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.

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.