Might as well have been early April when I headed up north on a mid-May Monday. Spring had been a come and go thing in the northland. I'd expected knee high grass to greet me. Instead it was barely long enough to mow. Yeah, we've got grass around the cabin. Not a lawn, just grass, plus some weeds, ground covers and a small variety of wild flowers covering the ground since Lois and I removed the hazel brush. Mowed anyhow and was treated to short blasts of sleet. Can't say that's happened before. There was the time in Manitoba when Allan and I fished our way through a June snow storm. But that was Manitoba. Five hundred miles north of the border where you expect next winter to overlap with the last. Thankfully we'd decided to leave the mower home on that trip. Truth was we'd have brought it had we been able to fit the mower in the canoe. A true woodsman likes a neat campsite and a mower would've added a homey touch of civilization (that and the lace curtains we hung from the jack pines).
Cleaned, dusted, washed and vacuumed the cabin. Biked the gravel roads three times and spooked a dozen deer. Even was ambitious enough to pump lube into the trailer bearings and inflate the tires (turned out they were forty-five pounds low). At least they weren't flat.
The boys from the south showed up Wednesday afternoon. After ten years of doing this trip, the unload has become routine. Twenty minutes from arrival all was as stowed as it was gonna be and the three of them were busy trying to remember how to tie knots. In the early years we'd try to hit the water as soon as possible. That meant nearby, marginal water and a late supper. But last year we began to wise up and ate before heading out. Same this year. By four-thirty we were chowing down (slurping up?) on homemade spaghetti. An hour later we were on the road heading to bass heaven.
Most Minnesotans would consider early season bass a travesty, an invasion of the spawning bedroom. So did the DNR till this year. Now there's two weeks of early season catch and release at a time when bass were once verboten. Could be some form of enlightenment. More likely the DNR came to accept the fact that it was already happening, had been since the beginning of fishing regulations, didn't have much effect on the bass population and there was no way to prove if a fisherman was trying for bass or small pike. As it turned out all of the females we caught were spawned out.
It'd been cold for a week and the water was just right for chilling beer. As it turned out our first day was filled with short strikers. And there weren't a lot of them. But we did boat a few. Pretty much what I figured. Seems I've got this half full glass problem. When my intuition tells me the fishing'll be slow, it's slow. When I figure it'll be hot, there's a fifty-fifty chance it will be. Back in my teens a good friend of mine always put odds at fifty-fifty, "it'll either happen or it won't." A smart man would simply say the fishing will be what it will be. I'm not that smart.
A couple of years ago I did some serious thinking about whether the glass was half full or half empty. Got this idea if the water filled the top half of the glass instead of the bottom, we'd all agree as to the glass's water status, as in "that's some weird water you got there.'. Maybe even bow down like it was a golden calf. Maybe get a new commandment. Problem was how to get the water in the top half without nothin' being in the bottom. Tried turning it over real quick but that just made the floor wet. I'll get back to you on how freezing the water worked out.
The highlight of the evening was seeing four beavers at the same time. As usual, the first tail slap caught my attention. No matter how many times I've heard a beaver whack, the first one of the night always triggers 'twelve pound bass' in my brain. We figured them to be members of the same family. Seems up to four adults winter over in the same lodge. Wouldn't have taken the time to look that up if there hadn't been a quad of them on Silver Lake. Jakob would probably have preferred to catch a boatload of bass and pike but at least he was getting a little northwoods atmosphere. Looking back over the years I do remember some of the fishing but, more so, I recall simply being there on the water.
The wind paid a visit on Thursday. Not a big wind just a little slap in the face. We were on a good lake and again had it to ourselves. The access was on the leeward shore. From our protected perch the lake looked safe enough for Ryan and Jakob. Keep in mind that Ryan is a rear seat neophyte. On all previous trips his dad sat in the stern where he learned a canoe has a mind of its own. Simply put, a canoe abhors a straight line. Throw in it's buddies wind, waves, load imbalance and inertia and you've got the makings for continual s-curves. I know that from experience. But it wasn't control I was worried about. I put them in the Wenonah because of its stability. She's a tough boat to roll. It'd be wonderful if Jake caught fish, even better if he stayed dry. I wanted him to be happy and return to the Northland many times. Maybe even do a brief Boundary Waters trip when he's old enough and his grandpa is not too old.
Seems I mentioned load balance as a consideration in canoe control. Jake's a slim nine years old. Would've been considered slim in any generation. Fast as the wind, athletically gifted but reed thin. His dad Ryan probably goes in the one hundred, seventy pound range. When the two of them were afloat a couple of inches of air separated the bow from the lake, not a good thing should the wind arise. Begged the question, "When is a canoe like a sail?"
We'd been on this lake several times in the past. Had a reputation as a 'go to' lake when the wind was up on big Leech Lake to the north. Less than two hundred acres, Three Island Lake has more than its share of structure. Points, bays, reefs and five(?) islands. Has all the usual suspects when it comes to fish, even a few walleyes. When we're on the water we don't target anything in particular. To us a big bluegill is as good a prey as a big pike. Maybe that's an exaggeration but you get the idea.
There's not a lot of room in a canoe for fishing gear so we tone it down. Our gear set up is two rods apiece, one with a slip bobber, the other with a spinner on a snap swivel. Tackle box apiece and the stern man has a needle nose and a jaw spreader tied off to the thwart in front of him. Simple and effective.
Didn't take more than a few yards to tell us the fishing would be difficult. A cloudless blue sky and cold, fish tank clear water is a tough combination to beat. But seeing as how I like scoping out the bottom of a lake and the bottom was sharply visible to eight feet, I was a happy man. A lake bottom speaks a language of its own. Over the years I've picked up enough its words to carry on a crude conversation, kind of like bargaining for a shirt in a foreign bazar. Whether I get a good deal or not has more to do with the sales person than my savvy of the lingo. Doesn't matter. Like Chauncey Gardner in "Being There", I just like to watch.
Back when I was a kid on summer vacation, me and my buddy Duane would hike down to Weber Lake with a hand held net and our fishing poles. When we lost interest in not catching anything, Duane'd grab the net and we'd spend a half hour scooping stuff from the pond scum close to shore. I suppose we'd hope against hope there'd be a sunnie or two in the net but, as I recall, there never was. On the other hand there were a lot of other wiggly animals. Neat stuff. Being boys we found it all interesting. Guess that boy still hangs around inside me somewhere and likes to peer over the gunwale of a canoe to see what's down there. Like my Uncle Emil would say, "There's a lesson there. Beats me what it is."
Along the north shore, immediately to the west of the access there were groves of cabbage peeking up from the bottom. Umm, umm, cabbage is good. Not so much to eat but I've been told predator fish like to hang around it, gives 'em something to hide behind. The plants I was seeing weren't of any size. In a few weeks they'd break the surface and sprout flowers. Also grab treble hooks and gum up lures. Could be fish know they're meat and hang around cabbage so an angler can have a little cole slaw with his meal. Balance in life, it's everywhere.
Larry and I leapfrogged the other two. Yeah, we were trying to beat the youngsters to the good water. That's what grandpas do. Our remaining good days are limited and we have to grab for the ring while we can. The kids have decades left to them. Their time will come. Didn't matter, we might have led them up the shore but we found no fish. Even the cabbage disappeared.
We'd fished Three Island Lake a number of times in the last decade. A decade earlier Larry and Ryan even went for an unintended swim. Odd thing is, for all the hours spent on the water we'd only fished half the lake. Not sure how that happened but it did. Today the plan was to see it all.
In the northwest corner the map showed a deep bay and islands. Hearsay had it as a honey hole of pike and bass. Of course hearsay tends to over inflate things like a cheap balloon. Only one way to find out. We turned the corner into a little world I'd been before on different lakes. Odd how that works out.
On the flip side, I'd had a mental image what this bay would look like. Done that before. Look at a map, daydream a bit and voila, I know exactly what a place will look and smell like. Turned out, once again I was wrong. My image was painted in grays and blacks, stump filled corners, lily pad clusters here and there, cruising pike tearing free of my red and white Dardevle as they hurdled deadheads. Could have been spawned in my early teens by pencil drawings I'd seen in outdoor magazines.
The reality was Minnesota tropical, bright light, sky blue water, acres of jade colored lily pads afloat in bog stained water surrounded by birch and pine. Seemed to go back at least a quarter mile. In here Larry turned our first bass and pike. And that was it. Maybe I should have packed some Dardevles.
Jake and Ryan pulled into the bay about the time Larry was reeling in his pike. The two were upright and dry. I took that as a sign Ryan was doing okay in a canoe spoiling to cause trouble. A brief chat and they slid though a narrow opening into an even more remote bay. Don't believe they found any fish back there but did spook a pair of swans. And when swans are spooked, their honking ruckus can be heard for miles. Off they flew, wings beating lake till they rose and circled above us beneath a soaring eagle. Would have made a great photo had I the right camera and presence of mind to use it. Seems like most of the great photo ops end up as missed chances. Or in my case, a gape-jawed stare and an, "Ain't that somethin'?"
Leaving the bay, the four of us rode the downwind express and tried to fish the west shore as it passed by in a blur. Who'd have believed we were sticking to the plan? Guess there's another lesson there. Once on the water it's all about the fish. Plans go out the window when the bite is on. A few years earlier on Burntwood Lake in Manitoba, my son and I were on the lookout for big walleyes. We never found them. We did find a pair of evenings when the two and three pounders just wouldn't turn us loose. The big walleye plan quickly changed into the 'what the heck, let's stay here and hammer walleyes, saugers and perch by the dozens' plan. Flexibility or sloth? You be the judge, I just wanted to catch me some fish.
At the downwind end of the lake lay an inlet of not-yet-in-bloom lily pads. In the pads swam bass. Even caught a few and would've caught more had not the wind moved us about like the proverbial leaf. Would've been nice had the wind consulted us as to where we wanted to go. We moved on into what turned out to be a labyrinth if small bays. Each yard we paddled put us that much farther from the upwind access. And all of those yards weighed on me. For me and Larry it would have been nothing more than a half hour workout.
For Ryan and Jakob it was a whole 'nuther story. Wasn't so much the steady headwind that'd be a problem, it was the playful zephyrs. Each turned out to be a slap to the front of their bow-raised canoe, pushing them to and fro. Ryan'd make some headway and a gust would literally spin them around. Finally they beached the Wenonah on the last point before the main body of the lake. There we switched crews. Jake climbed in with me. The Alumacraft rides lower, not a lot but enough to make a difference. Still, it was a struggle holding the nose of the canoe into the breeze. Simple enough, Jake and I went with plan B, let the wind tack us slowly to our right and finally into the lee of an island. There we corrected our course and nosed it into the waves and finally the access. Made me feel good I could still get into some crap and come out of it okay. Up front, Jake let out nary a peep. Just kept paddling. Says a lot about his personality and future. Another day on the water in which the story wasn't about fishing.