Monday, June 17, 2013

campin' for bass...

I’d slept later than I expected I would. I could see through the nylon walls of my tent that it was well past sunrise. It’s not that I cared about sleeping in or was in any kind of hurry, though, I just didn’t expect to sleep well enough on the ground to sleep late. Of course, I wasn’t exactly on the ground, there was a therma-rest pad under my sleeping bag, and I can’t begin to tell you the number of nights I’ve slept on that pad. Nonetheless, that pad seems to get thinner each year and after the better part of a day paddling and portaging to set up camp – then paddling and casting until dark – I didn’t just spring out of the sack, and when I finally managed to clamber up and outside it took a while longer to stretch the kinks out than it used to.

Based on a hot tip, I had made an overnight paddle reservation into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness intent on fly fishing for that 21 inch smallmouth bass I’d set my sights for. I canceled that trip shortly after I received Brent’s “let’s go to Montana” e-mail and re-scheduled to paddle in a few days after we returned from the west. I expected this situation to be good fate because I thought the bass would be spawning later than usual, anyway. Of course, any invitation to Montana is good fate on its own, so it seemed like a win-win deal to me.

At dawn I parked my truck off the road and portaged my gear to the first lake a little better than half a mile away. I was on a solo trip (I’d hung an open invitation out there – no takers) and I had to double portage to get my packs and canoe across, which required three trips over each portage. But enthusiasm was on my side and I was eager to try out the new bass poppers I’d tied over the winter, so I headed out in high spirits. Five hours later I made my last 90-rod portage over a little used trail into my destination lake with plenty of time to pitch camp and fish out the day.

The tip I’d gotten was from a believable source who described the lake as off the beaten path (true enough), easy to get to in a day (again, true), full of large bass (for me to find out). Now, describing large bass can be a pretty subjective topic. If you’re fishing Texas largemouth then you’re gonna need something in the neighborhood of ten pounds to be considered a nice fish. If you’re at little Jammer Lake off the highway a few miles from here you’ll consider showing off anything 12 inches long, though if you tell them you caught it fly-fishing they’ll tell you you’d be better off dropping a crawler on the bottom. And why are you fishing for bass, anyhow? Between here and Texas you’ll run into lots of differing criteria to what constitutes a big bass.

All in all, I was of the notion that this might be the place to take that trophy.

After I set up a comfortable camp on the north shore and gobbled a quick lunch I stood looking and the lake and pondering which way to try first. There was a moderate breeze coming in and it turned out to be the first of four days of east to southeast winds. Wind from the east, fish bite the least… I threw my Crazy Creek chair onto the canoe seat to ease my lower back and pushed off. The first smallmouth took one of my new poppers when I was a hundred yards from camp, along the north shore of the lake, but it was tough trying to cast and control the canoe in the wind. Sometimes I would drop a rock anchor over the side and shoot a number of casts to likely looking cover, but I soon found my way to the east and south shores where the water was calm. Near a beaver lodge I could peer into the clear water and see schools of suckers alongside what looked like largemouth bass. It was soon confirmed as I started catching largemouths that would jump clear of the water in imitation of the rainbow trout we caught the week before. The clear water was deceiving and what looked like a depth of two or three feet was more like six or eight. It didn’t take long to realize the bonzebacks were not on their nests, yet. I caught only a couple that were way up in the shallows, and most of the fish came at the edge of the drop, twenty or so feet from shoreline. When the poppers and hair bugs worked it was exciting with some of the bass rushing up and clearing the water when they hit. But nothing seemed to work for long and I caught some casting a huge rubber-legged wooly bugger sort of thing and a small Klouser tied with brown marabou and X-legs that looked, to me, like a passable crawfish hopping along the rocky bottom. I have to say that maybe the most effective fly was a waterlogged deer hair diver that I’d let sink a few inches before stripping it in and leaving a wake on the surface. I lost it when a nice bass wrapped up in an underwater tree limb.

The lake looks like bass heaven to me and I saw many more fish than I caught. Except for a few areas of fine gravel the bottom is covered with the rocky rumble that stirs us bass anglers, with plenty of downed and sunken trees along the edges. I landed about as many largemouth as smallies with the latter running a bit larger.

The first evening I set my routine of returning to camp to cook a good supper on my camp stove and set up a campfire of dry beaver wood that would start with one match when I returned at dark from more fishing. There's nothing much better than pondering a crackling fire on a remote lake, listening to the loons singing their wild songs, and a sip from the flask to ease sore muscles before crawling into the tent for the night. It was cool enough to frost overnight so the insects that are so often thick this time of year were not an issue. The first night I woke in the dark to hear wolves howling in the woods to the north, a sound that makes me happy to burrow deeper into my sleeping bag, but it was water lapping the shoreline yards from my tent that put me away each night.

One morning I looked at the overcast eastern sky wondering if it would rain. I tied my rain jacket to a thwart and as soon as I got across the lake the rain came. It was no passing shower and my rain pants were back in camp. After a morning of fishing in the rain I paddled to camp and sat under the tarp drying out and drinking coffee. It cleared in the late afternoon to a beauty of an evening that brought still more paddling, casting, and bass.

A few days of fly casting and paddling a canoe reminded me that I’m no youngster, anymore, but I’m mighty happy to have the chances and places to keep at it. I once guided an old friend, the man who started me fly tying, on a BWCA winter ski in trip. We were huddled against a rock face cooking a lunch of polish sausage over a small fire and I asked how he was doing. He answered, “It’s better to wear out than to rust.” He’s long retired, now, and bouncing grandkids off his knees, but he still makes the long trip up here to paddle and portage in canoe country every year, or so. I like that.

I caught bass with a certain slow regularity, but it wasn’t the fast and furious I was quietly hoping for. Fishing is like that and although I’ve enjoyed some pretty fruitful outings with my fly rod, if success was measured only by the weight or numbers, I would have given up a failure long, long ago. Casting a fly rod is fun – when it’s going well, that is, and when it’s not going well you figure it out and improve – and I like the activity and anticipation of it all, though I’m happy to jig or troll some bait when the walleyes are biting and I’m looking for a fish fry. After a couple of days on the water I become comfortable controlling the canoe and rod at once and fall into a method of stroke, lay the paddle across my lap, grab the rod and cast several times. Sure, the line sometimes gets tangled around my feet, or under the paddle or hooked on the seat, but I’m sort of used to that. Can anyone tell me anything that tangles as easily as fly line and leaders? I was pleased with the action of some of my new poppers and will use them anywhere, but I also learned the failings of some of the others, so I’m glad I didn’t tie dozens of them.

I had some pike leaders along just in case I had the chance, but this lake seemed to hold nothing but bass and schools of suckers working the bottom. Timing is important when targeting these early season bass and I believe I was too early for the best of it. I suppose I should be there right now, but, much as I’d like, I just can’t spent all my time recreating. Dang. And my quest for the 21 continues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I’ve often said that if I’d gone to Montana when I was eighteen I would have never came back. That may not be entirely true, but it might be. However, I was well into adulthood when I made my first trip there, long past teenage years and getting pretty well settled into the woods of Minnesota. I wasn’t in a bad place at all – a pretty good place, actually… but, still…

I’ve been to Montana hunting birds – prairie grouse and doves – with my dogs, my friends, and my friend’s dogs on the grasslands of the northeastern part of the state and had nothing but fun doing it: setters casting well ahead and locking on sharptails, Dutch oven dinners in an open prairie camp, and crawling into the sleeping bag while coyotes yipped the evening serenade. And I’ve backpacked in the high and rugged mountains where I was told grizzly bear live. I didn’t see any bears, but I was lookin’. I’ve been treated to seeing a fair sampling of game there, mule and whitetail deer, antelope, and elk but I’ve never hunted big game out west. Perhaps one day. I’ve also had the good fortune to have fished on half a dozen rivers, some a couple of different times. I’ve slept in big tents and small, motels and cabins, and on the ground under that legendary Big Sky full of stars.

When I tell the stories I tend to make it sound like I know more about that country than I really do, as if I’ve been there a lot. I haven’t been there a lot, though, not nearly as much as I’d like to. I still believe I could have stayed out there years ago and pounded out as good a living as I have here at home, wandering around the streams and mountains with rod and gun when I could and just plain becoming familiar with it all. Sort of, I guess, like I have here. Nowadays I go west as a tourist, a sooner, a hopeful yo looking to catch some big trout, stare at the scenery, enjoy some good evening whiskey with good friends, and make some great memories doing it.

With drift boat in tow we traveled all night and most of the day, Brent, Scott, John, and I, but we were on the water before dark casting to trout rising to tiny midges and blue wing olives. And we caught some. The fishing proved far more technical than I’d ever experienced. When I see fish rising all over the place, their heads and dorsels popping out of the water all around me, my Midwestern meat and potatoes mindset can’t help thinking “this is gonna be a slaughter!” Far from it, but thanks to some shared advice from the fly shop guides and my more experienced companions I was able to hook a trout here and there when I wasn’t untangling wind knots, or trying to slip an invisible tippet through the eye of a hook that an amoeba couldn’t squeeze through, or watching my buddies land yet another one. We toasted our luck each night in our comfortable rented cabin with a convenient fly shop within spittin’ distance of our door. Man-sized breakfasts, days on the river, and heaping delicious suppers guaranteed sound sleep and before I knew it we were packing for home.

Yes, we caught trout, enjoyed the views, sipped some fine bourbon, and brought back good memories. And I never even rowed the boat, but I tried to!