Monday, May 5, 2014

Lakes - Big Jake

     Big Jake Lake is not its name.  My grandson Jakob has fished two lakes up north.  This one is the larger of the two, hence the name I'm calling it.
     Like most of the water I fish up north Big Jake is in the neighborhood, a big neighborhood.  Forty-five minutes one way.  But there's not a dull mile and the fishing tends to be outstanding so I don't mind.  The paved part of the drive winds around and over wooded hills, past a half dozen lakes and ponds and through one small town.  The town's a fishing town, no doubt about that.  Used to have a freezer in the window of the bait store featuring the most recent wall hangers.  Occasionally there'd be a good sized dog fish or eel pout to add a touch of humor.  I suppose how funny depended on your point of view.  Never saw any of the frozen dog fish with a smile on its face.
     Another five minutes takes me to a poorly marked turnoff.  Forestry road from there on.  In spring the track is rutted, winding and wet.  In places runoff streams meander across.  When it's just me and the solo I like the road at least a little wet.  Without going into details as to why, I simple stuff the canoe into the back of my SUV and cinch the tailgate down.  The boat's not going anywhere but the door remains open about a foot.  When the back roads are dry the car fills with dust.  A mess to clean up but that's just the way it is.
     Coupla stretched out turns later and I'm there.  With luck the access is empty.  Usually is.
     The rumor I heard a dozen years ago claimed Big Jake was once a fine walleye lake.  As far as I know it may have been a real humdinger.  Experience tells me it's not anymore.  One walleye in twenty plus trips.  But that's no problem, I'm there for the bass and the big panfish illegally introduced by outlaw locals.
     There are at least two ways to fish the lake.  Arguably it's simpler with a spinning rod.  Casts are many and quick.  Fling the lure out and with a little skill, in the right place  When I'm in the canoe it's all about boat control.  When there's a breeze, getting the lure out and back before being blown into shore or out in the lake makes life a lot easier.  And brings more fish to the canoe.  I like that.  I'm lazy and easier is good.
     But it's the fly rod that draws me.  More work.  Demands attention and patience.  Slows me down to the pace of the elements.  A body can't just flip a fly.  Gotta whip up some momentum then work the fly in like the tiny living thing it's supposed to imitate.  Properly done a fly on still water takes close to a minute to complete the cast.  Slow down old boy, slow down.  You're where you want to be, doing what you want to do.  Savor the moment.
     The launch passes through a lily pad bed.  Shallow and muddy.  No matter how many times I've paddled out, the first few yards reminds my sense of balance the world's a different place with my feet on the ground.  I guess it's a moment of regaining my sea butt.  Give the canoe a couple of wiggles and I'm ready to go.
     Once free of the pads I paddle right.  Years ago the left shore told me there's not much to be had that way.  Ask me why and I'll say it just doesn't look fishy.  Must look the same to the bass I'm after.  Besides, the right shoreline is a series of points and bays, lily pads and weed beds.  Looks fishy.  Caught a lot of bass in that direction.
     Can't say there's any naturally savvy fishermen out there.  I sure wasn't born that way.  When it comes to fishing, fish are the teachers.  Makes a man question the order of things.  Adam was supposed to have named all the animals but I figure the fish were wearing name tags.  Even wrote them out themselves.  These days they'll not only tell you their names but also where they are and what they want to eat.  They don't visit so you've got to pay them a visit, wherever that may be.  Sooner or later even a slow learner like me figures out a few of the patterns.  Enough time on the water and enough fish on the line and things begin to click.  Doesn't always pan out that way but what worked on one lake might very well work on another.  So, on Big Jake I point the canoe's nose to the right.
     Right off I'm in a half moon bay.  Holds fish but they tend to be small.  I'll usually pass it by and cut across to the first point.  Nice lily pad bed there.  Everything about it tells me there's fish there.  So I begin casting tight to the bank.  Don't know why it is but the bass in Big Jake seem to hold in the shallowest of water.  A good cast is within a yard of dirt.  If you're throwing a spinner like I usually do you'd best be winding up your slack on the lure's descent.  The bottom is lined with mud, weeds and sticks (this is beaver country).  If you want to catch bass on Big Jake you better have your spinner moving the instant it hits the water.
     A decade back R. Dean and I were fishing this very same spot on a warm summer day.  Good thing it was warm 'cause there were passing showers in the area.  Every so often the area they were passing was directly overhead.  Rained so hard it was difficult to tell where the lake ended and the air began.  Years earlier I'd stashed a sponge in the bow of the canoe.  Over time it had molded some but still worked to sop up the pool under our feet.  On the upside the fishing was as good as it gets.  Wet drawers were no problem.  Rain be damned we just kept right on flinging our spinners.
     Most everyone I fish with is right handed.  On Big Jake that means setting up a left handed reel.  I've  been shown time and again some righties just can't seem to reel left handed.  Don't ask me why.  As far as I know in their case it's genetic or maybe biblical or maybe 'cause they're Dutch.
     Whatever the reason, those that can't, have to be rigged to compensate.  That's why El Dean is the master of the tube jig.  No matter what, his lure is going to end up on the bottom by the time he switches hands on the rod.  The tube is nearly weedless and works like a charm for him.  Surprised the hell out of him when it did and me too.  It was around the corner from this first point that El began to get his feel for the tube.  Now if I could only get him to upgrade his thirty year old Snoopy spincast combo.  Seeing as how he's been a Peanuts fan since age nine I don't think that's happening.
     The following quarter mile of shore holds three bays and a point.   Five years ago it also held a downed tree.  That tree, I recall it being a mature, beaver dropped aspen, was the scene of a strained father-son relationship.  There L. Dean and his son R. Dean had a heated moment 'cause R. was hammering bass like they were pigeons sitting in the branches of the sunken tree and he was throwing them popcorn.  L. was in the stern on boat control.  R. would cast, get hung in a limb and his old man would paddle in to free the spinner.  When L. would start to back out R. would cast again and hook up with a bass. In short, the son caught a dozen bass out of that aspen and his dad never got to pick up his rod.  Now, it's possible it didn't happen exactly that way but during R's run of luck, his dad caught little but grief.
     Big Jake has two main bays.  The north bay I've been talking about is the small one.  No more than forty acres.  First couple of times on the water told me there were no fish in this end.  Caught not a one even though it looked good.  An ancient couple in an even older boat and motor showed me differently one fine June evening.      
     The bay's not deep, no more than six feet.  Here and there are pockets of lily pads.  The good ones with big leaves and white flowers.  Pretty to see and for one reason or another, probably food, they seem to hold bass pike and sunfish.  Small beds also pocket the middle of the bay but for some reason working them is a wasted effort.
     Acre sized beds can be a hoot to fish.  'Specially in a canoe.  R. and L. Dean have a predilection for the big beds.  They'll park themselves tight to shore and bobber fish the small openings between pads.  Their method is always good for bluegills and bass, particularly on those bluebird sunny days in the middle of the afternoon when nothings happening out on the open water.  Maybe it's the shade under the pads that attracts the fish.  Whatever the reason the fight is usually short.  You either yank the bugger out of the cover immediately or lose it to the weeds.  Sometimes that four pound bass turns out to be a panfish and a wad of green.  Either way it's always fun even if the fight only lasts three seconds.
     The big south bay is entered by a hundred yard long channel.  Not deep, sand bottomed and a thicket of lake grass from end to end.  The shallow bay to the right as you leave the channel was where I caught my first Big Jake bass.  Seems there's always fish along the shore.  Never caught any bigger than a foot but catching some's better than just casting.
     Truth be known there are no wall hangers in Big Jake even though the DNR has had catch and release regulations in force for better than a decade.  To my eye the big end of the range has moved from fifteen to sixteen inches, maybe.  That's the disappointment of Big Jake.  But I keep going back in hopes those sixteen inchers might someday sneak up on twenty.
     About a decade ago I made up my mind to never fish Big Jake again.  I'm one of those fishermen who likes to have the possibility of catching the fish of a lifetime flying out there with the next cast.  That hope doesn't paddle the waters of this lake.  Lots of bass, a few walleyes and now bluegills and crappies.  But no large bucketmouths.
     I stuck to my guns for better than a year.  What brought me back was a string of bad fishing days with the Deans.  And the truth of, "Oh well, there's always Big Jake."  So we went and we caught.  Hammered 'em actually.  Then I looked around the shore.  Three kinds of pines, red and white oak, birch, aspen, hills, boulders, deer coming down to drink, beavers working the woods and shore, ospreys and bald eagles above.  All pretty much like it would have looked five hundred years ago.  No docks, no water-skiers, no cabins or buildings of any kind.  What the hell was wrong with me that I wouldn't come back because the bass weren't big enough?  My problem not the lake's.  So I came back.  Again and again.  Damn fine water, simple as that.
     Last time on Big Jake I was there with my nephew and his son.  It was a mid-summer Saturday in the afternoon.  Normally the lake is empty of fishermen but not so that day.  What could I do but apologize for the crowd of three other boats?  I wanted to show the lake off for what it normally was.  But three other boats?  Hard to take.
     My idea was for us to tour the entire shoreline.  Catch so many bass in the process they'd be stunned speechless.  Dumbfounded.  Leave the lake mumbling something like, "Never wanna see another bass no matter how long I live.  Gonna have the bass terrors in my sleep tonight."
     But no tour for us that day.  The two best bays were claimed.  Strangers had camped out on my lake and didn't look like they were ever moving.  Oddly enough Brian and Sean were impressed with the fishing.  Blessed are the innocent and ignorant.
     The right shore turns from sand to rock bottomed at the end of the first bay.  Everything about it says smallmouth to me except the lack of smallmouth bass.  Same goes for walleyes.  On the day with my nephew I did a lot of putzing along this shore.  Explored the bottom to see what was there.  Not a bad idea the first time you're on any lake.  See what could be there and fish accordingly.  It was there I saw my first Big Jake bluegills.  Looks like the DNR wasn't kidding when they reported panfish.  Next time I'll be ready.  Go with the fly rod first.  If that doesn't work it'll be slip bobber time.
     Though walleyes of size are supposed to swim in the lake I've never taken them seriously.  Maybe it's a gut feeling.  Maybe I just don't give a damn about walleyes.  That's a sinful attitude in Minnesota, the home of quality walleye fishing, but I'll just have to live with it.
     The far south end has enough of a sand beach to land a canoe and empty a bladder.  There's not enough beach to do much more than stand but after a few hour's canoe fishing, being upright is a pleasure.  As is peeling my underpants off of my butt.  That's not as simple an operation as a non-canoer might think.  Three hours of upper body weight will squeeze the flesh right through a cotton blend.  Removal is akin to removing an incredibly large bandaid and proportionately painful.
     After a rest we usually hit the first bay on the east shore.  And there's always bass to be had from the first lily pad on.  It's more or less pocket water that's worth a cautious approach.  We start deep and drift our way in.  The entire structure's not more than fifty yards wide.  Six or more bass is usual but, like I've said, they're not big.  If there are any four pounders in Big Jake, this bay and its exiting point where the lake drops off are where we'll someday catch them.  Maybe their size will be the result of the introduced panfish.  Or a doctored tape measure.
     Out from the point is the deepest part of the lake.  Maybe twenty feet if it's been a snowy winter.  Heading back toward the channel there lie clusters of cabbage beds.  I've worked them a number of times but have had little luck.  Another mystery yet to be solved.  I guess the answer is to fish the lake a whole lot more.  Get to know all the angles between ice out and freeze up.  Become the foremost expert of Big Jake Lake, a truly meaningless but fun thing to do.

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