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.