Saturday, May 28, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - Claw lake

     Tuesday. We were as ready as could be. In a kind of don't think about it, just do it, way. At least it was a warm, sunny morning. Good day to work up a sweat. Allan, of course, was in an upbeat mood. Assured me it was gonna be fine. Like he had the slightest clue about the ordeal we were paddling toward. Poorly buried memories of monsoon in the Mekong River Delta tinged my view. Water, mud and heat. Everywhere. Dressed wrong and sixty pounds on our backs. One time it took six hours to cover ten clicks. Feet swelled like soccer balls. Toes pointed straight up. I mentally drifted on and off Claw Bay as we approached the beaver dam.
     But what's that? Over on the left. A couple of fishing boats snubbed into shore. And no one around. Must have gone somewhere. Looking for morels? Too early for blueberries. Claw Lake maybe? Yup, had to be Claw. Nah, that was too good to be true. My inbred Minnesota sense of balance wouldn't let me believe what I was seeing until I had proof. Put my fingers in the wound, let me feel the pain.
     We hung a sharp left and landed. Walked ten rods uphill. Looked down a ten foot wide, grass floored avenue through a grove of mature aspen. Like a portage for Louis XVI to enjoy from his Landau's window. Could this be our piece of cake? Would we be allowed to eat it? Went back for a load and set off.
     The first hundred rods was a romp. A stroll. By then I began to wonder where the stream was. We must have passed the delta. What was going on? Twenty rods around a bend gave us our answer. A bog separated us from the stream. And a quarter mile ahead sat the real rapids. Numerous seeps and tiny drainages dotted the hummocky swamp. Through it snaked a faint trail. Thankfully, jackstraws of deadfall added to the charm. Guess we were out of romp. We dropped our load. All of a sudden the pack had gotten a whole lot heavier. Odd how gravity can do that. Head scratching time. Though what was coming didn't look like fun, it still beat the crawl I'd been anticipating. Nothing to do but go back for more stuff.
     Sooo, for the next ninety minutes we worked up a sweat. Our sweat worked up a sweat. Never thought the canoe, our lightweight kevlar, would have been the toughest part of the carry. Through the bog, we each took an end. Embarrassing. The bugger was too long. Not something real men would do. Jeez, give us a break. The corners were too tight. The deadfall jumble badly placed. Had to inch around the corners and lift it over the piles. Finally, the last ten rods was through a thicket and up a steep hill. Pardon my whining.
     Centre Lake was a spiffy five minute crossing. Two boats and an ice shelf at the landing. Our invisible guides still somewhere ahead. The second portage a bit tougher and longer than the first. More jumble, bog and thicket. Same canoe drill. And mysteriously, the closer we got to Claw, the wetter the ground. Finally, standing water. On the way Al made a wrong turn. Ended up in a flooded meadow. Somehow he missed a bleach bottle trail marker (Kids these days. Don't have a clue about how the Voyageurs always marked their portages with polyethylene containers. Long lasting and easily seen). Nothing about the country we'd been through 'til now said high water. But somehow, Claw was in flood.
     Yup, it was another hot, sweatin', hummock jumpin', quintuple carry. Took us four hours to do the five trips over both portages, finally covering twenty-five hundred rods. Not exactly the Four Mile Portage but still a serious hump for us city boys.
     The trail ended in a grove of flooded trees. Call it another thicket. On the last trip over we passed our guiding party. Four men from the Midwest staying at the Elbow Lake Lodge. Guess they'd've been doing what we were but preferred sleeping indoors. Each morning they loaded lunch and gear into frame packs. Headed to Claw via motor boat. It took three sets of boats each way but they ended up with a remote walleye heaven to themselves. Almost. Hadn't been the trophy year they'd come to expect. Nothing much over six pounds. Allan and I each shed a tear for them. Again we were in the mystery that was Grass River Park. Motor accessible but much less traffic than the BWCA. That is, if you were willing to put in the miles. Blue collar paradise.
     Once in the water we hand pushed and pulled our zig-zag way through the thicket. Then up a short stretch of swampy river complete with one story, plywood trapper's shack on the shore. A bit of crap in a pristine land. Once on Claw, Al spotted our campsite from a half mile away. Biggest island on the lake. Also had the only stand of mature trees for miles. Again the landing shelf seemed designed for a fishing boat. But with water levels high, who could tell what the original intent was?
     On shore I saw no possible place to camp, for the face of the island sharply rose thirty feet in elevation. So I rummaged around. Turned over rocks. Looked under bushes. No campsite there. Hmm. Quite a mystery. Of course Al, lacking my thoroughness, simply climbed the hill and called down, "It's up here." And we were home for eight days. What a site. Moss for tent, slap-dash filleting table, and, tah-dah!, a thermometer. Can't tell you how many times I'd said, "This would be a perfect campsite if it only had a thermometer nailed to a tree." Now when we were warm or cold, we'd know exactly to what degree. Sigh of relief. Our view was for miles. A half dozen prime shore fishing spots. Everything but a view of virgin timber. Unless we looked up. Had I the chance, I'd camp there again anytime. No questions asked. The edge of the hill, a truly fine spot to eat our meals. In the panorama photo above my lure building desk, Allan sits overlooking our temporary world. A small acme in my quiet life.
     By day four of the trip we'd gone into our high cholesterol breakfast phase. Sausages, toast and eggs. Hashbrowns and eggs. French toast and sausages. Eggs, sausages and eggs. Sounds like a Monty Python routine. Two dozen eggs, phht, gone in four meals. Then came several rounds of spaghetti. Emeril's Kicked Up Tomato and his Roasted Peppers. Lotsa noodles. Always ate it fast before it cooled off. Following the first spaghetti meal Allan wandered off, trowel in hand. A minute later a resounding Bam! echoed from the woods. Funny man. Thank you Emeril. All good stuff. Leave the freeze dried at home. Maybe take one along as a backup. They're edible but only taste good if you're really hungry. I mean really hungry.
The Good Life on Claw lake
     We learned a lot that first night on Claw. Mostly where the fish weren't. Spent a lot of time scratching my head again. We threw lures to a lot of likely spots. Weren't skunked but that's about it. I blamed it on the flooded lake. Most shoreline trees stood in the water. Why so, still remained a mystery. Now in our fifth Canadian trip, I liked to think I had it figured out. But each lake holds it's own secrets. Takes a bit to figure them out. But, what the heck, we were on new water and had all two thousand acres to ourselves. Forty miles from the road. They had to be somewhere. We'd find them sooner or later. For the moment we had plenty to eat. Plenty to read. And seven days left on Claw.
     Windbound on Wednesday. Wasn't a roar but out on the water we'd have been fighting the wind more than wetting a line. No fun. So we worked our five acres counter clockwise. I most often go that route on new water. Seems that's the way the world goes round in the Northern Hemisphere. Who am I to question the workings of the universe? Caught our share of pike and walleyes. One or two at a time. We brought a chair along. Sometimes I'd fish, sometimes read aloud. Our Elbow Lake friends returned. While they trolled, we'd fish and watch. They sure did reel in a lot of fish. When they'd pass by, we'd strike up a brief conversation. They had a hard time understanding why we were shore fishing. I ranted off on a detailed explanation of ratios, boat width/wave height. Had no effect on them. Saying I was chickenshit was readily accepted.
     The wind dropped enough that evening to head for what appeared the protected opposite shore. It wasn't. We threw a few spinners to more fish that weren't there. Midway back we bobbed in the waves and gathered water. Not exactly a thrilling day.
     Thursday's child told us all we needed to know about the lake. And the people. Our friends returned. As did two bright yellow float planes from the Grass River Lodge. Guess the sports were getting tired of two hundred buck a day ice skating. Lord A'mighty, looked like we had the cat bird seat on a four star lodge's wilderness fly-in lake. Again we were shore fishing but now had a new show to watch. The lodge boats had their routine set in stone. Fly in after a honkin' resort breakfast. Motor on down to the river's mouth. Hammer some big pike for a couple of hours. The guided fly-in was a hundred and a quarter per sport. The hoots and hollers were free. Done with the pike show, they'd head through a channel into Claw's western bay. There they'd anchor off a walleye honey hole. When boatin' those bad boys finally tuckered them out, the troupe headed to shore a few yards away. A rip snortin' fire would be built and the grill thrown on. Finally Pierre the Chow Chef would work his magic in lard, pickerel, beer batter, onions, spuds and beans. A couple of brews to wash it down and all was well in the boonies. The guides were thankful if the afternoon's breezes overpowered the apris-lunch breezes in the boat. Bye-bye ozone layer.
     We talked with a guide that afternoon. Up front sat a sulking sport, his time being wasted on local color (That be us. Imagine that, we were local color). The guides seemed to seek us out. For all they knew, we had a fair amount of area knowledge. They saw the canoe, our rods and easily picked up our time in the bush fragrance. We'd had twenty-four hours a day to explore the nooks and cranberries. They only had a few. Who knew? We might even turn them on to something new. Good men. Free with information. Never heard a word from the sport. At the time I thought the lodge's fly-in to Claw was something of a ruse. But it was a twenty minute flight and a good lake. The sports were getting their money's worth.
     The kindness of strangers. Not wanting to be left out, the Elbow lake men also pulled ashore that afternoon. Looked like we were gettin' to be the social hub of the wilderness. Yeah, we were still shore fishing. Everybody and their dog was boatin' tons of fish and we were shore fishing. But the wind seemed to be easing off. Like I'd said, the lodge men were outfishing us at least five to one. For sure, they were out in boats but we were casting the same water. And the way Allan could throw a spinner, they didn't have much on us. So, what was their secret?
     Schmoozing time in the woods. 'Bout then I was possessed by an evil demon. Asked for a favor no less. If you knew me, you'd know I don't do that. It's not really a matter of pride like the noble common folk of old. Mostly I don't think I'm worth someone going out of their way for me. An attitude that stems from the same place as growing up and figuring stuff out on my own. Doing without is easier for me than asking a favor. Anyhow, I offered the men twenty bucks to buy a six pack at the lodge and pack it in on Friday. Can't believe I did that. Even now. My face turns red every time it comes to mind.
     The man in front turned to the stern man. We could feel a silent agreement being struck. We're asked, "Do you have any marabou jigs?" We've got jigs, but none with marabou. He handed me three. And a small tub of about two dozen frozen minnows. Couldn't believe my eyes. The stern man opened the cooler. Reached in. Pulled out and handed us two Molson Canadians. Uff dah. "Make sure you pack out the empties." We said we would (and did).
     Turned out this was their last trip into Claw for the year. Been doing it for a couple of decades. With luck, they're still doing it. Bravo for them and all the people who enjoy and don't despoil the ground they walk and the water they fish. For those four men, it seemed as much a social experience as a fishing trip. Being with the right people in the right place makes life worth living. And catching a few huge walleyes along the way doesn't hurt.
     We watched them motor off. No doubt in our minds we were in for some fun. First off let's get on thing straight. I don't fish bait. But I'm not a total hard head. Sure fished it when I was a kid. Hooks were cheap. Worms were free so long as someone had a shovel. Nowadays I do fish plastic. Isn't that odd? Worms and minnows are about as natural as it gets. But plastic? C'mon. All by the by at the moment. But, since I did use plastic, there were slip bobbers and knots in the tackle bag. Guess there was nothin' left to do but rig up, crack open the brew and see what would happen. High life time.
     We took turns. Didn't want to waste a minute of our sinnin' time. Also stretched our free supply of minnows. Here's how it went. Set the knot at five feet. Tipped the jig with a minnow. Lobbed a gentle side arm cast. Maybe ten yards. The bobber would bob in the waves a couple of times. Immediately followed by an angled descent. When the bobber was out of sight, the hook was set. Simple math. Twenty-four minnows, twenty-three walleyes, fifteen to twenty inches per, half an hour's time, two Molsons, one great time. We kept a few for breakfast. I'm a sure-fired butcher when it comes to filleting. What I lose in meat, at least I don't gain in bones. We don't do breading. A little seasoning and fry 'em hot in a couple of butter pats.
     The minnows did it. Our wind spell was broken. For the next five days the lake calmed. The fishing? Like a wilderness lake. Al had been bugging me about the river's mouth for two days. River's mouth. River's mouth. Over and over. We could see it. Just couldn't get there. We paddled down on Thursday after supper just to shut him up. Big deal. So he catches big pike after big pike. Anybody could have done it. Maybe not me but most anybody else. I caught some. Al caught a lot. Nearly all were over thirty inches. A few close to forty. Almost a duplicate of our night on Elbow at the other end of the stream. Once in a while to break the monotony, he'd throw a walleye into the mix. What ya gonna do? The kid's a fish magnet. That's just the way it is. Maybe his hands smell like ciscoes.
     Friday we headed over to the western bay with the idea of paddling into Little Claw lake. They call it that 'cause it's hooked onto Claw and ain't as big. Or so I'm told. A bright, eighty degree day. The lake shallowed and the bottom smoothed out as we approached the connecting channel. Just didn't feel right. So we bagged it. For the better, I guess. The next year when we learned of the graded right-of-way, we also learned that Little Claw was truck and short portage accessible. Fly-in sport asks Snow Laker, "How'd you get here?" Local hoser sprouts big grin, "Drove. That's my truck over there, eh." If that'd happened to us, sure would have let the air out of our ballon.
     Fishing our way back on the far shore, the lake grew a lot more structure. The farther we went, the better the fishing. Then we found the walleye honey hole. Yup, right off a shore lunch spot. Exactly as advertised. Calm, cloudless, hot. Miserable walleye conditions. Should have told the fish. Don't know how many we caught. On spinners no less. Anyhow, we could have fed a small crowd but lacked loaves.
     We returned in the evening. Low light. Walleye time. Gonna hammer 'em by the dozens. But they weren't there. Nary a one. No doubt they were under contract with the Grass River Lodge. They'd already put in their two hours. Damned if they were going to punch the clock for a couple of poachers. A shame. Enslaved for profit.
     We meandered elsewhere. Never made it. Al got the bird's nest of a lifetime on the way. Not much of a highlight for a Canadian canoe trip. On the other hand, if you've been fishing and not had to deal with one then you ain't really been fishing. And if you're pitching spinners with a spinning reel, man you're just beggin' for it. My Uncle Emil claims the spinner was invented in France 'cause they have it in for Americans. Says it's a proven fact that no real fisherman from the States has ever traveled to Europe. Unless, of course, they were in uniform. Since the French chefs can't spit in a Yank fisherman's food, they invented the spinner blade to vex the hell out of them instead.
     Using braided line and a quality ball bearing snap swivel helps (we don't use leaders. Doesn't seem to make a difference with super lines). But sooner or later you won't notice that little loop hanging off the spool lip. Phttttttt. Sure as shootin'.
     The thing about a spinning reel bird's nest is that the line isn't knotted, it's only twisted. The knots will be self-inflicted from frustration. The easy removal method is a knife. Pulling the loops and untwisting the twists is hit and miss at it's best. But if you stick with it. And are gentle. You'll eventually work it out. Ask Allan. Forty-five minutes in a calm bay with the sun going down. He said he'd get 'er. And I was in no hurry to be anywhere. Surrounded by God's country. Who could complain?
     Skip ahead. Last night on the water. Wind up again. But since this was the last night on Claw and it wasn't raining, we weren't gonna waste it. We started by speed drifting a narrow cut bay. Half of us had a good time. I got to be a human drift sock while Allan caught walleyes. Not that I'm complaining. It's just that from the back seat it sucked to high heaven. One other choice came to mind on that north-south lake in a stiff south wind.
     Fish the river. The muddy bottomed, cattail-lined river. We got what we expected. The hammer-handles thanked us for moving on. Passed the portage. Off to see where this stream went. A block in, around a bend and we pulled ashore beside a ten foot waterfall, a beaver dam across the lip. With a yard wide hole in the middle. Light bulb time. Of course. The dam caused the lake to be in flood. Over the week water levels had dropped. Someone or something must have knocked a hole in it. But who? High School, punk, beaver hating vandals? Ah, the mysteries of wilderness life. Where were the Mounties when you needed them?
See. I wasn't Kidding.
     For sure, it was a pretty cool spot. And I almost never use the word 'cool'. The chute ripping through the dam was impressive. The shore was paved with feathers and fish bones. Most likely from different animals. Below, the river split and riffled it's way around a bend and into the forest. Rather be there than Times Square any day.

     The pool behind the dam wasn't much. Fifteen yards across. Thirty long. Of course Al couldn't leave it alone. Seemed pointless to me. Not to him. After a backhand flip he really had to crank it so the spinner wouldn't get sucked down the chute. Bam! Fish on. And a honker. Big, big pike. My turn and it was the same thing. I wasn't quite believing what I was seeing. It was too much like being four years old and thinking I could catch fish by dropping a line down the bathtub drain. Three more followed. All in the teens. Not fish in a bathtub but sure like fish in a barrel.
     Below the dam it was pretty in a babbling brook sense but not much for fishing. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the punk caught a ten pounder (Disclaimer: All previous weights are approximations by experienced but amateur anglers. Any inaccuracy is unintentional. No fish were killed for the writing of this reminisce. Well, some were but we ate them 'cause they were yummy).
     Finally we headed back up the river toward camp. In the now calm of the river's mouth Al wanted a few more casts. Fine with me. I did boat control. Sat back and watched a Saturday morning fishing show. Except this was in real time. Catch, release. Catch release. Pike a cast for close to an hour. All big and the last one over forty inches.
     What do you say after having three fishing nights of a lifetime in one trip? What can you say? The numbers don't mean squat after a certain point. How much is enough? We were done. Sated. Thankful that it happened. Happy to have been together when it did.

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