Saturday, May 18, 2019

Fishing the X-Gurgler

Thanks to the availability of the Internet's public forum I suppose there is someone writing something about everything you could imagine, but I mostly limit myself to the outdoorsy stuff, you know, hunting and fishing and such. One of the blogs I like to keep up with is Ralph's Fly Box. Now I don't know Ralph personally, but it's plain he is a fly fisherman and he ties some nice looking flies that look attractive to me and he posts the recipes and how-to videos. Of course if we all tied just one example of every fly available over the Net we'd fill more boxes than we'd have room for, so we gotta' pick and choose. I tie many poppers but Ralph's X-Gurgler is a little different and seemed like something I should try so I tied up a few and spent a couple of hours on a couple of little lakes with a light rod and canoe.

Here in the northland it's still early season and the water is cold, so I had no high expectations but fishing is better than not fishing and I hoped the bluegills would be hitting on top. As usual, I was alone on the lake except for the nesting loon I came upon. 

The noise a 'gill makes when it takes a surface fly is like no other and those little fish fight like the dickens, especially when they're the good sized bluegills the gurgler was attracting. I'm a pretty big guy with big hands – my buddies say I make a good fish look small when I hold it, so a bluegill that fills my palm is a good one!

I can't say I've ever had faster action and I lost track of just how many I caught. A cast over any log or brush pile, a twitch or two, and fish on! I tied that fly in a couple of colors but the original black and grizzle hackle was the ticket, though a brown foam/brown hackle did OK, too. The lake I was on holds some pretty good bass, but they just weren't home that day.

The next day on a different lake that same gurgler found the bass. I've never landed a real big fish from that lake, but steady action keeps things fun and interesting.

So Ralph, your X-Gurgler works here up north, too. Thanks for the fun!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

first things first

The cure for Spring fever comes hard when we get a snow shower every week. Last night we got a couple inches. Sixty miles south the poor folks received nearly a foot, and here it is over a week into May.

While some folks are complaining and claiming disappointment, depression, and all sorts of ill will about the weather, no one seems in a hurry to leave despite the threats of doing so. I recently read a posting on social media from a fellow who stated, with arrogant authority, that anyone who retired and lived anywhere but Florida should have their heads examined. Well, I hope that dude enjoys his year-round shuffleboard and bingo, but I like it here and I believe I'll stay.

Though it hasn't been exactly “April showers bring May flowers” weather, Spring has arrived. Our pond is over it's banks and creeping into the yard from snow-melt. It's been visited by colorful mallards, and blue-wing and green-wing teal looking for a nest sight. Grouse are drumming daily and snipe are whooping it up overhead. Birds are singing, woodcock are peenting, and geese are honking. The ice is off the lakes and streams are flowing deep. There are herds of deer in the hayfields munching on new tender shoots poking up.

I've tied up some new flies (perhaps better described as “creations”) for the upcoming bass and muskie season and a few small panfish offerings I wanted to try on a near-by lake. So I pulled my canoe out of the shed and went to strap in down on my truck when I noticed the hull was cracked in several places. I got hold of a buddy who's a factory rep for the canoe builder and got some answers as to why it cracked and how to repair it. Of course the sight of my broken canoe was disappointing, and though I suppose I could have ordered the special epoxy from Amazon, there's a marine supply in Duluth that handles it and a trip to Duluth could provide a reason to drive up the shore to check out the steelhead rivers. The canoe needs fixing, sure, but first things first. Yesterday I left the store with my glue and pointed my truck for the North Shore.

It was cloudy, lightly raining, and 46 degrees. I went to a favorite river and was surprised to see only a couple of cars parked at the access. After donning waders and gear I hiked the half-mile into the river and was even happier to see no one around. I descended the steep and slippery hill down to the water partway in an exciting slide on my backside and was happy for no witnesses. I don't think it was all that graceful.

I spotted two steelhead immediately in a shallow run and followed them up to deeper water. For an hour I worked the water up and down, holes and runs, with yarn egg patterns to no avail. Most of the steelhead I've taken have been on nymphs – I sometimes wonder why I ever try eggs. It wasn't long after I knotted on a #14 Prince that I was into a fish. A good battle in a good pool, I suddenly wouldn't have minded someone watching. I snapped a quick photo before slipping it back to the river. It wasn't the biggest fish I've seen, but it's the first of the year and a good one to start with.

I fished awhile longer without action and more anglers started showing up. If I left then I could make it home for supper, and I still had to get up that darn hill.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Finally, no coat.

A few weeks ago I cut down a birch tree and split up the best of it to add to next winter's firewood. Since then it snowed a couple of times, and it rained a bit. A few freeze/thaws had the tangled tops of that tree buried and frozen to the ground. Things are warming up now and the snow is disappearing so yesterday I pulled those tops from the ground and bunched them up to burn later. This morning I walked out there and flushed two grouse that were nipping on the easy to reach birch catkins.

I always enjoy seeing grouse and am very happy to have them living near. They haven't starting drumming yet – the drumming logs deeper in the woods are still snow covered, but any day now...

Signs of spring are apparent. A few days ago the temp was barely above freezing – today it hit 60. I ate lunch in the sun. There was a robin in our yard. I saw a butterfly flitting about. Water is running down the driveway. It's easy to track mud into the house. I found two deer ticks on my dog. In town folks are happy and smiling even when dodging the pot holes in the street. Young guys are driving around in jacked-up trucks with the windows down and the heater and CD player running wide open. My friends are sending pics of boats and newly tied flies, eager for the fishing. I'm excited about the wooden bass poppers I made this winter and can't wait to try them. Some steelhead are being caught down near Lake Superior.

I've always said home is my favorite place to be and it would be sad if it were otherwise. But I have some other favorites for when the time is right and I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

20 March

He strutted up from the alder bottom and respectfully skirted the gravesite of a fine bird dog, though the grouse couldn't know that for the small marker is still buried beneath a thick blanket of snow. Nor could he find his drumming log at the east end of the little meadow under that same layer of snow. It's the first day of spring, after all, and he's eager to get things rolling.

So the grouse wandered around awhile, picking at a bud here and there weaving in and out of the balsams and buck brush and crisscrossing the meadow several times. The sun felt good and was warm in the open and starting to melt the snow, but freezing nights had put a crust on the top layer and the grouse could no longer burrow in for insulation. He spent much of his time hidden under low balsam branches and had survived the worst of winter but dared to expose himself on a lovely sunny morning with the urge to let the world know, or a least a potential mate, that he was on his territory and ready for spring.
But his drumming would have to wait, for no self-respecting cock grouse is about to display his fanned tail and beat his wings from a snow drift.

I found his track on my morning stroll across the meadow, Gabby, running on top of the snow and eager to be hunting, found and pointed him perched on a branch poking out of the snow near his buried drumming log. I left the packed trail and post-holed through crusted knee-deep snow to see him sail off back into the thick bottomland, but he will return soon.

A neat sight and no better promise of Spring.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Spring is on the way. Right?

It was a tent camp about 30 miles north, trying to get a couple of setters ready for the spring field trials. A tent pitched, dogs staked out, stone fire ring and lantern hanging from a cut pole tripod. That's what the old photo shows. It was the same time of year as it is now. We'd work native ruffed grouse and woodcock during the day and in the evening I'd sip whiskey with the dogs for company and listen to howling wolves. There was no snow.

Today when I stepped off the packed trail I sank almost to my crotch.

I like winter in it's time and I have the equipment and gear to enjoy it. I like big, juicy cheeseburgers too, but that doesn't mean I want to eat them everyday for six months. It's still winter here but the days are getting longer and I'm thinking about fishing like I do every year about now.

A month ago a whittled willow bass popper was interesting to make. Then a dry cedar branch was found and now there are a few wooden poppers ready to knot onto a leader when the time comes. On those evenings when I get to wondering where most of my life went when I wasn't looking, I can close my eyes and picture the wake of a big fish behind one of these poppers and be excited for what's ahead.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

whittling winter

It's so cold now the Postal Service has canceled mail delivery for today. I haven't heard of that happening before, but considering what most of the mail consists of I often wish I'd never get any. Still though, USPS does a good job at bargain rates. I can tell you, if you hired me to take an envelope across the country it would cost you a heck of a lot more than a stamp!

The last few days we've awoken to temps ranging around 35 below zero, give or take 5 degrees. Daytime highs reaching 10 below, but with the biting wind dramatic weathermen are warning us all to take shelter. Schools, of course, have been closed for a couple of days and some businesses in town have shut the doors, also. But it's been fine for splitting wood with my 8-pound splitting maul – those frozen blocks of wood pop open easily when I hit them. It's said firewood warms you twice, once when you make it and again when you burn it and working out in the sunny, frigid mornings is a pleasing way to start the day – maybe the best way to avoid cabin fever is not let it take hold in the first place. When your cheeks start burning and your fingers are too numb in mittens to hold the maul it's time to go indoors and you won't need a TV weatherman to tell you so.

Up here we get plenty of sub-zero winter days and it's a given that indoor projects like fly-tying keeps us in the right frame of mind thinking about tomorrows to come. I cut a branch from a dying willow a while back just for days like this. With knifes, files, and sandpaper I'm shaping a couple of wooden poppers. Just to do something different I sawed a disc from the front of one and hollowed it out with drill and dremel before gluing the disc back on. I can't say if that will accomplish anything but it was interesting to do. After I glue the hook into the groove filed into the bottom I suppose I'll paint some kind of frog pattern on it. The other I think I'll leave natural and finish with the same spar varnish I use on my snowshoes – but I'll have to wait for warm weather for that 'cause that varnish stinks to high heaven and not fit to open in any building inhabited by humans or critters.

Fun stuff on cold days and I'll finish with some feathers and flash and believe I'll catch some fish with these. Come to think of it, I know where there's a cedar tree I could snip a branch from...

Saturday, December 22, 2018

It's that time of year.

The other day I stopped in a bar for a drink. I was in town anyway, checking off the list of stops and tasks I try to do whenever I make the drive in – a trip of several miles of dirt road before the county paved road that leads to the highway. It really isn't all that far but it's too far to just pick up, say, a pizza and head home. So I'll bring a cooler for cold groceries; gas cans for the small engines; a list for the hardware or fleet store, etc. Multi-tasking, you get it.

There are a couple of favored establishments I get to just enough that the barkeeps know me by name, but that day I picked a different spot. I wanted the atmosphere but didn't care to visit with anyone. I ordered a whiskey the way I like it and suffered an instant of sticker shock when the waitress took my ten-spot and didn't return enough change for a decent tip.

Over the murmur of the other patrons I slowly sipped the cocktail and pondered the melancholy ideas and thoughts that always seem to come over me this time of year. Not one to spend much time looking back – I'd rather look ahead – but every once in a while... thoughts drift to days of youth and early days outdoors.

Catching trout from what's now called the driftless area with #0 mepps spinners because it was effective and Mother delighted in seeing a dishpan full of gutted and gilled fish. She was a wonderful women and could bring the best out of any game or fish. I'll never forget her smiling in the kitchen wearing dress and apron preparing everyday meals that I now realize were events. Meals like that are rare these days.

In high school I skipped classes one day to go fishing and was caught by my shop teacher who was doing the same thing. I guess we both got by with it.

Cold mornings in the marsh as ducks poured into our decoys and Dad patiently watched as I tried and missed shots over and over again. The little boats we used and the strong retrievers found what we did drop. Pheasants cackling up before Dad's beloved spaniels. The hot barrel stove; Gramp's wrinkled face. Odors of whiskey, bacon, and wet dogs. Melancholy memories, yes, but sweet ones all the same.

And more recent thoughts: a warm home, a healthy family and a daughter to be proud of. A lit Christmas tree. Music of the season, yep, I love it. The promise of days ahead with friends and dogs and rods and guns. Good days, indeed.

Just some of what goes through my head this time of year. Grateful? You bet.

Can I bring you another one?” No thanks I told her, it's time to head home.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Gunning before winter

You usually figure if you can see the grouse you can kill it. In the mostly tight cover we hunt around here the bird often disappears behind bush or tree before it is out of shotgun range, but it seems I have a hard time remembering that. Many times I've stood flat-footed after passing a shot I thought was too far only to realize the grouse was easily within shooting distance when I last saw it. Sometimes, however, they are just too far out for a chance.

I'd just turned the corner and peered at the long straight uphill trail that would lead to the better cover I wanted to hunt. My busy setter, Gabs, was out on my left side darting in and out of the tangled maze of blowdowns in overgrown mixed balsam, maple, and popple. I could hear her bell clearly enough and could see her every few seconds zigzagging through the thick stuff in her quest for birds, though I've known her to get more interested in pine squirrels than I like. And I can't say she's totally adverse to rabbits, either. I started up the hill when a jumpy grouse took wing ahead. It was probably 30 yards out when it flushed and though there was a chance one or two of my load of 7 1/2s might have caught up and hurt it, this one seemed truly too far to shoot. The bird flew straight up the trail to the top of the hill and I thought we might find it again.

It had been a few years since I'd been on that trail and up top things were looking familiar and welcoming again. Little stands of pine and balsam broke up the aspens and along the way the trail dipped to little creeks and runoffs lined with alders and willows. Sunshine glowed on rock outcroppings common here near the Canadian border and patches of hard stunted scrub oaks rattled their few remaining leaves. I stayed the easy route on the trail and let Gabby do her thing in the cover with little direction from me.

My heart quickened a few beats when we came to a swale of young aspen that dropped off to the right. Gabs was in there and making game, trying to work out the scent and get a locate on the bird. I stood ready and waiting, guessing the grouse was a runner. Suddenly the explosive whir of wings started behind me and I spun around to see a big grouse highlighted in the sun and speeding for the conifers just ahead of it. I hardly recall raising my gun but the shot felt right and a moment later I heard the throes of wings beating the ground and saw a feather drifting in the air against the green balsam backdrop. Gabby came over and pointed the dead bird on the ground and I lifted the mature male grouse in my hand.

A big grouse adds a comfortable heft to a gamebag and we continued on. At a muddy crossing I tried to stay dry while Gabs pushed into the alder run and locked on point. I followed in clumsy, splashy fashion and heard a grouse flush before I had any hope of a try. After that another went out wild just before we reached my friend's deer camp. I used to know where the key was hidden but there'd been some re-modeling since I'd last been there and I couldn't find it. Just as well, however, as it was a beauty of a day and we sat at the outdoor table for a rest. In four days the deer hunters would be here patrolling the woods for venison.

We took the shortcut route on our return and at the fork I watched Gabby quickly check her pace, spin to the side, take a slow tentative step and stretch out to an intense point. She was under a stand of red pines that had that clear, park-like look and the only thing between her and me was a narrow strip of hazel and dogwood brush alongside the trail – hardly enough to hide a crouching grouse – but it was and the bird blew out across the trail when I stepped closer. My gun was up almost on it's own and the grouse folded in an eruption of feathers, centered by the pattern my shotgun threw at it, with little help from me.

That's how my wingshooting goes. When I see the bird well and have a bit of moment to do it right, like on the skeet range, I often end up watching the bird sail away unscathed over two smoking shotgun barrels. When they blast out like cannonballs and fall to the shot I stand wondering how it happened, wishing I could recall the sight picture when the trigger was touched.

I should have had another good chance when I paused at an overlook to scan a beaver pond and lost track of Gabby. Moving on I spotted her solid looking towards a blowdown. Her head was low and her rear was high with her tail straight up. Her legs were pushed forward as though she was trying to keep from getting any closer. A beautiful sight that had me thinking a woodcock must be lying close to her nose. I should have walked right up to her but of course I didn't. Instead I circled around to approach from her front, dead on. I pushed through the brush on the wrong side of the blowdown when a grouse exploded out from a few feet in front of Gabby and winged past her too low to offer a shot. She had the bird nailed and all I had to do was walk up and flush it away from her. Instead I went out and flushed it back at her. You'd think by now I'd be better at this!

We moved several more grouse before reaching the truck, I missed one and couldn't get a chance at the others. I suspect Gabby couldn't resist starting one she saw running away, but nobody's perfect. I broke out a sandwich and thermos on the tailgate. We were parked in a grassy meadow bordered by the narrow dirt road to the south, and an alder swamp and lowland river on the north. Gabby had her share of a sandwich while we watched a flock of geese overhead. The earthy smell of autumn and strong coffee were captivating and I wish I'd brought my pot and campstove instead of the thermos. Just so we could wait while coffee brewed and linger here a bit longer.