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.