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.

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