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. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Feelin' low

As much as I like casting topwater flies for bass, sometimes I just gotta try something under the surface. The reason could be as simple as what works in certain situations, though I wonder if the bass are taking poppers wouldn’t they as readily take a streamer? I mean, when the guys and I are drifting a river we almost always start out with floating bass bugs and if those aren’t working someone will likely tie on a streamer and put up with the inevitable remarks about giving up and going to the lowly bait fly. But if the fish suddenly start taking subsurface it’s hard not to make the switch.

Another reason is that streamers are fun to tie and like all flies when we make that final whip finish we sit back with anticipation and think “now this thing will catch fish!” So we use ‘em.

Personal reasons had me traveling to Duluth recently, but somehow managing to leave home early enough to spend just a little time at the Cloquet River near where it runs under the highway. It was on purpose that I spent “just a little time” on the river, allowing myself about an hour to fish. That would keep me close to the vehicle – any more than that and I’d probably find myself well down the river and the hike back would make me late for meeting who I was supposed to meet.

The Cloquet is rocky thing and wading gets pretty taxing on a lot of it. Round slippery boulders and a good current keep most anglers on shore or in boats. Floating is the way to go, actually, as you don’t have to go far from the bridges to get in some scenically remote county that’s largely under-fished. It’s a diverse river, also, and one can catch walleyes, crappies, catfish, and the occasional brown trout, as well as the smallmouth bass that I was after. I’ve never caught or seen a pike below Island Lake, but little hammer-handle pike have been hooked in the upper Cloquet when I was trying for brook trout.  

I drove through a rain storm and was ahead of it when I pulled onto the gravel frontage road and parked at a familiar little opening off the road. A few drops of rain were falling by the time my waders were pulled on and I stepped into the river. I had an almost new sink-tip line on my reel that was used only once to catch a couple of Montana rainbows. I figured this would be a good time to swing one of my hairball leeches across and down. I’d tied those hair leeches in pink and chartreuse for last year’s Alaskan salmon and the chartreuse looks like a bass taker to me. I’m not so sure about the pink.

The wind was picking up and the storm was on its way. I worked my way downstream casting out and up and letting current swing the fly in an arc until it was straight downriver. The wading was slow and careful through the rocks, some too large to step over so I’d short step around them. The plan worked and in the hour fished I landed five smallies and lost a couple more. No, they weren’t trophy size, but bent the rod nicely and were a lot of fun. And that’s what it’s all about. The storm hit just as I got in the car. Nice.

A couple of days later I had the boat on the big lake north of here. The early morning calm found me casting deerhair bugs in a weedy bay where a few decent largemouth provided the excitement. By the time I got out to the points and humps I wanted to check for muskie and smallmouths the wind was really kicking up. The trolling motor was a pain to use out in the open and it took both anchors to hold in position. Anyone close enough to see would have wondered if I was trying to cast or attempting to lasso myself. It was hopeless in that wind and whitecaps, so I ducked behind an island and found a rock reef to cast to. A white streamer along the lines of a Murdoch minnow worked for a couple of smallmouth.

Still on the streamer kick, I got to a little lake early one morning and paddled my canoe into the back bay where I’ve had luck on bass and bluegills. It was a beauty of a morning, calm and cool. The shoreline was choked with weeds and lily pads as it would be this late in the summer, so I eased the canoe out from the edges of the weeds, anchoring now and then to fan cast an area. A conehead chartreuse bugger was working when the strangest thing happened. I made a cast to edge of the pads and let the fly sink for a few seconds. Then I made one strip and the line broke! The fly line – clean in two. Almost as if snipped with a scissors. I grabbed the loose end before it disappeared up the guides and pulled it in before the fly snagged the bottom. Then I looked at the line and wondered. That line was a good one made by a known company and expensive. And I supposed it’s been abused. I used that line on big fish in Alaska, took a couple of muskies and all kinds of bass. It’s also been wrapped around all kinds of boat equipment and stepped on, sometimes with studded boots. The funny thing is I clean my lines a couple of times a season and never saw or felt a knick or cut. I’d caught a number of fish with that line in the previous weeks and a couple that morning. It finally snapped when I gave it a strip, a simple strip with no weight on it and it just parted. Man, I gotta take care of this stuff.

So I tied a little blood knot in it and caught a nice bass two casts later.

Monday, July 25, 2016

fishing for quantity part two...

It promised to be a warm one. Likely the hottest day of the year, so far. I’d been thinking about that little lake I was on two days ago and thinking I should give it another go. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with catching some fish before breakfast, right? I never get tired of explosive strikes and the tug and bend of the rod. The canoe was still on the truck rack and all I had to do was put on the coffee and take the dogs out for a little romp before heading over to the lake.

I had pretty much the same outfit as the other day, except this time I would bring the old bamboo rod I had and give it a try. It was over 25 years ago when a friend of mine found the old cane rod in the garage of a property he'd purchased. It was in pretty rough shape but he thought I might like it so he gave it to me. It’s a nine foot, three piece rod and had two tips. One of the tips was split and shattered but the rest of the rod was OK. The finish was about gone and what guides were left were mostly rust. The ferrules were corroded but solid as was the down-lock reel seat. I could find no name on it, but I knew the right rod could be worth some real dough. I also knew there were plenty of old mass produced bamboo rods that had little value and I figured this was one of them. There are folks who know and fish bamboo like it was a religious experience. I won’t argue that as I’ve felt some deep, call them religious, feelings myself while fishing. The rod didn’t have much to do with it, though. Fly rods are pricey, and cane rods can be crazy expensive. I don’t know if I could ever appreciate bamboo as some describe it. My fly fishing is fulfilling with the rods I have. Heck, I love it.

For an indoor project one winter I refinished the old rod. I went to the library and checked out Garrison’s rod building book. I mail ordered new guides and built a rod tying rack. I stripped the rod clean, tied new guides, wrapped thread over the ferrules, and varnished the rod in an elaborate PVC dip tank I build. For the dipping I used an electric motor from an old rotisserie grill as a winch and a sort of block and tackle rig that slowed the process down. After filling the tank with Pratt & Lambert varnish, the same stuff Garrison used, I lowered a rod section into the finish and let the motor draw it out slowly, something like 4 inches per minute. The result was a flawless varnish job. When all was said and done the rod looked pretty good, but I never fished it. That was in 1989. It's been standing alongside the other rods for all these years. Now I figured if it was ever going to catch a fish, the little bass lake would be a good bet.

I’m not a purist but there are some traditions I like and believe are worth holding on to. Not all pertain to angling, but I reckoned the old wooden rod should be fished with deer hair. I’d found an old reel with some old unmarked line that if I remember is a 6 wt. Possibly 7, or maybe one of those combo 6/7 lines. I’ve had it so long I don’t remember when I got it, but I had to snip off about a foot of cracked line to get to something I could attach a leader to. The old rod is pretty heavy and sort of whippy and I wasn’t taking any bets on how long I’d cast with it before switching to my graphite.

This time I brought an anchor so I could stay in relatively one spot and sort of fan cast a section before moving on. I was pretty eager and could feel it in my stomach when I pulled in to the landing. These hot, still mornings seem just what bass like. 

The lake was as flat as glass and I hurried with the canoe to escape the morning mosquitoes. I started settling down, relaxing, as I paddled across. I was again alone on the lake and that in itself made it worth it. When I closed in on the south shore I lowered the anchor and clamped the rope off to the gunnel with a spring-loaded woodworkers clamp. I wouldn’t need much to hold the canoe, but the slightest breeze can push it too close, or too far in the time it takes to make a cast.

I was anxious about how the rod would perform, and expected it to have a slow action but was surprised at how easily I played the line out and with two false casts laid the fly about two feet from the bank right over a submerged log. There I watched it. What triggers a fish to attack a funny looking lure sitting motionless I’ll never know. Perhaps the hackle feather tail pulsates a bit, along with the marabou behind the collar. Is another fish taking a look causing a competitive response? Whatever it is, the splashing strike is startling and the pull on the bent rod is delightful.

That’s the kind of water this is. A first cast fish is no surprise and seeing the light bellied green-backed bass dart back and forth shaking their heads and jumping clear of the water is nothing but pure fun. I cast the old rod for just over an hour, and did well with it. It has a slow, soft action but could toss a wind catching deerhair fly a surprising distance, even with my questionable ability. By then I’d caught and released at least a dozen small bass and lost almost that many. That was enough. I could have went around the lake over and over and there’s no telling how many fish I might have caught. Maybe enough to grow tired of it. I remembered the coffee in my truck would still be hot and there’d be breakfast at home so I paddled in, eager for next time.



fishin' for quantity...

I’m not usually too concerned with numbers, and it’s been a long time since I have been. Sometimes this seems like a lonely course, though. I’m kind of careful about asking certain folks how their hunting or fishing outings went. I’m weary of hearing how it sucked because “we didn’t even limit out,” which implies a day on the water or in the woods was a failure for lack of numbers. Of course, those are the same folks who, when they see me, feel it’s important to tell me – without my asking – that they did, indeed, limit out, or maybe take more than the limit, or sneak some slot fish home. I can’t tell if they’re trying to impress me or rub my nose in it. The human condition is something I’ve never well understood.

There was a time, however, when numbers meant more to me. I’ve never, ever, kept track of season totals, but there were the long days of hunting or angling dawn to dark because I hadn’t yet reached the daily number allowed by law. You know, I got the limit but had to work for ‘em. During lean years I worried about the game populations and even wished the game managers would lower the limits. It doesn’t matter if it’s two, four, or six, there’s some satisfaction in bringing home the “limit,” thus eliminating the need to use our own conscious and good sense. I will add I was slightly disappointed, though, when the Feds actually did lower the woodcock limit. I know and agree with the reasons, but my daughter was still home in those days and loved eating bacon-wrapped timber doodle as much as I do. Those three little woodcock breasts, after a couple of minutes on the grill, disappeared faster than an M&M at a weightwatchers meeting!

There’s a little lake minutes from here that I fly fish now and then. I call it a lake because the map says it’s one, but it’s less than 20 acres in size and I almost think of it as a pond. But there’s a DNR boat ramp on it and a deep spot in the middle that reaches 30 feet. The shallow shoreline is a mix of weeds, lily pads, mud, bare gravel and submerged trees. It’s clear and cold and a designated trout lake, stocked with rainbows, but I haven’t kept up with the stocking efforts. I’ve taken a couple of small trout on flies during an evening rise, but you can never count on that happening. The popular method is to fish deep with crawlers for a few pan size fish, but it’s no hotspot and after the spring rush you seldom see anyone there. There’s also a good quantity of largemouth bass and that’s what attracts me. The bass are on the small side, but healthy and brave and fun to catch. I have to wonder if there is a hog or two in there but I have never seen one, and I have to believe it would be a perfect place for a beginner fly caster, young or old, because success is almost guaranteed. Almost. After trips that entail a lot more casting than catching, there’s some kind of pleasure in hooking a fish every couple of casts.
It’s not someplace you’d want to wade fish, but I sat in my canoe one evening while a fellow in a belly boat trolled past back and forth kicking backwards and trying to hold a conversation with me. I’ve never taken my boat on the lake, but I’ve seen some surprisingly big craft looking out of place there. I understand, though. If you want to fish the lake, and you have a boat, you use what you have. I prefer my canoe, even though I know my boat with its electric troll motor would be more efficient. Especially in the wind.

I paddled out there a few mornings back expecting some fun action. I took my six weight rod and four or five flies in a plastic sherbet pail that stood open under the seat of my canoe, along with a spare leader, a bottle of floatant and a six-inch forceps. A clipper hung from a lanyard around my neck. I left the bigger tackle at home because I was pretty sure of the size of my quarry. I tied on a small orange blockhead popper I’d made from a K-Mart flip flop. I wanted to test the water, being the first time there this year. There was no one else there, nor did I expect to see anyone else, since it was a fairly early weekday morning. The sky was clear and a slight breeze was stirring. By afternoon it would be in upper eighties and the typical thunderstorms would roll in at dusk.

This is still water fishing unlike the moving rivers I enjoy so much and the tactics are different. I found a spot on the far side that the breeze hadn’t yet reached and laid out a cast to the shaded shoreline and let the popper sit. I mean let it sit. Results don’t always meet anticipation but I could feel something was going to happen. I didn’t move it for a long half minute when a bass hit it ferociously. As ferociously as a 10 inch bass can. After battling as hard as he could, I lifted him from the water and slipped the hook from its lip and lowered him back to the lake. Ten minutes later I’d caught three more and switched to deer hair on a #4 stinger hook, the largest fly I’d brought. When I started wondering if I’d caught 10 or 11, I quit trying to keep count and continued moving around the lake, cursing the breeze that kept me too busy with the paddle instead of the rod, and kept catching fish. Sometimes they’d hit the instant the fly hit the water making me think they must be watching it coming. The wind was picking up and moving the canoe a lot. When I couldn’t let the fly pause on the water I’d just start stripping and that would work, too. Most of the bass were in the 10 – 12 inch range. Nothing bigger, some smaller. Unremarkable by many standards but by my standards a lot of fun and a lot of action.

I like catching big fish as much as anyone and I know where there are bigger ones but I can’t think of anywhere with faster action. I don't recall ever passing the chance to join my friends on a river float, and given the chance I'd be happy to find myself on a good trout stream, but fishing is fishing and I'm mighty tickled to be catching fish, even small ones rather than sitting around wishing I was. This is nowhere near technical angling. No need for jangling fly vests, zingers, fly boxes, magnifiers, invisible tippets and match the hatch flies. This is as close to bib-overall, straw hat style of fly fishing as you can get. My outfit was in an ice cream pail under the seat, but maybe a mason jar or cigar box would have been more fitting. And I suppose I should have been chewing a stalk of hay.

I switched flies every six fish or so because I like catching fish on the flies I tie. I could say I was testing what works and what doesn’t but I think pretty much anything would work. I finished with a #6 Zoo Cougar I tied for Alaskan rainbows. Doused with floatant it popped on the surface and the bass hit it with gusto. I didn’t land them all; they’d jump and shake and throw the barbless hooks regularly, but I landed more than I could count. After being roughed up by 10 or more bass, my Zoo Cougar had lost much of its deer hair collar, but it will live to fish again. I loaded the canoe and drove home but it was still too early for lunch. I left the canoe on the truck. I’d be back soon.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Dark River

I’ve been seeing so many big fish photos posted on social media that I’m wondering if I’ll become de-sensitized to it all. You know, kind of the same way we ignore road work signs because they are all over the roads. The latest of a very nice smallmouth bass caught by a lady I know makes me think I’m not fishing enough. Now that gal lives a very interesting life, produces excellent programing for a popular PBS television station, is on top of the music scene, an outdoor adventurer, and one of the most pleasant people I’ve met. And I don’t even know her very well.

Anyway, maybe the bass she is holding looks so big because she is so small. At least compared to me, she is. I wonder if my posed fish pictures would look better if I possessed a smaller stature. I’m a pretty big guy and holding a twenty incher in front of myself doesn’t have the same effect as someone smaller posing with the same fish. On the other hand, if the fish I’m holding looks big, it is big.

It rained all night last night and was raining when I woke up this morning. It was a good day to take off from my project of adding yet another roof to my property. I’ve decided I need a better place to store the boat, thus an addition to the garage. When I say “yet another roof,” it’s only because I recently reviewed my property tax description and was somewhat surprised that everything about the place is included. Even the dimensions of my rough old woodshed -- and the broken down little garden shed. I’ve never been home when the tax assessor comes around, but obviously he carries a tape measure and isn’t afraid to wander around. Funny thing is he has the dimensions of my house wrong. Oh, well… what’s a couple of feet in a county this size? So I went fishing.

I hadn’t had my small steam rod out for a long time so today I took it over to the little trout stream not far from here. It’s a posted trout stream, all right, but pretty marginal water, I think, compared to some of the other streams I’ve fished. But it’s close. I usually fish what I call the north route, but today I thought I’d try the south end again, as I haven’t been there in a couple of years. It all depended, of course, on how bad the road was. I pulled on my waders here at home so I wouldn’t have to lean on the truck in the rain and mosquitoes when I got to the river.

The two-track road into the river was in good shape, better than the last time I was there and I surprised a badger when I rounded a curve, which surprised me as I don’t think much about badgers around here. Bears, wolves, fox, deer, marten and fishers, yes. But not badgers. I immediately thought about my companion for the day, an over-weight water spaniel named King who I am watching for a couple of weeks, but the river was nearly a mile away so I didn’t expect to see the badger again. It’s reasonable to think that King, being a water spaniel, would enjoy the chance to get into the woods and hunt a little, but he’s never shown any hunting ability or desire at all. And he doesn’t like water. Go figure. He doesn’t retrieve and won’t even chase a ball, though I felt like I should do something with him and assumed he’d make a good fishing dog so I brought him along. I was right about that. He stayed at my feet as we moved down the river and watched patiently from the bank when I stopped to fish. 

After all the rain we've been getting the river was just about how I thought it would be – high and muddy. Still, I had the day to fish and fishing is good. The shoreline cover was high and thick and the streamside path was little used and hard to make out in places. Pushing through the foliage made me realize that a short and tough rod was perhaps more important for the hiking part than the fishing part. Mountain ash lining the vague path added a festive look. There were trees down everywhere, balsams, spruce and big white pines – across the faint trail and across the river, but here and there I’d make my way to water’s edge and cast a weighted nymph into the murky waters. Short roll casts were the order of the day and all that was necessary. A doe and fawn were spotted and I watched them bound away while King wondered why I paused. Occasionally there was room to unfurl a cast and my little 7 foot, 9 inch rod felt just right.

I never caught a fish. I never moved a fish that I know of. I lost a few flies, broke off on underwater snags and I left the river thinking about a camping trip to some better trout water. I didn’t have to call the dog. He was right there.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Castin' around...

I’m not entirely sure what ALL the signs of growing old are, but if I ever wake up wondering, my shoulders and left knee will remind me in a hurry. Wasn’t it just yesterday – ok, the day before – when I’d fly down the winter ski hills hootin’ and hollerin’? No, not so much anymore. The last time I stuck the tips of my skis over the edge of a black diamond slope I was thinking if there weren’t so many people about I’d turn around. But down the hill I went carving hard turns so I wouldn’t build too much speed and made it to my laughing daughter waiting at the bottom.  There’s a reason the bar in the chalet is always crowded.

I don’t think white whiskers qualifies as blondes having more fun, and somewhere along the way my pants quit staying up and suspenders assumed a more important task than just trying to achieve the lumberjack look. I suppose there’s a physiological reason for that having to do with too much of one thing and too little of another, but then I’m no scientist.  I still get after it for the most part and there’s that old saw “I’m not in bad shape for the shape I’m in.”

I’m still getting more than my share of catalogs. I remember looking forward to them when they were all about fishing and nothing else. Rods, reels, and Rapalas. Now days they figure the fishing gear is only a prelude to the mountain of other stuff that is necessary. I mean, who could go fishing without a new 4-wheeler or side-by-side? Do you really want to be seen this spring with the same vehicle you were driving last year? Of course you don’t want your machines looking like everyone else’s so just take a look at the accessories available. Don’t forget the generator, you probably won’t use it but there’s nothing like the sound of one running all night to make you forget you’re away from civilization. And there are cell phone holders and video camera mounts for your boat, ATV, RV, tent, canoe, boat, bike, motorcycle, mower and snowblower. Yep, you can even buy a drone. All from the fishing catalog.
I think the fly fishing catalogs are better, though there are still things offered that would be a stretch to categorize as fly fishing gear. I haven’t received an Orvis catalog for a long time, I guess I wonder if they even put them out in this day of online everything. I used to spend hours gazing at the pages and I always liked how they used to name the models of their rods – there was the 4 wt. Brook Trout, the 5 wt. Far & Fine, the 7 wt. All Rounder, and so on. The monikers became modernized, a business decision I suppose, but Trident and Matrix seem a little too nascar sounding to me, though a good rod is a good rod no matter what they call it. Some of the new rod models have real space-age sounding names and those with alphabetical letter designations seem more suited to crotch-rocket motorcycles. But I could be jumping the gun I suppose, and it appears the rod makers are dialing back to a gentler time and I’m seeing models named after creeks and rivers and such. That’s better.

The trend toward fly fishing big fresh-water predator fish is hard to ignore and it’s become the hot thing to throw chicken-sized flies with heavy rods that were once only considered for the ocean. I love doing it myself, though I’ve never really gotten into the “rip their lips” machismo mode of it, and I’ve been lucky to have enjoyed some real good times doing it. Of course, they’re all good times and it’s about time to have some more.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lookin' through the past...

Sometimes life gets in the way of living. I suppose we all know it and that’s pretty much how it’s been going for me of late. I’ve been missing some favored activities because I’ve been too tied up with tasks. And I know that I’m guilty when I’m accused of putting recreation ahead of everything else, but then, life is short, right? Even my dad once told me “you can’t go hunting and fishing all the time.” Coming from him that kind of threw me for a loop.

Well, Dad is living in an assisted living facility now and all his hunting and fishing take place only in his own mind. I’ve been working on getting his house in order and what a job it’s turned out to be. Thankfully PJ has been doing most of the indoor organizing and I can’t thank her enough. I’ve tackled the garage and it’s hard to believe the amount of stuff Dad held on to and accumulated. And while it’s a real time-eating chore there have been some interesting finds, as well. We’ve found some military records and discharge papers from both Dad and my grandfather dating back to 1917. I found Gramps’ WW1 pocket bible and a fine chrome hand warmer. There’s a front page newspaper article that tells of Chancellor Hitler sending troops to invade Poland under the fat headline “WAR BREAKS OUT!” dated 1939, and another from 1945 with the headline “JAPS SURRENDER.”

In the rafters of the garage I found old fishing rods made of steel, some telescoping and some rigid. I do remember seeing them before, but it’s been years. And a half dozen old level-wind reels, the reels I used to learn how to cast big Jitterbugs and Crazy Crawlers without backlashing. I found a few of my grandpa’s homemade decoys. Gramps used to painstakingly skin the heads of ducks and put the feathered skin on a carved and sanded wooden form, his own early method of flocking I guess, before adding it to a wooden, cork, or a coarse foam body. I remember seeing them at our duck camp when I was a kid and wondered if Gramps just chopped the heads off ducks and stuck them on a block. The one I found is still in pretty good shape and must be at least 60 years old.

The old photos are something, too. Gramps with stringers of fish, ducks, rabbits and squirrels. Him and Grandma in front of the barn with muskrats, mink, and skunks hanging from the wall.

It been time consuming and I skipped our annual spring Montana trip, plus the opener of walleye season here. But I heard the weather out west was bad and if Scotty says the weather was tough, then it was tough. Here, it snowed and blew so I guess if I had to miss some fishing, it wasn’t a bad weekend to clean Dad’s garage. I gotta say, the nostalgia can be pretty heavy stuff.

I have to make some time for the dogs, of course, and I know I'm behind on the training of my pup, Gabby, but it will come. The last couple of weeks my routine has been go to work for three days and take off two. On Thursday I get out of bed and out at the kennel 5 minutes later. I let the dogs out and give ‘em a little snack before I go in for breakfast. I might read a bit over coffee or see the news, then it’s outside again with the dogs. There might be some bird work or maybe a run through some hay fields, or perhaps some retrieving practice or we could end up just playing and chasing around with tennis balls. Then it’s to town and Dad’s house. Four days of that and back to work. It’s coming to an end and I’m eager to finish so I can go fishing!

Monday, April 11, 2016

april report

Many years ago my friend Rollie B. observed that I had some pretty expensive interests for a guy who always seemed to wonder where his next meal was coming from. We were at a field trial running top-notch English setters and talking about, among other things, travelling east to enter some of the big grouse trial championships and going west to hunt prairie grouse ‘till winter. And of those other subjects we spoke, fly fishing and its accoutrements were discussed. This was the time before internet so there were no Craiglists or Ebays to search for deals on anything. A fly rod was, to me, a high dollar investment but one I couldn’t ignore and I spent many a long evening paging through the Orvis and Dan Bailey catalogs.

Looking back at some of the old photos I guess I looked like someone more suited to following an old hound at night or sitting on a muddy river bank with canepole in hand and worm bucket near. Of course, there’s no wrong in hunting hounds and I remember some fine evenings chasing raccoons with my buddy’s black & tan Sam and bluetick Moses – and sure, watching a big red and white bobber above a gob of crawlers can be a pretty satisfying endeavor. Peaceful, you know, with no pretentions.

Well, my friend Rollie was a successful businessman at the time, and became more successful. I kinda’ lost track, but the last I heard anything about him he was shooting ducks and doves in South America. I landed a steady job and have been able to get a couple more rods without missing too many suppers but most of my outdoor efforts are going to take place pretty locally.

It’s been a tough spring, so far, and winter doesn’t want to give up. I stopped to take a look at the frozen Embarrass River this afternoon and wondered if it’s ever been iced over this late in the year. Pike River is open and could probably be floated in a canoe until you rounded that last bend and saw the frozen lake ahead. We’ve had a few comfortable sunny spring days and the grouse were drumming outside my door, but a week of snow and cold have put the birds on hold. Running Gabby we moved a couple of woodcock but the evenings have dropped well below freezing and I hope those woodcock found somewhere to feed. There’s hope ahead, I hear, and this week may see temps in the forties.

Spring grouse trials are in full swing and I hope to get to at least one before it’s over. Some of the best folks I know are dog folks and it’s always good to see old friends, and there are some fine dogs competing that I’d like to get a look at. Wild bird trials are at a premium, anymore, and those of us lucky enough to live near those venues really have something special. There are all sorts of competitive dog games to partake in, but wild bird trials date back to the beginning of it and though there’s a learning curve to understanding it all, once you develop an appreciation of what it takes to make the “show,” the tradition, and the dedicated people involved you’ll know it’s worth pulling your boots on for.

I’m getting reports from some of my friends who’ve been out west trout fishing and it looks awesome. My dad once told me I couldn’t hunt and fish every day because life will get in the way. Of course he was correct and I myself have had to grudgingly cancel my slot in this year’s annual Montana trip. Yep, that’s life.

Anyway, the snow is bound to melt, the rivers and lakes will open, and there will be fish to be caught. I can’t wait!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter

It’s been hard to believe that the official start of Spring was a week ago. There’s still plenty of snow around here, and after we enjoyed a few warm, melting days it snowed again. But there are signs. I saw a robin in the front yard birch over a week ago, and Gabby and I found a lonely little woodcock in a narrow roadside treeline that had melted off and was free of snow until yesterday’s snowfall. The sun came out today, Easter Sunday, and things warmed up a bit this beautiful afternoon. Some of my friends have been working dogs on bare ground 100 miles south of here, finding grouse and woodcock in numbers but I haven’t been able to get south to join them. I’m reminded of some years back when I took time off from work and drove south until I found snow free cover to train dogs on. I slept in my truck or pitched a tent on cold ground and figured I was living pretty good. It may come to that again sometime, but not likely this year.

I was happy to hear a grouse drumming this afternoon east of the house. It’s the first I’ve heard this year and a sound no one ever tires of. Of course those grouse are a favorite, but they’re not the only birds around. Our bird feeders are always busy and this morning a hundred or more redpolls made quick work of a pan-full of seeds.

 It seems like I’m hitting the truck brakes every day to avoid deer crossing the roads, but I still like watching them in our front yard, where they visit nearly daily for the seeds under the feeder. They somehow show up without stirring up the dogs in the backyard kennel, munch a snack right outside our window and wander around the yard and over to the pond with little concern.

Kamloops trout have been running along Lake Superior shores and there should be some steelhead pushing into the rivers soon. It’s been an unusually busy winter for me at work, and spring looks to be the same but here’s hoping for some good dog work and fishing soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

tree talk

Last year on Valentine’s Day the temperature was around 15 below zero. It’s a little warmer than that today, but it was that cold yesterday morning when I sat inside sipping coffee and watching the usual hoard of pine grosbeaks, redpolls, and chickadees flit from the front yard birch tree to the feeder. Every now and then a trio of bully bluejays would drop in and boss everyone around until the red squirrel would make its long jump from the birch to the feeder. Then I’d wave my arm so the squirrel would spot me through the window and make its exit.

I’d planted that birch tree years ago after PJ and I spotted it growing by itself alongside the road a half-mile east of here. I’d had a number of failed attempts at transplanting birch trees in the yard but this one made it, probably happy in a location safe from the hazards of snowmobiles, ATVs, and snowplows. It’s was barely two feet tall and the little trunk was kind of twisted and forked at the base, not the kind of tree you’d pay money for at a nursery – more of a Charlie Brown looking sort of a tree.  Anyway, it was worth a try.

Our birch tree has grown into a beauty, and when it grew tall enough PJ hung a little bird house on a limb. I thought it was mostly decorative, but I’ve seen chickadees and wrens go in and out of the tiny entrance. And sitting here this morning watching the snow fall and birds hopping from limb to limb is downright pleasant. I wouldn’t try to recall the hours I’ve enjoyed just watching that tree and sometimes I feel a tinge of guilt for just sitting around, but what the heck.

I once worked with a fellow who declared birch trees “dirty.” Of course he was a persnickety town person with a postage-stamp sized manicured lawn that would have looked even better without the idiotic “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” sign. He hated the thought that his mailman might be cutting across his lawn while he was at work, and October leaves gave him fits. He also didn’t hunt or fish, so… there you go.

It’s true that my birch tree has a habit of dropping thin little branches on the ground, and sometimes I’ll pick them up but mostly I just run ‘em over with the mower. And I’ve had to lop off a branch now and then to keep them out of my face when I’m mowing, but the tree has done fine despite my unscientific prunings. There’s a lot to like about birch trees. I can’t think of better fire tinder than birch bark. This country was explored in birch bark canoes. Around here they’re one of the best firewood available and birch paneling is beautiful. The white trunks standout against green summer foliage, and the catkins provide some grouse food when times are tough. What’s Christmas without a birch yule log?

There are a few other birch trees in the woods surrounding our yard and I wish there were more. I’d like to fill the woodshed with it. Many of the big stands of birch have been cut for firewood and I know some loggers are selling jack pine and aspen to burn, something no one would consider buying a few years ago. But the front yard birch is safe from that fate and will keep the birds and me happy for years to come. Knock on wood.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A winter's day

Years ago, long before I had a steady job, I spent a good part of the winter making firewood. And because I didn't have a steady job I needed that wood to heat the place. I still get shivers thinking about my half-assed logging operation. I had an old tractor with a brush guard over the radiator to keep sticks out and I'd drive that old thing uphill and down through the woods pulling bigger loads than it ever should have. Many a time I'd be dragging a tree out and it would catch on a rock or stump and the tractor would stand up in a wheelie. Somehow I always managed to stomp the clutch down before it came all the way over, but there were some close calls. I recall a neighbor doing the same thing but wasn't so lucky. When his tractor came over the steering wheel crushed his chest into the ground.

When my friend Wesley showed up with an old Pettibone cable skidder we teamed up and bought a timber sale. Things were pretty cushy then. We felled the trees with chainsaws and Wes would pull them to the landing. We'd often take a break and brew a pot of coffee over an open fire and watch the deer wander into our cut, curious about the noise and eager to nibble the tender aspen tips. Grouse were common, too, and Wes would always say "dere's some partridge, where's dem dogs a'yours?"  I'd block and split the firewood at the landing and haul the processed firewood a half mile home in a trailer. Birch, ash and maple went for firewood and the aspen went to the mill. We had a liberal time frame to get the wood out so we worked that cut for a couple of years.

 No matter how large a pile of firewood you have, it doesn't last forever, and there came a time when I bought a couple of loads from a local logger. Blocking firewood from a neat pile of 100 inch sticks is almost gravy, but then the price of firewood kept climbing until it was comparable to buying propane.

We all have to grow up some time and a year-round job and new furnace meant I could take the firewood cutting a little less seriously. I still keep the wood stove stoked when I can and I have to believe it saves me some money, but I haven't bought any wood for years. The tractor is gone, the skidder is gone, and so is Wesley. I kinda like dropping a tree now and then during the winter and splitting it up for the wood shed. And I still like watching the deer and grouse come in. I hope I never become one of those folks sitting in front of a TV wondering how they can get more exercise.

It was 22 degrees below zero here this morning and I was in no hurry to get outside. But morning chores called so I booted up and pulled on a heavy coat figuring to make a quick trip to the kennel and loft and be back inside sipping coffee in no time.

We've had a pretty mild winter, so far, though yesterday things started cooling off. I had a halfway plan to open up the fly tying drawers and get busy tying to have a head start come spring, but I also know there is always firewood to cut and it seemed like a good day to get started. Just off the northwest corner of my house grows a red maple that I've had a sort of love/hate relationship with for many years. In the fall it is brilliant with it's beautiful crimson foliage, but as it's branches grow they reach out and rub the house. I've used ladders, pole saws, nippers and chainsaws trying to keep this tree in check, but last summer I realized I was going to have to do something drastic while I was standing on the edge of my roof with a fully extended gas-powered pole saw reaching as high as I could to trim overhanging branches. And like all red maples, they get only so big before the trunks start dying and they tip over. This tree is one of those three trunks from one stump and all three were leaning toward the house. Yesterday I cut it down. It took a ladder, a couple of chains and tow strap, a come-a-long and chainsaw, but now it's a pile of firewood. Of course it was a major project to make sure it fell away from the house, but I won't have to think about that one, anymore.

While I was out this morning I finished splitting the last of that maple. Those red maple get lots of branches and some twisted grain but the frozen blocks split pretty well. Then it was time for that coffee and breakfast. It felt pretty good.