Sunday, March 20, 2011

Learning Curve '99 (Part Three)

     Wedge is two lakes in one, connected by a channel. The channel looked like prime water to me but the end of my line said otherwise. Not once on this trip did we venture onto the smaller side of the lake. Didn't much need to. We didn't say it aloud but knew we were coming back in 2000. Trip of a lifetime, phase three.
     During our days on Wedge we settled into a fishing routine that varied little over the years. Having nineteen hours of sun between the horizons allowed us to pick and choose our time to fish. Never did hit the water before mid-morning. Guess we weren't crack of dawn kinda guys. The way we saw it, when you fish in the evening the action gets ever hotter. Always something to look forward to around the bend. The morning's just the opposite. We usually didn't get off the water 'til 11 PM. Put it away, last smoke, brush teeth, read a little and it was midnight. Just didn't have the gumption to drag our asses out of the bags five hours later for morning fishing.
     So that's how we found ourselves on the sun dappled water fishing our way back to lunch when Al hooked the biggest pike we'll ever see. Wasn't much of a morning to that point as far as the fishing went. But we did get to see the exit stream at the west end of the lake. Typical of the far north, if the map shows a thin blue line through a swamp, figure it's nothing but a swamp. The blue line is no more than a symbol that the swamp functions as a stream. 'Spose we could have slogged our way down to the little lake a half mile ahead. It sure was intriguing. 'Spose we could have flapped our arms and flown down there also. But my arms were already tired from paddling so we turned around toward camp.
     Since the morning had been slow and the sun was shining bright and we were in the island filled, middle of the lake, Allan once again demeaned himself into fishing a rapala. Clown-colored and suspending. I know, I know. Al always fishes spinners. But he once again he wasn't. So call it 'most nearly always fishes spinners'. Seems there was one pike that didn't know that. She hit the rapala with a world of confidence. Queen of the waters. "Oh look. It's got hooks. No hurry. When I feel like it, I'll spit it like cheap bubble gum. So for the moment, piss on those weenies in their tin can canoe."
     Al, on the other hand was an explosion of excitement. He instantly knew he had something big on the line. And when he got it close enough to the boat to see the pike he started yelling, "It's bigger than a dog!" Over and over.  Never heard that one before. Not once in my days at Ole's Hair Removal Emporium did I ever read those words in an outdoors magazine. Someday I'll have to ask Allan what kind of dog he had in mind. Can't do any accurate dog/fish ratio calculations without knowing breed. I understood his drift when the pike came into view. And immediately started scanning the islands for a landing site. All were steep sided. Dilemma time. No way could Al successfully hoist that pike for a photo without flipping the boat.
     Yeah, I can hear your snivelly comments about what you'd have done. But you didn't see it like we saw it. It was a beast. Once again I was at a loss. Didn't know how to work the boat, had no useful advice. Should have taken the first big pike more seriously as a precursor. And given some serious thought as to what should be done with a fish that size. In short, Allan was on his own.
     In the coming days and years we landed our fair share of forty-plussers. Enough to give a fairly accurate size assessment. Seriously, this one was in a class by itself. Call it a solid forty-eight inches. More likely fifty. Al got her alongside three times where, had it a hand instead of a fin, she'd have given him the finger. Disdainful bitch. Mid back there was a sizable bite mark. What size of pike did this lake spawn?
     Finally it did the unforgivable and ran under the middle of the canoe. Neither of us knew enough to point the rod straight down to free the line. I didn't know enough to back the boat up. But the northern knew enough to pin Al's Fireline against the canoe's keel. Ping went the strings of his heart. Bye-bye. A dozen years have passed and she remains The Fish. How many shots does a canoe fisherman get at a thirty pounder? Had Allan a few more fatties under his belt, he'd have landed it. Great fish, good try, bad timing.
     Our time on Wedge flew by. No doubt in my mind there's something wrong with the way life doles out time. Good times fly, bad times drag. Longest twenty years of my life were the two years I spent in the Army. No matter the relativity, our last night on the water put an exclamation point on '99.
     I've read the best fishing invention ever is the Coleman stove. No doubt about that in my mind. A cooking fire is never more than a minute away. And it's almost like cooking at home. We always used both burners. Once the food was ready, the dishwater and coffee pot went on. Dinner eaten we were ready to do dishes. Two knives, two forks, plates, cups, fry pans, maybe a spatula. Honestly, less than ten minutes later we were havin' a smoke and brewing coffee. Good coffee. Took a while to figure it out but when I did it was some seriously good stuff. I've been told it's a kind of French press method: 1) Bring water to a rolling boil, 2) Turn off burner, 3) When boiling ceases, add coffee, 4) Stir down grounds and cover, 5) wait a few minutes, restir and cover, 6) When grounds sink to the bottom, coffee is ready. Drink with Pecan Sandies. Food of gods.
     Our cooking gear was hand-me-down. Plates were indestructible melmac from the '50s. Main fry pan a copper bottomed, stainless steel, also from the Eisenhower years. Small pan was a throw-out from our kitchen. Cheap aluminum coffee pot with a lid that didn't fit. Where that came from is a mystery. Gallon and a half, thin walled aluminum kettle from a garage sale. Bent and banged back into shape umpteen times. Silverware came with the plates. Cups were from an outdoor store. Don't know what I was thinking of to pay full price for the cups. Grill was a shelf in an ancient metal kitchen cabinet. Outside of the grill and pans, all the rest nested. Wouldn't change a thing.
     Our last meal on Wedge was eaten in rain gear. Couldn't keep myself from being dragged down by the persistent light drizzle and treetop dense overcast. The heavy bellied clouds hung so low I felt like we could poke a hole in them with a fishing rod. Slowly it dawned on us, this was a perfect fishing evening. Wedge was glassed out, the rain was no more than a nuisance. By the time we pushed off, the rain had all but stopped and the water was midnight black. It was hard to stay blue when it dawned on us that the weather was all but screaming great fishing. What the heck, why not spend it on the best lake you've ever seen?
     We released a lot of fish that evening. There's a limit on keeper size in the park. You've also gotta go barbless. Both restrictions worked fine for us. The idea of impaling myself never had much appeal for me and started crimping barbs years earlier, more out of fear more than concern for the fishies. Can't say barbless cost us many fish either. If you ain't gonna keep 'em, losing a couple's no big deal. So why not crimp?
     Several of the pike we landed that evening were over thirty inches. Enough fatties to give us some landing and releasing practice. Hard to own up to the truth but it turned out our problem was me. Fifty-two years old, I was supposed to have this fishin' business all figured out but hadn't. Wasn't hip to the Old Man and the Sea syndrome. Watching Al hook up with two trophies had given me a lot to consider. And I did give it some serious thought during quiet moments in the canoe. Can't really tell you why but I knew hookin' them wasn't enough. To say we caught something meant we could have boated it if we'd wanted. A photo would be nice. As would a clean hook removal. Didn't like the idea of a jaw spreader but couldn't figure out a way around it. Look down the gullet of a twenty pound pike and you'll understand. Being able to say we could have kept it had we wanted, was enough. Maybe also a t-shirt, tattoo, graphite mount from Cabela's and a 'BIGESOX' license plate wouldn't hurt either.
     My logic evolve into this simple pattern: The old saw 'keep your tip up' = 'keep your rod bent' = 'stick your rod tip straight down into the water if she runs under the boat. Goes to show any bonehead can figure it out once in a while. Worked just fine on my first forty incher.
     The tough part of the catch and release was the release. It may be painful for the fish but it also does a job on the releaser. Like I said, a look at Al's hands would tell you that. Don't know what's worse, the pike, the treble or the steel wire of the lure. All seem to pop holes in your hands. Also not easy on a big pike. They seem to fight to the death unless you can net them quickly. Since we didn't net, we had to get gutsy. Not that easy. Seemed like every time you pointed a needle nose at a pissed-off pike's beak, it'd take off on another run. Al became talented at a forceful release without getting nasty. If you know what I mean.
     We never got into the manly, 'I showed this pecker who's boss,' posed photo. Way too tough on the fish for our tastes. Over the years there were a few shore fishing shots that had us actually holding the fish. All the rest were a quick hoist by the spinner or spreaders, snap and release. Sounds easy but get ready to rock and roll when that twenty pounder decides to wiggle. Never-ever hold a big pike over the canoe! In truth we never did but instinctively knew it was a bad idea. Really big pike deserve attention to detail. And some TLC when back in the water. Once in a while when they're really pooped out and just floating, one of us would grab it by the tail, work her back and forth to get those gills breathing again. Like I said, they deserved our help after what we'd done to them.
Rainbow Reeds
     Maybe two hours before sunset the sky cleared. A shower had just passed and was now dragging a rainbow behind it. Almost worked up a full double. One end of it dropped into a patch of last year's bulrushes doing their best to look like a pot of gold. The treasure we did find on that rock pile was fifteen minutes of walleye party time. Ask Al where the rainbow reeds were and he'd give you both time and place. Life's filled with those seemingly insignificant moments that last forever.
     Three full days on Wedge wasn't enough. But that was our reality and all we had time for. Next year, over on the other side of the Cranberries, sat Bear and Brunne Lakes. On our paddle out we were already counting the days 'til 2000. Coming into Simonhouse we seemed to be passing the same boats we'd seen on the way in. This time I was feeling damned smug about where we'd been and the luck we'd had. Two hundred horses couldn't get them to where our little paddle boat could. Made me almost think we were finally figuring this boonie fishing out. Oddly enough, we'd known the answer all along. Guess somethings have to be learned over and over. That the big boats couldn't do it seemed only fair to me. We all make choices and have to live with them. Can't say ours was better. On the other hand, canoe and tent sure was quieter and the fishing a lot better. A little sweat goes a long way. Like I said earlier, thirty years had passed but I still thought like a grunt. Smelled like one too.

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