I met Brent at the take-out point of one of our favorite floats on one of our favorite rivers. He’d already dropped his Hyde driftboat, along with Scott, miles upstream waiting for us to return and begin our day trip. We’d leave Brent’s rig and trailer here and I’d shuttle us up to the landing. There’re always some logistics involved on these river trips and this seems about the most comfortable and efficient way of getting the boat, gear, and us from one end of the trip to the other.
It’s a little better than a 2 ½ hour drive from my place to the river, so I had a little time to enjoy the morning cruise and sip some coffee on the way. I stopped in town for gas and some gas station coffee – not my preferred drink but the cool coffee shop isn’t open that early in the morning. The early traffic on the highway was pretty light, mostly folks commuting their way to jobs in the iron mines and the usual truck traffic. I always see some deer, and often a fox or coyote along the route. I crossed a few rivers and passed a few lakes on the way and I turned off the highway and took the little gravel frontage road along the Cloquet River, just to check the water and try to remember to set aside some time to fish it. From there I headed to the paper-mill town of Cloquet, which sits along the St. Louis River (go figure) and stop for my second cup at The Warming House coffee shop. I was in no hurry but I only wanted coffee so I pulled into the drive thru and stopped behind the SUV waiting at the window.
I had plenty of time and was enjoying the radio, but in my mind using the drive-thru at a coffee shop should be a relatively quick experience and the lone person in the vehicle ahead reminded me there should be some kind of understood, if unwritten, etiquette about grabbing a cup to go. I mean, if you’re ordering the complicated stuff that’s gonna take a while for the barista to put together, and you’re ordering a number of them for the gang at the office, and you want extra cream for one, no whipped on another, and will decide in a minute or so if you’ll have the peach-lavender cream cheese Danish or the gluten free muffin, you really ought to park in the lot and go inside for that. I shut off my truck when I saw a couple of cups passed out the window but still the SUV didn’t move. I sat listening to the radio and thinking about fishing. A song and a half later the brakes lights of the SUV brought me out of my daydream and a minute later I was on the road with a steaming cup of decent coffee. The little black car that came in behind me for coffee passed me before I got to the stoplights and I had the feeling they were more irritated than I was.
Then it was an hour of freeway driving at the speed of light: around 70-75 miles-per-hour I suppose, something like that. That’s when the radio gets tuned to the first rock station it can find. Classic BTO singing “I can’t drive…Fifty-Five!” None too soon it’s off the freeway and down to the river. What a pretty sight.
Across the river from the landing there’s a little point of land that catches current and makes for a perfect looking run that should hold a nice fish. Just below that there’s a slack water eddy just inside the seam that can’t be passed up. It’s a hopeful place to start fishing and we never pass it up. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never caught a fish there. Never even had a strike. One day one of us will hook a whopper there and it will all make sense. It just takes one.
Scotty took the first round at the oars while Brent cast his white foam blockhead to the shoreline and I worked the water with a deer-hair olive and red toad pattern. It was a perfect morning, sunny and still and we were all happy to be there. Brent scored first, a beauty of a smallmouth, and we all looked upriver after he landed it. It’s nice to catch the first fish in sight of the bridge but we were just beyond it. Brent worked his white foam blockhead long and hard with good effect as it popped along the surface like a venerable bubble machine. I switched flies several times and caught fish on my deer-hair toads and a variation of a Dahlberg Diver I call a froghawk for no good reason, as well as a proven frog pattern blockhead. Scott spent most of the day tossing his big musky flies, hoping for the 40 incher which would be a good fish for that water.
I first fished this river with Scott. It was all about the smallmouth bass, then. I used my 6 wt. rod and cast my hand painted poppers that I now call cute little things. It’s still about the bass, but the pike started nipping our leaders and somewhere along the way the muskies living in the river gained our attention. Heavier rods and lines were in order to toss bigger flies attached to wire leaders. I buy cheap flipflop sandals and chop them up to make flies. Fly boxes look like briefcases now. And is it ever fun!
The musky came with a violent strike on one of my deer-hairs. I was in the back of the boat and got a glimpse of shape and called it a pike. Brent had a better look and announced “No pike, it’s a SKIE!” and the fight was on. The fish cleared water several times trying to shake free and I was having a ball playing it. We had it near the boat several times before we could net it, and we saw the leader crossways in its mouth the way an untrained pup bites the leash the first time he feels it. Glad to have that wire leader. We didn’t measure it but it wouldn’t make the 40 inches – still a good fish like they all are and after a couple of quick photos it was back in the water.
I’ve caught a few muskies before but only a couple fly fishing. I know they are in the river, but I don’t expect them. Even on a river known for muskies I was surprised when I caught one. They’re the kind of fish you keep track of, though it’s easy for me to keep track of the small number I’ve caught. I recently watched a video about a couple of well-known Minnesota fly fishing musky hunters. Being interviewed they were asked how many muskies they’ve caught. Both were vague about the actual number, one said “less than 50, but I’m workin’ on it,” but I know he knows the exact fish that will take him over the half-century mark. I guess I could honestly say the same thing.
We kind of goaded Scott about casting his arm off with his out-sized musky flies while I landed “his” fish on a #2 hook, but that’s fishing and we all know it. Besides, he’s a skilled angler and has landed well more muskies than I have – but I’m working on it!
No one wants to see a good day end, but by the time we get to the take-out, we’re all kinda tired. I know my casting gets pretty sloppy – I suppose I don’t practice enough – and on these trips we’re either casting or rowing, which involves its own skill set, so it’s a real active day on the river. There’s nothing better.