Again we become aware of a nearly hidden subtlety. It was like a hundred, low-pitched, dissonant flutes behind us a half-mile away. Then it stopped. Weird. Then there it was again. I turned around. Nothing there but the browning reeds softly swaying in the wind. I stared and think about it. The reeds, of course, with tips snapped off and the breeze passing over them like a gang of kids blowing over the tops of pop bottles. Though that sound had always been there it took me a half-century to hear it. Now I can't forget it. Every fall I listen for the whistling. Always the same. Always different.
     For more than a decade I scoped the maps of our cabin neighborhood and points immediately to the north hoping for connections to something new. One day my eye caught a symbol that had always been there but covered up by some self-imposed blind spot. A carry-in access? Where the hell did that come from? The lake was less than fifty acres but, most of all to me, any form of access meant fish. A bit of coercion, a warm, sunny day, no fishing rod along and a promise that we'd be on the water in less than a half-hour was just enough to overcome my wife's aversion to any form of canoe travel. The access road was two miles of slow, overgrown, deep sand and eroded, rock strewn, scrub country, two track, dead ending at a line of one-ton boulders.
     Two hundred yards of carry, a quick load and slide put us on the clear, bare-bottomed bay. Beyond shallow everywhere. No reason for fish of any kind to be in that pond but I could mark bluegills and small bass fleeing us in all directions. A quarter mile brought us increasing depth and small cabbage beds. Cruising the far end above the weeds was like floating over an aquarium filled with panfish and loner bass. Having seen enough, I kept my time promise. Came back that night with a fishing partner related through marriage and have returned many times since. Never disappointed. Eagles, osprey, beavers, deer coming down for a drink before bedding down and nary a cabin in sight. Its the kind of lake I'd love to build on but know that pond is what it is because it only tolerates visitors.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Small Lakes (part one)

     The Woodtick Trail in the Chippewa National Forest near Longville, Minnesota is a cut or two above its namesake insect in beauty and has about the same ability to get under a fisherman's skin. Story has it the Trail was once a railroad grade for the many loggers of the area. From the looks of the white and red pines in the area, I'd say that was at least a century ago. Today it's a stretch of the imagination to envision what it must have looked like scalped to sand, lake and bog. Maybe the Earth can survive us.
     None of the lakes on or off to the side of the Trail are much bigger than a hundred acres. Some have accesses. Some don't. Simple rule of fishing: Don't let size fool you. My biggest panfish, bass and Minnesota caught pike have come from one or another of the tiny lakes in the area.
     Looking back, there's little doubt I had an ulterior motive the first time my wife and I drove that sand track. Quiet late summer evening after dining out, no hurry to get anywhere. Why not putz our way down fifteen miles of a semi-wilderness through the woods? Immense pines, pink lady slippers, lily-padded swamp and bog, it was a simple pleasure meandering in the heavily oxygenated air and maybe leaving a little carbon monoxide behind. Besides, at the end of the Trail in Longville there was an ice cream shop(pe) right next to the Turtle Races bullseye. Honestly, I was unaware of my devious scheme until I spotted the narrow cut of lake bending off into the forest to our left. Shore outlined with emergent vegetation, water nearly black with bog stain and out of sight in a second. My brain tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "Gotta be fish in yon lake." No public access sign. No need to make a note of what I'd seen. Won't, can't forget that. I knew I'd be back with Allan, gear and canoe.
     A few weeks later we were back. I can't say what was going through Al's mind on that trip. He'd been on the road to fishing lakes with his questionably minded father many times before. Sometimes we caught 'em. Sometimes we didn't. Whatever his frame of mind at the time, I was simply happy having him go anywhere with me. I was pumped, on an adventure, John Prine on the tape deck and Allan to share it with.
     It was immediately obvious we weren't the first to fish South Stocking Lake for there was a small clearing across the Trail from the lake big enough for a car and a half. The comma shaped lake sat down a steep embankment about twenty yards off the road. Whatever went down that hill either walked or was carried by someone walking. This was leave-the-bass-boat-home water. Ritual-like we wandered down to the shore to bask in the lake's beauty for a minute before hauling the gear down. Not a cabin to be seen; could of been in the Boundary Waters. At that moment we knew nothing about Stocking, absolutely nothing. It was all potential, all possibility. At times like that, "as good as it gets' is not a cliche.
     Throughout the morning the Lake told us a lot about itself, a little at a time. Casting small #1 and #2 spinners with light weight rods, we didn't catch squat for the first half hour. Then a small crappie or two. A handful of pumpkinseeds, all between nine and eleven inches, slowly followed. Northwoods, tropical looking, bull-fish. Finally, Allan tied into a couple of thirty-inch pike. They even played the big pike game of putting a big bend in his rod and making a few canoe turning runs.
     We didn't catch a lot of fish while working every foot of the lake's shoreline but it was one of the best days I've ever had on the water. Those forty acres were a eureka moment in my life and opened the door to a new world of fishing possibilities, even more so than the Boundary Waters. South Stocking Lake taught me there are little pockets of near wilderness fishing throughout the Northland. The joy and challenge is knowing them when you see them. Then treating them with the respect they deserve.    

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Step Ladders Don't Float

     My first canoe was a step ladder. Not exactly what I was looking for but it turned out to be much more useful when hanging storm windows. There was a time when we had neither canoe nor ladder but did have acreage up north surrounded by dozens of lakes. Lacking the means of fishing those waters I'd resorted to trespass on undeveloped private lakeshore. An overactive conscience - I'm not blaming the ladies in black from my grade school days for that - had me spending more time looking over my shoulder than watching the bobber. No fun in that. Besides, fishing from shore meant itty-bitty sunfish and bullheads. I'd had enough of that growing up in the city. On the other hand, fishing toward shore was in a whole 'nuther league, maybe full of bass, pike and muskies. Real fish and real fishermen go hand in hand and real fishermen fish from boats. So when my wife said she'd  bought me a Christmas present made of aluminum that was too big to fit under the tree, what was I to think? Had I been the Baby Jesus I'd of had the Magi lay before me gifts of Grumman, Old Town and Wenonah. Six-foot step ladder? Bah humbug! To this day she thinks of my disappointment as a hoot. But I have to chuckle about it to myself when she's not looking.
     Back then I had no real knowledge of canoes save the lighter the boat, the lighter your wallet when you walk out of the store. And that it's considered important to keep the open side of the canoe facing up. I also suspected used was cheaper than new.
     My first real canoe, a fifteen-foot Alumacraft, found me. An in-law of a friend had a canoe for sale and my friend knew I wanted a canoe. Thank God for friends even if their in-laws turn out to be jerks who have no concept of the meaning of a handshake agreement. Had I been Paul Lazzaro from "Slaughter-house Five," he'd have been on my list (hope that's not a copyright infringement). That first canoe was called 'tippy' by all but me. It took my son and I onto many lakes and into the Boundary Waters three times.
     Tippy was sold to a friend of mine for the price I'd paid ten years earlier and replaced by a seventeen-foot Alumacraft lightweight. Still own the seventeen footer. In all ways its a fine, serviceable boat but noisy like being ten feet down wind from a four-deuce mortar. Choose your partners carefully when fishing from aluminum.
     Next came an Old Town Camper, another fine boat with one downside. Well, its not really a downside if you haven't got two weeks of food and gear aboard. When loaded to the gills the camper   had a serious inertia problem. e.g. An overloaded canoe moving to the right tends to keep moving to the right no matter how hard you try to change its mind with a twenty-two ounce paddle. However, when the canoe has a change of heart, its Katy-bar-the-door the other way. Lesson learned: Inappropriate choice of words and negative tone of voice both have an emotional effect on my son when shouting paddling suggestions in strong winds and heavy seas. Yes sir, we had some fun on Second Cranberry Lake.
     My fourth, and last, tandem canoe is a factory-second, kevlar Wenonah Spirit II. Deep, wide and quiet, it is fine under all reasonable conditions. It was purchased for a specific two week trip involving both big water and a seriously long portage. However, Mother Nature had other ideas and put fifty thousand acres of ice in our way.
     Many have sung the virtues and beauty of canoe travel and are not off the mark. What I've learned is simple. Paddling and portaging is a lot of work but if the ideas of unsurpassed fishing and having a lake all to yourself have appeal, then a canoe is a wonderful way to go. In my mind there's nothing like camping on an island, thirty or forty miles from the nearest road and howling at the top of your lungs to the loons knowing that they're the only ones who can hear you.        

Sunday, December 26, 2010


     Coolfront? Hope you don't take that wrong. The 'cool' part of Coolfront ain't cool in the sense of groovy, bell bottoms and cobalt blue sunglasses you can see out of but can't nobody see in. I'm talking temperature here, barometric pressure, bluebird sky and slow fishing. Not cold front slow but cool front. At the same time the nickname does laugh in the face of the first cool. Works in at least two ways. I like that. This self-proclaimed moniker came from the same place as Snake Charmer and for the same reason. Think sitting in the back of the canoe while on Burntside Lake in Northwest Manitoba and being consistently outfished by my son who's up front. When he's got the hot hand, which happens quite a lot, he also tends to run off at the mouth explaining, in painful detail, point by point, how and why he's a better fisherman than I. Not that I'm being skunked, just that he's catching more, bigger and even prettier. That I tend to attract a lot of small pike spawned Snake Charmer. Not bad but more on the money is Coolfront Johnson as in "Jus' call me Coolfront, boy (followed by gruff, wizened laugh). Cut me some slack. I may be slow but I'll catch somethin' sooner or later."
     Over the years I've leaned toward self deprecating nicknames and all have been self-dubbed. Never stood out enough or had an obvious enough characteristic to draw something colorful from an outside source. 'Nondescript White Guy of Northern European Ancestry' ain't in the class of Blind Melon or Night Train. But I sure do like nicknames. So I gave them and give them to myself. The obviously ironic if you've ever met me, Mr. Fun and the, since-I'm-now-completely-gray-haired-why-not-call-me Red? Who'll know? But of them all, Coolfront seems to go best with Deadman Lake.
     By my mid-40's I'd come to grasp my limitations as a fisherman. The fish found in easily accessed lakes were too smart for Coolfront so ol' Coolfront learned to put in the miles and the carries to find bass and walleyes a step or two closer their innocent ancestors who swam in the four rivers of the Garden. Can't get close to that Garden with a 150 Merc but a canoe and a strong back'll get you within spitting distance. Life lesson? Maybe.      

Friday, December 24, 2010

Steel, Feathers, Fur and Nail Polish - The Art of Tasteful lure building

     I suspect it was the simplicity and the 'don't really look like nothing-ness' of the Dardevle that drew me to steel as the pinnacle of lure composition. And the streamlined weight of the lure allowed it to be flung a long, long way especially when the knot slipped loose. On that occasion I gawked in amazement when my Five of Diamonds disappeared over the horizon then discovered that the only thing on the end of my line was the end of my line. Around that time I stopped fishing spoons and became an in-line spinner convert as much for its seductive flashiness as its ability to catch most everything in a lake.
     At first it was the Mepps. Who could say no to something that claimed to be both French and made in Wisconsin? With it my son and I caught brook trout, rainbow trout, walleyes, sauger, pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sunfish, crappies, perch, suckers, bullheads, clams, minnow buckets, other lures, stones, branches and, our personal Holy Grail, a two-inch shiner minnow hooked cleanly through the head ( we've got a photo to prove it). Fish it like a spinner, a jig, a buzzbait or troll it. Is there anything it can't do?
     One drawback. On a two week paddle in the boonies a few dozen of them will get chomped to death or wrapped around an overhanging birch branch. At four-and-a-half bucks a pop that gets pricey for a guy who used to punch a clock ( its amazing how much satisfaction is derived from a right cross upside the head of a Seth Thomas).
     So I learned to make them. The hundred dollars for a professional wire bender was hard to swallow but through the years it's paid for itself many times over. And you can make a more durable lure than Mepps, Blue Fox or Panther Martin. The treble hooks can be dressed with bucktail, squirrel tail or marabou feathers. Tie them as tightly as a hangman and glue the heck out of the wraps with Hard as Nails nail polish. I use plain blades and decorate them with any of a rainbow of finishes easily found in the cosmetics section of any reputable department or drug store. I've found that the discriminating pike quivers helplessly before a revolving spinner blade coated with Ruby Pumps by China Glaze. Don't knock it unless you've tried it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Bird's Nests

     Five foot steel rod. Shakespeare baitcasting reel. Braided dacron line. Steel leader. Dardevl, red and white of course. Learned to cast, more or less, with that rig in 1954 from a dock on Lake Roosevelt. A kid's casting education in those days had as much to do with the puzzlement of untying bird's nests as it had with the enjoyment of the rare, long arcing line. Being young but not dumb I would occasionally sneak a glance toward the plaid clad sages near me. I quickly learned that solving the mystery of the bird's nest invariably involved language as blue as the water of Lake Roosevelt on a sunny day. Almost got me smoking Luckies. Eventually did. Coulda looked great. A real man. Seven years old, beat up hat, plaid shirt, khaki pants, filterless cigarette butt hanging from my lower lip, calling down the wrath of God on the friggin' monkey's fist inside my reel and reaching for my hip flask at the break of dawn 'cuz, by gar I'm on my vacation and no dad gummed reel's gonna ruin that.
     Flash forward two summers. Same rig, same round-headed, blond-haired, buzz-cut kid looking like Charlie Brown in glasses. This time he's standing on the rocks below the dam in Melrose, Minnesota. Had a heckuva headache but kept throwing my spoon into the riffles of the Sauk River as day turned into night. I was spending a week with my Aunt Lavina and Uncle Joe. As usual I was fishing with my teen age cousins who'd already figured out the Lucky Strike side of the sport. Maybe the flask part also. 1956 was a turning point in my life revolving around my introduction to Mad magazine. I owe that warpage to my cousins George and Tom.  And finally, after more than a half century, I admit it was me who forgot to put the minnow bucket back in the river. On what turned out to be my last cast of the evening, I hooked and landed my first northern pike, a twenty-two incher. In celebration we killed it of course. Catch and release wasn't even a concept in the '50s. After trudging the mile and a half home, my cousins filleted the mini-beast. The next day it was served with dinner. None for me thank you. Fish tastes fishy.
     Bird's nests are a way of life. Don't happen as often as they used to but the quality may be better. Guess the good things in life get worse and the undesirable; gotta be careful with the undesirable. Don't want to be bringing down the curse of the gods. Tippy-toe around that which can bring you down or it'll do just that. We're not here for eternity and don't want to cut it short through stupidity. Let's just say, bird's nests still suck on the one hand, on the other they made that twenty-two inch pike look mighty good (end with smiley face, a peace sign and a groovy day to everyone).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Deadman Lake?

     Twenty acres in size, Deadman lake is not home to any fish beyond an occasional small, black cloud of baby bullheads. However, loons, swans, Canada Geese and a variety of ducks seem to like the water a lot. So do I. The State of Minnesota classifies Deadman as an environmental lake. For us, that means our cabin has to sit two hundred feet back in the woods where the lake is only visible if you're sitting on the roof. Not a problem, we're city folk and find being surrounded by oak, birch, pines and hazel brush every bit as exotic as a lake view. Almost.
     Local legend has it that around a century ago some unnamed man of questionable sanity wandered off from his family and was never seen again. Lacking any better idea - those were simple folk back in those days and weren't very creative as to what could happen to crazy people wandering around in the forests of northern Minnesota - it was decided he'd drowned in a small, soft-bottomed, unnamed lake. On that day the name Deadman was born.
     I find that story a fitting one for this blog. My mind, also of questionable sanity, tends to wander off once in a while. Luckily for me it always seems to wander back, usually more experienced, once in a while a bit wiser.
     Yes, though it doesn't seem to be heading in that direction at the moment, this is indeed a wilderness canoeing and fishing blog. However, it is also home to someone with a sense of humor a couple of degrees off center. Stick with me and we'll eventually throw a homemade spinner in Northwest Manitoba, head back from shore once in a while with trowel and toilet paper in hand and maybe even have a laugh or two on side trips into tiny, fish-filled canoe lakes in northern Minnesota.