Monday, June 25, 2012

The Deans, the Fish and Other Things

     I wasn't actually taking a leak when they drove in. Might have looked like that but my zipper was up and my pants were dry. The truth was simple but a little odd. Lois and I have planted a forest's worth of soft maples over the years. Nearly all have been plucked from the garden where they weren't wanted. Back in the city, our yard is surrounded by maples much like the French were surrounded by NVA at Dien Bien Phu. One of our many unnecessary functions in life is to gather up the biggest ones and transplant them in the cold north woods. There they usually sicken and die, turn into bonsai midgets or are eaten as exotics by mammals or insects. The biggest of the surviving few vines its skinny-assed way through a row of thriving white pines and spruces. It's about ten feet tall, has eleven leaves and will produce a saw log about the same time as the next ice age arrives. It was there I was standing, checking it out when the Deans arrived. I saw no need to move. In fact I considered standing motionless in the trees like I'd been there long enough to have sprouted a few lichens on my north side might just strike the right note to get this year's show on the road. Like most such moments it drew a guffaw or two and passed into the dark like it had never been there.
     A round of handshakes to begin trip number seven, an organized off load and in twenty minutes rods were being strung. Ryan Dean's sneaking up on forty and the rest of us are solidly in our sixties. Us AARP boys don't string 'em up like we used to. We know how to make the knots. If our fingers had any respect for age and our eyes could come close to focusing, it'd be no problem. But excited blind men with bumble fingers take a while. Us wizened old veterans don't necessarily do it like we used to. In nearly any sense you can think of. And probably weren't any where near as good as we remember being. In nearly any sense you can think of. It's funny but it's not. Rods got strung, glasses put back on, vehicles loaded and double checked. The three of them are gracious enough to let me call the shots. I appreciate that. Since my truck was already hitched and pointed in the right general direction we were off and into this year's installment of the Coolfront Show.
     Keep in mind nobody calls me Coolfront. Never did, never will. It's just a name that popped out of the blue in Canada one day when I was catching my usual share of hammer handles through a sea of Canadian monster pike. My fishing luck and style brought to mind a passing cool front that doesn't so much shut down the fishing like a solid cold front but definitely puts a damper on it. In the midst of bounty I'm doin' okay. But no more than that. Snake Charmer was born a moment later but sounded way too pretentious.
     Showing off new water is a hoot. And the one we were reaching by portage was as new as possible. The half mile hike went well. Almost easy. Me and Ryan humped the canoes. About halfway an old friend payed my neck a visit. Portage pad ache is a blast from the past. Takes me back to the first ones along the Canadian border. It's never what you'd call pleasant. But history tells me it ain't gonna kill me. I played the weight shifting game over the last eighty rods. Shift the boat occasionally so the pads hit in different spots. Move the pain around.
     Ryan had a different problem. My fault of course. His canoe had a clamp-on yoke that I apparently didn't tighten down enough. I should have taken the time to show him how the clamps worked. Should have helped him throw the boat on. After all, he was a virgin in this game. But I was wrapped up in my own world as usual. Ryan got there alright. Looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame du Nord by the end due to the mobile yoke.
     The remaining Deans, Larry and Eldon, shared the short end of the stick. The weight they carried wasn't the problem. Their's was a juggling act. Tackle bags strung like crossed bandoliers over life jackets, four rods and two paddles apiece, no problem unless something moved. Then the whole structure would collapse like the house of sticks after the big, bad wolf got his second wind.
     The carry-in lake was waiting. Looked like she'd been waiting for a long time and was happy to see us. At least that's how I want to remember it. It's my painting and I get to pick the colors. The truth was she didn't give a damn one way or the other if we ever showed. But the sunlight and ripply waves sure looked inviting. Shoulda brought swim trunks.
      I was excited. Partly because the angel on my right shoulder whispered this might be the tiny lake of a lifetime. Also excited 'cause I'd dragged three other people along to what the devil on my left shouldered laughed was no doubt a skunk hole. Oh well, what can you expect from thirty acres? My guess was bluegills, bullheads and itty bitty pike. Maybe sand sharks.
     Keep in mind I don't know squat about the history of the area we were in. And that I like to blow smoke and say I got my information from either the Bible or the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Which source I quote as gospel depends on who you are and how well we know each other. We were in the middle of a couple of hundred square miles of marginally accessible, semi-wilderness. Around us laid a half-hundred lakes, only a few larger than twenty acres. Most stood alone. How could fish get in them? My guess has to do with the last ice age. The lakes are dents made by massive chunks of ice falling off the glaciers. For a short time, in a geologic sense, they might have been connected. As the glaciers receded, animals and fish migrated north following the melt waters. Over time the land drained and the lakes separated. The sand sharks no doubt were a gift from migrating Rodans (of Japanese movie fame).
     Once on the water Larry and Ryan headed toward the sole island. Eldon and I hung an immediate left with the idea of casting right handed as we moved. You see, I am starting to figure it out. The water was deeply bog stained with nary a weed in sight. We were looking for either cabbage or coon tail and seeing neither. Off in the half dozen bays small pockets of water lilies were coming into bloom. Maybe bass were in the offing but I doubted it.
     Honestly, it was reward enough to be on the water even though we were doing nothing more than working the kinks out of our line. Fifteen minutes into the day our first hit was a small pike. Of course. Big enough to simply be called a pike. And my opportunity to flaunt the fact that I was no longer skunked. Eldon followed shortly with something smaller. And finally we were catching pike that would have made fine brook trout. Good for a laugh and easily released with a simple twist of the needle nose. Mystery Lake was proving to be what I'd both expected and feared.
     First off, let me apologize. I didn't mean for it to happen that way. Not sure where I first heard it but suspect a John Gierach essay. Even brought the idea up on the hike in, mainly to bolster my hopes. Every body of water, stream or lake, has its aberrations. All of them have their lunkers. How and why can't be pinned down. Luck or wisdom, take your pick. Last year it was Larry who bagged a pair of good sized pike on a sixty acre lake. He was thrilled but has no picture. Bummer.
     Mine should have been Eldon's. I'd have gotten just as big a kick out of the fight had it been on his line. But it wasn't. Had we been in a bigger boat we'd have netted it before she played herself out. No such luxury in a canoe. After a half dozen runs it was a quick hoist, photo and a gentle release.
     That's the short and sweet of it. But it ain't the way it was and it doesn't take in the weight of my sixty-five years. Or the weight of a century of Minnesota pike fishermen. The walleye might be the state fish but it really isn't. At least from my point of view. Most of those black and whites with a Model T in the background, two guys at each end of twelve foot, sagging pole, were taken 'cause there were pike hanging from that pole. Big frickin' northern pike. Dozens of them. No matter what Carly Simon sang back in the '70s, those photos showed what the good old days really looked like. Days we haven't seen in Minnesota since Dwight Eisenhower was a First Lieutenant.
     So when I'm sittin' in a canoe on a thirty acre lake and tie into a three foot northern, I get excited. The weight of all those small fish decades squeezes a whole lot of hoots out of me and even a holler or two. Damn fine fun. And all the better for being so rare. This would have been a fine fish in northern Manitoba. But would have been lost in the numbers. But here?
      She lifted like a thick bodied fifteen pounder and had a quarter-sized evil eye she wouldn't take off of me. Yeah, I know that's probably anthropomorphizing. But if it was me finning alongside a canoe and was hooked through the jaw by some idiot in a flop hat, as sure as God made little green apples, I'd have me a generous case of the red ass.  
     A few days later when I ran the story by my son Allan, my description of the pike had been reduced to a solid ten. Al took a look at the photo and said fifteen was more like it. Big fish. Tiny lake. Sounds like the basis for a career choice. Maybe our lives do really reflect who we are? That's some kinda insight ain't it?
     Then it was back to hammer handles for the four of us. Was the single big pike a freak? Al says there's only one way to find out. And he'd like to be along. Conditions were mid-day, blue sky poor. If the two of us hit that carry-in lake we'll shoot for better circumstances. Maybe late fall.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Don't Do No Good to Slap a Woodtick

     Last winter hardly happened in Minnesota. Not a lot of cold or snow. Most things seemed to thrive because of that. The roses seemed to explode out of the ground and the city was green in April. Not so the lowly and misunderstood woodtick. Few seemed to be around in May and June this year, their usual time to make hay. Not that I'm shedding any tears. They're an annoyance I can do without. Though it doesn't bother me much to have a few of the little buggers crawling on my body once in a while. Not burrowing in and making themselves to home mind you. The resulting welt and itching makes me think that's not a good thing. Last year I got one in my left armpit and didn't know until it was dead. Guess that should be a lesson to them. Maybe my time in Vietnam built up my immune system? As to deer ticks, that's another story. They scare me.
     Back in the old days when I used to smoke there was always a match or lit cigarette handy to sent ticks off to parasite heaven. Dropping one of 'em in an ashtray and applying heat made for a satisfying popping sound. Much like the red ants in Vietnam. Both sounds made my heart feel good. Made life worth living, if only for a second. But since ticks and red ants come in never ending numbers those seconds added up. These days my thumbnails are the weapons of choice. A simple slicing motion across a tick's back does it. Another of my nearly useless talents. Guess I could never be a Tibetan Buddhist with a reverence for all forms of life.
     As to the title above, mosquitoes are for slapping, woodticks for slicing.
     Of course this brief ramble is nothing but dancing around the subject of this year's fishing trip with the Deans, R., L. and El. I dance because I don't know where to start. But I'm boogying my way in that general direction.
     Following the plan - yes, I had a plan -  is not something I do well. Things come up. The wind blows. The Deans get all pissy about not catching fish. Actually they don't but the little voice in my head hears their unspoken words amongst all those other voices up there. Hell, they're only up north for a few days each year. El Dean always assures he's just happy to be on the water. That he looks forward to these days all year long. That's what he says, not what I hear. What I'm hearing is that he's been looking forward to the trip for twelve long months so the fishing better be up to his level of anticipation.
     What my brain hears and knows for a fact is that he wouldn't be quite as expectant about coming up if he was gettin' skunked day in and day out. Oh, we get shut out once in a while. More likely we'll be bringing quite a few to the boat. As the old saw goes, fishin's always fun but catchin's funner. So the plan only works if it coincides with good fishing. Doesn't have to be a hundred percent of the time. Sixty will do 'er just fine.
     Seems I talked the plan up a few blog entries ago so I won't hash it out here. The Deans were to arrive on Tuesday. Me, I figured on Sunday to spruce things up and check some water out. After all, this was to be a new water and new fish trip with one of the lakes a total blank on the radar, even to the DNR. That's the one I was hepped up about and wanted to fish alone. If it was pretty good, I'd take them there. If it was great, it was mine alone. Treasures are hard to find in a state that once thought building a road to every lake was a good idea. Unknown water doesn't exist. My hope was this thirty acres would be something close.
     Sunday I cleaned and mowed. Don't be thinking we have a lawn. Keeping the grass, weeds and wild flowers no more than five inches long does a fine job of keeping the mosquitoes and woodticks to a minimum. Also makes me a happy man to sit on the screen porch, cup of coffee in hand and look out on a little chunk of unnatural order in the bosom of Mother Nature. She's a fine old lady and can have the entire yard back when I'm gone.
     Monday was an hour or so on the bike, up, down and around on the sand roads checking out the world to see if it was about how I left it. Who could ever get tired of passing hundred foot white pines and Mud Lake? Besides, sweating is a good thing. Keeps me relatively young even though those uphills make me feel like an old man.
     Come early afternoon it was time to put up or shut up. The bright sun and blue skies told the tale. Obviously I didn't care whether any fish came to the boat. Tough conditions even without the thirty mile an hour wind gusts. But I wanted to see the water and learn how to get on it.
     Moving the solo is a slap dash affair. My first canoe was a fifteen foot Alumacraft that I simply stuffed in the back of our mini-station wagon. Not fancy but it did the job. The Wenonah Vagabond solo is a half foot shorter and the current car is a mid-sized SUV. But the loading is the same. More or less. Nowadays I strap it down after it's stuffed in. No guts I guess. Just can't seem to shake the vision of it bouncing end over end down the highway and passing through the windshield of Jesse Ventura's Porsche. It'd be a shame to waste a fine car like that.
     Also aboard, a tackle bag filled with enough gear for two weeks in Canada and three rods, ultra-light and medium weight, the third a trout sized fly rod. Plus the life preserver. If I'm ever found dead floating belly up in the boonies no one'll be able to blame it on not being legally prepared. Stupid maybe, but properly garbed. Oh yeah, I was ready alright.
     Since I didn't find the lakes I was looking for when my sister was along I'd rechecked the satellite photos and now knew the real lay of the land. At least I hoped I did.
     The final fork in the road was still there. And the trout lake was just where it should be, no more than three hundred yards to the left. Could have driven down to a nice campsite in view of the water if I'd had the guts. That's just my way of saying the two tracks had eroded a bit over the last week and a half. Enough to kick in my wisdom glands. Easier to portage a few hundred yards than to walk home in the dark.
     The lake was pretty in a small, forest surrounded, idyllic sense. That is if you like that kind of stuff. Lucky for me that I do. She was zephyr ridden but fishable. The Vagabond takes a lot of attention to track a straight line but is stable as all get out. Mostly it fits my butt well and rides like I'm on horseback. Go with the flow and keep loose hips.
     However, the trout lake wasn't why I was there. I gave a passing thought to simply hoisting the boat and gear, saunter down the hill and push off. Wouldn't take but ten minutes. But there was the mystery lake somewhere off to the right. Just how far would be determined by the access point. That is if it had one.
     Any thought of fishing it was dwindling. It'd have to be well protected by towering white pines to keep the wind gods off me. Even then the most I could hope for would be a couple of casts, a spin or two, then a high speed drift down lake. Still...? I set off.
     The ATV trail was a thing of beauty. Better surface than any of the automobile roads on the way in. Trucks and SUVs are hard on sand surfaces. They give us access and take it away at the same time. Thoughts of unnecessary erosion almost made me want to head down the trail barefoot. Haven't done anything like that since my early days of running. Pavement and broken coke bottles cured me of my nature boy phase. I still have occasional nightmares involving bare feet and running on concrete.
     Blackberries just coming into bloom and immense sawtooth aspens defined the wide path. The satellite photos pinpointed where I was going. Looked like the trail would nearly touch the shore in several places. But that didn't mean a canoe could easily be launched. The view from space and the view from the ground aren't the same thing. I was walking up and down hills that didn't seem to exist from hundreds of miles above. A quarter mile in and I could see water below me to the left. To launch here I'd have to ride the boat down like a sled. A half a city block farther a two track angled off through knee deep grass and paralleled the shore.
     Knee deep grass in June brought to mind the Incredible Woodtick Slog of a few years earlier. Me and R. Dean had hiked a ways on a similar trail in search of nonexistent water. it was there alright and we'd have found it if we were actually where we thought we were. We did find a few hundred ticks. Or did they find us? Outside of a little squealing and running around on our toes with hands in the air we took it like true woodsmen. The current two track proved tick free. And only had one tiny patch of poison ivy. My kind of near wilderness. I continued in and down until reaching a small, level lakeside meadow. A perfect access. A good looking lake. Bays, a reef and an island. Now if it only held fish. Too bad today wasn't the day to answer that question.
     Backtracked and paced the distance at about a hundred-seventy rods. The Deans were sure gonna like that. But the seclusion of the water would more than make up for the hike. Besides, saying you'd done a portage was a badge of honor, or pointlessness, on the level of shitting in the woods. Also there was no indication anyone had fished Mystery Lake in a long time. Hard to believe that was possible in Minnesota, but maybe?
     That left the trout lake. I'd like to say a lot of rainbow trout came to the boat. Maybe a lot did. But if so, it was more out of a sense of curiosity than necessity. Not that I didn't have a few hits. Even had a couple on the line. But even though they were farm raised they were hip to the hook. A simple jump and twist of the head freed both. Almost like they were playing with me. I'd have been fishing the fly rod but the gusty winds - by that I mean they never dropped below fifteen and occasionally gusted to thirty-five - had me thinking if anything was hooked it'd probably be one of my protruding head parts. So I used spinners. Maybe it was the long enticing dressing on the trebles. They were attracted by the blade's vibration but went for the colorful candy beyond the hook. Gotta give that some thought. Maybe do some cropping in the future. The truth was, and is, it bothered me I didn't truly catch anything. And, at the same time, it didn't. I fished, got skunked and, all in all had a really good time.
     Went home and ate a seriously massive spaghetti dinner. The evening was spent reading and doing nothing constructive save a bit of rod rigging. Never was much of a fan of the Boy Scouts but I can see the logic in being prepared. A half dozen fishing poles ready to go was overkill. No doubt about that. But I had the time, why not?
     Having two evenings to myself was glory. A body needs time to waste once in a while. Time to putz with no goal in mind. Something like making compost. Leave it alone and garbage turns to fertile soil. I get me some grand moments of insightfulness when my mind rambles unencumbered. It'd be nice once in a while to write them down. Maybe include them in a blog. Like that'd ever happen. I live in hope, foolish hope.
     The morning brought sun and quiet treetops. For a canoeman in the woods the trees tell the story. Today would be good. Tomorrow may be another story. I fear the wind and its future. I've bought into global warming since the late '70s. As to fishing in canoes it's not a good thing. Bump the heat up a little and the winds are sure to follow. Big winds, big waves. Big problems for little, self-propelled boats. To me it looks like it's happening. Not so much that it keeps me off the water. At least little water, like the lakes I usually fish. And I probably won't live or canoe long enough for it to be a real problem. Not so for my grandchildren.
     After the morning bike ride, the dishes done, my goal is to be ready for the Deans. Trailer out. Canoes loaded and strapped. Paddles, seat backs, fishing gear and life jacket loaded. Always watching the treetops. When they show, we'll unload their stuff and be ready to go in a half hour. They've got three and a half days. Not enough time to waste a single minute in chaos. We might get skunked but by gar we'll get our hours in. And do it smooth as silk. We'll be going hellbound for leather but in no hurry at all.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Back from Fishing

     A few interesting things, events and mishaps. Gotta rough 'em out first. My old back side is dragging. Guess that happens when you ain't so young anymore. No complaints, it's just life. Will start pecking tomorrow.