Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ol' Dennis

Things in camp were moving along pretty well, maybe a little better for Tony than the rest of us because he’d shot a nice little 3 pointer a week before while the rest of us were still waiting. John had hunted opening weekend and couldn’t return, but Tony came back with Jack, so there were again three of us in camp. I’d had some opportunities – I’d let three small bucks pass the first two days of the season including a six-point that I bleated back twice hoping to see it’s rack was somehow bigger than it really was through my binocular and scope. I know it would have provided some tasty meat, but for the last years I’d been scoring on some nicer-racked bucks that seemed to get bigger each year. I can’t say I’m a trophy hunter, but my photos of past hunts and the antlers hanging on my canoe shed allow me to recall and relive those hunts far after the taste of tenderloins and jerky is forgotten. Anyway, it was early in the season and I reckoned I could wait it out for a bigger deer.

The second Saturday it rained. It really rained. I’d seen one deer that morning that disappeared before I had much of a look, and returned to camp about noon to dry out and warm up. Tony and Jack were already cozy in the wall tent, had the stove stoked and their clothes hung to dry. Tony was the hunter again that morning. He’d killed a good-looking eight point buck before the rain got to him. With my gear hanging to dry it seemed like a good day to sit in the tent and hear Tony’s story while rain pounded the canvas. Jack was already in his sleeping bag.
So we sat around sipping coffee and talking. Tony told how the buck came out of the cutting 70 yards from his stand and he took him broadside, and maybe he’d have a head mount done by a taxidermist friend. I was considering how I was going to fill my smoker with venison that I hadn’t killed yet. Outside the rain had turned to a kind of slushy sleety mix and it was mighty comfortable in the warm tent. We were in the middle of discussing the merits of an enclosed heated deer stand when there was a knock on the canvas door – or what passes for a knock on canvas. Tony unzipped the tent and invited in our visitor, a thin old timer who stepped in and said, “Boys, I’ve got one down and could use a little help.” He was wearing an old red wool coat with some blaze orange sewed to the shoulders, a red wool hat, wool pants, and a pair of those knee-high rubber boots that I’ve always known as “mean greenies”.

If you’re one who spends much time in wild country, you know the time may come when you might need some help in one way or another. So when someone can use a hand there is only one answer. While Tony and I were getting ready to go, the old fellow introduced himself as Dennis and spotted my rifle propped against my cot. “Model 700?” he asked. When I affirmed it was he allowed, “Yeah, that’s a good rifle, shoot one myself.” And just before we all stepped out of the tent Dennis looked at me and asked, “You don’t happen to have a camera, do you? It’s not a bad buck.” No problem, I assured him and slung my camera around my neck.

We followed Dennis several miles up a forest road to his hunting spot. Then we kept up as he marched in at a pace that far belied his 73 years. After a short walk he stopped at a mark he’d kicked in the dirt and turned to describe the circumstance. He’d hunted his way down to a little lake and was working his way back. “Oh, I was soaked, soaked to the skin!” Two bucks, he said, had chased a doe across a trail before him and stopped, “eighteen steps away, right by that tree,” and he paced it off for us. “I shot the bigger of the two,” he explained with a satisfied grin, “and it ran back in there and dropped.” Dennis had his deer dressed and covered with balsam boughs to keep it hidden from the birds, and anything bigger that might have taken an interest before he got back to it. He tossed the boughs aside and revealed a huge, beauty of a mature ten-point buck. Tony and I both said Wow and admired the buck, each of us instantly wishing we’d had a chance at a deer like that. I got Dennis to pose with his deer for some photos and he seemed amazed when he told me his son had a phone that could send pictures “anywhere in the country!”

Before long we had the buck pulled up to the road and loaded in our truck to haul up to Dennis’ camp. Hanging from the front of his camper was a collection of deer and moose sheds that serious shed hunters might take years to find. He’d picked them up during one week of deer hunting. And he had a dozen wire muskrat stretchers along. He was camped for the entire season, might as well do a little fur trapping, too. Once safely hung in a tree, we admired that deer until Dennis invited us to rest in his warm camper. Over his wife’s homemade pie (“Oh, you’ll enjoy this!”) we listened to Dennis tell his stories of hunting that country for almost fifty years. He spoke with a hint of an accent (Midwest Scandinavian, I’d say) that’s easy to listen to – with a simple truthfulness that comes from over seventy years of honest country living.

After making sure we were comfortable and had plenty of whipped cream on our pumpkin pie, Dennis produced a photo of the largest buck he’d taken. In it he was posed next to a massive 300+ pound heavy antlered twelve pointer he’d killed many years ago. In trying to pick his brain it soon became evident that this man was a hunter. A real hunter. He’d camp off the forest road for the entire deer season. His companions couldn’t hunt the season like he could and he would be on his own until the last weekend when his son would return to break camp. Each day he would be out in the woods exploring. He’d find deer and moose sign, see fishers and pine marten and spot a wolf now and then. He knew who was camped where and their various hunting grounds. I saw his compass but I doubt he used a GPS. “When you’re out in the bush and your shadow is fourteen feet long, you’d better take long steps to get out before nightfall,” and “The thing about deer hunting is you never know what will happen in the next half-hour.” Quaint and obvious advise, I suppose, though I had to feel a little embarrassed about contemplating the enclosed deer-stand when he related how he’d taken all but one of his many deer and thirteen elk “with my feet on the ground.”

Differences in hunting technique can be too subtle to be noticed. Or they can be so diverse and contrasting that one wonders how it can all be covered under the one heading “deer hunting.” For years I tried to perfect the still-hunting method – sneaking slowly and quietly, stopping often trying to see the deer before it saw me. It can be an excruciating and frustrating exercise in patience, but it is also a fulfilling way to get in touch with the land and nature and that is important for, well …good reasons. And when it goes well it is the most rewarding, at least to me, way of deer hunting possible. The best buck I’ve ever taken was by this method, but for the last four or five years most of my deer hunting has taken place sitting in a tree waiting for the deer to come to me. The “hunting” part was mostly pre-season hunting through my basement in search of my gear. I’m not sure if still-hunting is an art or craft. I’m kinda hoping it is something that can be learned, then perhaps I can get better at it, but I get the feeling that some folks, such as Dennis, have some kind of aura or karma about them that grants consistent success in their pursuit. You know how it is, some people catch all the fish doing nothing noticeably different than anyone else in the boat – and they do it effortlessly.

It was too late to hunt that evening after our visit, but it was worth every minute. Dennis doesn’t know or care much about cell phones and computers, but he can tell you when the deer will move by how the clouds cross the sky. I don’t know how many guys know how to hunt, know the country, and know woodcraft like old Dennis, but there can’t be many. I’ve been hunting the same country as Dennis for quite a few years now, but when he described some hills and valleys, swamps and ledges and rivers that he thought I would know I had to admit I hadn’t been there. And I wonder why. I didn’t sit on my stand the rest of the season. I was again inspired to hunt the traditional way. I wanted, once again, to hunt a nice buck like a woodsman, with my feet on the ground. Later that week I was able to drop off copies of the photos I took, but of course he wasn’t at his camper – it was daylight, after all – old Dennis was somewhere in the woods.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

and there were always birds…

Anticipation grows faster than the last days of summer disappear, and maple leaves turn red overnight while that first frost wreaks havoc on our last hanging tomatoes, but by now there’s no surprise – it happens every year, and all we can think about is grouse hunting.

I can’t say the start of the season has been anything fantastic or epic – other than the weather, which has been for the most part ideal. The trouble with great weather is I can’t use it as an excuse for poor hunting on my part. And though I’ve only been out a few times in cover that is close but heavily used, at least I can say I’ve brought home enough game to share a good meal with Dad.

I usually start the season on the forest road near here. That’s because the first days grouse hunting are never the best days, and I like to save what I think of my better covers, which are farther away, for a bit later in the season when some of the leaves have fallen. But I like that forest road. I can hunt the morning, run home for lunch, and return for the afternoon. There was a time when I could park near the trailhead and walk down the middle of that road and have the dogs work ahead. It was nothing more than a two-track then and the rare vehicle that came by had four-wheel drive and was moving slowly. That forest road has been rebuilt and now days its common for tiny little cars to come tearing by at near highway speeds. Of course along with the good road came the inevitable crowds. There’s a good amount of public land to hunt along the road so it’s a magnet for bird and deer hunters alike. Add a couple of decent duck lakes and ponds so there’s some more traffic and it gets kind of crazy out there. Although it’s still a gravel road and can get real dusty, it’s an absolutely beautiful drive this time of year and this morning I watched three happy folks climb out of their mini van to photograph the fall colors.

Everyone is out there to enjoy some kind of outdoor experience so we're all pretty cordial about the whole thing and usually wave at a passing vehicle and pull over to let faster vehicles go by. And so far there’s still a kind of etiquette (however grudgingly) about staying away from a cover that’s already occupied. It’s common sense, really; when you park your truck at the head of one of the many offshoot trails you should be able to feel a sense of propriety. Now and then I’ve came across other hunters in the same area because trails come from different directions but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to share a little conversation with like-minded people. Like I said, we’re all out there for some kind of enjoyment, and hunting may be an alibi for a walk in the autumn woods.

Despite the increased pressure, I can almost always find some birds to shoot at. That’s only because my dogs get out where most don’t to find birds. Yet this season, so far, has been pretty slow in terms of flush rates, but I haven’t yet hunted anywhere but off that forest road and I know there are no secret places there. So when the hunting turns into hiking I can’t help but recall all the grouse and woodcock I’ve taken from the coverts along that one forest road. There was a time when my shooting could stand up with anyone and my setters seemed to find birds where there were none. Maybe it’s the outdoorsman’s memory that seems to paint the past a little brighter than perhaps it really was, but I’d give a lot to hunt over Cully, Molly, or Mayday once again.

23 Sept. '12

Saturday, August 25, 2012


One morning I was standing in a Montana river casting for some of the huge rainbow trout that live there, when my friends Scotty and Brett pulled up in a beauty of a drift boat and invited me to join them for a float down the river. Now, that decision was a no-brainer – I’d been seeing drift boats for days and out west they’re as common on the water and behind pickup trucks as aluminum Lunds are here in northern Minnesota. You couldn’t stop at a gas station, café, or fly shop without getting close to a few. The graceful sweeping rocker to the upturned bow and stern, leg braces for stand-up casting, and low mid rowing seat with long oars fascinated me. I’d watched them pass on the river and saw them being handled like no rowboat I’d ever been in. I was in love with them before I ever set foot in one.

I haven’t been out west fishing for some years, now, and it sort of bugs me that many of the best experiences I’ve had were years ago. I’ve lately found myself overcome with an urgency to do a whole lot more with life and a lot less with work. It’s like the old adage: No one ever said from their deathbed,"I wish I would have worked more.” Unfortunately, I’m not wealthy enough not to work at least some, and I could hardly work less and still hold down any sort of job, but when I opened the e-mail that said, “I have Brent’s new drift boat, wanna do a float trip?” I had to tell the boys at work that I’d see ‘em next week!

It’s easy to like a guy who has a drift boat. Brent (not to be confused with Brett) is a good bird dog guy – which is how I met him, at a field trial. And like a lot of bird dog guys he’s a fly fisherman. I found out about that a while back when he out-fished the rest of us down in the hardwood trout stream country. Now, it’s not so hard to out-do me with a fly rod. I’m kinda old, kinda slow and relaxed, and as likely to be as interested in a muskrat swimming by as a trout rising against the far bank. But when you catch more fish than the Grinch and Little Buddy you’ve accomplished something. Scott knows his angling, builds his own rods and fishes with more purpose than anyone I know, and that’s putting it lightly. And nobody enjoys it more than Brett does. I once watched him work a pod of rainbows on the Missouri River. I was up on the overlooking bank and he didn’t know I was there. He stalked close and cast a few times, changed flies and cast some more and never stopped smiling the entire time. That's how he fishes. Can’t beat that!

Let’s just say that anyone who owns a drift boat to fly-fish mainly warm- water species in Wisconsin and Minnesota rivers has more than a casual interest in the sport. How Scott came to have Brent’s boat is no business of mine but I have to believe he came by it honestly.

It was a beauty of a morning. I stood at the landing for a few minutes before Scott arrived and watched the river pass by. It was sunny and calm and not as warm as it had been only days ago. Here and there a fish broke the surface. There was no one in sight and I knew it would be a good day.

Scott showed up and we shuttled vehicles 10 miles downstream before getting underway. Scott manned the oars first, and right off I could hardly believe how comfortable I was casting from the bow. This trip was, to me, all about the boat!

Of all the people I see on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis nearly every one of them is a fisherman. And just about everyone is a deer hunter, including a number of the gals, too. They all enjoy camping, bonfires, having dogs running around and just being outdoors in general. But there are damn few that have ever been in a drift boat. Yes, I have, but not often enough! It’s hard to describe the easy sort of way it moves down river. It turns quickly and will spin around into an eddy or pool like nothing else. It draws very little water and the tag inside the bow states its purpose of “shallow whitewater.” It’s a simple matter to drop the anchor and stop in the river for a break or to fish out a particularly good-looking spot. It’s almost as much fun to row as to fish from. Sure, it’s a specialized craft all right, and it makes drifting those moving rivers special. You can float a river in any kind of boat or canoe, or even an old inner tube. But if you ever get a chance in a real drift boat just say yes.

We caught some bass that day, and we saw some we didn’t catch. I landed a small northern pike on a popper. It's fun to man the oars and watch your partner work the water, and in my case, maybe learn a little something in the process. And if anyone is catching fish while you're behind the oars you can always claim credit for putting them on the right place! We watched big red-tailed carp roll on the surface and even saw a green and yellow parakeet take a bug off the water and land in a branch over our head. Yep, a parakeet! Living wild! We stopped at a pretty sandbar for lunch and waded for awhile, ever trying for another fish.

It was nearly dark when we reached the take-out point. The fishing had been good but the catching was slow. Scott had been catching some real hogs in the two weeks previous, but it figured things would slow down when I arrived. Still, it was a day most people should have, but won’t. I'm sure glad I did.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


I really don’t know if Trout Camp went the way that anyone expected or not. I have to believe it was pretty close, because I doubt anyone had much for preconceived ideas about it, anyway. I know it took me longer to make the 300-mile drive than I expected. I worked a long day in the Duluth area in an effort to repair, however temporarily, some of the recently flood-damaged roads so folks could leave their homes and get to where ever they had to go. But the spring-fed trout streams of southern Minnesota beckoned and my plan had been laid. I took off south by late afternoon and settled back on cruise control. The weather lady on the radio announced expected temperatures nearing 100 degrees the next day but I figured I’d be standing in cool water so how bad could it be?
I usually get a little anxious on approaching Minneapolis/St. Paul. The traffic becomes far heavier than this old country boy is accustomed to and those lit-up signs warning of construction, accidents, and stopped traffic ahead are a pain. I generally know where I’m going but when I’m warned of a crash eight miles ahead/take alternate routes, well… what the hell now? Of course, the shortest and quickest route required me to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic and cross maybe four more lanes to exit on the southbound highway a quarter mile away. Yeah, I missed that one. But still, once on the southside and leaving the metro area I found myself relaxing a bit and looking forward to the scenery along the Mississippi River.

There’s a liquor store I like to stop at in Lake City. A few years ago the town was undergoing some riverfront urban renewal with lots of brickwork, scenic drives, and curvy walkways. All quaint and good-looking work. Anyway, I parked near the door and paused to look at some of the brick façade going on the liquor store. One of the three masons on the scaffold asked which of the two colored bricks I liked best for trimming the window openings. Yep, if you’re ever down there, I had a hand in that! The walk-in cooler in the store was the last time I’d feel chilly for awhile, and I enjoyed it while I could – though you can’t stay in a store’s beer-filled walk-in cooler for too long before someone comes checking on you.

I found my campsite and set my tent next to a tiny brook trout stream with just enough daylight left to make a few unfruitful but indulgent casts. There I was, trout fishing!

The last time I camped there I woke to gobbling turkeys and light rain. This time there was a welcomed breeze that took away some of the evenings humidity and heat. I was on the water before most people were out of bed and stood in the river below a pool I’ve had luck in before. A comfortable breeze was coming down the river and just strong enough to pay attention to. There was only an occasional rise along the far bank so I plied the near water first. I drifted a favored 16 Dark River (for no good reason other than it’s what I caught ‘em on here before) dry fly through the riffles and over the head of the pool drawing no attention. No luck with a nymph, either. The pool below is long and broad and a good place to swing a streamer so I confidently tied on my choice number 12 wooly bugger and had a nice brown trout on minutes later. Finally I put several dries to the far bank to no avail, even though the riser was coming up now and then for who knows what. I worked my way upstream for awhile as the sun came up and the temp started to climb. Then I drove into town and found some coffee before heading for another branch of the river that I first fished as a young boy.

The day was warming fast and I noticed grasshoppers in the ditch where I parked my truck. Hmmm… something to keep in mind. There was no one else around and I had the river. My Gold Marten nymph took the biggest brown from an undercut bank, and though it wasn’t fast and furious, I caught trout regularly throughout the morning. When I found another one of those slow rising fish, I plopped a hopper imitation close to the bank and the trout took it. Nice! It was getting close to lunchtime when I drove back to town to see if I could locate Scott or any of the others in the crew.

One of the neat things about being in the river valley is no cell phone service. In my youth I took great pleasure in loading camping gear in my old truck and disappearing for a time – I’d missed the hippie generation by some years, but I still liked the idea of stickin’ it to the man and livin’ free. That’s hard to do if your boss, your mate, or anyone else can give you a call anywhere, anytime to see how it’s going. I know I’m something of a retro grouch, but if Big Brother wants to know what I’m up to he will have to come looking. Later I spent a few years specializing in solo wilderness canoeing and paddled hundreds of miles in Minnesota and Canada totally out of touch with anyone and, believe me, your behavior and actions turn pretty scrupulous when there’s no one, and no way to call for help. But when you get back to civilization you know you’ve at least done something and there never seemed like much risk involved at all.

On this trip I wasn’t so much trying to be free as I was trying to do a little fishing with some buddies, so I drove up to the farm country, dug my phone out of my pack and turned it on to get a message from Scott. A short time later we were having lunch and a beer at Mauer Bros.

We met up with Brett and Brent for the evening fishing in conditions that were, for me, miserably hot and humid. Everyone caught trout, mostly on nymphs, I think, but also some dry flys and yes, hopper imitations. My last fish of the evening came on a pheasant tail nymph, the only rainbow I caught. A nice buck deer came down to the river to see what I was up to, and a big flock of turkeys startled the heck out of me when I flushed them in the woods going back to the truck. Cocktails in camp, a visiting raccoon, a leaky air mattress for a bed, more fishing in the morning, a disintegrated wading boot, a tasty tailgate lunch, and before I knew it I was driving north for home. Can’t wait ‘till next time!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

pass the bass, please...

So I had this hot tip about a bass lake from a fiddle player, of all people, and I was trying to figure out when and how to check it out. Now, a fishing tip from an old time fiddler can be handled several different ways, but I happen to know this guy and know he’s a fisherman, so I took him at his word. He even showed me a phone photo of a hefty smallmouth lying on top of a cooler. A good-looking fish, no matter how small the cooler was. That fiddler wasn’t fishing for bass, though, he was looking for walleyes and crappies – you know, eatin’ fish – but he caught so many accidental smallies that he thought of me and my flyrod. Last Tuesday seemed like a good day to check it out so I marked “gone fishing” on the calender at work and headed north with a canoe on the rack.

The lake is around 50 miles from my place, the last seven miles on a worn, partially flooded gravel road that gets narrower the farther you go. The kind of road that’s turning into a trail and feels good to drive in a four-wheel drive truck. If you meet another vehicle one of you pulls over as far as you dare and the other creeps by with nods and waves exchanged. I’d gotten a pretty good start and stopped only once just long enough to fill my coffee cup. Still, I’d had thoughts of being on the water at sunrise, which I wasn’t but it didn’t matter. It was a beauty of a morning with fog wafting across the lake and the warblers, thrushes, and whitethroats were singing and chirping. A mother loon with babies greeted me just off the landing and I felt the anticipation rise and the familiar haste in getting started before anyone else came along and saw what I was up to.

I have two canoes, and the one I use is determined mostly by the distance I have to carry it. One is sleek, narrow, fast and light. I’ve paddled and portaged it all over canoe country and love the darn thing, but it has it’s own personality and is only user-friendly to a degree. It’s kinda like sitting in the yard knowing there’s a hornet nest hanging fifty feet away. You probably won’t have any trouble, but if you do... It’s hard to get completely relaxed.

The other is a bit shorter, wider, more stable, and heavier. It's easy to get comfortable in, and you can sneak out of the seat to move forward to reach your rain-gear, or turn around to grab something behind you without feeling like you're going in the drink. Usually. Occasionally I'll even stand up in it to stretch a bit. Because I could drive right to the landing, I had number two. At the ramp I plopped it in the water, rigged my rod and pushed off.

Right from the start, the shallows along shore consisted of rocks varying in size from boulders to the softball sized rubble that means smallmouth bass! Here and there is a patch of sand or weeds, and there are many trees laying from the shoreline to add hiding locations for the fish and snagging places for the errant tossed lure. I started with a hard, froggy looking popper and hooked a bass on the third cast, hardly away from the boat ramp. I continued along the south shore, in the shade of the forested shoreline as the sun lit the rest of the calm lake. Easing the canoe with a slow stroke of the paddle, I’d rest it across my lap and cast five or six times, catching bass regularly as they boiled at the popper and hit with a splash.

Cruising into a large bay I was greeted by a pair of upset beavers that circled my canoe and dove with their tails cracking the water every few minutes. It was so quiet and still I could hear their breathing as they swam a hundred feet away. I’d have an eye on one as it zig-zagged in front, only to be startled by the loud splash of it’s partner behind me. The beavers didn’t exactly drive me from their bay, but I’d have no peace until I left it.

Thankfully, it was mostly calm all day. There was the infrequent casual breeze that would come along and nudge the Old Town and me into, or away from shore and I’d have to scull myself back into position for a quick cast, but it wasn’t enough to bother much. I'd mentioned before to my fiddle playing friend that he could paddle me around and guide me, but he showed no enthusiasm for that suggestion. I didn’t try to keep count of the fish I caught, and you don’t have to try until they start adding up. Sometime in the morning I actually did lose count and anytime that happens you’ve had a good day. I did keep an eye on the size, however, and though the fish I caught fought for all they were worth, all were well under anything considered a trophy. For no particular reason I changed flies once in awhile. I caught bass on hard poppers, deer hair divers, a big Madam X, Wooly Buggers, and Clouser Minnows. I was casting well enough, it was a gorgeous day, and I was having a ball!

Long about 10:30 a lone angler in a boat arrived on the lake and he stood in the front of his boat and worked the shoreline as I was doing, only with an electric trolling motor. I watched him a couple of times through my binocular and saw he was casting a crankbait and skittering it back with purpose. I saw him land two bass and hoped he dropped them back into the lake. He saw where I was and stayed well away, which I appreciated, and then motored to the other side of the lake. I was kind of surprised to see another guy targeting bass, but I know he was having fun. Next time I visit that lake I may use my boat as well, and let the motor do the work while I do the fishing!

At lunch time I paddled into deeper water, dropped anchor, and rigged a spinning rod with a worm rig and dropped it overboard for any walleye that might wanna have lunch, also. Then I slid off the seat to the bottom of the canoe, propped my life jacket behind me, and rested my feet up on the gunwhales. A cold hamburger and a beer from the cooler hit the spot and I sort of dozed off until I heard someone chatting across the lake. I turned to see five canoes going by heading for the portage down at the other end. Nice! I thought, and they reminded me of the many canoe camping trips I’ve been on and how I need to again. I know I’ve envied over some pretty fantastic looking fishing boats, but there’s something about a canoe that stirs me.

I like having a rod in my truck and a canoe on the roof, sometimes for a week or more, in case I get the chance, or the urge, or a whim to use them. There’s not much trouble to it: see some water, stop and check it out. You might find something good, or you just might find something great! And paddling warms and loosens muscles that hardly get used any other way so that’s not a bad thing, either. It’s quiet and peaceful, and... what the heck, canoes and fly rods cohabit the deep and artsy side of what a lot of folks think fly-fishing entails.

The motorboat had loaded and left an hour before, and it was closing in on suppertime when I eased my canoe back to the landing. I was pleased and tired in a way handling a canoe and flyrod all day makes a guy feel. It was easy to let that old, familiar satisfied relaxation come to me while I recounted the day on the way home.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Time flies like an arrow - Black flies like a fisherman

We’re eating walleyes, but we’re lookin’ at trout. At least I am. Fishing on the lakes opened last weekend and Dad and I were out there. It’s not much of a secret where we were. We just fished where everyone else did. There was a lot of pre-season wondering where the walleyes would be, given the early spring we encountered, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say they were everywhere. Or nowhere. When Sunday night rolled around and we pulled the boat out of the water we had fished shallow bays and deep holes, watched opening weekend madness on the lake and at the boat launch, rescued a woman who’d fallen in the lake, were pounded by whitecaps, and I lost a six-dollar Rapala ‘cause I was too foolish to use the net on a big smallmouth bass. But we had enough walleyes for a couple of breakfasts and lunches. If you’ve never had fresh walleye and eggs for breakfast... well, you’re missing something.

We caught ‘em 2 ½ feet deep and in twenty feet of water. It was not fast and furious. I caught the first two minutes on the lake. The next came almost two hours later. The best one was the first Dad caught. He was so excited he never stopped reeling. When the fish came to the surface I was ready with the net but it kept coming and was soon arching through the air as Dad reeled the fish up and I two-handed the net trying to keep it under the fish! When his jig hit the tip-top the walleye dropped off and, luckily, into the net! Funny – gotta love it! We laughed over that one as we ate giant ice-cream cones from the Y-Store on our way home.

The week before I was up at the beaver pond I've talked about. The first evening I had only a couple of hours to fish before dark and my dry fly, a Dark River, wasn’t working on the few fish that were rising. The couple of takes it drew where from tiny fish, likely rainbow chubs but I never hooked one to confirm it.  When the slightest breeze came up all surface action stopped so I tied on a size 12 Wooly Bugger wrapped with purple hackle, determined to catch something with the streamer. I worked my way around the dam, casting all the while and tangling in cattail tops when I let my backcast drop. I was wondering if it was all for naught when my line tightened and the rod throbbed when I set the hook. A wild 14 inch brook trout fought all the way and how I regretted forgetting the camera as I released it back into the pond. That is a fine fish for this water – one I hope survives to catch again. It was the only fish of the evening, but it made my day.

I was back a couple of days later, in a light rain, casting a bead-head Bugger in hopes of seeing the same trout again. I made my way to where a little water spills over the dam into the smallest of secondary dams and wondered if a trout could have trapped itself in that shallow spillway. If so it wouldn’t survive long once the summer heat came, that is if a mink or heron didn’t find it first, so I surveyed the situation for a try. There were high cattails all around and only one way for a backcast. It would need to be high and between a small spruce and a six foot red osier growing up on the main dam. I slid off the dam and down to the head of the pool. I fed line and roll cast some line out, picked it up and caught the brush behind me. Twice. Finally I found the hole for my backcast and laid a perfect cast (mostly luck) over the deepest part of the pool. Two strips of the Bugger and a fish was on! It was a small brookie, but as pretty as they come and I lifted it in my net to release in the main pond above. I couldn’t interest any more with the Bugger, from the little pool nor the main pond, but soon after I knotted a #14 orange scud to my tippet I landed two more little brook trout. I didn’t catch the 14 incher again, I hope it’s still there, but the three little jewels I did catch made me know I was exactly where I belonged.

It’s not quite summer yet, and the foliage has a ways to go before it’s in full bloom. The other night I bushwacked into a stream I haven’t visited in years. I thought I could hike in after work and enjoy some time, but the old trail was obliterated with blowdowns and brush and it was 7 o’clock when I finally found the water, and then to discover what I should have remembered, that my fly rod was nearly useless on this brush choked little creek. I dabbled around for awhile and lost a couple of flies to snags both under and above the water, knowing that my little spinning rod at home would have been far more effective, but at least I provided a meal for about a million hungry biting bugs. I left the creek early, with no desire to hike through the brush in the dark, and got back to my truck as the tiny blackflies gave way to the mosquitoes.

I suppose trout fishing around here will go on hold soon. I just got a hot tip on a bass lake I’ve never fished that I'd better get to -- and I’m eager to find and fight some pike on the fly rod, too. But those out-of-the-way trout spots are dear to me, always fun to visit, and easy to think of as mine. And just try to show me something prettier than a wild brook trout!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Days

There’s still a bit of snow at the edges of the yard. The last two weekends we were the recipients of two snowstorms. The first left 10 inches on the ground, the second only a couple of inches. I have to believe it is the last, but there’s been a robin flying from the front yard birch tree to our living room window and seemingly tries to get in. When she’s unsuccessful she flies around to the back of the house and tries one of those windows. I wonder if she knows something we don’t? That’s not the only strange animal behavior lately, either. Yesterday P.J. reported a young deer circling around the kennels and teasing the dogs! The deer would approach the chain link and then jump back and trot around amused at the game. The dogs barked at first, but were soon whining and wagging at their new playmate. Of course I don’t know that this was the only time it’s happened. Maybe they do this regularly! At dawn the owls are hooting and the grouse are drumming all day, so that seems right, at least.

Stream trout season has been open for over a week. The weekend before opening day I made the trek to a beaver dam a few miles north of here that holds some brook trout. The water was clear and inviting, a lone Canada goose cruised the pond, and I was eager to get back with a rod. I’m not the only one who knows about it, unfortunately, but while I’ve seen sign of others who fish there (mainly discarded worm boxes), I’ve never actually been there when someone else was there, too. It’s not particularly easy to get to – I’ve walked there, mountain biked, and ATV’d to it. I usually take my favored 5 wt. trout rod, and sometimes some ultra-light spinning gear. When I get to about fifty yards from the pond I can just make it out through the balsams and spruce. It pays to sneak the final path in because you just might startle some ducks or geese, otter or mink, or even a moose.

The creek it’s on meanders through mostly swamp so when you’re fishing the pond that’s all you’re gonna fish. You don’t go upstream or down. You just kinda wobble your way out onto the dam, trying not to step in a hole or stumble, find a comfortable place that looks good and start fishing. There’s room to fly cast and that’s a plus, but sometimes I like to just sit and be as inconspicuous as possible. Beneath the water the bottom is a gray clay/silty material that you either slide on or get stuck in. No one wades in there. There’s also plenty of flooded timber to hide a fish and grab a lure. When it’s still I’ve had luck with dry flies, but I’ve done the best on breezy days drifting a nymph under an indicator. Not the classic way of nymph fishing, but I didn’t know that the first time I did it. Streamers or wet flies should work, and I’m waiting for the day they do.

Now, this beaver pond isn’t full of fish. It isn’t the kind of place I’d drive a long way to get to, but it’s trout water and close to home. Some good fishermen with bait could possible fish it out in a day. I haven’t kept a trout from there in years. The last time I fished there I drifted one of my beadhead gold marten nymphs on a breezy, drizzly summer evening. The indicator jerked once and I soon brought a little beauty of a brook trout to net. I looked at it for a moment and dipped it back into the water where it disappeared so fast I almost had to wonder if I caught it at all. When the breeze died the mosquitoes swarmed in like a nightmare and I made my escape with the aid of a flashlight. It was the only fish I caught that day. By the time I got home I may have remembered it as a few inches longer than it really was. Maybe that’s what it takes to make it worth going back.

I’d hoped to get into the pond on opening day but a broken truck had me dealing with tow-truck drivers and repair shops. On my way home from town in a loaner car I met a fellow I know as a trout fisherman coming from the direction of the pond. He waved and smiled as we passed, but I can’t say if it was the smile of a successful fishing trip or just being friendly. I don’t even know if he was at the pond. I do know he’s the kind of guy to leave no trace of his whereabouts, so if he fishes the same water before you, you won’t know he was there and think you’re the first. That’s not a bad thing, and one of the things I like about him.

The snow and rain has since brought the water levels to near flooding, but a few dry days should make them fishable again. And I’m eager to limber up a rod.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

mid winter...

I could still be out trapping, I suppose, fox and coyote season is still open, but I guess I’m about through with that for another year. There was a day when trapping was not only fun, but could bring some real money, as well. Anymore I’m happy to pay my fishing, hunting, and trapping fees with fur money. Now days I set traps because I like keeping those skills alive. I like tracking animals and anticipating their behavior. I like out-witting elusive animals and taking them humanely. I’m pleased knowing how to skin and handle a furbearer, and thinking that, if it ever came to it, I may be able to feed and clothe myself with the primitive skills of old. I guess I’m not yet too old to play Jeremiah Johnson once in a while. Besides, fur garments are gorgeous and I lament the reasons people reject real fur for advertised faux fur. Life is short, let’s not fake anything. Our fisher and pine marten season is short, but my six mile trapline on foot was rewarding. The day I set traps I saw wolf tracks hours old. I watched a bobcat cross my route fifty yards away. I paused at the river and smiled at otters sliding across ice to open water at the old beaver pond. I regretted my camera in the truck, but perhaps not every neat sight is meant to be digitally recorded -- maybe some things are meant to be experienced first hand, you know, get out and see it for yourself sort of stuff.

February is winding down now, but today we are getting what may be the biggest snowstorm of the season. The weather folks say we could expect up to a foot of new snow. Add that to the eight inches already in the yard and it still amounts to a far cry from last year when it was waist deep. It’s kind of nice, actually. I can be happy not plowing, shoveling, and blowing snow. There might be enough for some decent cross-country skiing, and I’m eager to find out. All in all it’s been a mighty mild season, but winter is winter and it’s still pretty nice to enjoy the laziness of it in a warm house. I take the dogs out for a walk, toss a tennis ball for them to play with, hike through the field and maybe hide a pigeon for them to find, but it’s mostly a short term activity to ward off cabin fever. I might spend the better part of the day working on the firewood supply, but I’ve noticed I cut myself some slack in that department, also. I used to figure to cut and block a quantity of wood a weekend. Then it was burn two tanks of chainsaw gas and then split what I could. Now if I drop a good sized tree, and get it cut and split I reckon that’s pretty good for a weekend. It really only takes a couple of hours, but that seems plenty. Because of the nice winter I’ve gotten a head start on it and there are piles of split birch, maple, and popple around the edges of my yard that I’ll haul to the woodshed. When I get to it.

I don’t spend so much time working outside in the winter because there are good things to do inside. I finally cleaned my deer rifle and put it away. It had been leaning in a corner where I could take it up and handle it since deer season. It’s a great rifle, and it’s too bad I use it so little, so I never hurry to lock it up where I won’t see it for months. Later on, next month I suppose, I’ll take my rifle and shotgun out and wipe them down and reminisce over last fall. Yes, I like holding them, swinging them, and picturing what I’ve seen over them and have yet to see over them. Some guys equate their firearms as tools. Not me.

And I like catching up on my reading. I enjoy reading, always have, and while there are some who might call it time wasted, well... they’re just wrong. I have old and dear friends whom I see too seldom, anymore, who are some of the coolest and smartest people I know – and our standard greeting goes, “How ya doing, whatcha reading?” I like that, and I like reading things on paper. I recently had a look at my daughter’s Nook, or Kindle, or whatever it is, and I’m pretty impressed. Wouldn’t mind trying that route, but I’m such a slow reader I have to wonder if the batteries would hold out. I often stop at a phrase or sentence just to ponder it. I sometimes limit myself to a chapter a day just to make a good book last longer. I’m reading two books right now, and I finished a third last night. I recently finished a musician’s memoir that I’d spent a month on. I was going to pass it on to a friend but he’d gotten hold of another copy and finished it in a weekend. Hhhmmm. I know it’s a new age of electronics and it sometimes seems the norm of reading is clicking on the day’s instant b.s. that’s all too readily available from nearly everyone, but thankfully there are still talented writers and authors turning out quality material in book form.

Fly-tying is one of the best things I’ve ever learned to do, or more correctly, I’m learning to do. I know folks who tie flies that are pure art. I haven’t achieved that, but I can keep at it. I have some that catch fish and that’s cool. Years ago P.J. and I took a fly tying class at the local Environmental Center for a fun winter activity. She was new to it but I’d been tying for awhile and when the instructor was trying to get us to slide the thread off the end of our fingertips I failed and announce I used a tool for that procedure. He approached to show me the light but when he saw my rough and broken wintertime hands, he agreed a tool was appropriate. Anyway, this winter I have a new tying vise (thanks, Santa, there was nothing actually wrong with the old one, but this one is way better!) and have been putting trout flies and bass poppers through it and enjoying every delightful minute of it. One of the guys I work with was interested and when I explained the process of gluing, painting, clear-coating, and finally tying the fuzzy stuff to a bass lure, he quipped I have a hundred dollars into a fly. Of course that’s not true, but I’d be happy to sell them for half that.

So this winter I’m looking over some forest maps, looking at streams and lakes I’ve yet to explore and those that need revisiting. I've been out ice fishing a couple of times and I need to make some more venison jerky, but I’m also working up a plan to hike into unknown reaches of some local water this winter, on snowshoes if need be, to hopefully encounter pockets of brook trout water that few anglers will put the effort into finding. I’d like to come onto some spots that I wouldn’t try finding through summer foliage without knowing they were already there. If nothing else, I'll get a good winter hike out of the idea, and that’s not a bad thing, either. But I hope I find them ‘cause I’ve got some neat little flies I’d like to float over them come Spring.