Twenty one. That was an important number when I was a teenager, for reasons that are a bit fuzzy now. It had something to do with the legalities of bellying up to a bar and ordering a beer like a natural born man. At least, that’s what I remember about it.
I’ve been on a long-time quest to catch a 21-inch smallmouth bass on my fly rod. It’s not something I’ve been obsessed with, or have pursued above all else, but I’m not getting any younger and I’d like to cross it off my list. Shouldn’t be all that hard to do – sounds absolutely simple, right? But it’s eluded me, so far. I have caught some large bass that measured up, mostly while fishing for walleyes using jigs and bait or crankbaits. I caught one last spring on Lake Vermilion that was close, on a Rapala. And I do also catch a good number of smallies each year fly-fishing, just haven’t gotten the 21.
I have marks on my canoe country maps where I’ve caught memorable fish. There were the lakers on the surface one June evening on Canadian Agnes… Couldn’t keep the walleyes off my fuzzy grubs on Crooked… Camped under the stars one night overlooking a shallow bay on Quetico Lake that I’d spent the final hours of daylight catching one after another 14-16 inch smallies gulping mayflies off the bronze surface… The Alworth Lake northern pike that grabbed my deer-hair popper and swam up to my canoe to give me the evil eye before diving and breaking me off effortlessly… Eating Shell Lake walleyes caught fly-casting a streamer pattern tied with locks of my daughter’s blonde hair. Now, where to try for the big bass?
I ran into an old friend and neighbor just this morning and I mentioned the quest to him. Now, Frank is a rough and tumble guy, part logger, part cowboy; truck driver and hog raiser. He’s an honest to goodness, tried and true Iron Ranger of Finnish descent. In his younger days he took off on his old panhead Harley to live in California for awhile so he could misbehave without his mother knowing about it. He tried to live the hippie lifestyle but kept getting into fights when he was drunk, so he wasn’t well accepted. He couldn’t quite embrace the “peace” part of it all. Anyway, his answer to me was, “Bass, eh? Whatcha do with ‘em, knock ‘em on the head and toss ‘em on the bank? That’s what I do.” Jeez. Around here there’s an old stigma against any gamefish other than walleye or lake trout.
I have another old neighbor six miles east of here that has a 42-pound Great Slave lake trout mounted on the wall of his living room. If you look through his big window when you drive by his house you can see it. I don’t know him well, nor have I fished with him, but he is reputed to fish with a baseball bat in his boat to beat any northern pike off the hook before it gets in the boat. Those who know him claim he gets physically ill when he gets too close to a pike – can’t stand the smell, they say. This is perfectly reasonable thinking to many of the locals, but it does makes him the easy target of all sorts of practical jokes. It seems weird to me.
The trouble with being surrounded by weirdness is they all look at you as the weird one.
So I’ve been poring over my maps to plan my strategy for the 21-inch smallmouth. There is some criteria I’ve imposed: I must catch this fish in Minnesota. That rules out Chequamegon Bay and Canada, including Quetico. If someone will show me where the big fish live that’s fine, but no paid guides (nothing against guides, I just don’t wanna pay them.) I have to catch this fish using a fly rod with artificial flies. No bait, and of course I’ll try to take it on the surface, but clousers, buggers, and muddlers are OK, too. Northern MN would be nice – who wants to leave God’s Country? – but the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers are fair game (yes, there are a couple of WI rivers that temp me). I’m willing to camp – motels are iffy. Familiar Schtick: these are more guidelines than rules, subject to change at a moments notice. Right now I’m looking at some lakes in the Boundary Waters that I’ve either been to or heard about. I’m favoring a spot that might take two days to paddle to, if I go solo, which is likely but if anyone is interested in joining me I’ll sure consider it. Time-wise it should be late May – early June for the lakes. Rivers are less fussy.
So that’s what I’m thinking about on this cold, cold windy evening. I’ll keep you posted.