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. 
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