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 heartbeat quicken 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.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Two musky day?


A little over five years ago I caught a musky on a fly. I know that because after I penned a summary of the day's grouse hunt into my journal I started reading back on some of the past entries. It wasn't the first musky I'd ever caught but it was the first on a fly, and it took a fly that I'd tied myself. Thanks to that journal I was able to recall the day and if that sort of thing seems like it could be important, then you can see the value of a journal.

Up until then I'd been pretty happy casting size 4 and 6 poppers to smallmouth bass on a six-weight rod. The rest of my fly fishing consisted of a lighter rod and the usual trout flies, or at least my rendition of them with what materials I could scrounge up: feathers from game birds I'd killed and the neighbors chickens, fur from locally trapped animals. For a long time any deer hair I used came from a taxidermist friend. It was all natural and I couldn't see paying for deer hair when I could get it free, and who cared about color? I still don't know much, but I've learned a lot about deer hair since then.

Scott caught musky fever first and was tying big colorful flies he called “big birds.” When you first see one of those handfuls of material plop on the water you have to chuckle. But after a while, when floating down a backwoods river known for big muskies, you scrutinize that same fly and say “Oh boy, that's gonna get bit!”
 

We were on that river recently. Fall time – probably the best time for muskies. You take a day off from grouse hunting and give the dogs a rest. The shotgun is benched and the big rod is pulled out again. The ten-weight sink tip line ends with a 30 pound (or maybe 40) leader, a foot or so of wire and a heavy duty snap. A fistful of hair and feathers that's tied to a hook resembling something you'd hang your coat on, only much sharper, is twisted onto that snap. Put on some waders 'cause you might have to jump outta' the boat to land a fish. Then you're ready.

The fish was prowling off the left bank, ready to eat. It might have heard the fly hit the water and perhaps the vibration caused by the hefty deer hair attracted it. Maybe it was the way the bucktail kicked as the fly was stripped through the water and maybe the color had something to do with it. At any rate the musky turned to it just under the the surface.

By now we all know to point the rod at the fish and strip-set hard when a musky hits. Sometimes I remember to do it right and an exciting battle is on. Scotty pulled oars to get us into mid-river away from submerged cover and obstructions while I enjoyed the happy pleasure of a rod bending strong fish. A couple times the musky was close but upon seeing net it took off on another line stealing run. You don't land a musky all that often and it easy to get over eager, but when the time was right Scott scooped the fish and I had another musky in my hands. It wasn't a monster, but any fish as long as your leg is something to see.


 
That's about when the rain started and the temperature dropped. We took turns at the oars and talked through a number of topics waiting for a strike. A couple of small pike hooked themselves with their slashing attacks but the exhilaration was short lived and cold rain had us wishing for another layer of clothes and thinking about a warm fire and glass of whiskey. Scott asked how many muskies I'd caught on my best day. It was a year ago that we floated this very stretch and Scott hooked and landed two nice fish. One musky makes for a good day, two is really good, and plenty of trips end with none. I've had action with more than one before, but I've never landed more than one in a day.

Then it hit! Another musky on! I pulled him from the bank and fought him long enough for Scott to say I was going to have a two musky day. Out in the middle of the river Mr. Musky was up and twisting like a snake on a stick before it cleared the water and left me holding a limp line. I'm convinced these muskies clamp down on a big fly and just hold on. You strip hard to slide the hook into their jaw but sometimes you're just tugging the fish like playing tug-of-war with a big dog. Just when you're thinking what a great photo it will make the fish merely opens it's mouth and pretty much spits the fly out. It's happened to me a lot. Muskies are mean that way.
 
 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Time spent well


From my canoe I looked upstream at the falls, still amazed that the entire river fits and falls through that narrow rock gorge. Above the falls the wide and lazy river narrows to a steady and strong slick at a surprising rate. It pays to pay attention. Long ago I'd heard a story of a Forest Service employee who's aluminum canoe had been pulled into the falls along with himself and his springer spaniel. The dog survived.



I paddled into the bay I hoped would be loaded with bass but was disappointed that weeds had pretty much filled what I once remembered as a honey hole. The most interesting thing there was a boat that apparently went down the falls. It was stuck upside-down in mud but I could see the bow smashed in. I don't know how it ended up where it did, but if anyone had been hurt I would have heard about it. Recovering it will be tough - if anyone bothers to try. Surveying the scene I recalled some harrowing experiences I've had with dangerous water and realized with a different turn of a leaf I could've easily not been here today. I looked skyward for a moment then touched the zipper on my life jacket.
 





Near the entrance to the bay, in the river proper, I caught smallmouth bass with deerhair poppers in jumbled rocks along the shoreline. Yielding to the current I eased downstream and aimed for a rocky point across the river. A commotion behind caught my attention and I turned to see I had an audience. Several adults and a passel of children had found the portage trail around the falls and hiked it to rivers edge. If there was ever a time to blow a cast that was it, but my popper flew straight and true and a nice bass exploded on it the second it hit the water. I landed the fish amid the cheers and waves of the folks across the river. To makes matters even better, my next cast connected too! Maybe my spectators thought I was showing off, but at any rate after that second fish they disappeared up the hill into the woods.
 




Autumn is on the way. A couple of frosty mornings let us know, as if we needed reminders. Grouse hunting season opened a couple of days ago and it's time to start splitting the hours between fishing rods and shotguns. It may be a little bittersweet for me but my English setter, Gabby, is thrilled. Autumn doesn't last long so we'll make the best of it. I was a regular at the skeet club for the last couple of months hoping to tune up the old shooting form, to good effect I hope.


 
But there was still the urge to organize a couple of fly boxes for some late season trout fishing. So little time, so little time.





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Revisted River


There are worse problems than trying to decide where to go fishing, for sure, but if you're surrounded by water choosing one place can be a conundrum. There's a lot to consider. You probably know what species of fish you're going after, but will it be on a lake or a stream? Who will you have for companions, if any? Waders, canoe, boat? How far away is it? Will it be a day trip or should you bring a tent or motel money? Time of year, weather, moon phase? It can get complicated. Or not. Whether it's someplace new or an old favorite, once you make that first cast it all becomes pretty simple. So I thought of a river I hadn't been on for a long time, and why it took so long to think of it is a mystery. 
 
 I was quite a bit younger when I made it a mission to paddle my canoe on all of the area rivers and I spent a couple of days camping and exploring this one, call it Kawipinni River. A few years later the owner of the one commercial fish camp on the river asked me to work for him guiding some out-of-state anglers who only wanted someone to handle the boat up and down the river while they cast crank-baits for smallmouth bass. The pay was good so I moved into one of the comfortable cabins for a week to show these guys what I knew of the river.
 

The fishing was fine but not what they'd driven a thousand miles to experience, and even though we took some breaks from bass fishing to catch nice stringers of walleyes and some big northern pike, they weren't catching the numbers of bass they'd hoped for. The weather was great, sizzling fresh fillet shore lunches were savored and evenings around the camp bonfire were enjoyed, but by day four these fellas' were saying things like “maybe it'll pick up tomorrow.” I had an idea.


Miles downstream, below a waterfall, there was a rocky bay I figured to be a smallmouth hot spot. It would take some work, but if the guys were willing we could trailer a small boat and motor to a pull-off from a dirt road, then drag it all down a hill to water's edge and motor upstream just past the falls into the bay. If it worked like I hoped hauling the boat, motor, and gear back up the hill would be worth it. And it did work! I ran the little outboard motor in the current while they cast and caught bass after bass amid their hoops and hollering. Those guys were so happy the chore of getting everything back up to the truck seemed effortless.


I was there again the other day with canoe and fly rod but I hardly recognized the place. The pull-off and faint route down to the river were so overgrown I wondered for a second if I was at the right place. A short reconnaissance hike confirmed my location. I pulled and dragged my canoe down through the brush to the river and pushed off. Recent rain had raised the water level more than expected (I learned later the flow rate was over three times higher than normal) but I leaned into the task and paddled upstream. I had to pause at the falls – the water below was raging with standing waves and strong swirling currents. I may have made it through to the bay just beyond, but I may not have. I surely would have been pushed up against the granite wall the river crashed against before turning downstream but I can't say it would have capsized me. I held the canoe in a backwater for long minutes trying to decide. It was probably good sense that stopped me.



 
Fly casting from a canoe isn't like standing in the bow of a drift boat or knee deep in a trout stream, but there is a quiet grace of canoe, paddle, and rod along with the satisfaction of good fishing in places most folks won't bother to find. So with the aid of my anchor and shoreline eddies I fished my way back to the take-out. There are pike in the river so I snapped a deerhair popper to a wire tippet and cast to the rocky shoreline and weed edges with good results, though the fish I caught were smaller than those I believe wait for me in that bay when the water goes down. I aim to find out.

 

 


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Berry Delish!












It's wild berry season and I have a voracious appetite for them. I gobble handfuls when I should be dropping them in the pail. But when they do make it to the kitchen the rewards are great! Happy summer!

 
 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Bass Poppin'



Any day on a beautiful river is a good day and when you catch a fish on your third cast it seems like the makings for a little better day. The next bass came soon after but took my fly down under a log and shook off. Still, things were looking good and my popper was doing the trick. I was in good company. Fish Boss Brent was just ahead rowing his boat with Jack in the bow while Brett manned the oars of his boat giving me first crack at the fish. We were floating ten miles of a favored stretch of river that produces many smallmouth bass along with plenty of pike and the rarer musky. As pretty as they come, the river flows through northern woodlands and is void of shoreline development. It's not exactly wilderness but you get the feeling it is. Wildlife is abundant and it would be the cold soul to not appreciate the surroundings. Places like this are special and though you may see the odd kayak or canoe, you'll often have the river to yourself. It's not a secret place, but secrecy is a long standing fishing tradition so we don't say much concerning it's whereabouts.

Last winter was a long one, and one night I sat down at the vise to tie up some bass poppers. I was pushing deerhair on the hook as hard as I dared and approaching the hook eye when I wondered what a piece of foam would look like out front. Next thing I knew the foam-face popper was tied. After the trimming I was looking at something I figured would pop some water. I liked it so I tied a couple more.
I'm not claiming to be the first or only one to glue some foam onto a hair popper, but I'd never seen it before. I was eager to try 'em when the season came and so far this summer those poppers have been my go-to flies. Part of catching fish is confidence in what you're casting and it didn't take long before I was a believer. Now, to be honest I can't say they perform better than any other big popper but when you spend the time working up deerhair flies that turn out to be fish catchers they easily become favorites.




And while these are bass bugs, anyone who fishes the warm water lakes and streams in this country is bound to encounter some northern pike and muskies. Those toothy critters can get kind of rough on my flies. Years ago my father loved casting big wooden plugs (I suppose they're call crankbaits today) over weed beds and lily pads and I still have a couple of the old lures sporting toothmarks from the pike and walleyes he'd catch.


This is the second version of this fly I've tied. The first was lost to a big fish several weeks ago. This one has fooled smallmouth, largemouth, a couple of rock bass, some pike and a musky even had hold for awhile. Some of the tail is gone, feathers tore out and broken; port side rubber legs ripped off; body chewed up and torn-up foam showing those teeth marks. Sure, it would still fish. I could even patch it up some. But I'll likely just tie another. We've all had trout flies chewed down almost to the bare hook that we've discarded without ceremony, but I might hang on to this bass bug for awhile just to remind me of some fine times on the water. Gotta' love it!



Friday, June 8, 2018

Taco Tuesday Smallmouth


We were sitting anchored in a shady spot on the river. It was lunchtime and we munched hefty sandwiches trying to figure out how to improve our luck and catch some bass. We'd all started the day fishing streamers thinking that was the way to go in the high water, but weren't having much action. I'd taken one smallmouth on a red and white Murdoch, but overall the streamers weren't producing. Tom finally tied on a big white deerhair diver and soaked it with floatant figuring if the fish weren't biting anyway, it would a least be fun fishing topwater. I was on the oars and we eased into a wide spot with little current and watched Tom's fly plopping across the surface. It surprised us all when a big smallie shot out from under a log and hit the fly. It was a good battle with a tough, broad river smallmouth until I slipped the net under the good 17 incher. A smiling Tom said, “Let's have lunch and I'll have a beer to celebrate!”

I don't need to tell you Capt. Jack and I were into our fly boxes digging for deerhair. There are some toothy critters in the river, pike and musky, but Jack said he seldom sees them in this stretch so I removed my wire bite tippet and went with fluoro like Jack and Tom were using. Turns out that was a mistake. It was my turn in the bow and I knotted on one of the foam-faced poppers I tied last winter. I had four in different colors and if they worked like I hoped I would tie more.

Jack pulled the anchor and steered us out into the river. I tossed my popper to the bank and pow! A nice bass took it on the first cast! Things were looking up. Jack knows the river better than anyone and we worked the bank cover he figured was best, and he's seldom wrong. Between the rocks and downed trees you'd have to believe we were in fish heaven. Another bass on my popper had me feeling mighty good and I lost yet another when it threw the barbless hook at the boat. Then there was a fallen tree trunk half submerged laying parallel to the current and my cast to it brought an immediate splash like someone dropped a bowling ball into the water and my fly was gone! Bit off quicker than you can say it. Pike or musky? We never had a good look but my new favorite fly was lost.

A beauty of a day, warm and sunny with a slight breeze on a flowing river with a few rocky rapids along the way. Tom and I continued to pick up a fish here and there, occasionally losing one, but Jack was just not connecting. Sure, that's the way it goes sometimes, but rare is the day Jack doesn't catch fish, and it wasn't sitting too well. There was, after all, the prize! A trophy of sorts... well, a trinket really – a little wooden pendant granting the bearer bragging rights at least until the next fishing trip, but not much else.



We passed the “leaning tree” and the “t-island” where there are always big bass waiting but even Jack couldn't draw a look from those “sure spots.” It was getting towards the end of the day when Jack tied on a big natural deerhair diver. So big that a couple of small bass went for it but couldn't get hooked. Tom mentioned if he caught a bass on that fly it would likely be a big one. Until then it was looking like Tom was in line for the best fish of the day. Then it hit, a good smallmouth that had Jack smiling. These river bass are tough and strong and we all watched Jack's fish jumping to throw the hook. But Jack knows how to fight a fish and soon enough I let go the oars for the net. Sure enough, Jack landed the biggest smallmouth of the trip.

We stopped at a nice resort for dinner and over tacos and margaritas Tom and I tried to deduct inches from Jack's fish for everything we could think of from home-water advantage to delay-of-game for changing flies and leaders. In the end, however, we just had to congratulate him and buy his dinner.