Saturday, March 18, 2017

waitin' for spring, thinkin' of summer

Yep, it's cold again. Everything is frozen, more snow came and general conditions have added another verse to everyone's version of the late winter blues. This steady teetering between spring fever and cabin fever is making us all nuts. Reading about and seeing photos of anglers in other parts of the country standing in picturesque streams catching trout compounds the ailing.

Gabby and I took a hike into John's creek the other day for a change of scenery, and, mainly, because I've had a hankering to lay my eyes on some flowing water. There was some flowing water, all right, but not a lot, it's just starting to open up. John's creek is a tough little stream to get to and the brook trout that live there don't attract much attention. There is no trail along it's banks and I've never seen the tell-tales signs of anyone ever being there – no broken styrofoam worm cups, no tangled monofilament in overhanging branches, no candy wrappers or beer cans. There's an old deer stand perched on the pine knob about halfway there but when the terrain starts dropping toward the creek you have to push through a maze of balsams, willows, and alders before you finally hear the trickling of water. It's probable other anglers get there (I can't be the only one, can I?) but not the type to leave any trace of their travels, thank you. Over the years I've made several half hearted attempts at chopping out a trail but yearly blowdowns and new growth frustrated my efforts to the point that now I just bushwack in by the path of least resistance. Don't have a net hanging on your back (you won't need one, anyway) and keep your rod in the tube until you're sitting on a rock looking at the creek. You won't need waders but sturdy hiking boots are a good idea.

When you get there you'll wonder how to cast. Well, you don't. This is a brush lined backwoods little creek with no room for a backcast and not much for a forward cast. I mean, if you position yourself in the right place a very short roll cast is possible but mostly you'll fish this by flipping a weighted nymph into pockets nearly under your feet, though sometimes a quick drift with a dry fly will bring a wild brookie darting up to grab it whether there are bugs on the water or not. The season opens mid April but the creek will likely be high over its banks then, high and muddy, and the best times to catch steam trout around here seem to start when the blackflies and mosquitoes come out in force.

John's creek may be known, but it's seldom visited – it's hard to get to, tough to fish, and the reward might be just getting back to the car. Besides, no one should soak themselves in Deet that often. I'll fish John's maybe twice a summer when I can't stand not being trout fishing and feel like doing something a little bit rugged while I still can. More than once I wonder why I bother, knowing there's easier fishing elsewhere, but one of those times I'll carry a tight little pack with a campstove and pan and fry up a couple of trout in butter right on the spot 'cause sometimes ya just gotta eat 'em, and it will be fine. No, I won't build a fire and if anyone comes in behind me they'll never know I was there.

Monday, March 6, 2017


Often this time of year the days warm to above freezing and drop at night to create a crust on the snow that can hold the weight of a hiker or skier and I've had a lot of fun mornings skijouring with the dogs. It usually has to be early morning, because the couple inches of crust weakens during the day and you'll be out there slogging knee deep if you're late. I broke a ski once when I didn't get off the snow in time, but it's been a little different this late winter.

After several days of thawing temps that softened the snow and gave us all spring fever, it turned cold, real cold, twenty below zero. Two days of that and a light dusting of new snow created a condition the outdoor industry should have promoted. A week ago you could hike all day through the woods on two feet of snow frozen almost rock hard. Open meadows and fields on XC skis were effortless – better than the groomed trails – and four miles of uninterrupted power line right-of-way made for eight miles of easy recreation. It's a rare opportunity to enjoy the outdoors that many miss out on, and it doesn't last long.

I couldn't resist a hike north towards the lake so I turned the dogs loose and we were off. Easy walking on the hard snow between trees and around thickets, climbing the hills and crossing the swamp while the dogs raced ahead. The fresh snow revealed movement of wildlife only hours, or perhaps minutes, old. Even the deer could run on the hard surface. Two grouse flushed when we approached but were gone before Gabby had a chance to point. Here and there a fox had hunted the mice and snowshoe hares that left their prints everywhere. A weasel had searched edges of the ash swamp. On the hill overlooking the lake I found a stand of young Norway pines that had suffered the work of porcupines. A dozen or more six inch pines stripped of bark.

Those of us who run bird dogs have no love of porcupines but more concerning to me were the wolf tracks we came upon. Wolves are not uncommon and it's not a surprise to hear or see them occasionally, but I felt a little uneasy with the two setters running among wolf tracks that were not very old and I instantly thought of the pistol I'd left at home. We're in the woods a lot and I don't generally worry much about the wolves nor have I ever had trouble with them, but I'm not looking for the first time, either. I turned the dogs around and we headed back.

That was last week. This morning it is near 40 degrees and raining. The snow is turning to mush, the driveway is turning to slush. It's a messy time of year. The good news is there are steelhead starting in to the Brule River, and they're catching a few kamloops and cohos off the north shore of Lake Superior. It's not that far away, I think I'll rig up a rod.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Rocks and fly fishing, especially warm water fly fishing, go together like... well, you know the analogies. If there's something more fun than casting poppers and divers to a rocky shoreline populated with healthy bass, I don't know what it is. Sometimes, however, we gotta work the weeds. Particularly in late summer when the milfoil and coontail and the rest of that underwater vegetation reaches up to the surface. The same bay that was such springtime fun now clogs the trolling motor and the only way to really get to it is by paddle power. The fish are there but when each cast brings in a wad of weeds it starts to lose a lot of the fun. Then there's that pond full of lily pads. Plenty of bass and bluegills for excitement, but you only cast to the bigger openings of which are too few. A lot of water gets missed. And how about those log jams and wood filled shallows that grab even the most buoyant top-water fly?

I don't tie many weedless flies. Nobody seems to like them and there's probably a reason. Weed-guards get in the way of the hook, and thus, the hook-up. And a guard over the hook doesn't mean it will never grab some cabbage. That thing has to be stiff enough to cause the fly to ride up over some green stuff and logs but flex enough to collapse when struck by a fish and it won't be right every time. Until now I think I've had two weedless deer hair bass bugs in my box. I may have cut the guard off one I'd have to look but I know there are times when I miss the target and wish I was casting a weedless fly.

It's good to have a few so I'm tying a few. Nothing fancy and I'll likely be satisfied with a couple of foam blockheads with added mono weed-guards. Start with a green flip-flop and utility scissors and go from there. They're easy to tie and as much as I enjoy tying and fishing deer hair, those blockheads are as productive as anything. So this summer I'll be testing a weedless frog in the thick stuff. For the guard I used two strands of 20# mono lashed to each side of the hook and curved around and pulled right through the head with a needle. When the length seemed about right I pulled them up a little more, snipped 'em off and added a drop of glue before easing them back down so the ends disappear into the head. Easy to do and should work, right? It's so easy someone else is probably doing it already. I hope they're doing well.




Sunday, February 12, 2017

winter fish rambling...

Trout get all the attention, all the consideration and favorable regard, at least when you're in the midst of a group of fly fishers. I suppose it's understandable as I assume the act of sport angling was initiated by a fellow who thought it would be more fun to fool the trout in a stream with a rod, a length of silk line and an imitation of what those trout were eating rather than dragging them out in a net.
That angler was probably something of the white-collar class of the day and just as probably pretty well fed without relying on eating what he caught, though returning home with a mess of trout was certainly something to boast about and enjoy for dinner. If he really needed the food he may have used different methods. I wonder what would have happened if the spinning reel had came first.
Wild colorful trout are as pretty as can be and I'm not particular about the species. I've caught hefty brown trout that I believed, at the time, were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. Then there were stout and strong rainbows that took me into the backing and when (and if) they were finally landed it felt like being accepted into some sort of fly fisherman's nirvana. I've also stooped in a tiny stream wondering why my photos never do justice to the gorgeous little brook trout that innocently and bravely grab a fly.

Once, after a half-days drive to a driftless area trout stream, I was stringing up my rod when a Dept. of Natural Resources truck pulled up. A fisheries tech with a clipboard hopped out and of the few questions asked one was to rank, on a scale of one to five, the importance of brook, brown, and rainbow trout. I gave 'em all a five – was there any other acceptable answer?
Yeah, I do like trout fishing and even though growing up near some fine trout water and using a fly rod, I saved for the day I could buy an ultra-light spinning outfit like everyone else was using. Opening day was mostly like a colossal tailgate party. There were old Willys jeeps and broncos fording the river; dirt bikes racing up and down and on and off the two-track near the water; camps set up with volleyball nets, gas grills, stereos, and beer kegs; families sitting in webbed lawn chairs along the banks dangling nightcrawlers under everything from canepoles to ugly sticks and trying to keep the dog away from the bucket of chicken. The sportiest of all were wearing Red Ball waders and skillfully flipping #0 Mepps spinners from little Shakespeare reels. Now and then someone would hook a trout and whoops could be heard up and down the river.

Going back on opening day years later – shortly after “the movie” came out – and it was all fly fishing then. Looking each way from the bridge all I could see were yellow and orange fly lines flinging through the air. I'm not sure if it was better, but at least there were less motorized vehicles running around and participants seemed to be more focused on the fishing and less on the other crap. Of course, it was a cold, rainy day so that might have had something to do with it. Now and then someone would hook a trout and whoops could be heard up and down the river.

The trouble is, where I live there's a lot of neat water to pass to get to most trout streams – water that is home to bass, northern pike, muskies, walleyes and tasty panfish – so it's not really trouble and it's pretty easy to rig up for some of the warm-water fly fishing only minutes from home. Even at that, mentioning to one of the locals that I'm going fly fishing they're likely to assume I'm going after trout. Sure, the trout are hard to beat in the beauty department but those bass and pike are a lot of fun and look pretty darn good to me.

There's a lake 20 minutes from here that's big, full of structure, known for its walleye fishing but has also developed a reputation as a bass and musky destination. I know folks fly fish it for both, at least I've heard they do, though I've never actually seen any other fly anglers when I've been out there. Last spring while in my boat tossing deer hair bass bugs along a rocky shoreline a boatload of walleye anglers cut their engine just outside the bay I was in and sat watching me cast for ten minutes. Another day on another part of that same lake I cast my way around a point and came into view of a group of people outside their summer home to hear one of them exclaim, “look, that guy is fly fishing!” – so, apparently fly angling is not all that commonly seen.

Around here, when the uninitiated hear about landing a musky on a fly rod they think it's really something. Fly rods still carry the stigma of whippy little wands used for little trout on little streams. Landing a musky on the fly IS something, but it's a combination of good things that come together at the right time. Still, rather than trying to explain the difference between a 4 weight and a 10 weight to someone who insists the heavier the lure the farther you can toss it, enjoy a bit of bragging rights and let 'em think what they want.
An acquaintance seemed interested so I showed him some flies. He held up one of my largest 6/0 musky creations and liked the looks but informed me it was way too lightweight to cast. I didn't show him the trout flies.
It will be a while before there's any fly fishing around here. We're still driving pickup trucks on frozen lakes, skiing on several feet of snow, and trying to get some firewood put up. The days are getting longer, though, and there are some open trout streams a couple hundred miles south, so, you never know.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Some do escape.

If there is ever a time when there's not something to do that's needs doing, I don't know when that is. However, sometimes on these winter days – mornings in particular, when I'm sipping coffee and watching light snow fall while redpolls and grosbeaks try to clean the sunflower seeds from the feeder – I get to sort of daydreaming and recollecting some of the times I've had; the game I've taken, dogs I've followed, fish I've hooked, things I've seen. Whether we mean to or not I think we all head for the woods and water more for the memories than anything else, though we may not admit it. Recalling those memories is good for the soul and gets our minds off the other stuff, which in my case is the firewood I should be cutting and the bookshelves I said I'd build.

Lately I've been thinking about a rainbow trout. A certain rainbow trout that I came across over a year ago. Chris, Scott, and I were working our way down a little wilderness river that required us to wade and pull our raft part of the time and relax and drift with the current the rest of the time. Even in the shallowest riffles there was always a narrow deeper run next to the cut bank that held rainbows, dolly varden, grayling, and spawned out red sockeye salmon. I believe it was the second day of the trip and we weren't making a lot of progress because there were just too many good places to stop and fish. I suppose fishing from the raft was possible, but it just wasn't for us so we'd beach it on a gravel bar and proceed in our waders. We'd often get pretty spread out and sooner or later one of us would go back up and get the raft.

Scott and Chris had wandered downstream out of sight so I hiked back up and brought the raft down. I found the two of them casting into a nice stretch of water so I floated by them and landed the boat just above a narrows. With rod in hand I walked the shoreline through the narrows and came upon the prettiest little plunge pool I've ever seen. The pool may have been thirty feet long or it could have been less. I don't believe it was any longer. No telling how deep it was but the first five or six feet were crystal clear before turning a opaque aqua blue with it's depth. The river fell into this pool, settled, and rose up again to form a rapids at the tail end. Tangled willows lined the banks. I could have sat and peered into the water on another day, but we were all caught up in a deep-in-our-bellies kind of latent frenzy to catch more fish.

 Fishing a very ordinary egg-sucking leech pattern and enjoying extraordinary results, a short cast was dropped into the current feeding the pool. I watched the black bodied fly with pink yarn head slowly sink as it drifted through the pool. I don't know if I've ever seen a fly so clearly in the water and it was interesting to see if nothing else. It reached the end of the pool and I lifted and cast again. Again the fly drifted slowly, it's rabbit strip tail pulsing with the easy current. Then it happened.

Out of the aqua depth rose the trout. An outrageous trout that made my breath stop. Never had I seen a trout so large, so colorful, and I was to find out, so wild. The fish rose under the fly to within inches. Apparently unimpressed and relaxed, it lazily turned away and eased down out of sight. I stood there slack-jawed wondering if I'd seen what I'd just seen. 

I may have been shaking or not, I don't know the angling equivalent of buck fever, but I was half laughing when I called upstream to announce what I'd come across. Can't say my companions heard my words but Scott could tell something was up and he grabbed the net and started my way.

My mind was racing, wondering if I should add weight, change flies, or try a different approach. The trout wasn't spooked, though, and I was too excited to do anything other than cast again. I can't remember if Scott was close enough to see the fish appear again but this time it opened it's mouth took the fly in no hurry, like, I suppose, it had taken hundreds of meals drifting through the pool. It's a miracle I didn't jerk the fly from it's mouth. As a matter of fact, I think everything went right and I lifted the rod to see the fly grab the corner of the rainbow's mouth before feeling the tug. “Got 'im.”

Scott was next to me now and the fish bore deep before racing up to the surface to jump and head downstream. We watched it all and because of a hefty leader I was able to bring the fish back to the pool where we saw it dart back and forth before peeling line and aiming downstream again. I pulled as much as I thought I could. The trout pulled back. Scott readied the net.

A couple of attempts with the net proved futile – too soon, the outsized trout was just beginning it's fight. Back and forth with the fish of a lifetime! Oh, I wanted to land this trout, get my hands under it's sagging weight and peer at the brilliance a truly wild rainbow wears; to measure it, with Scott's help, and verify this fish was indeed 30 inches or better. Keep calm, keep pressure but not too much, tire this monster of a trout and bring it to hand. Would the leader hold? The knots slip? The rod snap?

The fish was downstream in the current but coming back and would soon be ours. Scott had the net low and ready but at the last moment the powerful rainbow shook it's head and suddenly turned to accelerate away, with no return. The popping sound of monofilament a harbinger to a moment of silence. Scott held the empty net and I looked at the limp line dangling from the end of my rod. What went wrong and what could have went right? It didn't matter. I hooked and played the fish until it escaped. It wasn't the outcome hoped for but was the outcome handed to me that day. And another memory was made.

I don't know if I'll ever get back to that pool – it's not an easy place to get to and takes some time and effort to pull off – but sometimes I dream about returning and camping on the bar just above that very hole where I'd stay and try for that big trout until satisfied bringing it to hand or convinced I never would.

Well, there were a lot of rainbows caught on that trip, but none that compared with the one lost, though as the days passed we floated into bigger water downstream and came into absolutely huge dollies and soon after found the reel-screaming silver salmon. There were bears and caribou and wolves to watch and I hardly gave another thought to the one that got away. If I try I can recall other big fish in other places that I might have landed but didn't, and there will probably be more in the future. But that one rainbow trout stands out as a great fish in a great place, and that's the one I'm thinking about now.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What do you expect, it's January.

When it's 35 below zero like this morning I don't feel in any hurry to get outside. I might have even stayed in bed for awhile but Gabby torpedoes herself onto my bed well before dawn and after a short wresting match it's time to get up. I was glad I took the time last night to make a few moonlit trips to the woodshed and filled the basement wood rack. The woodstove is working hard this morn to warm the house and after it gets light I'll hike out to the loft and feed the pigeons.

When I think back to the days spent wearing almost everything I owned and fighting frozen diesel engines – cracking ice cold injectors and watching freezing fuel drip from frozen fingers, shivering behind weedburners aimed at oil pans and engine blocks, laying under equipment in the snow wondering why the hell we're doing what we're doing and when and if finally getting the damn thing started then working to get the hydraulics thawed, or perch numb feet in heavy boots on a ladder on a frozen river, underside a bridge welding a broken beam diaphragm through a fogged up lens – yeah, I'm happy those days are behind me.

So I swung out of bed this morning and took a look out the window to see the dark form of a deer against the snow in the yard. It was a young deer, a frequent visitor, under the front bird feeder snuffling through the spilled seed on the ground. I would have liked to leave our early morning visitor undisturbed, but Gabby was awake and ready at the door. I turned on a light in the living room so the deer could have some warning (the feeder is only 10 or 12 feet from the front room window) and leave before being chased off by a barking young setter. Jack woke up from his dog bed and joined us at the door and both dogs were soon out in the dark. The deer had ducked off into the woods and the setters were none the wiser.

Routines – we all have them, and as much as we'd like to believe we are still the spontaneously fueled fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants ready to drop it like a hot potato and take off at a moments notice, we really aren't. I mean, we have dogs to care for, right? So coffee was set to brew before the setters came in for their breakfast biscuit and with the dogs at my feet I sat at our big maple table for some reading before the sun came up.

Deep winter – the days are getting longer but it's hard to notice. The sun doesn't creep up over the trees until nearly eight a.m. If the days warm up a bit it brings snow and we've had plenty since December for snowshoeing and skiing. When it stops snowing it gets cold, real cold. Or maybe it quits snowing because it gets cold, it makes little difference to me. These are the days to watch the grosbeaks, chickadees, and redpolls at the feeder. Last week a flock of pine warblers stopped for the day. I wasn't sure what they were and couldn't find them in my chair-side bird book, but after some further investigation identity was verified and it turns out they shouldn't be here at all. Maybe not, but Mother Nature has a mind of her own. Almost every day at mid-morning, a few more deer show up at the bird feeder to find more spilled seed. They're heavy coated now with frost around their eyes and nose. They may raid the garden all summer, but I still enjoy seeing them.

These are the days when I get in front of my tying vise and try to come up with something new. Of late I've been mixing spun deerhair and foam for some less than hoped for results. I should be tying some proven patterns for spring steelhead and trout and I suppose that will come soon, as soon as I realizing I'm wasting time and materials on something that someone else would have already invented if it was any good.

So I mess with my reels, too. And maybe the gun. Not much, you know, just a drop of oil here and there and a swipe with a cloth. I'm sometimes surprised how I can hold a reel in my hand and before I know it a half hour has passed recalling a certain fish or trip from last summer. Perhaps one day I'll wile away some winter time in warmer climes casting flies from the deck of a flats boat or something similar, but for now it's cozy by the stove.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

A year with Gabby.

I stepped lively over the hill, having lost track of my dog's bell after she topped the rise a minute ahead of me. There she popped out of the cover maybe eighty yards in front. She saw me, turned and came running back towards me. Suddenly the young setter slammed on the brakes and piled herself into a point aiming at a thicket of dogwood shouldering the aspens. I may have seen a bit of movement on the ground, I'm not sure, but the grouse was in the air before I had a chance to think and it fell in a clump at my shot. Gabby was on it in an instant and mouthed it with ears perked in wonderment. At my urging she lifted the dead grouse and trotted to me.

It wasn't the first grouse she'd ever pointed, but it was the first during hunting season and I was more than a little happy to have killed it for her. We were hunting the PL Best cover that's basically a couple of old trails through an aspen forest. I call it “best” because when I found it it was “just-the-right-size” aspen and always full of both grouse and woodcock. Like many coverts around here there's a bordering beaver pond and alder bottom stream to the south and if you can make the hike the cover drops north into a seemingly endless spruce lowland that's part of the locally known 100 mile swamp. The best part was always hard to get to and if you didn't want to walk an extra mile through over-mature aspen and balsam forest you could steer your four-wheel drive truck through the muddy and rocky trail and climb the slippery steep hill to park at the intersecting old logging roads. A few years ago the old growth was logged which would have made some fine upcoming bird cover if it hadn't been planted with jack pine, and the logging also improved the road which helped others discover the place.

I don't subscribe to the notion that it's critical to kill the first bird your dog points. Gabby had pointed planted pigeons all summer and a few pre-season wild birds that I couldn't shoot so I don't believe killing that first in season bird means that much to the dog, though it made me feel good. I wish I could say she spent the rest of the fall handling grouse for the gun, but that's not the case.

It had been a long time since I brought a new pup home. Jack had somehow turned 11 years old and though he looked good and hunted hard, he couldn't go for long, couldn't seem to hear well, and was as stubborn as an old veteran is likely to be. I've been fortunate to have been offered well bred pups from several friends and Bert called and told me he had just the kind of pup I liked, a small tricolor female. Years ago I had a small white and black setter that turned out to be one of the best grouse dogs I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Molly won field trials, was a fine guide dog, a joy around the house, found grouse and woodcock whenever she was in cover; pheasants, prairie grouse, and huns in Dakota and Montana, and retrieved everything put down before her. Bert has been guiding bird hunters for years and raising the kind of setters that work for him. While he's had success in the field trial venues, his main focus is breeding bird finders for foot hunters. Molly was out of his breeding. In this day of electronic training aids and locators, it's notable to remember that Molly never wore an e-collar, though she often wore one of those old soup-can accessory beepers. She was an easy dog. I'm hoping the same for Gabby.

Gabby was whelped in June and the first summer-born puppy I've ever had. She was sort of the icing on the cake of a very fine summer. I picked her up from Bert's on my way home from the Minneapolis airport after an amazing Alaskan fly fishing/float trip. With that trip in my mind and the happy anticipation of a new puppy, her registered moniker reflects the name of the river we floated. But we just call her Gabby, a name she earned being vocal from the start, running around with a ball in her mouth and giving a friendly growl or yip as a challenge to play, and barking a little more than seems necessary. She was only a few months old when grouse season came around and I can't say she did anything precocious, though she did show an ability to use her nose and get into birds. Nothing was killed over her but she always got a nose full of the grouse and woodcock shot over Jack.

Gabby lived that first winter in the kennel, and despite the sometimes brutally cold temperatures, she was fine in her insulated dog house. But it's easy to lose touch with an outside dog in the winter. You get them out daily and try for some training and companionship, but they usually spend long hours in the kennel. When springtime finally rolled around it was great to get out in the woods. Unfortunately, by the time the snow finally receded enough to really get into the coverts, nesting season was upon us and our early wild bird training was limited. Still, we were both eager and it wasn't long until I was planting pigeons for her.

I use pigeons in release traps and usually get a predictable reaction from the pups; they get a whiff of the bird and either point it or rush it. Or maybe point for a second and then rush in to catch what they smell. The release was tripped when they take a step toward the bird and after plenty of that they generally get the idea. It's not in effort to teach them to hunt, or even really to point. I want their own brain to tell them if they get too close, the bird leaves. Once they get that pigeon game down doesn't mean they'll handle wild birds – wild grouse are a lot different and pups that look good on planted birds come unglued on wild birds. Gabby did something I'd never seen before, when she scented the pigeon she turned and ran circles around the bird, never getting closer but just circling. Round and round – weird. So I popped the bird and she gave chase. Sometimes she'd see the pigeon land in a tree and she'd get under it and bite and pull at any brush beneath the tree in the effort, I suppose, to cut the tree down. Yeah, weird. At home she was as lovable as any dog I've had. Opening the kennel gate she'd race into the garage and hop on a dog crate for a morning hug. I couldn't resist and she was winning me over. When she locked up on a couple of late summer grouse broods, she pretty much had me. 

Hunting season finally came and many was the day following my young setter and watched her bump grouse and woodcock with impunity. But each bird was a lesson and sometime along the way she started pointing somewhat regularly, or at least when I found her on point it wasn't such a big surprise. One day near Paul's camp his llewellin, Scarlett, pointed off to the left while I followed Gabby a ways ahead. At Paul's shot Gabby cut back to see what was happening and Paul called point for her. Approaching head on Gabby was standing high and erect looking my way. Then I spotted the woodcock lying 15 feet in front of her. I should have used my camera to try for what would have been a beautiful photo of bird and dog, but I thought killing the bird for her was important so the bird was to flushed and missed clean when it popped up over Gabby's head. I was upset at missing the easy shot, but not as much as missing the photo-op.

In this day of electronic bird dog equipment, I am happy that Gabby's range could probably be described as gun dog range. That's what I'm hoping she'll be, a gun dog. The kind to enjoy watching and following with little handling and shoot birds over. I once half wondered if killing birds with pointing dogs meant shooting the grouse you found while you were out looking for your dog. I can't say Gabby is always close, but I can usually keep track of her bell pretty well. She wore the e-collar most of the time – not so much for correction but to take advantage of the remote beeper on it. When a dog goes on point, young or old, I can't see much good in thrashing around the thick stuff hoping to spot the dog. I like hitting a button and having a locating beep sound off. By the end of the season, however, Gabby was hunted most with only the bell dangling on her collar and had little trouble finding her when the leaves were down and the ground cover open. That's the old fashioned way and the way I started hunting with pointing dogs in grouse cover. Paying attention and not relying on batteries.

From what I've seen, it's becoming unusual to see a pointer or setter without an antenna bobbing out of a GPS collar. I was hunting the old part of Sundown cover with Jack after watching and hearing Gabby mess up several chances on the better south end. Jack was slowing down and I was thinking of turning back when I heard something behind me and turned to see a white dog pop onto the trail and run back away from me. It looked like a bird dog to me and at first I thought perhaps Gabby had gotten out of the truck, but that didn't make sense – she would have came right to me. At any rate I called Jack and we started back on the trail. Then two setters came racing towards us and ducked into the cover silently. That's when I saw the handler. Or handlers. Two folks approached, a guy and gal each toting a shotgun. At their feet were a black lab, a Nova Scotia toller, and a baby Weimaraner. Young folks with friendly smiles, their two setters were soon back and getting acquainted with Jack, who wasn't interested in meeting anyone. I mentioned it seemed unusual to see two setters hunting the cover without bells on their collars. The fellow, less than half my age, thought it was strange to see Jack with his bell when all a hunter needed was GPS. You could watch the screen and see right were your dog was, after all. Well, all right. Personally, I've never had a dog I felt needed GPS to keep track of and I'm hoping the same with Gabby.

Even with days and seasons filled with birds and opportunities, I seem to recall select individual episodes and incidents to keep in my memory banks. Some are the best, some are humorous and some are examples of if it can go wrong, it will. There's a two acre meadow about a half hour in on the West Stopsign cover that has produced numerous grouse from the edges. Gabby had a pretty good lead on me when I lost her bell. I didn't know if it stopped or merely faded out of hearing in the cover, but around the corner I saw her on the far edge of the meadow, standing tall and tight in a picturesque pose much like so many of my other dogs had stood. The kind of prime October afternoon you don't want to believe will end. Bright yellow aspens glowing in the sunlight illuminating the motionless dog; a grouse jumping in a swirl of leaves and flashing between the trunks; gun barrels moving on their own and the bird tumbling down almost as if a dream. When it's over you start thinking you're pretty good at this, blocking out past evidence proving otherwise. If you're with a partner you'd pocket the grouse, pat the dog, and go look for more. But I was alone, and when you're alone with your dog on a day like that it's tough not to pause and admire the complex patterns of a grouse's feathers, give your dog some lovin', and be thankful for the day. You know the kind of day I'm talking about, and we know there are no guarantees of another.

A few days later, I visited the Puppy Course after a couple years absence. Gabby darted ahead hunting the right side of the faint trail leading in. Several grouse flushed from the edge of the now tall and thick spruces on the left, but no shots were offered. Then I became turned around in cover that used to be as familiar as my backyard. Frustrated at the birds, the dog, and myself, I heard a distant train blow it's horn and I had my bearings. With Gabby back on track we found the new cutting I was looking for. In minutes a limit of woodcock fell over lovely setter points and the day suddenly took a new turn. Gabby pointed a couple more woodcock on the way out and found a couple of those grouse in the dark spruce. I only heard the grouse flush, but Gabby's solid points made up for no shots offered.

Paul and I were shooting grouse and woodcock up at Broken Bow when we watched Gabby catch scent on the trail and crouch her body nearly to the ground while zig-zagging around on the trail trying to figure out the scent. The term “crouching tiger” came to mind. She looked like a cartoon character and we had to chuckle watching her scooting around so seriously until she finally paused when the grouse burst out in front of her. Neither of us raised our gun. It wouldn't have impressed a field trial judge, but was sure fun to watch.

When deer season came we went on our usual hiatus from grouse hunting, something the dogs have never been able to understand. The weather stayed warm, so warm successful deer hunters had to rush their kills to refrigeration. As the last weekend approached I was hopeful about getting the dogs back into the coverts. Then came the snow. Sixteen inches of heavy wet snow that knocked out our electricity for three days. I managed to get the driveway cleared the first day, but there was nowhere to go – the county snowplows would take another day to get through. A week later the snow had melted some and settled with a thin crust on top that soon had Gabbys feet cut and bleeding. Then came more snow and before I knew it she was chest deep in it. We tried, however, and found grouse huddled in balsams but they always escaped behind the wall of evergreens and I soon tired of snow falling down my neck at every step and covering my hat, shoulders, and gun. It was time to call it a season.

That's when Gabby became a house dog. Jack has been living indoors during the winter for several years and though I had no worry about Gabby outside in her kennel, I just want her to be at hand more. Maybe I'm getting soft with age but at my age does it matter? My old Molly was quite the lap dog and Gabby is rivaling her. When she's let out she still lives up to her name running around barking to announce to the world that she's out and you should know it. She does seem to enjoy her voice. It's a new year now and every day's a new day to get started so each morning Gabby dives onto my bed to thump her tail and lick my face awake well before sunup. She's the cheeriest alarm I've ever had, you just have to wake up happy with that kind of greeting. Jack meets us at the door and they wait while I pull on boots and coat for our predawn morning stroll. It was around twenty below zero this morning and we were soon glad to be back inside. The dogs get a cookie while I make coffee and sit down to ease into the day. Jack finds his bed for a little more shuteye and Gabby is soon in my face challenging me to a wrestling match.

I was in a coffee shop a while back talking to a lady friend about pets. I made the regrettable and obviously false statement that I don't have any pets, I have bird dogs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fishin' in the dark

It seems like every summer I think I’m going to do more night fishing than I do. Loose plans are tossed about in the spring with partners that are as enthusiastic about it as I am. Hex hatches on good trout streams; tossing mouse patterns for big browns; and evening muskie hunts. Well, like a lot of things, it doesn’t always pan out.

A long time ago I caught a couple of nice browns at night from my canoe on one of the North Shore streams inland from Lake Superior. A fellow I was working with described how to get to the “dead waters” and though I’m not sure I was in the right place, I paddled upstream and dragged my Grumman canoe through some rapids to reach a wide and deep spot on the river. I was fishing a deer-hair mouse I’d tied with all natural deer hair that I’d gotten from a taxidermist friend of mine. In those days, all my deer hair flies were tied with natural hair from patches of tanned hides the taxidermist had left over. I spun hair with good intentions but learned not all hair was conducive to spinning on a hook, as I assumed it was. When a clump of hair blew up in my fingertips I just figured I messed up my technique. When I started learning which hair was good and which wasn’t things got a lot easier. As much as I like scrounging up materials, I started buying dyed deer hair and found out how good it can be. Anyway, I caught a couple of trout right after it got too dark for comfort, not the giants I’d hoped for, but still, it was a success. I was alone and kind of creeped out there in the dark and when I paddled down to the short rapids I stayed in canoe and blindly shot the rapids without capsizing out of sheer luck.

Then there were the night-time excursions for walleyes with my dad on Lake Vermilion. That was when big ‘eyes were being caught on Shad Raps and the price of those lures skyrocketed and were soon unavailable. After a summer or two things got back to normal, the appeal of night trolling wore off, and Shad Raps were again easy to come by.

Perhaps one of my most memorable night angling adventures was the time I looked out over the bay I was camped on and watched as a big mayfly hatch came off and the glassy water started boiling with smallmouth bass at the surface. The sun was just setting and the water appeared a copper/bronze hue. I pushed my canoe into that Quetico bay and caught fish nearly every cast and I was never more than a hundred yards from camp. To top it off, it was such a fine evening in early June – clear and dry with no mosquitoes – that I never pitched my tent. I just laid my sleeping bag on my tarp and slept soundly under the stars while fish continued slurping on the lake.

A few days ago I took my canoe up to a small lake just north of here, near the end of the Forest Service road. There’s a popular federal campground on the lake but I guessed there would be few people there since it was after Labor Day. I wanted to try out the anchor system I rigged up on my solo canoe and thought I could get an hour or so fishing before dark. There was a Volvo parked right at the boat landing with a half-dozen spinning and casting rods leaning against it. The driver was standing on the dock casting a loud spinnerbait. He turned when I drove up but apparently decided he need not move his car out of the way since I only had a canoe. We exchanged the usual “how’s fishing?” “nothing yet” greeting and in the time I unloaded and pushed off he’d changed rods three or four times, throwing quite the assortment of lures. If I’d had my other canoe I could have offered to take him out, and I know I could have told him about the trail along the lake that would have put him in reach of some good water and likely hungry fish, but after I had to wiggle my canoe and tackle around his car to launch I wasn’t much in the mood.

There was a single angler in an old runabout boat on the other side of the lake. I stayed on my side but I could hear the music coming from his boat, old classic country –Merle, Waylon, Hank, etc. – not horrible stuff but not the ideal setting for it. He must have been drifting a hot spot ‘cause every now and then he’d start up his rough sounding sputtering motor and make a little circle near shore and shut it off.

There wasn’t much of a breeze but my anchoring device worked fine, I was able to run the anchor up and down off the bow from the middle of the canoe. I was casting a chartreus deer-hair pollywog I’d tied last year for the salmon trip I’d went on. After a little trimming and adding rubber legs it made a fine bass bug and I was catching bass as I worked along the bank. I was aiming for a point off the east shore a little ways ahead when I heard the old outboard winding up before it finally popped to life and this time the guy came across the lake heading right for my spot. I don’t know how many cylinders that motor had, but it clearly wasn’t using all of them and I wondered if I’d be involved in a rescue. He steered his boat around the point and just out of sight when I hooked into another bass. I kind of wish he would have seen it, I’m not sure why. Since he was ahead of me and near my spot, I started drifting back the way I’d come. Then the country tunes caught up with me and this time I could hear this guy singing along. With all his heart. I kinda’ had to laugh and wondered if all he wanted was for me to hear him. He didn’t stay long and got the old girl fired up again, crossed back to the other side, then continued into the campground.
I snagged the ‘wog in an overhanging cedar and had to break it off. The sun was dipping low and the action slowed but I wanted to try that rocky point I was aiming for. I tied on a Murdoch Minnow and got ready, but after ten casts with no action I figured to head home. Suddenly, behind me out in the middle of the lake near the shallow south bay, fish start rising! I couldn’t see anything on the water and wondered if minnows were being chased up. I paddled out and started laying casts with the Murdoch, stripping it in between rising fish but they showed no interest in the white fly just under the surface. It was starting to get pretty dark and I kicked myself for not bringing a light, but when I opened my fly box a mouse pattern fell out and I took it as a sign.

I've tied a few Morrish Mouse patterns before with foam and natural deer hair, and this was sort of a version I’d tied with some black bear hair. I’d never used it before but reckoned this was the time. This fly moved across the water without much action. The head bobbed kind of subtly as I was stripping it and left nothing more than a smooth wake in the dark water. And the fish loved it!

No they weren’t the hogs, but they were getting bigger as it was getting darker. I moved into the bay and cast against the weedline and a big scrappy bluegill hit hard and fought hard enough that I was surprised when I brought it to hand and saw what it was. By moonlight I caught bass one after another but had to give it up when I could hardly see to get that last one unhooked in the dark.

Looking north, I could see a campfire burning at the campground. It appeared the singing fisherman was the only camper there but all was quiet after he parked his boat earlier. The landing would be east of his fire so I took my heading and paddled in.