Thursday, October 27, 2011

Last Time

     Every year has one. This year's, like nearly all last times on the water is intentional. Not looking forward to the one that isn't. Water's cold. Ice up coming on. Time's always short. I like working the water when most every other outdoor dude is oiling the shotgun. Like cheating Mother Nature. Been a good year. Spent more time in a canoe than any non-Canada year. A fair amount in the solo. Come next Spring I'll be a Medicare drawing baby-boomer. Must mean something. Guess in '12 when I impale myself with a treble hook it'll be the government picking up the tab. When the new year rolls around, God willing, I'll still be able to get my old kiester out of the boat after it's supported me for three hours. Can't picture the time when I give it up but from all I've heard, that will happen. Maybe next year Allan will be able to spring loose a few days. Something to dream about this winter.
     Been unseasonably cold for the last week. Turnover's in the past. Water temperature's probably high forties. So's the air. I'm as old as I've ever been, as young as I'll ever be and the weather has a mind of its own. That's why I've got the rain gear along. Rain or shine, I'll wear it. The last three things Lois said before I drove off were, "Be careful." She knows me too well. I'm reaching the age when I should have Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery tattooed on my behind.
     Lonely drive up north this time. I was thinking Thursday'd be the day to leave. That's what the Weather Channel told me. End of the week warm up. Lois had a better grip on our reality and egged me into a Monday departure. We'd gone out to lunch with my sister. After getting home, Lois said "Go." So we packed me up and I did. Sounded good and bad at the same time. Can't have it all I guess. Didn't want to leave, didn't want to stay. Wouldn't have worked if she'd come along. I had some fishing to get out of my system. Mid-day fishing. With drive to and from a lake, time on the water. That's a four or five hour hole in ten hours of daylight. I'd have the car. She'd be stuck in a place she'd rather not be stuck in. Yup, can't have it all. Or did I already say that? I'd make a lousy hermit. Be sitting in my cave thinking I should be somewhere else. Doing something else. Like becoming one with a large dark roast and a blueberry muffin. Or up north, late in October, looking for clues about next year. Learned to daydream when I was a kid. Working for a living made me an expert. Spent a lot of time drifting along in the world inside my head.
     Been up here for two and a half hours now. Finally warming up inside. One of the beauties, and also one of the downfalls, of the cabin is its insulation. Holds the warmth of day into the evening. And the night's coolness into the afternoon. When I arrived today it was forty-six outside and forty-five inside. First order of business after the off-load was feeding the Franklin stove. Not an efficient box but neat looking and a piece of history. Took two high school football tackles to move it up north and into place. Ain't moved it since, mostly 'cause I can't. Ben eats wood at an alarming fate. He's an omnivore. Pine, aspen, birch, scrap wood and oak. Lately, his diet has been provided by the Crow Wing Electric Co-op and their right-of-way clearing along the road out front. Their easement, our wood. And forty of Lois and my hours sawing, moving, splitting, moving and stacking. And moving inside to finally move into the stove. Whoever said, "Heat with wood and you are twice warmed," never gathered their own fuel. Actually, I left out a step. Kind of embarrassed about it but that's the way I am.  A person's stuck with being themselves. So long as it's not damaging to anyone, being yourself is a good thing.
      Most of the world's been moving toward efficiency and speed since day one. Outside of us hardheads that is. Lois and I always burn our own wood, gathered by hand and rarely motorized. Cut it in the woods. Deadfall only. Pitch it, or if too big, carry it to the road or nearest path. Load it in a ten cubic foot wheelbarrow and cart it to the splitting area. It's physical nature makes me sweat, puff and, in general, feel good. I can't say how it makes Lois feel. She's always in the thick of it whether I ask her help or not. Don't know what it is about work but it sure seems to do a body good. And occasionally call for a few stitches.
      Night arrives on wings of numb noses. When I'm up here by myself, a cushioned window seat I fabricated from a teak child's trundle bed that once held our children, is now my bed. Head near cracked window, cool draft keeping my sinuses open; my happiness. 'Til 2:30 in the morning. That's when that old fart Franklin starts crying like a baby with dirty diapers. Wants to be changed and fed again. If not, he punishes me with cold feet come morning. Stoking the stove's just an inconvenience really. 'Bout that time my bladder's telling me to go outside and mark my territory anyhow. Check out the stars, maybe Orion's waiting for me. Might as well throw some kindling in and watch it blaze. Add a chunk or two of oak and head back to wander through my dream world.
     Morning. It's not as easy coming up with new water when you've been working an area for thirty years. But it's there. Just doesn't exactly fit my definition of acceptable surroundings. Gotta learn to live with a few cabins and a boat or two. Don't want to. Really don't want to. Maybe if we make next year's trip in late October? Nobody on most any lake at that time of year.  Unfortunately, October and fishing don't seem to get together in most sensible minds. The thought of drowning in cold water has no appeal for Iowans. Or Minnesotans for that matter.
     So I'm up here with new ideas in mind. New spins on old lakes. And old spins on a new one or two. Maybe throw smallmouth bass and trout into the mix. But not this first day. Today, the DNR is my friend. They post fish counts for most of the lakes in the state. A fair number of the one's I like to fish are long outdated. Guess the State has better things to do than give away the locations of my favorite spots. The Nasons' numbers go back to the '60s. The lake I'm looking at for this afternoon's a 2008. Nearly a bass only lake 'til recently. The DNR suspects some local yahoos illegally dumped in a bucket of sunnies and crappies. Shame on them. Don't know if the bass like to eat panfish. Not having seen any before, the bass might not know either. But they'll figure it out. This is an experimental lake. For us and the bass. All bass have to be immediately released. The new sunnies and crappies are a different story. Whoever put 'em in probably figures they'll look good filleted, bear battered and in the pan. And break up the monotony of bass, bass, bass. I've got two rods rigged. Made a vow to only use the slip bobber rig. But I'm morally weak when it comes to the catching part of fishing. The second's got a spinner. What else?
     The actual fishing part of my day was originally written from the point of view of a Spanish adventurer. Can't say why that came to mind. Seems Marcos Ramos was seeking the legendary 'fish of the sun.' His guide was Coolfront of course. Went on to explain the moniker. As in, not as bad as a cold front, but close. Never mentioned I've also dubbed myself Snakecharmer for my talent of catching small northerns. I'd have included the entry here had it not nauseated me on the reread. I did like the fish of the sun part. Seems to fit bluegills and pumpkinseeds well. Allan says they're the closest to tropical fish found in our lakes.
     Mid-day, light northerly breeze and general overcast. Got the lake to myself. The push off is always a moment of relearning balance. You'd think I'd have that down pat after all these years. But caution tells me I don't and know the most likely spot to roll the boat is during the launch. Besides the panfish I'm gonna work on the j-stroke. It's basic and arguably the best way to steer a canoe. I've developed methods based on my inability to understand what I've read and then apply that misknowledge to what I'm doing. My visualization sucks. What my mind sees as a J ain't what the paddle's supposed to be doing. My version looks more like a C. Jumped to that when A and B looked insanely difficult. Went to the internet, found a good site with pictures, think I've got the idea and am gonna give it my best shot. The author says my arms will hurt tomorrow but am doubtful of that. After all, I'm a manly man of great masculinity.
     Gadzooks, I've done it again. Paddled nearly to the lake's far end almost like that's what I'd intended. Must finally be learning patience. The deep water's down here. Figure that's where the bluegills will be hanging out. Set the bobber at five feet and drift the shore with the breeze. Not a human sound in the world 'til I hear a boat approaching. Deep throated roar coming through the channel behind me. I look and see nothing. Takes a minute to realize I'm hearing a semi cruising the highway two miles north. That's two miles of hill and forest north. Quite a sound baffle to penetrate.
      Woods are nearly naked. Clumps of golden aspen and tamarack the only accompaniment to the dark green pines. Couple of squirrels get into an argument as I pass. They go on and on for twenty minutes. Must be a nut problem. Figure if I could remove theirs, the matter'd be settled. Bobber goes down. Zip, gone in a flash. The weight on the rod says bass but I'm hoping walleye. It's a bass, chunky one. Fights like twice its three pounds. Takes me under the boat several times. Not expecting that. Got a lot to learn about cold water bass. Thought they were only warm water fish. Over the next ninety minutes this happens a dozen times. Then stops dead. Nary a sunnie. Not so much as a nibble. Can't say I'm disappointed or mystified. Would have been fun to find a few. Ain't I humble? What would have been fun would have been forty, nothin' under a half pound. Tuckered out by bluegills.
     The true highlights of the day all had white heads. Always a pleasure to watch an eagle spiral up in a thermal. Or chow down on a road kill whitetail as I pass, homeward bound. Back in the yard another shoots by on the treetops over the center of the cabin. Saw my first in '89. Now they border on the commonplace. A story like that, though rare, is cause for hope.
     Don't usually carry a cell phone. However, when alone at the cabin, Lois lends me hers. Don't take it on the water. Yet. But I do call every evening to pass on an all's well with the world. 'Til a couple of years ago reception at the cabin was non-existent. Was that better? Can of worms for sure. L. Dean heads a manufacturing firm. One that can't run without him it seems. Knocks a hole in any wilderness illusion I'm spinning when he's making business decisions on a cabinless lake off a forestry road. Think back on the time when me and Al ran into the boys from Flin Flon. Thirty water miles off the road. Lord knows how far from the nearest cell tower. Being asked if we had a satellite phone so they could call in sick at work 'cause the walleyes were biting and they had liquor left. If that doesn't lighten your heart you've got a problem.
     The weatherman on public radio tells me Day Two will be an encore. Peak of the day in the upper forties. But which lake? Today I'm thinkin' smallmouth bass. Two lakes fit the bill. Well, one does for sure. My memory says the other does too. I know what to look for once on the water. Simple process. Cruise the shoreline in about three feet of water. Look down. If you see nothing but rubble, baseball sized mostly, you're there. Throw in some boulders and deadfall and you've got yourself a genuine hot spot. Seems there's crayfish in those rocks. And in the bellies of the smallies. Mudbugs are smallmouth candy. When you lip one, take a look down the bass' gullet. Don't be surprised to see a couple of claws alongside a pair of black, beady eyes looking up and seem to be saying, "Hey buddy. How'd you like three wishes?"
     Back in '90, when Allan and I first hit East Pike Lake, we learned a lot. And saw something we haven't seen since. Took a bit to figure out what it was. The bass were in the post-spawn. Males still on the nests, ladies off to recover. We were throwing small floating Rapalas. The method was to let the lure sit for at least a half minute then give 'er a twitch. Worked like a charm. If you let it sit for a full minute, the lure would start to bounce around on the calm water a little bit. Had to be the smallies comin' up and giving the Rapala a nudge. And telling us it was twitch time. Bam!
     Lakes around the cabin are different animals. Been on a few that looked right. Got me to saying, "Somebody ought to throw a few smallies in here." Kinda disappointing no one has. And I'm not that kind of boy (said in a voice like Groucho Marx). Not that I have anything against largemouth. But, in my mind, they're not in the same league as their relatives. Blame East Pike Lake and my cousins up in 1957 Melrose for that. Fishing Big Birch Lake - of course there's also a Middle Birch and Little Birch. Not to be confused with the chain up near Detroit lakes of Big Dick, Little Dick and Jack the Horse Lakes. Ain't Minnesota the best? - one of the Ahlers landed a smallmouth. Made a big deal of it. Bent my twig. Turns out, according to the DNR, most every lake outside the Boundary Waters has largemouth bass. Smallies, maybe one in ten. Top that off with smallmouth not actually a native of the Boundary Waters. They were introduced late in the 1930's and have spread like any other exotic species. Unlike zebra mussels and big head carp, smallmouth are my kind of vermin.
     Mann Lake has them for sure. Are muskie food in those waters. Four pound bait fish. Two out of three muskies say their as tasty as walleyes. Other choice is Portage Lake, one of four with that name in Cass County. My brain says the DNR website showed Portage being ripe with smallies. But my ten year old guide says otherwise. I'm in doubt. Mann's the choice 'cause it's twenty minutes closer. Time off the drive being time on the water. Been there before. It's a bowl. No character. Ah, been spoiled by Canadian lakes. Points, bays, islands, always something unexpected around the corner. Each lake seems like several in one.
     Blue sky today. Light northerly breeze makes for easier paddling on Baby Lake this time. The connecting channel, no longer a mystery. Ten minutes and I'm on Mann. Where to go? The guide's told me the south shore flats are prime water, I hang a right. Flats they really are. Shallow flats. Don't look fishy and my spinner says the same. Not anything like the smallmouth territory I've seen. Time to take a break and scan the lake. This time of year they could be suspending near a mid-lake bar. Yeah, like that helps. In my mind, canoes don't do lake middles. A game of hit or miss that eats up time by the yard. Plus I'm a shore fisherman. Always have been. Not a matter of deep water fear. Mostly a matter of the fish. They head to the shallows 'cause the plankton piles up there, and also game fish that eat the bait fish eating the bugs that eat the plankton. Little Old lady Who Swallowed a Fly Syndrome. And it's prettier being close to the trees.
     The shore's where the fish meet me and my limited abilities half-way. Just need to find the right shore where the smallies have immediate access to deep water. And my spinner. Ain't thrown a purposeful lure or bobber yet and I'm already pissing and moaning. Descend into frustration. Slide sideways into despondency. And the j-stroke's not as easy as it looks. Makes me pay way too much attention to what I'm doing. Don't mind learning a new trick so long as it comes quickly. One minute I've got it. Easy as pie. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I'm cruisin' now. Then, poof! It's gone. Drift left, curse and it's looking like I'm gonna hurt for sure come morning. Shoulda bought a longer solo. The zig-zag can't be my fault. Need a better paddle. Not as young as I used to be. Crap! That means it's gonna get worse. All my fretting helps pass the time as I head across the lake. Constant negativity is my friend, my happy place, my meditation. Zen and the Art of Knowing the Whole World Has It in for Me. But I'm hip. So I curse the heavens.
     I've chosen a goal. A steeply sided hill on the east shore. From a quarter mile it reminds me of the Boundary Waters, birches hanging, some in the water. Visualization of a several tiered drop off. Multiple shelves descending into deep water. Smallies hanging out in itty-bitty wolf packs on each drop, fattening up for the long winter. Here I come boys and girls. Papa's got something for you to chew on. Of course that's not the reality. Though the hill is thirty feet of near cliff, the lake bottom is shallow. No indication of a drop off in sight. Ah so, the hoped for rubble is there. Picture perfect. Small, less than fifty yards of shore line.
     Don't want to waste a foot of it. Paddle a hundred yards north. Drift and cast. In toward shore and parallel to. Sneak up on 'em. Throwing a brass blade, squirrel tail. The first hit is a shock. Stays deep for a few runs then heads to the surface. None of the largemouth did that yesterday. Been so long I won't commit until I raise it. Right color and the red eye ring is the clincher. Holy smoke. Don't know what to think. When I actually figure something out it comes as a surprise. Makes me feel like a real fisherman for a few seconds. 'Course I slap that thought down. Ten minutes later it happens again. Definitely not a fluke.  Almost as neat as catching trout. Ten minutes later nothing new's happened. Should switch to a tube but have learned what I wanted. Besides, my arm is now getting sorer from back patting. Next Spring, me and the Deans will give Mann a shot. See more of the lake. Could be another jewel to fish every year. After the re-cross, I fish my way to the access.
     Departure morning cleanup always gets my mind churning. Finality breeds a swarm of evil sprites. When I was in my youth, post-Vietnam, I was cock sure. Had no fear of saying my piece. Didn't matter if I was right or wrong, I was confident. At least confident enough to stick my neck out constantly. Can't say I was wrong about everything, just short sighted. Aren't we all? I still lack an accurate long term view but it ain't gonna get any better. Comin' up on 65. Gathering wisdom and knowledge on one end. My brain melting out my nose on the other. Sneaking up on becoming a wise-assed old man. My apologies to Carl Jung.
     Is the world going to hell in a hand basket? Probably. At least the human part. We've been on an out of control bubble for sixty-six years. All indications point toward some form of bursting. Global warming; paper today says the last year has been an unexpected spike of greenhouse gasses. Beyond worst case scenario numbers. When's the tipping point on that? Smart money says we're within spitting distance. Globalization's a damned if you do or don't situation. Fewer jobs, less money, look for a bargain. Bargains ain't made in the USA. Shop elsewhere. More jobs dry up. The playing field's leveling. Don't see a win-win coming up anytime soon.
     All this spins around in my incoherent head as I wash the dishes with heated pump water. Sweep the floor. Vacuum, clean it up for the next trip up. Love it here. Deer hunting's coming. Time to not be in the woods with an army of armed amateurs wandering around. Lois has been shot at while working in the yard. The hunter said it was her fault 'cause she wasn't wearing enough blaze orange. And she shouldn't have been in the woods in the first place 'cause that's where he'd been hunting for years. A half million in the woods and plenty of them total bozos. Didn't have that many armed infantry in Vietnam even at the peak. Scary. Be back mid-November. Next time on the water mid-May. Half a year's a long time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Four Deans

     Six weeks ago I went fishing with my grandson Jakob. He's my daughter and son-in-law's oldest. That is if you can consider a five year old oldest at anything. In his mind we were off on either an expedition or another one of Grandpa's waste's of time. Lucky for me he's an understanding kid. Willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. S'pose he'll eventually outgrow that.
     The drive was a five blocker to a small city lake. My plan was to be a good grandpa and bend Jake's twig in the right direction. Maybe throw a couple of bluegills in for good luck. Bought him a half-decent spincast rig, about the right length for a half pint and wanted to see if he could handle it. Yeah, he's a tad too young to hold his own in the front of a canoe on a Canadian lake yet and by the time he can I'll be wearing Depends. But that doesn't stop me from dreaming. Seems there's still a maybe swimming around in my head. Something about him being twelve years old and me being seventy-one. After all, Allan was only twelve when we did the Boundary Waters the first time. As for me…. Well, guess we'll have to wait and see how that pans out. Just maybe, the good Lord willing, me and my grandson can still catch us a few smallies up on East Pike Lake, sleep in a tent and sip a little Jim Beam. Probably best drop the last part. I don't much like whiskey.
     One thing about grandkids is they'll give you your third go around on learning the concept of time and distance. Learned it myself. Watched it dawn on Annie and Allan. Now Jakob. So when we pulled up to the little lake after two minutes and fourteen seconds on the road, Jake asked, "Are we at the cabin?" A simple, "Nope, the cabin's a lot farther," worked nicely. It's tough on me dealing with such innocence. Sarcasm runs in my blood. Always has. Probably always will. However, the idea that we might be at the cabin and Jakey wasn't phased by the idea, bodes well for next summer or one of the next.
     Of course I had to take the first cast. Old guys like to play too. The next five were Jakob's. Went so well he must have been practicing when I wasn't looking. Deceitful little bugger. Good distance and pretty much on the mark. But no fish. We'd have moved around till we found 'em but he laid something on me that couldn't be ignored, "I've got to pee Grandpa." Since the City of Minneapolis frowns on grandparents allowing five year olds to urinate in a park or pretty much anywhere outside, we headed home. Don't remember Lee Wolff, John Gierach or Roland Martin ever using that as an excuse to stop fishing.
     The point of this intro and the reason for the title has to do with Jakob's middle name, Dean. When his mom and dad came to naming him there was no choice as to what Jake's middle one would be. His dad's was Dean and his dad's dad was Dean. Coincidentally, Jakob's Uncle Eldon, not in the line of fire at all, carries the middle name of Dean. Where the idea for Dean arose I s'pose only a traveling salesman and many a lonely house frau in Northwest Iowa know. But that's just my guess. No offense meant.
     For the last five or six years - by now you might have noticed that I lean toward guesswork when it comes to time. Continually throw around words like about, around, or so and of course, five or six, a lot. And to think I've managed to stay clear of six of one, half dozen of the other for nigh onto a year. Seems I've become more approximate than more accurate as I've grown older. No doubt the scars of having been wrong so many times. Those kind of erroneous numbers weigh on a man. On the other hand, a whole lot of stuff has happened in my lifetime. It all tends to jumble together in the oatmeal that is my brain. Should have taken the time to document it all. What a waste of my life that would have been. So my history tends to break down into the recent, five or six years ago and a long time ago. The long time ago I typically have no problems with. e.g. New Years Eve 1967 had a windchill of sixty-five below. Ain't that swell?
     Let's give it another go around: For the last five or six years I've been doing a June, cabin-centered, fishing trip with in-laws. As in son-in-law, his dad and his uncle. Ryan, Larry and Eldon respectively. First off, though Ryan lives in Sioux Falls, all three of them are Iowans to the bone. As most everyone knows in this part of the world, an Iowan is a Minnesotan with a little more dirt under the fingernails. We're a little wetter behind the ears. Stands to reason, we've got the lakes, they're buried under deep rich soil. Minnesotans like to make fun of their southern neighbors. Mostly that's 'cause we're hopin' to high heaven, while knowin' it ain't the truth, that someone out there is more hinterlandy than us thirteen lined ground squirrel lovers. Our disagreements were summed up unintentionally by The National Lampoon with two figures of death fighting over a pickle. Not sure what that means but it seems to fit.
     To me, in the context of this essay, what matters is that Iowans fish for bullheads. Period. No doubt that's my ignorance and prejudice, but I doubt it. Also figure they'd fish for lakers, muskies and walleyes if they could. But, like I said, they've got bullheads.
     Oh they try to pooh-pooh that notion. Over the years the three Deans've told me time and again about Grandpa Dan, Iowa personified, and his quest for walleyes on Spirit Lake, Lake Okoboji or some other God forsaken, overstuffed farm pond down there. But to the best of my knowledge no walleyes were ever hooked or landed. All I've heard about are sinking boats and the incredible length of Grandpa Dan's cigarette ash. Seems the cigarette was always dangling from his lower lip, the wind was always up, the boat was always sinking and the ash always at least two inches long. Not a walleye was ever mentioned. Watching that ash no doubt took my future fishing partners' minds off skinnin' a bucket of bullheads.
     During the few years our knowledge of each other overlapped, I met grandpa Dan a few times. Always seemed a mellow old guy with a permanent smile on his weathered face. Weathered's an understatement. One look told you that man had spent his time out in the weather. Good way to look. Also seen photos of him as a much younger man. Looked like a man on a mission and you were in his way. Attitude in work clothes. First time we met he said, 'Heard you're quite a fisherman." Made me feel good. But I had to be honest with him even though it'd sound like I was being falsely modest, "Nope. But I've spent a lot of my time finding lakes where the fish are dumber than I am." Meeting Grandpa Dan got me to thinking. In the old photos of him he had the look I've seen in black and whites of canoemen back in the '50s. No pretense in their dress. Stringer of lake trout tying them together. Not much giving a damn how big the fish looked. They were big and there were plenty of them. Those guys were a different breed. And Grandpa Dan would've fit in nicely.
     Don't remember exactly how the up to the cabin trips came about. So here's my guess: Back in the early days of Ryan entering our family, he and Annie used to come up north once in a while. Ryan seemed to like it in the woods. For fun we played golf. No resort courses for us thank you. Dirty blue collar, back in the woods, courses. If your ball strayed into those woods you left it there. Too hard to play out of the poison ivy. Also, in Ryan's case, golf didn't bring bullheads into the equation. Anger, frustration and mosquitoes maybe, but definitely no bullheads.
     Then, magically, one day he found himself in the front of my canoe with a bass on the end of his line. Ooh, bass. Not a whisker on its head and it was okay to throw it back in the lake. No more nailin', slittin' and skinnin'. A fisherman was born that day. Or at least uncovered. Ryan had so much fun the next thing I knew his dad was along for the ride. The great June Fishing Trip, with food and beer, was born. Larry was instantly hooked. That first year there were two trips. The second one in the fall included Ryan's uncle Eldon. Also hooked. So it came to be. R. Dean, L. Dean, El. Dean and me.
     That first year it was Ryan and his dad in the canoe together. Logical and a chance for gettin' out the pointless bitching a father and son need once in a while. Being ten feet apart in an Alumacraft can sometimes be a little close for comfort. With the weight bein' on the guy in the back. Gotta learn to drop that rod tip when the man up front is buggy whippin' pointed steel on a side-arm cast. Also a tad nerve wracking when that rod tip's pointing between your eyes. I've been behind Ryan and found it fascinating the way his rod tip figure-eights right at me on the back cast. Comes so close on occasion that I find myself checking out the wraps on his squirrel tail, cross-eyed. Hasn't drawn blood yet but I've given some thought to buying him a five foot rod.
     As for Larry, it was both a fatherly and a self-sacrificing act taking the back seat. They've done well together over the years considering their initial lack of canoe experience. Learned a lot even though they still zig-zag even more than two drunks trying to walk a straight line. Never really asked them how they felt being the only canoemen on the Minnesota lakes we've fished. And they've never actually said anything about it on their own. I hope it's made them feel a cut above all the noise, nonsense and pollution. Though, for them, it might actually be an exercise in humility.
     As for the fishing, like I said, they were bullheaders not game fishermen. Whether they asked me or whether I forced my will on them, "My cabin, my way of fishing. Like it or lump it." Either way, I figured they'd have a lot more fun catchin' than being skunked. I knew their predicament. When I was a kid, bullheads were a way of life during the summertime. Red and white bobber, hook and and worm. So I set 'em up with a slip bobber rig. The slip bobber was as much a revelation to them as it had been to me when my wife's cousin turned me on to them. Thanks, Gary. No single hook though. Sixteenth ounce jig and a tiny power tube. Set it shallow, fish it in the pads and horse 'em out. It ain't pretty. No grand fight and acrobatic leaps. They eventually came to putting the canoe in so tight as to be shore fishing. Holey-moley did they catch panfish and bass. They still tend to fish that way as a means to learn a lake.
     The second trip was in the fall. And Eldon came along to add a little more color to the already colorful woods. El. Dean had this thing about canoes. Didn't like them one bit. Something about ending up in the lake every time he was briefly in one. What a whiner. So he ended up as my partner 'cause I promised him in as casual a manner -  like rolling a canoe had never happened to me and never would -  as possible - in a voice like Chuck Yeager would've used to explain that the wing had just come off his experimental jet -  that he'd be okay. And catch a washtub full of fish. Now, the truth was, I was pretty sure we'd be okay together. But saying never is like dancing with the devil. Set him up with the same rig as the other two Deans.
     Being partnered up in a canoe too many times with the same person is a lot like being married. You have to watch what you say. Don't want to be too domineering or you'll piss your partner off. Too passive and you piss yourself off. Like me. El. Dean gets me to swearing quietly to myself once in a while. Partly my fault, partly his. His end rides a little too deep in the lake for me. Simple navigation, a trim boat rides a little high in the bow and gives the paddler in the aft a little more control. Ours moves nose down. Plows the waves, pivots at the front. I figure if I paddled hard enough, we'd rotate like a pinwheel. If we were kids on a see-saw, I'd be the one on the up end, legs dangling, crying, "C'mon, let me down!" Guess gravity likes El. Dean more than me. Why not? He's a likable guy.
     The my fault part is partly Allan's fault. We've got a few thousand canoe miles behind us. His idiosyncrasies and bad habits have become my standard for a front man. Al motors, I approximate our direction. I flail both sides of the boat, he paddles on the right. Always. Says the left side pains him. So I never a need to call out directions unless it's an emergency in big waves. Since he's always on the right, he never steers from the front. If we veer a bit off course, he knows we're okay 'cause my mind is wandering and all's right with the world.
     El. Dean and I have never worked out our mental balance. Paddling a canoe seems a simple task and it is. But it's a teamwork thing. Two people moving one boat.  El needs direction but I don't do that well. Like I said, never had to do that. Don't know where to begin and don't want to piss him off. Too good of friends to squabble over near nothing. Not that big a problem really. We don't fish big water together. Rarely travel more than a mile. So it's not much more than an annoyance. Still, I'll occasionally descend into mumbled cursing. As much at my failure to communicate as toward him.
     Maybe I need to throw a fifty pound boulder in the stern. Or introduce El. Dean to Jenny Craig. Look what she did for Marie Osmond (I think she's a Jenny Craig grad). Religion and politics aside, if El. Dean came out looking as good as Ms. Osmond.... Or get him away from his wife, who's way too good a cook. Her pastries are an invitation to an early but happy death. So I guess the odds of us doing a real canoe trip together are directly proportional to his chances for divorce. Doubt very much that "too good in the kitchen" would constitute acceptable grounds for divorce.
     Besides difference of bulk, our pasts carry a lot of shared weight. Both of us were in the Army at the same time. Creates a bond that goes beyond throwin' lures in a lake or having shared relatives. El. Dean never made it to Vietnam. But that's the crapshoot of the military. Some go, some don't, but we all wore olive drab. And all had to put up with the same shit. By and large career soldiers weren't a happy lot in those days. Just ask El. Dean. Yup, it does flow downhill in the Army. Both of us married, two children, grandchildren. Seen a lot of the same things. We make for a good fit.
     He's an easy going man. Likes his time up north. Looks forward to it all year. I can relate to that. He'd be the first to tell you that what he needs is more time in the woods and on the water. But there's no spare time burnin' a hole in his pocket. No sir. He works for a living. And Lordy how a time clock'll put a crimp in your time. Personal experience tells me the only thing that sucks more than workin' for a dollar is being unemployed. You've got a job these days, you don't walk out on it. Odd how that works.
     So we find El. Dean, a family man with bills to pay. And not lookin' forward to retirement anytime soon. It's a dilemma and looks never ending. Enough to make a thinking man a bit bummed once in a while. Don't know about him but I sure didn't see it coming when I punched in at age sixteen. Thought I was the Golden Child. Dame Fortune would take care of all my problems and leave me roses. Most of us have been through that drill. Most of us know it could have been a whole lot worse. Don't think El. Dean would disagree but that doesn't buy him an extra minute of spare time just for being grateful. So we get along fine. Unless he spills the corn. Or anyone else does for that matter. I like home packed sweet corn. You come to the cabin, don't spill the corn and we be just fine.
     For my part, I'm among the fortunate. Retired, not starving and finding my time up at the cabin with the Deans one of life's pleasures. Always is. Gives me another fixed point on which my life turns. But, you see, Barb Lake is still up there in Grass River Provincial Park. Unseen, waiting and eight miles paddle and two miles of swamp portage away from the Iskwasum lake access. As Bob with the Black lab told me and Allan, "It's a walleye a cast, eh." Yup, it's sittin' up there, waitin' on me and I'm down here watchin' my window of opportunity slowly close. The cabin's fine but not where I really want to be in the first half of June. I miss the tingle of adventure.
     Last note before we go and catch us some fish: Canoe fishin's about partners.  Besides Allan, there are few I'd care to drive nine hundred miles with, much less spend a day or two paddling deep enough in just to get a taste of wilderness. Grass River's not what I'd call wilderness but you can smell it from there. I'm not asking for the real deal, just something close enough so I can pretend. As for the Deans, I'd go with any or all of them. L. Dean in the back of their canoe knows his limitations. That and his innate honesty are about all you can ask of a canoeman. R. Dean can motor, listens to instruction and loves to fish. It'd be a thrill watching him tie into a thicket of walleyes or three foot pike. El. Dean, like I said, would need to push away from the table. But his laugh and companionship would be worth a creative canoe trimming.
     Last June's trip had it all. From a hundred fifty bass day to a four man near skunkathon. Two days in particular:
     Back in the old days, the Road to Every Lake days, touted by characters that would have fit nicely onto Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, a Minnesota man, a few of those lakes were missed. Small, out of the way, bullhead infested ponds deemed unroadworthy. What the Chambers of Commerce had in mind was a photo of fifteen red and black plaid covered hunters standing in front of fifteen gutted, steer-sized bucks hanging on a rack festooned by garlands of ten pound walleyes. Caption reading, "Come and Kill Your Share in Minnesota." They weren't looking for a bunch of on-the-cheap SOBs like me and the Deans. Those roads were made for Packards and full wallets. That they left a few sloughs untouched was a Godsend to us canoe boys.
     In the following decades - now this is purely my fantasy and may not have any connection to reality. You have to remember, I came of age in the sixties. reality was optional. Groovy! - the locals came to feelin' squeezed out on the accessible lakes they grew up near. Also, the fishing wasn't as easy as dad and grandpa said it'd been. A thousand acre lake with a couple of dozen motorboats trolling about didn't seem to have much 'away from it all' to it.
     So they took matters into their own hands. On a good day they'd keep some of the bass, pike and panfish they caught, stick 'em in a cooler of water and dump the lot into some out of the way bullhead pond. They knew just the right ones. Got the pickup stuck on the two track logger's roads while rumbling in for some duck hunting last fall. Small but deep enough to not freeze out. Tough enough driving to get you thinking about your oil pan. Kept the riff-raff in their Lincolns and Cadillacs out. Usually had the water to themselves. And if they did have to share, they knew each other and their dogs by name. Might be a hundred or two such ponds scattered across the North Country.
     Those are the lakes I seek. It's my talent. Remember what I told Grandpa Dan. Besides, it's much easier pretending you're in the boonies if the lake you're fishing has no cabins. So if you live in Blackduck, MN, decide to head out for an evening's fishing on a nearby hidden pond and find an old fart in a plastic canoe, give him a wave. Might be me. Promise I'll put 'em all back and won't tell anyone where we are and what we're doing.
     So it was on one of those lakes me and the Deans found ourselves. Been there before. Knew what to expect, a good lake. But me and El. Dean were playin' with a new deck and, since it was my deck, I was hoping I'd remembered to pack all fifty-two cards. Wasn't so much passing on knowledge as I was experimenting. And using El. as a guinea pig. Didn't let him know that though. Of course our usual plan of attack was throwin' a #3 spinner tight to shore and starting to crank before she hit the water. El. Dean never took to that tactic as he's a right hander all the way and has to switch hands with the rod. Churns the bottom before his slack is on the spool. Catches a lot of weed and branches that way but not many bass.
     Our angle of angling this time be tubes and jigs. Don't drag me into the great controversy of polluting with plastics in pristine ponds. Cutting it to brown sparkly tubes is as close as I'll let my delicate northern soul approach the purple worms of the Great South. For now. Tubes are mostly weedless. Since you work them slowly along the bottom, El. Dean's already got the technique down pat though he's highly skeptical. Man of little faith.
     We leap frogged R. and L. Dean and headed a ways down the beaver-branch strewn shore. Overcast, pockets of lily pads throughout the twenty acre bay we're in, surrounded by pine and birch tight to the water. Could be in the western Boundary Waters for the way it looks. And we're alone on the water. Perfect. El. Dean's got the general drift of what to do. Picked up a small bass right off and put a look on his face that says, I sure didn't see that coming. Then settled into casting practice for a while. I'm catchin' a few. So El. moved into the comfort of business as usual on a great bass pond. Got lazy and didn't work the tube like a real fisherman ought, instead simply threw the rig and let it sink to the bottom. Then didn't do squat for a half minute, maybe a minute and settled into enjoying the scenery. Finally, more out of boredom than anything else, started to reel slowly, real slowly. And began two hours of bass catching like I'd never seen. Not big bass. This lake holds nothing much over two pounds. On the other hand, few are under a foot. Looked like he was catching the same fish over and over. Around his fifth bass we began to count figuring El. was in the beginning of a day of days. We quit counting when he hit fifty.
     Hate to admit it but after a dozen or two I realized he was onto something beyond my ken. Time for me to learn from the student. I sucked it up and asked El. his method. So simple. Tells me it's all in the feel and drag. When he starts reeling sometimes he feels a soft nibble. Like a bluegill messing with your worm.  If so, he lets it sit than waits a few seconds and sets the hook. Bam! Like Jimmy Houston without any bass kissin'. Different laugh also. If no immediate nibble he drags the tube slowly. Any nibble along the way is cause for a few seconds wait. Then it's bam time again. El. Dean was a true bass-o-magic that day. Not like like the one in Dan Ackroyd's routine. Ackroyd's a Canadian. And they don't know diddley about largemouth.
     Oh yeah, it was fun even if they all were thirteen and a half inches. You have to question our sanity. Like a couple of pre-pubescent twelve year olds. Days like that one can spoil you for a long time. We finally had to pull the plug and seek out R. and L. Dean. Tell 'em how wonderful we were but had no effect. They were doing every bit as good as we were and had the same goofy smiles stuck to their faces.
     The next day we finally found it. Not where it was supposed to be according to the DNR. But a two minute hike told the tale. Couple of years earlier we'd tried the same game on what was supposed to be the right two track only to dead end at a wall of woods. Done that a few times in the past. Back in the late '90s, Allan and I gave what we considered our best shot toward finding a lake named Bag. A thirty acre pot hole really. None of our maps showed any type of deer trail or forestry road heading that way. But I knew in my marginal bushwhacking heart of hearts there had to be a way. This was Minnesota. Bag was a lake deep enough to not freeze out. Been there since the Ice Age so there must have been plenty of folks as idiotic as me who'd have forged some kind of way in.
     We started off in the right general direction. Found a two track. Almost too easy. Off we went on a trail that had a mind of its own. Five minutes in, our direction was in doubt and the track narrowed to a hair under a Jeep's width. It seems hazel brush has a thing about running sine wave tattoos down the sides of slightly lost vehicles. When the path opened up, it also disappeared. We found ourselves looking down into a pristine valley pretty as all get out. Birch, red and jackpine. Old, mossy floor with columbine, dogwood, ancient singed jackpine stumps that could've been there for many decades. Gnarly, tough buggers, thick with pitch, they'd be there for many more. Their nut like cones wouldn't think of opening without a forest fire. See, fire's our friend so long as it doesn't get too cuddly. The valley was pretty enough in the filtered light to get out and dally a minute before backing slowly out. Figured there must be another way.
     That last paragraph was more or less true. Problem was I tried to get all poetic and don't do that well. Just ain't me. Poetic is supposed to come from a fertile mind and eye. My fertile's a lot closer to compost without the aging process. Get to readin' other authors - oops, gotta remember, I'm a writer not an author - and thinking damn, I sure wish I could write like I knew what I was doing. That leads to all kinds of what I consider profound thoughts.  Then I write them out and see their naked reality.  Time to whack myself across the knuckles a couple of times and stand nose to the wall in the corner for a half hour. Guess I've finally grown enough to no longer need nuns. Mea culpa.
     Over the next twenty minutes we dead-ended twice more. "Got a problem city boys? Most anyone 'round here could find Bag with their eyes shut in the dark, on a moonless night, stone drunk. Sheee-it. Maybe it'd help if you got outta the fancy jeep once in a while for a look-see." The wisdom of age takes failure in stride. We packed it in and headed for the Nasons.
     Me and the Deans must've passed the access road/mud hole five times that week before L. and R. Dean finally walked in. The track wasn't but a couple hundred yards of pot hole and rock. Ended at a sign saying the road that had been, wasn't there any more. But enough room to park. The lake sat thirty feet below us down a path nobody, but nobody could back down with a trailer, much less pull it back up. The lake was as tiny as advertised, sixty acres, but looked nothing like my mind's eye thought it would. So what else was new?
      Let me tell you about what the DNR reported and what I'd heard some locals describe about what we were looking at. The lake is a Y-shaped cut in a valley. Fifteen years ago it was described as a "great place to take to take kids fishing." Nothing but bass. Small bass. Lotsa bass. Then a dozen years ago someone dumped in a few pike and bluegills. I suppose the intention was to thin out and increase the size of the bass. For a few years it worked like a charm. Not as many bass but some were pushing four pounds. The pike grew like they were on hormones. That's why we were there. Big bass, big pike. Some fun, eh?
     The access was perfect for us. If you couldn't haul it down by hand, you'd best go somewhere else to wet your noodle. I was pumped. Hope floats on new water. This pond was shallow but we expected that. A minute on the water, El. Dean was reeling in his first small pike. Then his second, his third, fourth. All pike, all small. And so it continued. L. and R. Dean were having the same luck. Our two canoes worked the entire lake to the tune of endless small pike. El. broke his boredom by throwing a Gordian knot of a snarl which kept him busy like a kitten with a ball of yarn. I switched to a slip bobber rig hoping to find some of the bluegills. Instead found a few of the tiniest perch I'd ever seen. Each had a look of terror on its face. Like they lived in horror-filled dreams of pike teeth and an early death. We finally put the rods down, cruised and enjoyed the evening. L. and R. continued to throw spinners.
     So here's the story I was more or less told, with an aside or two: From the beginning of our fishing trips, L. Dean's biggest complaint was having to spend a lot of his time doing boat control while R. Dean hauled in fish. L.'s own fault really. They could've switched positions. But L. always said, "Nah, that's okay. Being my son, you've been putting a crimp on my style for closing in on four decades. Why should a couple of days in a canoe be any different?" On the other hand, L. Dean seems to catch the lion's share of the big pike. He set the bar in the first year and has upped the ante a few times since. Turned out his two biggest came while El. Dean and I were smelling the roses on the night in question. Back to back in the far corner of the lake. Of course there were no pictures. No measurement. Nothing but their word and, like I wrote earlier, L. Dean's innate honesty to go by. Their original estimate had the pair at five feet each. A minute's dickering, like we were bargaining for a life-sized statue of Emilio Zapata sitting on a rainbow colored unicorn/donkey in Tijuana, dropped them to a reasonable thirty-six inches each. I could accept that. Big fish for a tiny lake.
     S'pose the lesson is that if you add some eating machines to a lake's mix it isn't always the smartest thing to do. Pike like to eat. Especially when the food happens to be a bunch of innocent bass that'd never seen a pike. Now the lake can be described as "a great place to take kid's fishing. But first teach 'em how to use a jaw spreader."
     Our few days up north usually fall short of enough time for doing all we want. Breakfast in, lunch out, cook supper to the tune of a few beers, fishing inbetween. A good time always. And I'm already scouting out new water for next year. It'll be a humdinger.