Friday, August 29, 2014


I’d just missed two strikes on my black deer-hair diver when  Jack spun his drift boat around to head downstream. We’d launched the boat only minutes before and Jack rowed us upstream towards the dam to get Scott and me into one of his musky holes. Then we spotted another boat up there we were about to turn around, but not before I shot a few casts to the rocky shoreline. I never saw the fish that struck but they were most surely a couple of the many smallmouth bass that call this river home.

I hadn’t been fishing for a couple of weeks due to a home project, but when that was completed I let Scotty know I was ready and able. Scott got hold of Jack and arraigned to float the river near Jack’s beautiful cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. Jack phoned me the day before and announced that I’d won an “all-expense paid” float trip down a river full of big muskies and bass. There’s only one answer to that kind of invitation.

 Neither Scott nor I had fished this river before so anticipation was high like it is when looking at new water. Not surprisingly Jack took the oars first and was soon pointing out likely looking spots we should cast to, but this river is so full of rocks and shoreline trees that it’s impossible to hit every good spot. It’s easy to believe there’s fish behind every boulder and under every downed tree.

Jack knows his fishing. It wasn’t that long ago he’d returned from a New Zealand trout fishing adventure to fish Stripers off the east coast and tarpon in Florida. He’s familiar with all the Montana waters I’ve fished and gave some valued tips the first time I went west, and by now he should be in Alaska casting for salmon. He’s smart and personable with a good sense of humor, of which I was reminded of when he stated the expense paid part didn’t include his tip and that I should bring a sandwich. Hoo boy.

River fishing bass, pike, and musky is all about fun. The flies we tie and cast are big and sometime outlandish. Colorful spun deer hair, rubber legs and google eyes, long bucktail and strung hackle tails. No need for magnifiers to tie the hook on to nearly invisible tippets. No worries about the perfect drift. Just enjoy the scenery – there’s always an eagle or osprey, deer or bear, beaver, mink, or otter somewhere along the route – and feel your rod load and the line shooting through your hand knowing the cast is a good one. And a good one lands your fly inches from the bank or cover and you strip it back in plops and jerks and dives on and under the surface. “Nice cast” “Gotta be one there” and “Fish on!” are the phrases of the day. Of course I usually put at least one fly high enough in the overhanging branches to wish there was a pole-saw handy.

Often the strikes are explosive, but when Scott dropped his flowing bucktail diver at the base of a low dock the big musky slid out and grabbed his fly without much commotion. I saw the tight line and bent rod and heard Scott say “heavy fish” before all went slack and the fish was gone! The fly was offered again but that fish had tasted enough feathers for one afternoon. It was the heartbreak of the day, just ask Scott.

All told we landed a good number of smallmouth bass, a couple big enough to brag about, and a couple of northern pike. Zip on the muskies. I’m still amazed at how strong these river fish are and what a fight they put up!

Jack had invited me to stay the night, but I had an early commitment at home in the morning so I elected to sleep in my own bed that night. I drove through Duluth and was settling in for the last hour of driving and I was getting pretty sleepy, always a downfall after a full day outdoors. I had a bottle of 5-Hour Energy somewhere close and I groped around in the dark for it while keeping an eye on the road. I felt the familiar feeling bottle in my hand, opened it and took a big gulp of silicone fly floatant. Yeah, that sort of woke me up.

Back home it’s been cooling off some and there’s the hint of autumn in the air. A few of the maples are taking on that red tint. It’s not far from bird hunting season, now. I’ve been seeing some broods of grouse on the roads and woodcock flying at dawn on my way to work. The dogs can feel it, too, and are whining and dancing around just begging to get out there. The other morning we woke to a cool and rainy day but a good day to give the dogs some work. Molly is always happy to be doing anything and the deadfowl dummies are almost as good to her as real birds. Jack jumped off the tailgate and ran a few yards down the trail to point a brood of grouse before I could get a bell on him. Seemed like a good sign!

 Bird hunting and fall fishing – good times ahead!


Friday, August 8, 2014

finally floatin' again...

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.