Thursday, January 24, 2013


     Trout? What kind of delusional tripe could follow that kind of title? Yes, they are among the fishes. And it is true that I am fisherman. But aren't they a bit elitist for a bobber flinger like me?
     I know a lot about the trouts. And I know next to nothing. Hours between the pages doesn't add up to a single second on the water. I've caught them on occasion. And sometimes I've even been trying to. But never with a dry fly gently placed upstream on a spring creek with a well mended cast to a subtly sipping brown trout. Not me. I'd give it a try but fear the trout would laugh.
     On the other hand, I do like to fool them with some form of artificial that not only doesn't match the hatch but doesn't actually look like anything. Tiny Mepps style spinners you say? Maybe homemade? If you've read me, you know that's right up my alley. I've even tried to tie musky sized fly/spinners in red and white colors. Plastic beads and tiny spinner blade. I was so proud of the finished product. Pretty and looked eminently fishy. And they were incredibly light. Relatively speaking that is. Too bad they casted like a pound and a half of lead. They didn't so much load my ten weight rod as bang it to attention. Maybe they'd work on a twelve weight. But then I'd have to buy one and I'm way too cheap for that.
     Gary, or maybe it was his brother, grew up knowing how to fish trout. And when to fish them. And where. They were both Superior, Wisconsin boys. A fair sized town within spitting distance of some of the best fishing rivers in the lower forty-eight. The St. Louis tumbled out of Minnesota's Arrowhead and into the harbor of Duluth-Superior. The best walleye water in America? Possibly. The Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers, known for their fast and clean waters, are spectacular smallmouth bass and musky waters.
     And then there's the Bois Brule River. Noted enough to have former President Herbert Hoover build a residence along its shore. My Uncle Emil says the Brule came about when Babe the Blue Ox couldn't hold it any longer after draining the pure waters of the River Pishon flowing from the Garden of Eden. Seems he and Paul Bunyan had been felling trees in the Sahara Forest, later known as desert after they'd manually clear cut it and had worked up a terrible thirst in doing so. Even at seven years of age I was a little skeptical that the two of them could make it from the Middle East to upstate Wisconsin without stopping to empty their bladders. Hell, Uncle Emil couldn't make it from Parkers Prairie to Fergus Falls without pulling over at least twice. But, even at seven I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and not ruin a good story.
     This is a warning as to what's coming up. No, it's not gruesome, though there are some pretty scary looking spiders involved, it's more on the order of I'm gonna give out information that shouldn't be given out. If anybody was reading this site I'd be worried that a well kept secret fishin' hole could be ruined. But, believe me, that's not a worry. So if anybody out there reads this, you have to take an oath right now that you'll never ever, under penalty that all you rod tips, even that one you know and love best, will spontaneously combust, pass this secret on or make use of it in any way that would harm the fishery. Okay? Now that that's settled I'll go on with the tale.
     It was part of a family trip about twenty-five years ago. Gary and his wife, his wife being my better half's blood cousin, were up in the sand country woods of northern Wisconsin and we were up there to visit. They were there on one of those classic one week vacations that families used to take at Ma and Pa resorts. The guy goes fishing and the missus cleans and cooks. Lois and the kids were along to break up Mary's week and me, I was there to be a macho pig and go fishing with Gary. In my defense I had my canoe along. With it I spent one evening on the water with Annie and one with Allan. It's not like I was helping with the dishes or scrubbing the floor but at least I wasn't running away from my responsibilities as a father. Or you could say I was sharing the fun, one kid at a time. Yeah, all of us men look the same when we're upside down (not sure what that means but I like the sound of it).
     Like I'd said, Gary and his brother had fished and hunted the area for decades. And they knew some of the angles. And on much fished water, angles are the key. While we were out catching, or at least trying to scare up some walleyes or panfish, Gary kept a running commentary on what we oughta be doing. And his song didn't have many lyrics. Went something like this:
                                        Trout, trout, trout,
                                        We should be fishin'
                                        Trout, trout , trout.
                                        Brookies, 'bows and browns,
                                        I know where they are.
                                        And the browns are
                                        Big, big, big.

     Again and again and again. I suppose a couple of days earlier when he told me to buy a trout stamp along with my non-resident license should have been a clue. And that I was up for a trip on legendary water didn't seem to stand in the way. It seemed the only way to end his incessant chant was to get up early one morning, pack a lunch, load the canoe and hit the trail.
     I'm a believer. When Gary said he knew what he was doing and that we'd catch fish, I never gave it a second thought. That we had to drive a convoluted set of sand roads to a point a half mile from the river seemed to fit right in with what he claimed. Most people heading to a trout river pull up to a landing, float the boat and hope for the best. That we had to start by parking in a tiny cleared area with only the smallest of signs indicating we were at a trail head leading to the river, the half mile portage was right up my alley.
      In my mind, the more work we'd put in up front, the better the fishing would be. The Boundary Waters, Gary hadn't seen them yet, was a case in point. Northwest Manitoba, another.
     I know my limitations as a fisherman. Like I've written before, I'm more than happy to put in the miles to find fish that are dumber that me. Having to carry a hundred-twenty pounds of canoe, food, gear and worms told me we were gonna have a fine day on the water. That the wooded trail ended at what looked to be a swamp was even better. Couldn't have been happier even if it was raining.
     It truly was a swamp but there was no doubt something like a stream was running through it. Well, it kinda looked like a stream. Except there was no indication that it was streaming. Gary hadn't been there in years but seemed happy as could be 'cause it looked just like he'd remembered it. Kind of like the river was giving him a little reassurance that he badly needed.
     You know how those things are. You're absolutely certain how things are going to be and at the same time are afraid it's all gonna go bust. Gary'd been keeping up a stream of how great the brown trout fishing was gonna be for three days by the time we actually wet a line. But the closer we got to the river, the more he started drawing in the clouds of doubt. We were there at the right time of year. More or less. Things looked about the same but you never know. We're really gonna hammer them but, then again, we might get skunked.
     Having the river pat him on the shoulder did a lot of good. As for me I didn't care in the least. Catch 'em or not, this was an adventure of the first magnitude.
     Yes, we did fish. Yes, we did catch trout. Dozens of brookies. A couple of rainbows and one fat brown trout in spawning colors. Yes, I did cheat with a worm now and then just to make Gary happy. I'm that kind of guy, willing to throw my morals to the wind in the interest of camaraderie. But mostly I stuck to a 0 sized spinner. Actually it didn't seem to matter a lot. Gary fed 'em red worms on a tiny hook with a micro split shot a foot above. Worms, worms, worms, the man lived by the worm.
     It was almost too easy catching the brook trouts. Rather than being line conscious they were downright curious. And so innocent I felt sorry for them. You could have thrown a brick in the water and they'd have clustered around it just to see what it was. Make it smell like a worm and they'd have licked it.
     But the little silver blade on my spinner had the same effect. Blip!, it'd hit the water. A second later, Bam! and I'd have one on. None were all that big. Most were in the eight to ten inch range. Pan sized in the old days. We'd just lift them, look at them for a second and twist them off the barbless hooks. And maybe chuckle about how easy it was.
     The challenge came in passage down stream. Like I said, it was a swamp. With brush thickets here and there separating one pool from the next. Once we were in an opening we'd carefully fan cast the edges which weren't as much shorelines as they were an uneven, water rooted hedge. As such the edges were cover for the trout from one end of the thirty yard long pools to the other.
     Getting from one pool to the next was the fun part. The rods had to be stowed on the canoe's bottom and the paddles put away or they'd hang up in the two foot high canopy. As for us it was bend down and pull ourselves through by hand. Over the hours the bottom of the Alumacraft slowly filled with twigs, ticks, spiders and a gamut of bugs that looked like we were in the Amazon Basin at the base of a rubber tree doing an insect count. Of course a fair mount of the little buggers made themselves to home under our shirts and in our drawers. Removing them gave us something to to when resting our wearing casting arms. Oh, the burden of the successful fisherman.
     Even for a bumbler like me, fly fishing would have boated trout. And would have had me spend most of my time breaking off flies in the brush. I've run the scenario through my head a number of times in the years since. Vertical back cast kept short and careful. Then roll cast along the edges 'til I hooked up. Sweet vision. Reality says 61.43% of those back casts would have ensnarled just out of reach and we'd have spent more time extricating than fishing.
     Everything about where we'd fished said nobody in the whole world knew about the locale except Gary and his brother. Until we reached the tiny island in the swamp where we had our lunch. There's something about a picnic table and garbage can that reeks of civilization. Oh well.
     It was shortly after our break that I caught my first brown trout. Embarrassingly, it was a complete dredge job. The pool was deep and black watered. Gary set up my rig of split shot, hook and worm. About all I did was lob it out and let it sink. After a minute or so a short lift felt heavy and I set the hook. Meat hunter extraordinaire. A nice fish that I lost off the stringer a few minutes later with no great regret. Unless it didn't live. I don't mind harassing them but sure don't like killing them after they've given me a thrill. They deserve better. Guess I'm too metaphysical on the water.
    Come mid-afternoon we began to pass cabins. Pretty spots to see but from there on we couldn't raise a fish. We pulled out at the location most people launched their boats. There we talked with a guide who hadn't been having much luck. The old story of fish becoming smarter than fishermen. I almost spilled the beans about where we'd been but Gary's intense stink eye quickly shut me up.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Finally - Trip 2

     Gary's idea for trip two had flexibility at its core. And required a paddle of less than a mile to our campsite. His logic was that everybody passed through John Lake on their way to somewhere else but no one ever stopped to smell all the fine walleyes and bass in John itself. Who was I to disagree? An hour west and we were on East Pike. An hour north and we were on the border lakes of North and South Fowl. Throw in the merry jaunt down the Royal River and we'd have ourselves a trip to remember. Seeing as how I'm remembering it now, I'd guess you could say we were right.
     There was no way to know it at the time but '98 was a watershed in my life. I'd turned 51 and was ripe for what's known as the Mid-life crisis. Only problem was mine had come fifteen years earlier. Don't know where that crap about the middle of life happening around age fifty comes from. Near as I can see it us men don't commonly live to a hundred. Mid-life is the time when you're throwing off the idiotic shackles of youth. Resolving your immature screw-ups. Dumping what makes no more sense and saving what does. It ain't easy and takes a while. But if you haven't figured it out by age 50, you've got yourself some serious problems. Eternal boyhood and all that happy shit.
     For me, turning 50 was the beginning of a stretch of golden years. Can't say they've ended yet. '98 was the first year of the Canada trips with Allan. Trips that made little sense to most people but were some of the best days of my life. Bought the Jeep that year, more as an anticipation of what was to come than as a toy. In that first year it went to the BWCA with Gary, northwest Manitoba with Al and above the tree line on scree covered trails in the Colorado Rockies with Lois.
     Even Gary found our upcoming Manitoba trip to be out of the pale. Guess the picture in his head of what that would look like wasn't the same as mine. But as for the Boundary Waters he was more than willing to make the drive from Milwaukee, help me load the canoe atop the Jeep and ride shotgun, all with the idea of putting a little icing on the previous year's trip.
     There's no doubt in my mind I'd never make it in the real world of survive by the seat of your pants. A man as habit driven as I would be easy pickin's for the fauna by the third day. That and the fine perch fishing on Northern Light Lake was how we found ourselves in the little house for one more night.
     Picking up your permit at the Ranger Station in Grand Marais is another exercise in habit. Tell the ranger who you are. Hand over your papers. Watch the video. Admire the walleye filleting on the paddle. That one wowed both me and Gary. We even asked to see it again. Then answer the questions. All to make sure you have no biodegradable containers with you and so you don't crap just anywhere in the woods. 'Spose that's not the intent but if we all did like the old-timers, fill the cans with rocks and sink them in the lake, there'd be dozens of tin and steel reefs up there by now. Catching lakers during spawning time would be called Campbelling. Thank God for plastic. Sorry, didn't ever intend to write that.
     No doubt at all they've got to do that in hopes a few of the trashers might have second thoughts. By and large I've found the campsites pretty clean. Trampled all the hell for sure but definitely not buried in garbage. Once in a while the occasional dump of spaghetti noodles in a lake, aluminum foil in the fire ring and the inevitable twenty yards of monofilament fishing line with a jig attached. But, like plastic in the rivers and oceans, it all adds up. So the video is to be expected and accepted. Besides, it makes the oral quiz you've gotta take to get your permit that much easier.
     Our plan was kind of embarrassing. The three quarter mile paddle we had in mind wasn't exactly manly. Being that close to the entry point had me thinking there'd be a never ending parade of canoeists passing by. But there wasn't. Call that the beauty of the quota system. The John Lake access only allowed one permit per day and we were it. Whether we were there or three lakes seemed to make little difference. Couple of canoes a day. That's it.
     Our site was unique. At least for me. Never before camped on grass. It almost seemed like we were in someone's backyard. Should have brought the mower. The site was huge. Big enough for the maximum party size of nine. And next to the deepest hole on the lake.
     As a change of pace and against everything I hold holy, Gary had a portable fish finder with him. Over the days it didn't once put us onto fish, mostly 'cause we couldn't figure it out, or there were way too many fish in the lake and as a result the screen was nothing but a jumble of little squiggly lines, but it did give me an understanding of the bottoms of both John and East Pike. And on East Pike it made sense of why we caught fish where we did. It seemed like cheating but sometimes you've gotta dance with the devil (whatever the hell that means and seeing as how my skills on the dance floor are limited, the devil would have to lead).
     That afternoon we worked John for all it was worth. Which turned out to be about a buck ninety-three. Casted, trolled and might even have used bleach had we the foresight to pack a few gallons. Yup, we were stuck in nada land. Except for a couple of glorious shore fishing moments.
     Look in the Boundary Waters fishing guides and you'll see John Lake is twenty some feet deep. On our tour of the shoreline the scope told us it was shallow water from one end to the other. Couldn't find a hole anywhere. 'Til we did some fishing from shore. There, at the entrance to the Royal River, right off our campsite, was a spot that sucked down a quarter ounce jig like it was on its way to the Indian Ocean (as we all know, that's where the hole would come out if you dug straight down from Pontoria, Minnesota). And at the bottom of that hole lived at least two walleyes.
     Had I any sense we'd have worked the fast water along the river. I recall the idea crossing my mind but never acted on it. A sin worse than ignorance. You see, smallies like fast water almost as much as trout. Simple logic would say if they ain't in the lake, and the DNR says they're supposed to be, maybe, just maybe, they're in the river. 
     Come dinner time we performed the Great Experiment to Dispel the Myth that Walleyes are the Be-All, End-All Eatin' Fish in the Lakes of Minnesota. We'd saved a few perch filets from Northern Light Lake to go with the walleyes. Breaded them all in Babe Winkleman's shore lunch special, you know, the one with the Babe himself on the label striking a pose that said he'd missed few shore lunches over the years, and did the almost fair, not quite blind, taste test. No contest. Perch by a mile. To be sure, walleyes are a solid okay. But they ain't perch, not even day old perch.
     The trip down the Royal River is always a treat. I'd done it the first time back in '66 with Rod Middlestedt (no matter how many ways I try spelling his name it always looks wrong. Sorry Rod). A couple of times were with Al. Now Gary. Each time was on a different river. Time of day, season, plus things change in general. I can't tell you which trip was the best. For sure, none was the worst.
     Fast water and thickets of boulders make two portages necessary. Neither all that tough. Mostly level. One a bit over a hundred rods, the other a bit under. The longer of the two varies with water level. Oddly enough, as I remember it, when the water's up, the portage is drier 'cause it's all high ground and more of the river is navigable. When the water's down the added forty rods is on the boggy side.
     With Gary we got the long trek. Seemed the stream had been dammed and backed up beavers. She was a fine dam a full stream's width. And there was no way around it. Neither of us had pulled a canoe over a beaver dam before but we had the idea that it was done carefully. Very carefully. Getting wet wasn't much of a consideration as we were already soaked to the knees. However, most every stick in and around the dam had a natural end and a beaver gnawed, pointy end. Falling on a pointy end appealed to neither of us. Nor did losing our fishing gear.
     We did good. Arriving in the mini-delta at the opening of North Fowl we began to fish and were rewarded with classic Minnesota hammer handle pike that jumped like largemouth bass. But that's not why we were there.
     The previous summer on a trip with Allan the two of us had stopped in the Subway sandwich shop in Grand Marais for lunch and struck up a conversation with one of the guys behind the counter. A guy who was  hip to the joys of perch. I waxed on the glories of the jumbos Gary and I had caught on Northern Light. He agreed with me. Said there were some nice jumbos in there. But if we were in the market for some really big jumbos, big as walleyes perch, then North Fowl was the lake. Fourteen, fifteen inchers by the dozens. Sink the canoe there were so many. Big enough to swallow midget Jonah's. And that got me thinking. And those thoughts included Gary. The only thing my thoughts didn't include was the thousand acres of North Fowl. That's a lot of water to check out.
     Finding them was the key. But that didn't bother Gray in the least. The prospect of pound plus perch was something he'd only dreamt of. And even in his dreams they weren't as big as the fish I was talking up.
     So here we go into another shaggy dog story. The wind was up. Not a gale but close to stiff. Enough to keep the canoe bobbing sideways to the waves like a rocking horse ninety degrees off kilter. Enough to draw your attention away from bobber or jig and tighten up the life jacket. I won't say it was no fun just that it was lousy fishing. We pulled ashore on an island and had lunch. Alone. On the Canadian border with a view down two miles of blue surrounded by a sea of green. Not bad at all.
     What I recall was having the foresight to load the gorp with dried cherries and sunflower seeds while packing for the trip. Odd a person should recall something like that. And the sound of the breeze above us backed by the cloudless sky while we sat on shaded driftwood. We'd both spent enough time on the water to know this was a part of the game. Maybe the better part of it.
     For a while in the early afternoon while the fish slept we worked the lee of the island and the Royal River delta. Mostly it was a shallow and level bottom. Except for the one hole that produced a few pike and a walleye. We released everything.
     As background we had the bald eagle and seagull follies. The eagle was desperately trying to rustle up a lunch. Seemed he knew where the larder was and kept trying to get an angle on it. But the gulls also knew where the easy pickin's were and were having nothing to do with losing their turf to some big assed, albino-headed trouble maker. Every time the eagle would stage up, a small gang of the gulls would drive  him off. You could almost hear the trash talk up above the tree tops. Yeah, the majestic symbol of the good old U.S.A. went hungry, all because of a few sky rats. Reminded me of my days in Vietnam.
     Almost forgot: Once again, there we were, launching the canoe, Gary in first as usual. I blinked and missed the roll. Didn't have the camera ready anyhow. There he stood again, waist deep with a 'seems familiar' look on his face.
     We did do a trip into East Pike, more for the scenery than the fishing. At least that's what I told myself. We did catch a few. Not enough to mention so I won't. In the scheme of things that's pretty normal. Most of life's about breathing and keeping upright. You get up, do stuff and go to bed. Doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, outside of the truffles versus dumpster fare dilemma, that's about it. Some days you hammer them, most days you don't. Once in a while you roll the canoe.
     Of note, in the not quite on a par with Allan catching a shiner minnow with a number five, red and white Mepps but close sense, I did catch a six inch perch on a five inch, perch colored shad rap. Gets one to thinking about what the little guy had in mind and the misplaced ambition that lies within all of God's creatures.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Finally into the Boonies - trip 1

     Yeah, he was pumped. And better than me at guiding us down the rapids. Maybe just to make me feel good he said I'd be a fine partner in the number three rapids (Winiboujou?) on the Bois Brule River over in Wisconsin. Not that I was much experienced in fast water, either bow or stern. But I did know enough to look for submerged rocks, call 'em out and poke our nose off when necessary. I like water a lot just not in my shorts. Kinda like the dog that can walk on water 'cause he can't swim.
     All fine and dandy but Gary wasn't there for the canoe trip, though that was a little part of it. 
     The portage had me worried. Gary's leg wasn't all that nimble and the trail into East Pike sprouted a lot of root and rock. To say the Boundary Water's portages weren't on the level would be a gross understatement. They lean right or left, rise and drop. Whenever they're level, they gather water. But outside of his leg and a few too many desserts, he was as much of a hoss as my brother. He took the one steep descent on his backside, partly by accident, partly by realizing that once he was down and sliding he couldn't fall again. Not a complaint was heard. Guess he figured it was all part of the game he'd come to play. And it was. His butt was bruised but not his attitude.
     My lack of imagination drove us to the only spot I'd ever camped on East Pike. Close to the best fishing on the lake and open to the breezes. Also with the feeling of intimacy I crave. Over the decades that site was the standard I judged all campsites by. Makes me want to go back there. Writing and being ain't the same. But, at the moment, writing's all I have.
     We had good weather for each of the four days and nights. The fishing, on the other hand, was hit and miss. The first day and a half was the hit part. And we certainly did hammer them. 
     Don't remember if it was Roland Martin or Jimmie Houston. One of their Saturday morning segments was shot in the Boundary Waters. The subject was smallmouth bass. Yeah, those southern boys fish the smallies too. Even seem to prefer them for their fight. On the twenty-three minute show in question, the two good ol' boys in the Alumacraft might have landed eight or ten bass. Not all that many but a fair number. 
     Near the end of the show, Roland or Jimmie said something like, "One thing you should know folks is that what your seeing is bein' shot in real time. No editing. The fishing here is just that good." 
     And that's how it is up there. Right day, right conditions and forty bass to the boat is just a good morning's fishing.
     Gary had this shad-rap he'd gotten from some gas station promotion. Exxon in the north woods. A blue and orange with the company's logo on it. One of those things you get, throw in your tackle box right next to the two inch Camel-rap (yup, he had one of those), and leave it there to gather dust and rust 'til a grandson pulls it out someday and says, "Coool." Outside of the logo it was a genuine shad-rap.
     But Gary's not one to waste a good deal. To him, a lure's a lure. And if it's a little out of the pale, so much more the challenge. We weren't but minutes into the first afternoon's fishing before he tied it on with a chuckle and a "there's no way I'll catch anything with this but...." and preceded to out catch me two to one. And I'm in the front of the boat where all the action is supposed to be.
     We'd work a small section of shore then move on. Rather than go through the work of retrieving his last cast, Gary would troll to the next spot. Which inevitably would take a while because of his "Hang on a second, I've got another one on." And pull that stunt two or three times before we'd reach the next spot. Just no fun at all. He caught dinks and lunkers. Bronze ones and beige ones. Fighters and slugs. Didn't matter to him, he caught 'em all.
     And that's how it went until 1:27 the second afternoon. Then it stopped. Dead. Must have been baby time the way it shut down like that. But we didn't give it up 'til the next day, all the while working what should be good water and waiting for the bass to do their part.
     That first night we had a meal of bass. I grew up thinking bass, both small and largemouth were for throwing back. About the same as Minnesota's perch wisdom. But it seems Wisconsinites will eat anything that swims. The bass we breaded and ate were almost as good as the perch.
     Oh yeah, we forgot to take any pictures of the fish we caught. Heat of the moment I guess. We realized that about the time the first filets were going in the pan. Ever resourceful, there's a photo somewhere of Gary alongside the stove holding up a translucent, filleted smallie. It's one of those sick 'in' jokes. We find it uproarious. Most wouldn't notice. Every picture has a story, some more than others.
     Creature of habit, more 'cause I liked where we were and where we could go from there than lack of imagination. Like Castaneda or maybe Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, I'd found my spot. Some excuse, eh? So on the third morning we headed west from there to the ugly portage. This time to fish a new lake or two and suffer on the way.
     Pine Lake, one of 2,173 by that name in Minnesota, was noted for its walleyes and lake trout. Reason enough to fish it even if there wasn't also a good number of bass. I think Gary had been sucked in by the propagandist's in Minnesota's tourism department and felt the need to catch a few walleyes. Foolish man.
     On the portage into East Pike the footing had raised a concern for Gary. On the up and over we were on this morning my thoughts were leaning towards heart attack or stroke. Maybe both. But he survived. And admitted after catching his breath, the uphill seemed like it would go on forever.
     From there it was a short paddle across McFarland and another fifty yards upstream into seven mile long Pine. The upstream had a swift current but this morning its force amazed me. We, both experienced and good paddlers, literally inched our way up, sometimes even losing a foot here or there. Finally sitting and puffing on the lake I asked Gary if he'd ever had to work that hard going up such a short stretch. He seemed confused and asked, "What upstream?" It was then I noticed he had his glasses off. While I was workin' it, Gary was enjoying the warmth of the day. Looking around at the birches and red pines. Seems he thought we were heading downstream and figured I wasn't paddling at all 'cause we were moving so slow.
     Pine Lake had a half dozen campsites but only one truly fine one. A gradually rising slab of basalt that commanded what looked like a prime fishing bay. A short paddle out from the bay a reef stretched for several hundred yards. All the ducks were lined up. Thoughts of wall-hanger walleyes and lunker lakers danced through my head.
     Two days of casting gave our site its name, disappointment bay. As I recall, we caught only one fish. That it was my biggest pike to that point didn't alter the name a bit.
     Two trout lakes lie on the south side of Pine Lake. Both have the aura of mountain lakes for they sit several hundred feet above the main lake and are both nestled in steep walled, tree lined valleys. The one Gary and I chose sat directly across from our campsite. Not sure the reason, maybe a wet Spring, but the portage was interrupted by a flooded wood. Everything about the pond's flora said it wasn't a swamp. And it didn't slog like one. None of that rotting plant, methane and sulfur dioxide smell arose as we waded through. The upside was not having to carry the canoe or the gear inside 'til we hit high ground. Like walking an obedient dog.
     When we finally reached it through the maze of trees, the high ground seemed to want to get out of the water as fast as it could. She climbed like the upside of a Bell Curve. Steeper, steeper, steeper, then a short level out at the lake.
     It was there, launching the canoe, that Gary initiated his own personal Boundary Waters tradition. Most every time I've ever launched a canoe onto a lake, I've been in the stern. The gear is loaded. Then the bow man. I manually jockey the boat to a boardable position then carefully climb in. Not elegant but it works.
     This time with Gary as stern man, the boarding method reversed. Not sure why. So there he sat briefly, two hundred-fifty pounds in the butt wide, narrow rear seat, bow of the canoe pointed twenty degrees to the blue, blue sky. With any sense I would have had my camera in hand to catch him in mid-splash. Another eight by ten glossy portrait lost to poor planning. He took it well. Laughed it off. Thank God the little lake was beautiful for we caught nary a trout.
     Four days in the BWCA and we never saw another body. A wonderful illusion of wilderness. It seemed Gary liked that feel as much as I. We were planning next year's trip before we even left Pine Lake.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Trips with Gary

     Gary's not a blood cousin. More of an in-law once removed. He's my wife's cousin's husband. But in my book he's still blood. The man loves to fish. Get's wound up in it when we're on the water like there's no world beyond him and the end of his line. Yeah, he's a hoot. And about the only man I've been in a canoe with who really knows what he's doing in the stern seat. Kind of an odd feeling when you're used to a flailer to feel his J-stroke kicks for a correction. You're still smokin' forward but at a ten degree angle to the direct line he's shooting.
     Gary's got a problem that's he's never let get in his way. He was born five years too early. Had he been my age Salk vaccine would have been around in time to prevent his bout with polio. As it is he has a short leg. You'd never know it from the things he does. When I haven't seen Gary for a while his leg always comes as a surprise. My memory and mental image of the man sees him as a product of the things he does. Which says outdoorsman, short and sweet.
     '96 was to be year three with my brother and nephews. But Bill and Rob were no longer all than keen about another trip to the Boundary Waters. And Gary had been wanting just such a trip for years. So he was a natural and began plotting his adventure early in the winter. He came with his own canoe and gear including a quality tent. Short and sweet, he was hepped.
     The sixth man was a long time friend of my nephew John. Brian's son wasn't scheduled to break his arm again so we had ourselves a party. And by the end of January, a date.
     I wrote about the winter of '95-'96 a while ago in an essay about being frozen out. That winter was the quintessential Minnesota winter. The kind most people assume we always have. And the kind we actually do have once a century. Forty-five below at the cabin a number of times. Sixty below in Tower. And a couple of degrees colder in Embarrass but the weather station froze, so no record for the real ice box of the nation.
     Plus the snow was heavy. Up north in the Arrowhead the cold and snow just kept coming. All the way to May. Come our entry date the lakes were still white and tight.
     Of course we had an alternate plan. If that plan included not catching fish it would have been perfect. Ahh, next year.
     '97's plan was simple. Me and Gary and the Boundary Waters. The Tradition was dead. Allan and I were still doing the BWCA but in late summer. Seems three days in the boonies didn't cut it for me any more. I couldn't take a week at a crack but six days over two trips was doable.
     Plus, those were the years I was learning about the small, semi-wilderness lakes near the cabin. They were perfect for Allan and I as a weekend jaunt. The fishing was near excellent. As good as the Boundary Waters and not a major project to get to them. Not quite a secret but close enough to have the lakes to ourselves nearly all the time.
     Once up in Grand Marais we had two nights to burn before our entry date. Something in me still felt Northern Light Lake was good water though I'd been skunked two years earlier. Turned out I'd been with the wrong party that first time. With Gary it was jumbo perch heaven. Like I'd written earlier he was a panfisherman supreme.
     When he headed up north for a week's fishing Gary traveled with a food-sized cooler of red worms. That's like thousands of worms. Hook tipped with worm, small split shot and slip bobber. The man could sit and watch a bobber 'till he went blind as a third century pole saint staring at the sun.
     However we didn't go blind. Bobbers went out. Bobbers went down. Gary hummed to himself and killed a lot of worms. We bantered in atrocious French-Canadian accents, "Thees bobbaire, she works so fine. Ahh, here is anudder feesh for de stringaire."
     He tipped a tiny jig with live bait. I used panfish sized, plastic grubs. Coulda used gummy bears. Bobber out, twitch it, twitch it. Down she goes. When out of sight, set the hook. If she looks like a day-glo, mini-walleye, put 'er on the stringer. Chuckle, banter, re-set the rig. Repeat.
     Oh we moved a dozen times around the lake. Somewhat to find more fish, somewhat to sightsee. I believe Gary could have kept at it until Northern Light froze over five months later. But we had a two mile paddle to the access, fish to filet, batter, fry and eat. As days go that one was a solid ten.
     We were staying in an undersized, one room house. My sister had rented it for the summer and only had the chance to use it sporadically. The house sat four blocks up from Superior. In Grand Marais those four blocks moved you into a different growing zone. From sub-arctic to only damned cold. With a south or east wind coming off the water, lake and air temperatures are the same, high forties. And I'm talkin' about July. However, if you want to warm up, you move up. In my sister's case those steep, uphill, four blocks were worth around eight or ten degrees.
     She rented from the owners who lived across the driveway. Nice folk. The kind who spoke the way all Minnesotans are supposed to speak. Like they were hybrid Swede/Finn/Germans fresh off the boat and got their first job as voice coaches for the movie Fargo.
     Like most Upnorthlanders, the owners had never eaten a perch. Never crossed their minds that it was a possibility. Wormy and, in general, just disgusting. So when me and Gary knocked on their back door with a jumbo baggie full of filets, they didn't know if we were there to share or to play a joke on them. Seemed they were leaning towards joke.
     "Perch you say? But we ain't planted us no tomatoes this year. You say we're supposed to eat 'em. Uh huh. Just like they was walleyes? Are you sure?"
     When I explained that Gary was from Wisconsin and that Wisconsinites eat perch all the time they nodded their heads like that explained it all. Buncha cheese-eaters without the sense the good Lord gave 'em.
     Finally, more to make us go away than with intentions of eating the fish, they took them and thanked us. Come the next morning I could make out some fresh turned earth back by the trash cans. Hope the bears liked them.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Camping in the BWCAW

     '95 was still the Stone Age for BWCAW reservations. Can't say I was any better. Back then it was either a phone call after the beginning of reservations or a written form submitted before some date near the middle of January. Nowadays you can go online, see what's open, then click on where and when.
     Yes, we did get the dates hoped for. But those dates were merely a guess. As usual, everything depended on weather and ice out. Both of which required a better crystal ball than the one I had hidden under the bed. All it takes is a cold March followed by a slow warmup and it's still dogsled time in the great northwoods come May 20th.
     Even if the lakes have thawed, the water may be too cold for the bass to be thinking of babies. And spawning time is the key. Just before is great. Two weeks after is good. In between and it's casting practice. Hit it on the nose and the ladies will leap out of their beds to protect the young soon to be there. Not a nice thing for a fisherman to do throwin' hooks at those mothers-to-be but it's oh so much fun.
     East Pike's saving grace is it's big pike. They spawn earlier than the bass. About the time the smallies are on the beds, the pike are getting hungry again. There's not a lot of them but they average five pounds. That number comes from the DNR and from experience. And a twenty pounder is an honest possibility. Pike, bass, I like 'em both.
     Almost forgot. The only possible downside for fishing on East Pike is water temperatures near to ice out. If they're still in the mid-forties or lower... well you don't want to think about that possibility when you're guessing on dates.
     Then there's the black fly and mosquito quotient. Mid-June can be hell in camp and on the portage. Short and sweet, Mother Nature holds the cards. A guy I used to work with said he was always hoping for a trifecta; good weather, no bugs, great fishing. And the odds were about seven to one against.
     Bought a new canoe and sold the old fifteen footer. A wise man would have already figured out he was going to do this canoeing/camping thing for a while and gone into a quality kevlar unit right off the bat. All I could see was the price tag. Even back in the mid-90s a Wenonah was topping fifteen hundred bucks. A seventeen foot Alumacraft at four-fifty was more up my alley.
      Besides, the Alumacraft's sixty-four pounds was less than I'd carried every day in Vietnam. That I was now nearly thirty years older didn't factor in. Hell, I was going to live forever and feel good every step of the way. Didn't need no stinkin' forty-two pound ultralight. Figured, the next thing you know they'll have 'em in pink. You'd have thought a man sneaking up on his fiftieth birthday could have easily seen that didn't make much sense.
     As it turned out I still have the Alumacraft. At sixty-five I'm just as fit and trim as ever. However, the canoe has put on quite a few pounds. Sure didn't see that coming.
     Spring was slow in arriving that year. Ice out was normal. East Pike sits relatively close to Superior as the crow flies. And that's a big deal. The ice can be off the water seventy-five miles northwest and East Pike will still be white and tight. Normal ice out is in the first week of May and is usually followed by a near daily rise in water temperature. The hitch in the Spring of '95 had to do with the serious cool down that followed the thaw.
     At ice out lake water turns over and evens out at a hair over thirty-nine degrees. By the time the five of us headed up north it may have even dropped a degree or two. Cold, cold water. But though Spring wasn't doing its bit, my hope was springing eternally. The fisherman's prayer goes something like, "You never know, eh. You never know." Weather be damned, this might be the trip of a lifetime.
     There were five of us as Brian couldn't make the trip. Backed out at the last moment 'cause his five year old son had broken an arm while shopping with his mom. Mom's shopping for clothes. Clothes are on racks. Kid feels the need to be a monkey, climbs rack. Kid realizes he's not a monkey. Panics and falls from rack. Arm breaks. Dad misses fishing trip he's been looking forward to for close to a year. Uncle finds himself with an odd number of fisherman. Has to rent a solo canoe. Doesn't get to use new canoe. Brother and his son-in-law put first scratches in new canoe. Uncle pisses and moans. Age old story.
     In addition to the solo canoe, tent, packs,  two sleeping bags and self inflating pads had to be rented for three of the gang. Didn't much matter how well we tried to put it all together our load could still barely fit into three canoes. Guess we still had much to learn.
     At the time, my idea was we were in the second year of a tradition that would pass on down through the generations. Maybe in some haphazard, skip a decade here and there, it will. But as an every year thing, at least as far as a group goes, we were in the middle of a three year run. Of course there were reasons and I'll get to them in passing.
     The drill was the same. The drive to Little John. Paddle down the rapids. Then a spirited hard paddle west on John. Almost a race. Almost. I'd never paddled a solo before. I was used to steering an erratic course in a tandem canoe. But in the tandem I found myself zigging when I should have been zagging. The zig part I had down pat. I could zig with the best of them. But sometimes you've just got to zag. Anyhow, my view of the other four as they paddled off into the distance was magnificent. At least that was my excuse.
     An example of our gear was one of my nephew's sleeping bags. When you're packing four days of living on your back, a sleeping bag should stuff down to about football size. His nearly filled a portage pack. Lucky we were only doing the one portage. As it was, we looked something like a parade of red ants tromping through the jungle bringing home dinner.  Each of us with a leaf or bug part hoisted above and moving single file. What should have been done in twenty-five minutes dragged out to an hour plus. We needed porters.
     The lost forty minutes be damned. We were on the first site to the east. Near great spot. The landing a little tough but the point it ran alongside was off the water high enough to give us a view. A micro cliff of stone actually. Two white pines crowned our aerie. One had a perfect pack hanging branch a good twenty feet up. Black bears weren't so much feared in the Boundary Waters as they were respected for their food robbing abilities.
     On this trip Allan and I didn't have to share our tent. The other boys had rented a six man and were set. Now if only they'd paid more attention when the lady at Bear Track Outfitters was explaining the ins and outs of self-inflating air mats. You see, they ain't exactly self-inflating. They need a few puffs of lung air and the valve quickly shut to hold their float. Otherwise you end up sleeping more or less on the ground. In the BWCA that means packed earth and rock. You don't do it right and you wake up saying things like, and I quote, "Those fancy mattresses aren't for shit."
     Maybe a portent that on the first morning, I hooked a sunrise smallie while fishing from the point. Good for me but not so for the bass which was impaled through the eye. Made me want to swear off fishing. Maybe should have killed and eaten it but released it instead. Said a prayer that it might find the Valley of Blind Bass where it would no doubt become king.
     Pun aside, that one eyed bass still haunts my memory. Every so often in a life a person does something completely unintentional that just goes sour. Most of them are small occurrences but stick with someone like me like a sand burr. Kid whose milk shake I spilled at the Dairy Queen that used to be on Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis, "I'm sorry. I should have bought you another." Maybe not as tough on the kid as the treble hook was on the bass but it still hangs in the clouds of my guilt.
     The fishing was slow. Real slow. Water so cold you coulda floated an ice cube in it for a week. The bass were semi-dormant and out in the deep water. Could've been anywhere but sure weren't on the end of a fishing line anywhere near our camp.
     I take that back. Rob caught a four pounder by fishing a jig along the bottom at a speed slightly faster than death. I had one hit. Or was it a lethargic tug? That's about it. But we kept on working the water in hopes of a change.
     I was fishing out of the solo, a fifteen foot fiberglass thing named after an Indian tribe. Could have been a Blackhawk. On the first morning I helped push the other canoes off then putzed in camp for a few minutes making sure all was right with the world.
     On this trip we hadn't brought along anchors figuring they were twenty-four pounds of dead weight on the portage. But we did have lots of rope and the Arrowhead region is built on the bedrock of the continent. Put the two together and you've got a serviceable anchor. Right off the bat I'd sent my nephew John on an organic anchor hunt. He outdid himself with three granite chunks no less than twenty pounds each. True honkers that'd hold a canoe regardless of wind or tsunami.
     Back at Bear Track outfitters I was shown the proper way to enter and exit a solo canoe. Simple rule; always have three points of contact with the earth either through a grounded canoe or on the ground itself. Really, I did listen.
     On that first morning the solo was beached on a steep, brushy shore. Couldn't conceive of any three points there so I pushed off straight into the lake like I'd done many times before. No sweat. Unless the boulder I had roped aboard shifted. And that shift happened to be, by necessity, toward the side of the canoe tilted down by my entering weight. Took but a second for my testicles to tell me that water could chill beer. And that the steeply dropping shore kept right on dropping into the lake. Fifteen feet from shore and in water over my head. Boy did I feel stupid. And wet, even when I dragged myself out.
     Thinking minimalist I'd packed just enough clothes for the trip. Which consisted of the wet stuff on my back, two pairs of socks, undershirts and underpants. Luckily I had a set of long johns. Dried off, put on clean up through the long johns and topped my outfit with rain gear. Mother of necessity clown wear. And pushed out once again, this time leaving the anchor behind. Fool me once.
     Later, back in camp, the other boys seemed surprised by my outfit and asked if there was rain in the immediate future. A simple gesture towards the still dripping clothes draped over the brush pretty much said all there was to say. Outside of four men laughing and one grinning foolishly.
     In the year's since, I've left the anchors at home. You don't need them unless the wind is up. And if the wind is up an anchor easily becomes a hazard. Take my word for that.
     Fishing hadn't changed much on the second morning. After lunch I was ready for something different. In five minutes I gave John a rundown on the ins and outs of the solo canoe. It was time that my son and I had some alone time. Fishing solo was fine but I missed the give, take and insults that go with someone you've known since he popped into the world.
     Father and son bonds go deep. Over the years you can grow to be friends. And we have. But that's just the surface. Underneath the skin are shared genes, generations of identical traits that go back into the mist. Who knows what else? Saw him take his first step and now, from the rear as he walks away, you couldn't hardly tell us apart. Variations on a theme with shared blood. And we like each other. Not bad.
    The plan was for me and Al to take the small tandem canoe, head down lake to a portage, climb up to the Border Trail and take a short hike. No real reason for it except we were doing it together.
     Two years earlier we'd done this same portage. It was a bugger. She climbs straight up out of East Pike for something over a quarter mile then levels to a gradual rise for a few hundred more yards. By climb I mean steep enough to get you on your toes and suck air deeply enough to move nearby leaves. All with a sixty pound pack on your back and a few things in your hands.
     Near the peak the portage and the Border Trail cross. The Trail has arrived from a point near the Grand Portage, the granddaddy of them all, something like ten or twenty miles to the east. From the crossing it continues on forty or so miles to the west and joins up with the jumble of trails near Ely. From what I've seen, the Border Trail likes the high ground. Our plan was to mosey no more than a half mile of it. Something to do.
     So that's what we did. Took us a bit over an hour in the peacefulness of the woods and on the water. Returning, maybe six hundred yards from camp, we saw the following scene:
     My brother and Rob were out fishing and John was still in camp. The fishermen pulled up their paddles, dug in a stroke, lurched briefly up lake then rolled the canoe the opposite direction. In water a half dozen degrees above freezing. Neither of us said a word. Just started pulling deep and fast. As fast as we physically could.
     In the closing distance we could see a scene of confusion. Half sunk canoe, gear floating here and there, a life jacket being thrown from Bill to Rob. At that point life was way too short to get upset over the stupidity of not wearing like jackets. You see, it doesn't matter at all if you can swim the English Channel. When the boat rolls you never know what will happen. Especially in water that will drain your body heat in minutes on a lake where there is usually no help to be found.
     In the few minutes it took us to get to the scene, Rob had dog paddled his way to shore a hundred yards away. Bill was still out with the canoe, hanging on tight.
     Decision making time. Seemed Bill had impaled his index finger with a Rapala when he'd thrown the life jacket to Rob. The good news was that the lure was attached to his line so he didn't lose his rod. That was about it for good news. Both tackle boxes had been open. And Bill's Nikon camera, a quality one, was down about thirty feet. Probably still is. Lures here, plastic bags there. Some afloat, some completely gone. Like a miniature Titanic if the ship had polystyrene in the bow and stern to keep it from sinking after hitting the berg.
     Bill wanted to climb into our canoe. I said that wasn't happening for fear he'd capsize us. Three in the water seemed to make less sense than only one. The first plan was to have him hang onto the Alumacraft and we'd tow the entire mess ashore. Didn't work. Seemed the capsize had come about from paddling off with the anchor still down. And the anchor now felt like it was wedged in bottom boulders.
     Told Bill to hold onto our canoe and we paddled him to shore. Cut me some slack here. This all happened close to eighteen years ago and these days my lightbulb glows more than it shines. It's possible we cut the anchor line on the canoe and had Bill hold onto the Alumacraft. Then towed the whole shebang ashore. Either way Rob and Bill got into dry clothes. Al had to help my brother 'cause of the Rapala which still dangled.
     At this point I would like to have known what I know today. Under all but the most extreme circumstance a barbed hook is not difficult to remove. All you need is a foot of fishing line and a tad of knowhow. Or, even more simply, crimping down the barbs before you leave home. Allan and I had been doing it from our first trip on. Doesn't seem to lose any more fish than barbed and removal from fish or flesh is a whole lot easier.
     Regardless, what happened, happened and happens all the time. We all screw up now and then. Usually, like this time, it's nothing more than a memory you sit down and laugh about once in a while. For us at the moment, we had a man impaled and the closest person who knew how to fix that was a little over forty miles away. And it was near sunset. Rob said he'd be my partner and we set off with my brother as baggage. Paddle, portage, paddle and load. The last ten minutes in the dark.
     Bill said the emergency room in the Grand Marais hospital was like a shrine to the lures of yore. Walls of them by year and color coded as to lake. Guess he wasn't the first to catch and land himself. The doctor on duty had the hook out before my brother knew he'd started. All that remained was a dot. No blood, no stitches. But Bill did get a bandaid and a tootsie pop. Good thing this happened on a week night or Bill would have had to wait his turn in line behind the bar fights and shotgun blossoms.
     Spent the night roughing it at the Comfort Inn. First time I'd shared a bed with him since I was a kid. Bill picked up the tab. Come morning we ate a hearty continental breakfast of fruit loops and doughnuts. By eleven we were back in camp on a cold, overcast, windy, rain threatening, totally crapped out day. Allan and John had everything ship-shape. The fishing looked like it would continue to suck so we packed it up and wimped our way back to the access. No one seemed to mind. Except me, at this moment, sitting here at the keyboard seventeen years in the future.
     At Bear Track Outfitters I'd learned how to lash two canoes to the top of the van. And still remembered how. Outside of the trucker's hitch that is. They'd explained it using a rabbit, tree and hole as illustration. Somewhere along the line at the access I had the rabbit climbing the tree, then the tree fell over and the knot came undone. So I went back to my half-hitch braid and threw in a couple of extra lines just in case. In the end both the front and rear of the van looked like it had been captured by giant Canadian Shield spiders.
     While this was going on, or so I was told on the drive back down the Arrowhead Trail, an old duffer shuffled by. Stopped and began to ply us with questions as to the fishing. "Where ya been? Any luck? Bet you caught yourselves some real whoppers. Back twenty-two, no, make that thirty-one, year ago me and Purvis...." That kind of stuff. Never got a peep out of us. He babbled and we loaded. Might have been the funniest moment of my life had I known it was happening. Shuffle on old duffer, shuffle on.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Oops - part 4

     Al said it and the truth was obvious. "Why not head to East Pike? You know for sure we'll catch fish there." Almost too obvious. Problem is that I like trees. Get so into them sometimes I can't see how they all come together to form a woods. Seems I heard something like that once.
     That might have been the original idea on where to go had we camped at any of the first five sites. But now we were better than forty miles from the Little John entry point and any thought of fishing East Pike had moved over to the dark side of my brain. If Al hadn't said anything I'd have no doubt led the boys on another wild fish chase.
     As it was we quickly found ourselves loaded and on Highway 61 heading up the big lake to the turn for the Arrowhead Trail in Hovland. 
     The Arrowhead Trail is my favorite gravel road in the state. Starts out with a six hundred foot, rolling rise up from Superior. Then winds its way close to twenty miles inland to the bluffs above McFarland. A dozen miles in she crosses the valley cut by Portage Brook where me and Rod caught our first trout. There's a vista there that's worth the drive.
     Like most beautiful country the Arrowhead is land to linger in, not just pass through. Journey and destination thing. In my mind stopping to smell the roses doesn't mean you have to stop and smell them all. Enjoy seeing them as you pass by but choose a few somewhere down the road to live with for a while and get to know. That's what the jaunt into East Pike was about.
     The entry at Little John is nothing fancy and the lake fits its name perfectly. Little and unassuming. But the air's fragrance will grab you. Pine and cedar line the shore and give the brief passage an aroma that incense tries poorly to duplicate. Air so sweet you can taste it. And the sound of paddles splitting the water, a lullaby.
     A half mile in, Little John narrows to a brief stream. A hundred yards of rapids that might push being a number two poses no more threat than making a northbound canoe occasionally appear to be heading south. Dumped us into banana shaped John. A sharp right would have put us on the Royal River toward Canada maybe three miles north. But we were heading west down the two mile long lake and the portage to East Pike. Memory lane for me.
     We were all pumped up about what we were doing. My brother especially 'cause of the portage. Never done one but he'd heard the stories. And the clock was ticking for him at age sixty-one. Though certainly not a wearing out kinda sixty-one. Still a 'hoss' in both his mind and body. The idea of carrying weight over a good sized hill for five-eigths of a mile was something he was relishing. Put up on the wall. Been, done and crapped in the woods along the way.
     We weren't prepared for the carry. Three canoes, fishing gear and a snack should have been short order for six men. But it was a disorganized mess. Took us two trips over. And the one time stroll back for the canoes.
     I took a first cast at the entry onto East Pike and came up empty as I have every time since that first fruitful one in '66. Didn't much matter. Me and Allan knew for sure the waters still held a lot of bass.
     The access is a basalt slab sloping down into the lake that was laid down before the dinosaurs. Across its face are scratches left behind by mile thick glaciers. In '66 I stood there with Rod. '92, me and Allan. Now there were six of us. Why not? It's a spot to share. Would have been enough to know that, pick it up and head back to John. But seeing as how we'd made the trek for bass and a personal desire to spare myself a merciless beating, we went out fishing.
     My brother and Rob, his son-in-law, immediately tucked into a nearby corner of the lake. Anchored there and never moved. It looked good to Rob and he had the stern paddle. "Don't like my choice? Too late. The anchor's down." 
     His idea was and for all I know still is, that you find a good looking spot and work it 'til its time to pack it in for the day or Armageddon, whichever comes first. He figured if the spot was good, the fish would come to you. Said it worked for him though I figure it's a better idea to move around a bit and let the fish let on where the good spots are.
      As it turned out they were skunked but had some action. To this day Rob says he had and lost a muskie. Now, there are two lakes in the Boundary Waters with planted muskies. East Pike is one of them. They're there alright. My cousin Gary caught one and the DNR netted a forty-two incher. Rob said muskie and I think he was right.
     Brian and John, my nephews, headed farther down the east shore and worked the water just like they'd been smallmouth fisherman all their lives. Outside of the fact they weren't catching anything, they were doing fine.
     As for me and Al, we worked the same shore but fifty yards farther out. Spinners of course. Al stuck on red and white and me throwing brass. And had the same luck as the other four.
     As opposed to Rob I'm an antsy fisherman. If not here, then over there. I'll switch spinner colors 'til I find what, if anything, works. After fifteen minutes of casting I switched to a silver blade. And hooked up on the first cast. Al did the same and we were in business.
     A yell shoreward let my nephews join in the fun. Five minutes later Brian roared out, "It's a shark! It's a shark!" Well it wasn't but a twenty inch bass but his yell told us how much fun he was having.
     Around this time I had one of my fishing story moments. The bass wasn't all that big, maybe two pounds but I never saw it so you'll have to take my word. Made a run or two then fell into a pattern of me gaining a couple of yards followed by the smallie making a brief run and taking it all back. I cranked and tugged. She ran, always down. Maybe a dozen times before I noticed how close to shore we'd drifted. Huh?
      A closer look and a moment's thought told me it might not be a coincidence that my taut line was pointing right at the anchor cord. To this day I'll swear I'd had a bass on the line 'til it used the anchor as a means of coming loose. Of course the rest of the boys simply say I'm an idiot 'cause they know I'm not a liar.
     So we caught a fair amount of bass and kept enough for a meal. Back at the access we posed as a group and did a couple of timed photos. No fish in the shots, just fisherman who'd had a great time. Mostly it was a remembrance of family together in a place they all wanted to be.
     John wandered off a few yards back in the woods to take care of necessity. There, he came upon a sheltered snowbank. Ah Minnesota, bless you for not knowing Summer has arrived. We filled my ragged orange daypack with snow and fish and were off. Don't remember who carried the fish pack. Probably not me or I'd remember the wet shirt and butt.
     Like all families on an outing we had ourselves a squabble. I wasn't there but got the lowdown from Allan. Seems a couple of nephews got into dispute over who was the best at filleting fish. Kinda wish I'd been there 'cause that's a subject I'd never heard argued.
     My thoughts go back to a man named Ben Bialke who ran a two man commercial fishing operation on Lake of the Woods back in the mid-50s. Spent a week with the man when I was an eight year old. Now that man and his partner could filet fish. While smoking and carrying on a conversation. Doubt very much whether he'd consider cutting the meat from a walleye, or bass, a fit subject to get hot over. Simply work done in seconds.
     Anyhow, my nephews found themselves handicapped by having no filet knife. Not that we didn't have one. Mine was in my box along with a sharpener. But since neither asked I figured they had one.
     As it was they did have a hunting knife. No doubt they argued over what was the proper way to sharpen a knife also. Regardless, we had a seriously good meal of smallmouth bass that evening. Breaded and fried in inch deep oil. Mmm, mmm. Keeps a man regular.
     Come morning it was time to pack it up and head home. By then we were in agreement that next year's destination was camping on East Pike Lake. My job was to have the permit application in before the January draw and hope for the best.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Oops - part 3

     Plan F was the charm. Not a charming one but there was a single open site left in one of your basic, it's a campground but there's way too many people around to give it any kind of wilderness feel no matter how much you squint and try to pretend, kind of way. Hated to admit it but I was happy to simply have a place to pitch the tents. No time left in the day to fish even though we were on a trout lake. That sucked. But she'd been an adventureful day. Adventure meaning, as usual, something went wrong. But we'd had fun and no one bled.
     I'd brought along a couple of armfuls of split, hard maple over which to grill the steaks. Talk about civilized. Had a case of beer and another of coke on ice. Meat and brew. A little tough on the gut and head but it eats good and gives you that manly aroma, especially downwind. A little dry white wine to go with some cheese and crackers would of been a nice aperitif, but that's the way the truffle crumbles.
     Somehow or other we couldn't get our butts in gear the next morning. Another gut bomb meal for breakfast topped off with coal tar, campfire coffee. Dropped my spoon in when giving it a stir. Come time to do the dishes all that I could find was the handle. To this day you can stick a refrigerator magnet to my nephew John's tummy.
     Lacking a better idea and seeing as how it was only a hundred yards away, we strung up little spinners and set out to scare a few trout. Full sun, calm water. Al could see them feeding just out of casting range. Didn't matter where on the water we were, the little buggers were always just out of casting range. Pricks. So we killed an hour or so herding them around the lake. Trout cowboys. Yee-hah.
     That was in the days before I'd learned to use the internet. In order to get lake reports a body had to go to the State's DNR and request them individually. No more than five at a time. And say "Pretty please" so as to not piss them off or risk being banned for life. Lucky for me my FedEx route passed pretty close to the DNR building near the state capitol building. A couple of trips, a grateful smile and I had enough information to make an educated guess as to where decent fishing might lie.
     But that didn't mean we'd actually catch fish. Oh, we tried alright. Even had the lakes I'd chosen all to ourselves. Pretty, early season lakes. Not a cabin on any of them. Everything said yes. But not the fish. Not a one. Not a strike or nibble or surface swirl on the first one. No mosquitoes, black flies, dragonflies, mayflies. Dead air and dead sea. Lord knows I'd been skunked before and had learned that was part of the game. But I was leading a party as Heap Big Fishing Honcho Who Sees and Knows All. For me it wasn't a waste. I was learning to take embarrassment in stride.
     The afternoon lake was a little better. My nephew Brian caught a couple of jumbo perch at the access while my nephew John and I headed back to camp for his wallet. The two of us lost an hour on the water driving to and fro but experienced the joy of knowing his wallet was right where he'd left it.
     Northern Light Lake is a body of water worth spending time on. We didn't know that then. And didn't catch anything beyond those first two perch. Smallies, walleyes, jumbo perch and the occasional good sized pike.
     Over the years since I've been in the boat with partners who've caught them all. I'll even admit to catching my share. Northern Light and my cousin from Wisconsin taught me the value of killing a few perch. Might or might not be the equal of brook trout in the frying pan but without a doubt better than any of the traditional game fish of Minnesota. Even the walleye.
     We fished the lake all wrong that day. It's just a widening of the Brule River and not more than a couple of yards deep. From what I learned over the years the fish don't seem to bunch up. Small jigs tipped with a little bright plastic and hung under a slip bobber. Simple and effective rig. Worms or minnows tipped on the jig also work. Thanks Gary. 'Course on this first time we were throwing spinners and plugs.
     On the first time in with my cousin Gary we were panfishing. I was thinking bluegills, Gary liked them a lot, especially the big ones. But it turned out to be nothing but perch. Big perch. Couple here, couple there. Constantly moving and stringing them up. So much fun Gary and me were bantering back and forth in terrible French accents. Laughed a lot. A whole lot.
     We also threw many of them back. Didn't want to be greedy. But even with that the little stringer grew to around fifteen pounds. Didn't waste a one. Filleted them all. Hides like thick leather that required a fresh sharpening of the filet knife every other perch. Ate a bunch. And froze the rest to leave in my sister's freezer in the little house off the Gunflint Trail she'd rented for the summer.
     Like I'd said earlier, we didn't know beans about perch back then. Our afternoon was like searching for gold and passing over a mountain of silver that we were too blind to see.
     That night we had visitors in camp. Earlier we'd gone down to check out the commotion by the trash cans. Seemed black bears had a sweet tooth for garbage. And they were fastidious about separating the edibles from the paper. A sight to see for sure. They didn't seem all that bothered about us being there and didn't miss a beat working their way from course to course. The truth be known we didn't find them all that interesting after a minute and headed back to bed down. We had plans for the morning.
     A half hour after turning in, I was about the only one left awake in camp. Laying all warm and toasty in a tent at night is a pleasurable experience. I hate to rush off to sleep and miss the good part. So I was laying there watching the flickers on the tent from the last fingers of our dying campfire.
     You may not know that I wear glasses. Blind as a bat nearsighted without them and always sleep with them off. But even fuzzy eyed there was no mistaking the shadows cast on the tent by the two passing bears. I gave it a moment's thought and did the only logical thing. That being three or four loud kissing smacks, kind of like you might call a dog if you were to call a dog that way. The pair of them didn't make a sound as they hightailed it out of there.
     Can't say I'd ever like one in the tent with me when I was smelling of Snickers bars. Or if I came upon a couple of cubs who took a liking to me and mama was near. But if you ever get a couple of camp ground garbage eaters passing by, try doing something stupid. It just might work. Or you might die. Hard to tell.