Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Darrell - Circle Hook

     We went out reef fishing with Darrell's neighbor Doug.  When I asked Doug the obligatory, "what do you do for a living?", he said he was a roofer.  Simple enough.  Later Darrell told me Doug actually owned a roofing company.  A big one.  Guess that explained his winter home and boat and charter fishing trips.
     We headed to the reef 'cause of the wind and big waves out in the Stream.  Small craft warnings.  From the way they described it we'd be fishing a lot like we were going for crappies only these crappies would be forty or fifty feet down.  And wouldn't look at all like crappies.  Fine by me.  Figured I could do that.
     'Spect we anchored a mile or so out from the Seven Mile Bridge.  That's the bridge most everyone has seen in a movie or TV ad.  They call it that 'cause it's about a mile longer than six miles.  Or so I'm told.  I recall us using shrimp for bait.  Might have been something else but I doubt it was red worms or leeches.
     And we were using circle hooks.  I'd heard of them and liked the concept behind them.  Seemed they always hook a fish in the corner of the mouth.  Don't know why that is but if you were gonna go the catch and release routine, the fish would rarely be severely hurt.
     The only difference between them and regular hooks was that you don't set a circle hook, just start reelin' when you feel the fish.  The hook does all the work.  I didn't know that at first.  I'd feel a bite, pause a couple of seconds and set the hook for all I was worth.  Wasn't gonna let no stinkin' snapper spit my hook, no sir.  And then came up empty.  Next fish I waited longer.  Same result.  Then finally set that baby as soon as I felt any weight.  Crap!
     All the while Doug and Darrell were not losin' a one.  Finally they let me in on what to do. Not that it was any secret to them.  I guess they just figured most everyone knew how to use a circle hook.  Life's like that.  Guess the truth is one person's common knowledge isn't always another's.
     I'd like to say that changed everything for me but it didn't.  Guess I'd spent most of my life settin' hooks and it'd become so ingrained I couldn't help myself.  A fish would hit, I'd set the hook, then pound my head in disbelief that I'd done it again.
     It'd be nice to say that I finally got the hang of it.  But I didn't.  Maybe in the next life.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Darrell III - Ballyhoo

     Darrell asked me to bring my fly rod along when Lois and I came down.  'Spose I should have asked him what he had in mind.  I was thinking along the lines of back bay fishing for bonefish or sea trout.  Maybe redfish or snook.  All of those would have been logical and a bucket of fun.
     On the illogical side I saw me whippin' out huge streamers to the schools of blue marlin or sailfish he'd attracted close to the boat with chum and big, squiddy lookin' rigs.  'Course for that I'd have needed a fifteen weight rod with a reel that held about a half mile of backing and even then it would have been like farting in a hurricane (I know that analogy makes little sense but I liked it so I wrote it).
     What I packed up was a ten foot, eight weight.  About right for the logical fish.  With that I grabbed a fistful of streamers, all about an inch, or a little more, long.  I was wrong.  The rod was more or less okay.  Not so the streamers.  Seems Darrell had gotten into catching his own ballyhoo.  At two bucks a pop for the 'hoos he could save the price of a tankful of gas with a couple of hours effort.  Not to mention havin' a good time along the way.  In my mind it's also akin to makin' your own lures.  Good deal all around.
     Turned out ballyhoo were way too small, eight or ten inches long, for my flies.  Bummer.  It woulda been fun for both of us.  Plus they look a lot like tiny marlin.  As it was we fished for them with little hooks baited with shrimp.  How Darrell knew where to find the ballyhoos was a mystery to me but find them he did.  Another step he'd mastered in the learning curve I suppose.
     The process also involved some chumming as I recall.  Talk about a food pyramid.  Usin' bait to catch bait to catch game fish.  Made me wonder if it woulda been simpler to eat the shrimp.  The things we do for fun.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Darrell - part II

     Yeah, his boat.  Thirty some feet long, two big outboards on the back.  Weighs about the same a Paul Bunyan's canoe.  It gets him there and back.  The there is sometimes only five miles away, sometimes twenty-five, depending on whether he's heading to the seven Mile Bridge, the reef or all the way to the Gulf Stream.  As near as I can figure, the farther he goes, the fewer and bigger the fish.
     And the bigger the bill when Darrell refuels.  He says you can't go around calculating how much a pound of fish costs when you catch it yourself.  Like that's possible for someone like me.
     Lois and I spent a month in Marathon down in the Keys three years ago.  During those weeks I had the chance to get on the water five times with Darrell as I recall it.  One of those was with one of Darrell's neighbors.  The man was a patented old coot but knew his way around the water and was foolish enough to let me drive the boat. More on that later.
     On that trip we headed all the way out to the deep blue water of the Gulf Stream.  Made me feel like a balding, beardless Hemingway who doesn't know how to write and doesn't pick bar fights with gay men (could be the writing part is the one characteristic we share.  No offense to the to the man, seems to me he managed to win a Nobel Prize).
     Out there I got to see the floating blue footballs that are call Man 'o war jellyfish.  Gotta admit they're pretty neat looking for something that can make you consider peeing on yourself (probably and old wive's tale but then I really don't know).  Almost up there with the flying fishes we ran into.  Don't know if they're actually flying but they sure can cruise quite a distance through the air.
     On that trip we were in a single outboard powered catamaran.  When the man asked me if I'd ever driven a power boat like his I honestly said no.  By then we were on the deep blue and had throttled down to trolling speed.  That I didn't know my ass from a hole in the water didn't stop him from handing me the wheel.  All I had to do was keep the heading where it was on the compass.  Simple enough.
     Woulda been better had he asked me to run a completely random zig-zag pattern.  Good thing we didn't get lost or end up in Cuban coastal waters.  Finally in desperation, he and Darrell simply suggested I follow the weed line.  Now, the weed line I'm familiar with can usually be seen by looking over the side of the boat.  Out on the Gulf Stream there was no way I could see hundreds, or thousands, of feet down to the bottom.  Wrote them off as total idiots till they simply pointed out the miles long path of floating weeds we were edging along.  Oh yeah, I knew it all along (hard to keep a straight face when you're a total bozo like me).
     We didn't catch anything on that trip.  That's the way she goes sometimes even if the cap'n can shoot a straight line.
     Darrel is a bait user.  And he's a chummer.  Since I'm not a bait man, and am way too cheap to drop the money necessary to fish out on the ocean, I'll never be a deep water fisherman.  On the other hand, I understand the function of each in the scheme of things, it was Darrell's boat and I was thrilled to be on the water even if it was salted.  And that's not to mention the companionship.
     The ocean's a big and deep place and as far as I can see there's no good reason for fish to be anywhere, unless food is involved.  Kinda like fresh water except for the big and deep part.  That's why he chums.  What he uses is a beer case sized, frozen block of fish parts, sticks it in a mesh bag and hangs it over the side of the boat.  The block slowly melts as the boat moves along and makes a trail of stink on the water.  Guess fish like stink 'cause the do come nosin' around.  Sometimes.
     The usual plan out on the big water is to have a bunch of rods set up on down riggers with small fish called ballyhoo rigged on the business end of the line.  The rigged bait is trailed a ways behind the boat along with the stink line.  Then the boat is puttered along so as to make the bait look like it's swimming and havin' a good time with a bright plastic skirt stuck to its head.
     The plan is to have some big assed, highly edible fish to come along and think to itself, "Lookie there at that little fish with the bright plastic skirt stuck to its head.  Stinks so bad around here it's just gotta be some fine eatin'."  Then the fish goes and hammers the bait causing the rod back on the boat to commence wigglin' and bouncin' and it's time for one of us to grab the rod and reel it in.
     Lesson learned:  Darrell always has a belt on the boat with a cup in the front.  A rod handle fits nicely in the cup.  In addition to making it easier to reel a fish in it also protects the family jewels.  Next time I'll remember to ask for the belt.
     On the trip in question, both Lois and Linda came along.  It was like a picnic on the water except for Lois learning she might be susceptible to sea sickness.  And I did get to catch a couple of king mackerel  That's a nice way to say that Darrell did all the work but let me reel the fish in.  Thanks Darrell.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Friends - Darrell (part I)

     The other day I mentioned getting the gift of a fly rod from a friend.  It's not a fancy rod, more of a workman's fiberglass model.  Eight foot, foam handle, seven weight Daiwa.  I was happy to accept it.
     Darrell hadn't used it in thirty or more years.  And didn't look like he was ready to start buggy whipping for bass anytime soon.  When I wiped the dust off the rod it looked to be new.  Happy day. And now I'm headin' down south to crud up his gift in a whole new world of fish who'll no doubt scorn my ignorant offerings.
     I've known Darrell for better than fifty years.  Not that we've been inseparable friends, more like our lives have followed wavy lines that have crossed paths now and then.  In the beginning we saw each other a lot and over the last few we've grown close again.  That might have more to do with our wives who were best friends back when they were kids.
     Oddly enough, even though we're both fishermen, we've spent little time on the water together.  Took forty years till we finally got in the boat together on the little lake up north where he and his wife have their summer home.  We trolled the shore one evening and threw tubes to bass.  Even caught a few.
     Gotta admit I was nervous.  Yeah, I knew what I was doing.  At least I thought I did.  Over the decades I'd caught my share, maybe even more than my share.  But Darrell, at least in my mind, was a unproclaimed master.  The kind that rarely gets skunked.  And in the few times when he did, accepted it as calmly as the times he'd landed a boatload of wall hangers.  In short, I hoped I wouldn't fall out of the boat.
     Lois and I had shown up at their house to spend a few pleasant hours.  Darrell suggested fishing, even loaned me a rod.  I recognized the brand and knew it was a cut above my sticks.  But, what the hell, I expected no less from him.
     It was a fine evening.  A nice enough one in good company so the fishing wasn't but a little icing on the cake.  That I landed a couple of fish may have had more to do with his knowledge of the lake and its honey holes than my fishing ability.  At least I didn't screw it up.  As for Darrell, he was running the trolling motor, blind casting over his shoulder, telling me where to throw my tube and he still out fished me.
     Darrell and Linda have a winter home in the Keys.  Not sure if they're down there for the winter climate or the iguanas that run wild.  Or maybe the resident manatee who seems to have a thing for drinking fresh water from the hose.  Could be the ocean also has something to do with it.  You see, their home lies on a canal with access to the gulf.  Throw in what I consider a big boat ( Darrell says it's a small craft ) and, what the hell, why not go out and sample the fishing once in a while?  Weather allowing that once in a while is most every day.
     Darrell's fresh water experience didn't help a whole lot when he first came to salt water.  Yeah, he knew the pointy end of the boat was the front end and the fat end of the rod was the one to hang onto.  From there on it was a learning experience.  And over the years, he (and Linda) did.  Got to know where to go and what to put on the end of the line that'd put fish in the boat.  And get a handle on what kind of fish lived in the waters and how they took to the fryin' pan, or grill, or smoker.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Home Made is Best (maybe)

     Got the rods, a reel, backing, line and leaders.  Enough to do all the fly fishing I want.  'Course it might not hurt to have something on the end of the line just in case there's any foolish fish in Perdido Bay.  That thought got me rummaging in my fly box to see what might look good to speckled sea trout or any other unknowns in the water down there.
     On the upside, most of what I have is self-tied.  And not a one of them looks like what anyone would consider a fly, or minnow, or crayfish, or ant, or anything that lives on the planet.  In my mind that means everyone of them would be equally effective in freshwater or salt.  That's the good news.  
     On the downside I've only caught bass and pike with them.  And those fish ain't particular as to what they'll eat so long as it moves.  Could there be any fish in the ocean that are the same?
     Just in case there aren't, it got me thinking about Venn diagrams.  They're the ones where you draw two overlappin' circles and what you want is in the overlap part.  My two circles were labeled Real Fishin' Flies and Flies a Bimbo Like Me Can Tie.  The overlap was real small.  Two flies were about it.  San Juan Worms and Clauser Minnows.  
     Neither is a real fly.  The San Juan is a red piece of string tied on a hook.  Not fancy but idiot easy.  However I didn't figure a worm native to New Mexico trout streams would have much affect on ocean fish. The Clauser on the other hand is more or less a lead head, bucktail jig with eyes instead of a lead head. Top that off with them being effective in fresh and salt water on a variety of shallow water fish and I set to work.
     In my supplies I had all that was necessary to make a dozen.  That's it, no more.  Should the fishin' be good, I'm screwed.  That's Norwegian humor comin' from a Swede.  
     Truth is, all I want is time to improve my marginal casting.  And maybe not tear off my right ear in the process.  Should I catch any fish I'll write it off to cosmic coincidence.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rod Shopping in the Ether

     Outside the window most everything is white.  Not the street of course.  There lies the tan stripe dropped by passing cars and trucks.  Yeah, I'm in the city sitting at a desk once owned by one of Lois' aunts.  It's where I sit these days to write.  Used to be up in what I consider my work and storage room. Tied lures and flies up there beneath the charcoal drawing Allan drew for one of his freshman classes.  A few years back I framed it in log edged oak.  The frame is a fittin' and rustic touch to a memory of the Canadian bush (where not a stick of oak can be found).  In the corner sat my rods next to small cabinets that held reels, tackle and tax forms.
     Not so at the moment.  Till they move into their new house my room is now shared by Matt and Luke.  Their Allan's boys.  They keep me young by wearing me out every day.  Not sure how that works but that's what I've been told.  For the moment I'll accept that as the truth.
     Seein' as how it's winter, top that with me not being an ice fisherman and you can see that my time on the water is limited to walking through snow each morning in the hope of living forever.  Doubt that'll happen but I'm not giving up.
     Sometime in each day I sneak off to ebay where I scope out what's new and available in the vintage fly rod world.  Doing so is kind of a teaser for me.  Do I need another rod?  Guffaw.  Truth is I don't turn up enough time to use the ones I've got.  But I still keep looking.
     Don't know why but the name Heddon draws me.  Like I've said earlier, it's fiberglass, not bamboo, that attracts.  Grew up with it.  And even in my canoe days I bought glass now and then.  My favorite rod was a seven foot, two piece, medium-heavy spinning rod made for Cabela's.  For pike it was perfect and could really buggy-whip a homemade spinner.  Might still be using it today if I hadn't snapped a foot of the tip off.
     When I owned the rod the idea of buying vintage fiberglass hadn't entered my pea brain as yet.  Didn't own or know how to use a computer.  Didn't want to.  Couldn't see the use for one.  Didn't know about ebay.  Didn't care.  Even if I had a computer and knew about ebay, I was still too young to see the value of old stuff.  Now that I'm old stuff myself I realize those '50s and '60s poles, 'specially the better ones, hold up better than flesh, be it horse or human.
     Now, Heddon isn't top of the line.  That perch is reserved for Phillipson.  And it's not number two, Fenwick holds sway there.  But still, Heddon is quality.  And the heart of the rod, its blank, is pretty much the same from top of the line to near bottom.  Price was, and is, ruled by the pretty parts, cork, decoration, line guides and name.  Mark IV sounds more upscale than Mark I but my research tells me there's not all that much difference.  Top that off with a winning bid that should sit between twenty and thirty-five bucks and you've got yourself a serviceable, quality rod for an unbeatable price in today's world.
     For now my few good rods will be staying at home when I head south.  Don't know if salt water would do anything to their metal parts but suspect it would.  The two that are packed in my traveling tube cost less than the tube.  'Course one was a gift from an old friend.  Sad to say the rod's in a lot better shape than my friend.  But seeing as how he's a died in the wool salt water man, I don't think he'd mind if I used the stick in the Gulf.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

McFarland and Pine

     Once again the wind was up.  Nothin' we could do about that and since we were here to fish, we headed back up the Arrowhead Trail.  The plan was to fish Pine Lake.  To do that we had to first paddle the length of McFarland then do the short upstream battle into Pine.
     At the access we met another of the ancient mariners who seemed to populate the area.
     - God, I just had a scary thought.  If I was to carry out my intention of fishing the Arrowhead once again, one of those ancient mariners might be me.  A lone wolf whose only purpose in life was to fish the waters I could still reach and ruminate about how much better it was way back when to innocent bystanders.  Like that's a whole lot different than writing a blog. Oh Lord, protect me from myself. -
     He seemed a nice enough guy, hopefully harmless, who'd had a pretty slow time of it on the water.  His stringer held a single, ten inch walleye.  He nearly had tears in his eyes about how bad the fishing had become.  His lone pickerel told me he'd not quite picked up on the concept that dead fish can't breed.
     All I could do was pat him on the shoulder and offer a consoling, "Ain't that just too damned bad, old man, ain't that just too damned bad.  Now, why don't you walk slowly over to yonder white pine and bang your head against it while my son and I get the hell out of here as fast as we can."  Strangely enough, that's just what he did.  Sounded like a pileated woodpecker with a dull beak.
     McFarland presented a problem we'd yet to face on the water.  Once launched we were lookin' into the face of a stiff wind and shushing whitecaps.  Had I more experience in a canoe or had Allan been older than twelve it might have been a lot less scary.  Top that with the thought Lois would be a bit upset if the kid drowned and I didn't, and it was time to be extra cautious.
     At least I knew enough to tuck behind points and when out in the open, keep our nose into the wind.  Still, the two miles was a stiff workout.  Looking back on it I wonder how hard the wind could have been blowing if us two neophytes could cover that stretch.
     At the north end we found calm black water.  Black as could be black.  Something about the blackness draws me.  Maybe it's my German nature and all I needed was for some nixie to lure me under to my death.  Gets a man to wondering about those ancient Dutchmen that some imaginary tart in a lake or river could sucker them into drowning.  Water nymph or not, we found no fish.  But casting to nothing beat the pants off sitting in camp.
     A short distance away ran the connecting stream to Pine Lake.  Pine is a couple of thousand, seven mile long, narrow acres.  Good numbers of walleye, great smallie and fair lakers swim in its waters.  Also, its seven mile length gave the wind a running start at building up a head of steam.  Made McFarland look like a ripply little pond in comparison.  Still we gave it a go.  Angles across the half mile width in hopes of finding a few protecting points we might fish behind.  No such luck.
     So we back tracked and pulled into shore.  Bladders called and it was our last chance to sit and watch the BWCA for the year.  By now we'd seen a few campsites and knew one or more of them would be ours when we returned the next spring.
     The run down McFarland was another learning experience.  Sure it was a lot less work than a headwind but it was also a constant fight to keep our nose downwind.  Head or tailwind, doesn't matter, both like to turn a boat sideways.  However, this was the first time I got to hear the song of the whitecaps.  We didn't exactly surf those waves but for a few seconds at a time we were in the froth and serenaded by the 'sssshhhuussshhh' of the wave as it slowly broke.  Not exactly life changing but, as far as I'm concerned, unforgettable.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Trout Lake

     With a name like Trout Lake you'd think there'd be trout in the lake.  The DNR said there was.  So we went but not after a gut busting breakfast at the Naniboujou Lodge.
     The lodge was built back in the late '20s, the ones that roared, with the idea it would be a playground for the wealthy.  Early members were Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey.  It was to be a humdinger of an affair with a golf course and people strolling the grounds in white flannels.  Don't know how that would have worked out once the guests showed up in July only to find the daytime high was forty-eight above.  Winter was out of the question.  Luckily the stock market went boom before anything beyond the main building was built.  
     A walk through the lodge is worth the drive up from Grand Marais.  Vaulted ceiling, massive fireplace and a rainbow of garish colors put it in a class by itself.  Look it up on the internet and check it out.
     In short, we chowed down.  Whatever sounded good, we ordered.  Carmel rolls, omelets, cereal, coffee, milk, juice.  And we ate it all.  Guess we were hungry.
     Trout Lake wasn't either far up or off the Gunflint Trail.  Over the years the DNR had thrown in both lakers and rainbow trout.  Didn't know about how we'd do with lake trout but I figured we might catch a few rainbows (lesson: one decent day does not make a trout fisherman).  The lake isn't large by any means so I figured we could work a fair amount of the shoreline, weather permitting.
     At the access we learned there were indeed trout in the lake.  Three young men stood on shore bobber fishing with worms for bait.  And had a stringer of foot long fish that numbered no less than a dozen.  We struck up a conversation seein' as how we weren't goin' anywhere till they'd had their fill.  To paddle out would spook the pool.  As much as I wanted to get out on the water there was no way I'd mess up another person's good time.
      As things worked out, they quit fishin' when the trout quit hittin'.  Or maybe they'd caught them all. Whichever one it was, once Allan and I were in the little bay out from the access we pitched our little spinners to dead water.  Such is life.
     By now the wind had come to pay us a visit.  Enough of a breeze to bring about a change of plan and reduce the amount of shoreline we could safely fish.  On the upside I managed to tie into a single trout.  Didn't know much about age classes back then but lookin' back on all the trout I saw, they might have once shared the same bucket.  Each and every one was twelve inches or thereabouts.
     Plan B was to troll for lakers.  The guide said they'd be relatively deep in the middle of June when we were there.  My plan was to pull into the lea of the upwind shore then let mother nature take us to the far, downwind shore.  In an effort to get our lures deeper I clamped a half ounce of sinkers to our lines.  Then as we approached the middle of the lake we continually payed out line with the idea of trusting sheer, dumb luck to get us a hookup.  Not exactly scientific but it was the only trick in my bag.
     Like all wind drifts in a canoe, we quickly turned sideways to the waves.  I don't know about other canoemen but being sideways in whitecaps makes me a little nervous.  And gets me to pay attention to the feel of the water.  And loosens up my hips.  It's actually go with the flow time as opposed to the hippie/zen notion of supreme mellowness flaunted back in the '60s.
     Didn't catch a laker that day but we didn't capsize either.  Coulda been worse.  Twenty-one years have passed and I'm still waitin' on my first lake trout.


     Heads.  I bought it.


     What to do?  We head down to Alabama for the winter months.  I'd like to practice my fly casting while down there but don't much care if I catch anything.  In fact I'd prefer bein' skunked as it would simplify life.  But since I'd be casting into open water I'd be required to buy a license. Forty-seven bucks.  Life in an organized society has its minor draw backs.  Not enough to join up with the vigilante/military wanna be/I don't owe the government nothin' crowd but it's irksome just the same.
     I've got a cheap old rod and a cheaper old reel but lack the saltwater line that wouldn't crud up on me.  Another thirty bucks.  If I wasn't so damned cheap it wouldn't be a problem.  But I am and it is.  Time to flip the coin.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Esther Lake - the Return of the Geezers

     The old dude was there waiting for us.  And he wasn't alone.  Almost made me want to make the sign of the cross and kiss a crucifix for protection before we landed.  Something about his sidekick made me think of that little dog in the Warner Brothers cartoons who was always bouncin' around his idol, the big bulldog Butch.  Only this guy's bouncing days were long gone.
     Of course the first question, "Did ya catch any?" was already floating in the air before we beached the boat.
     A simple, "Yup," and an Allan hoist of the stringer was answer enough.  Kinda shocked the two into silence for a few seconds.  Treated us with a new respect like we actually knew what we were doin' out there.  'Spose I could of told them the truth, about it bein' shear dumb luck and all, but why spoil the fun?  No doubt should push come to shove, over time they'd have out fished us with their worms.  I knew that.  Still do.  My time on trout lakes since that day is proof positive that I'm one foot this side of clueless.
     As it was, the man still had some good advice about transporting our fish.  We could gut 'em and behead the varmints but they still had to be identifiable as trout.  I vaguely recalled reading that but would not have done it.  Good man.
     While he was talking his buddy pulled out a can of Deep Woods Off and laid a line of bug juice on his forehead from about two inches out, so thick it oozed to his eyebrows before he worked it in with the meat of his hand with the hope of severe brain damage.  Licked off the excess as it drained passed his mouth.
     As for our dinner of trout, we ate 'em down to the bones then sucked 'em dry.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Esther Lake - III

     The spot we worked was a fresh weed patch.  To me green weeds meant fish.  As to whether or not that included trout might have been ignorance on my part.  Good thing it wasn't on Al's.  His first brookie wasn't large, but like all brookies it was colored like a chameleon in a jewelry box.  Damn they're pretty fish covered with all those squiggly greens and reds.
     The second was a twin of the first.  So was the third.  Damnation.  We were catching trout.  Woulda been nice to say we'd figured it out but dumb luck's not a bad thing either.  Not a one was over ten inches so we released them all.
     I don't recall why we then cut across the bay instead of working our way down the shore.  Maybe it was destiny, or my soul being drawn by the spirit of the Great Tout in the Sky (ain't that nauseating?).  Once out a few yards from shore we caught a light breeze, went into a drift and fished our way across.
     What I do recall was what passed beneath the canoe, ten or more feet down.  Seeing as how the water was clear as window glass everything below stood out in sharp detail.  Log upon log littered the bottom as though scuba diving lumberjacks had had a field day down there.  All of those logs and limbs were perfect cover for fish.  Maybe that's what the rainbows were hiding under.
     Though we could see our spinners from the time they hit the water I never saw the take.  Can't say who caught the first.  A solid foot long, the trout fought like the smallies we'd caught the day before.  At twelve inches, it was long enough to have wintered over.  In my mind that made it almost wild.  We put it on a stringer.  I'd eaten trout before, even fresh caught wild ones.  They're easy to prepare and fine northwoods fare.
     That rainbow was quickly followed by two more foot long fish.  Both went on the stringer.  Looked like this was gonna be our day but it turned out the third was the last.  Considering I expected nothing, six trout was a fine day.  Two hours on the water, we headed in.
     Had those been truly wild rainbows I suspect we'd have released them.  But come next Spring, the DNR would dump another few thousand in the lake.  Their idea was that Minnesota fisherman would catch and eat a few so that's what we did.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Esther Lake - II

     Right off the old guy asked me what I was usin' for bait.  Bait?  Was that a trick question?  I wasn't sure where he was goin' or which way I should answer.  Dry fly fisherman consider streamers to be bait.  On the other end is the bleach and dynamite crowd.  Mostly I just didn't want to piss him off.
     "Spinners," I said, not knowing whether or not he was gonna come upside my head with an oar.  I'd have said paddle but the only boats I saw had five horse Johnsons on the back that were no doubt bought back in 1948 when the guy I was speaking with was only middle aged.
     "Ain't gonna catch no trout in here with spinners.  Gotta use worms.  Lotta sinkers.  Fish 'em deep and troll real slow,"  all the while staring at our canoe and light weight rods like we were the biggest rubes in the north woods.  Good thing we didn't bring fly rods or he'd have called the cops on us.
     I didn't want to start an argument.  For all I knew he was dead right.  The best I could muster was a "Well, we've got spinners so that's what we'll use.  Anyhow, that's a beautiful lake out there.  We'll have a good time no matter what.  Father and son and all that.  If you have a son, and he hasn't already died of old age, you must know what that's like."
     The man shuffled away, back to his buddies parked in their lawn chairs sippin' coffee and occasionally wanderin' off to the brush where they fumbled with their zippers for a while in hopes of beating the open flood gates.
     Free for a moment, the two of us bolted out on the water as fast as possible before another geezer came up to tell us we were doin' it wrong.
     What I knew about trout wasn't much.  They were in the lake, were a little line shy and could be pretty much anywhere.  Spinners were supposed to work but I had my doubts.
     What I did know was how to catch bass.  Since trout looked more like bass than pike I decided to fish 'em that way.  Work the shorelines.  Of course that's pretty much the way I fish all lakes.  I figure that most fish relate to shorelines for the same reason I do, there's more to see and do.  Out in the middle it's a desert.  No reason to be there 'cause there's nothin' to eat in sixty feet of water, nothin' to see and no place to hide.  Shoreline's where the plants, bugs and hidey-holes are.  Little fish eat bugs and big fish eat little fish.  It's not a foolproof way to fish but it is a way.
     On the other hand, trout are supposed to be in streams not lakes.  The only reason the brookies and rainbows were in Esther was 'cause the DNR dumped them in.  They were so out of place they didn't even reproduce.  Bein' too bummed for sex is about as bummed as an animal can get. So, if we caught any trout, we'd know for sure they'd been born in a bucket.  Not exactly Frankentrout but not all that natural either.
     We headed straight north from the launch till we reached the far shore.  Then we fell into the same routine as on East Pike except we were throwin' tiny spinners, oughts and ones in vibrant colors.  It wasn't so much that we thought they'd work.  It was more on the order of that's what we had.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Esther Lake - I

     Since it was morning we figured we might as well eat breakfast.  You know, the real north woods kind, cereal, milk and juice with maybe a banana on the side.  I know that doesn't sound like a true wilderness meal since it was lacking meat but it was what we liked.  I've been told a real north woods campin' breakfast should be eaten long before the sun crests the treetops.  But we slept in and didn't hit the road till mid-morning.
     The road was once again the Arrowhead Trail.  There was a lot of water off of the trail, both moving and still.   Nearly all of them were nothing more than names on a map to me and I wanted to see a couple before our time was done.  This morning we were gonna take a side trip.  Most of the way inland there was a fork in the road.  Yesterday we'd gone to the right.  Today it was left up the Esther Lake Road.  I figured they called it that 'cause it ended at Esther Lake.  But I could've be wrong.
     Just before we got to Esther we passed the turn for Chester Lake.  Don't know if there was a romantic couple with those names, possibly a pair of oxen or someone just liked the rhyme and happened upon teethe lakes before anyone else.  No doubt the Ojibwa had named them many years earlier but I strongly doubt they called them Esther and Chester.
     We bypassed Chester even though it's a trout lake stocked by the DNR.  It wasn't that we had anything against trout but the ones in Chester were brown trout.  I'd done enough reading to know they were pretty skittery and line shy.  I had hopes we might actually catch some fish and browns didn't sound all that interested in being caught.
     So we continued on to Esther and its more easily caught brookies and rainbows (guffaw, easier for who?).  There's a campground there, that is if you consider three unmarked spaces enough to qualify.  But there's also an outhouse and a boat launch so it's rarely vacated.  It wasn't.  We found a small trailer and a couple of tents crowded on top of each other.  Also found a couple of old guys and a couple more really old guys.  Don't know how long they'd been there but they did have moss growing on them and their feet were sprouting roots.  Figured those dudes had been fishing the lake since they'd been mustered out of the Roughriders and had known what the backside of Teddy Roosevelt's horse looked like as he led them up San Juan Hill.
     So I avoided them like the plague.  I didn't know what the hell I was doing and didn't want to let on 'specially to some codgers who no doubt knew the Esther Lake trout by name.   But as soon as Allan and I started to load the canoe, one of them wandered over.  Didn't know it back then but old guys are always looking for fresh faces to talk with.  Most anyone they knew had already heard every one of their stories and heard them way too many times.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


     What do you talk about with a twelve year old?  Yeah, we were father and son.  We'd know each other for a long time.  No doubt that was part of the problem.  Too much authority figure baggage.  A kid's gotta watch what he says.  Don't let any cats out of the bag.  Like all kids, me included, he had a side to his life that I knew nothing of.  And some of that stuff could get him in trouble.
     On the other hand he probably didn't know a lot about me.  And at that goin' through puberty age, did he really care?  I'd been on the job in one form or another for better than a quarter century.  Been in a war, done a lot of stupid things and survived them.  Did any of that mean anything to him?  So we schmoozed, BS-ed about nothin' in particular and passed the time with the fill-in of where to fish next.  Al needed a little time in the adult world and I needed to remember what it was like to be a kid.  All the while we were beginning our history of life together in the woods and on the water.  Building memories to look back on someday.
     We cooked on the coleman stove and slathered ourselves with bug juice to create a little space around us that was mosquito free.  Yup, the 'skeeters were something fierce.  But they're livable so long as the DEET's nearby.
     At night it rained.  Bucketsful.  Sometime after the sun went down we'd hear the rumble from back behind the Sawtooths.  Even though I'd been in combat I'd never heard the distant blast of howitzers.  My father-in-law had been in the recapture of the Philippines and had spoken of the cannon reports as they rolled across the mountains.  Almost sounded romantic in a 'someone's gonna die' way.  So when the thunder started up and it tumbled down on us, I heard it through John's ears.  Then, an hour later, the skies would open up and come visit.
     The tent leaked.  Not directly on us in our sleeping bags but in little streams near the side walls.  So long as we kept to the middle of the floor we were okay.  But a couple of times each night I'd wake up and check the water level.  Even once dreamed there were brookies in the tent trying to make it to their spawning gravel.
     But we slept well.  Rain on the roof does wonders for butt on the ground.  Come morning the rain was long gone.  Probably takin' a nap somewhere so it could play the next night.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On the Water

     Back in '92 I thought I knew something about fishing but I didn't.  I'd read what Michael Furtman had to say in the Boundary Waters Fishing Guide so the gear we had would catch fish.  But that didn't mean we would.  Readin' and doin' ain't the same.
     One thing was for sure, timing was the most important thing in the Spring.  Too early and the bass were still out deep.  Too late, they were spawning and not interested in being caught.  Just right was what Rod and I had back in '66.  We didn't know that but we did know we were having some fine fishing.
     We also hadn't read the Guide.  Didn't know small lures were the right ones.  Instead we threw floaters that were perfect for big largemouth.  Turned out that we were doin' it right.  Big fish tend to like big lures.
     As for me and Allan, we were armed with a fistful of two and a half and three inch floating rapalas.  Had we been there a week or two earlier we'd have been undersized.  As it was, they were just right.  Ignorance is bliss.  In my hand I had an ultralight rod and Al had a light medium.  Both of us were hopin' for rod benders but afraid we'd find nothing.
     From the slab we paddled to the right just like Rod and I had.  For the first ten minutes we found nothing.  Then things changed and we began to learn what the fish wanted.
     As it evolved we hugged shore no more than fifty feet out.  Not for any more reason than that's as far as we could cast the light lure.  A near perfect cast landed within a coupla feet of the rubble shoreline.  Even better was a bounce off the rocks back into the water.  Then just let the rapala sit.  For a minute or more.  Not exactly exciting unless you knew what you were looking for.
     Eventually the lure would bounce around a little bit just like a bass was rising and nudging it.  Once the floater moved we'd give it a twitch.  Then, bam!  Fish on.  Not big bass, just little males around a foot long who were guarding the nests while the ladies were off in the deep water recovering from spawning.
     They weren't the monsters we were hoping for but they were smallies.  And there were lots of them.  Catch a couple, move twenty yards, catch a couple more.  Little and frisky.  Run and jump and run some more.  We caught bass till it was time to get off the water and back to camp before it got dark.  We quickly learned that three hours from the tent was too far.  Better to have our site right on the water we wanted to fish.  And that meant more and better gear.  Already I knew we were coming back next year.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

First - East Pike Lake

     We set up camp with our ancient, canvas, umbrella tent.  Blue and gold and, as we learned over the four days, not as waterproof as it once was.
     A hundred yards to our east was the Brule River.  The falls where the river drops to near Lake Superior level is known as the Devil's cauldron.  Up above, the river splits in two.  One flow is the falls that reforms below as the river and froths its way into the big lake.  The other drops into a hole and comes out God knows where.  Over the years a myriad of floating stuff from ping pong balls to inflatable, full-side stegasaurus' have been dumped in only to disappear forever.  Spooky enough to provoke a 'that's interesting' comment from the dozens who have cared enough to give the cauldron more than a passing thought.  Can't say for sure me and Al went and took a look while we were there but we might have.
     Once camp was set up we did the only rational thing I could think of, get back in the van and head up the Arrowhead Trail to the Little John Lake access.
     The trail starts as pavement then a block inland turns to gravel.  That's the way a trail should be.  Gives it a touch of the primitive that suits a fishing expedition to the boonies.  Twelve miles in there's an overlook of the Portage Brook valley.  Nice spot with a vista of a hundred square miles of pine spruce and birch with nary a building in sight.  Down below is the little stream where Rod and I lucked out on a pair of chunky, foot long brook trout twenty-six years earlier.
     Approaching McFarland Lake we came upon the bluffs that rise three hundred feet above lake level.  Those hills are about as spectacular as things get in Minnesota's Sawtooth Mountains.  They're not the Rockies or even the Appalachians but, give 'em a break, they're more than a billion years old.
     A half a shoreline winding mile ahead we came upon the access parking lot.  For the BWCA it's a pretty elaborate affair on the one hand.  On the other, it's a scraped out piece of rock, sand and gravel with room enough for a half dozen vehicles.
    Rod and I had launched from that same Little John Lake access back in '66.  At least I think it was.  The access I remembered looked nothing like the one Allan and I were at.  Could be the put in was once a half mile away on John Lake.  After all John wasn't in the BWCA until '77.  Things change.  Might have once been a road out there.
     The little Alumacraft we had was short a portage pad.  Well, some of the pad was still there, the rest I suspect was part of a mouse nest back at the cabin.  Ever resourceful, and ever lazy, I tied a towel on the yoke.  Wasn't an elegant solution but it did the job.
     Little John is a narrow, banana shaped stretch of water lined with cedar and pine.  But it was the sweet smell of the cedar that brought me back to that day with Rod.  Back then we were under blue skies.  Me and Al were passing beneath a low hanging gray.  Looked like we could start a downpour with a well flung rock.  Rain be damned.  We had rain jackets and a rendezvous with destiny.  A small destiny maybe but a destiny nonetheless.
     There's a small set of rapids connecting the John Lakes.  Might even sneak up on bein' a number two but it's short.  As I recall we exited onto John in reverse.  I don't think that's the way the Voyageurs did it.  In all the pictures I've seen the bow of the canoe is generally facing down stream.  Seein' as how we were dry and upright I figured bein' backwards didn't matter and we set off down John toward the portage.
     It'd been a generation since I'd seen the portage but it was right where it should have been.  There was nothing on the hundred-eighty rod carry that came as a surprise.  The wet first five rods, the long gradual rise, roots, rocks, sharp descent and finally, the basalt slab from which I caught my first Boundary Waters smallmouth.  It was like the intervening twenty-six years hadn't happened.
     I carried the canoe and paddles.  Allan had our rods, tackle box and anchor.  The anchor and box were in a day pack.  Wasn't much of a load but the sharp edges of the contents worked a tattoo in his back.  To Al's credit he didn't say a thing.
     Once on the slab we dropped our load and took a couple of out of focus photos with the lake to our rear.  I could wax all philosophically about that moment but I won't.  All I'll say was I'm glad I needed that summer job back in '66 and Rod had one for me that carried a hitch with it.