Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paddlin' & Portaging

There used to be a time when tripping into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was all about the fishing. Walleyes and Lake Trout were the quarry and coolers of ice were the first of the gear loaded into #4 Duluth packs. The melting ice provided a little cold drinking water but the weight of the cooler was a necessary burden to carry fish fillets home. The canoes were heavy aluminum and tough enough to run up on the rocky landings at portages. Big Ed did the planning and everything was packed at his house, the headquarters for our expeditions. Brother Don manned the bow paddle of Ed's Alumacraft and always seemed kind of grouchy but catching and eating fried walleye would put a smile on his face. I was paired up with a variety of partners, depending on who was game and most often it was Holmsy in the front of my Grumman – a good partner always in good humor.
The destination was one of three lakes, each requiring multiple portages to get to. Holmsy and I, being in our 20s and half the age of Big Ed and Don, each carried two packs the first trip over the portage then went back for more. Looking at the amount of gear and packs stuffed into the canoes you might think our trips would be weeks long. Three or four days was a typical duration depending on when we'd had our fill of fresh walleye in camp with enough to bring limits home, along with who had to be back at work and when.

Times change, of course, and canoes got a whole lot lighter and way more expensive. Gear became high-tech and before long we were all saving up and buying new tents, bags, pads, stoves, and packs to put them in. I became fascinated with the idea of solo tripping in the wilderness area. Suddenly I was all about the paddling, traveling and exploring the lakes and portages of the BWCAW and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park on my own. Spending weeks each year alone in canoe country was a passion and I thought nothing of getting dropped off in Atikoken, Ontario and paddling different routes south through 30 or more of the hundreds of lakes back to Ely, MN. Or putting in at a western entry and traveling the border route to see the various falls before circling north or south through small lakes and beaver dammed streams back to my starting point. It's beautiful country and the fishing was still there, obviously, and enjoying some fantastic angling along the way is another benefit of canoe travel. I can't remember all the camps I've pitched, or all the portages, but the experiences stand out.
I don't get there as much, anymore. It seems there's more people up there, now. And the reservation system took away the spur-of-the-moment capability of going whenever the urge hit. Not to mention the years collected and added to my age. But a trip was due and I was ready.


Camping along the border and lacking the extra permitting to enter Canada, I stayed on the U.S. side. Walleyes were there to catch, along with smallmouth bass and pike. Fly rod, canoe, and breeze can be a frustrating combo but when it's right it's... well, right. There was a moose followed without bothering with the camera, and pictographs. There was flat water and currents, wind and calm, sunshine and rain. Portages aren't getting easier, and this trip took nineteen of them and several camps before I pushed into the last landing, the takeout, tired and satisfied. Grateful for the chance –and thankfully able.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

They're called panfish for a reason...

I sat in my truck listening to public radio and watching a women attempting to back her boat trailer down the ramp. An old fellow in a SUV pulled in front of her and was whirling his arm around like a windmill trying to get her to turn the wheel one way or the other. Of course, she was looking back and couldn't see him, which is just as well because nobody understands that kind of signal. She finally got the trailer angled into the water and hopped onto the dock to watch her husband, who'd up till then had been out in the boat bobbing in the whitecaps, drive their boat onto the trailer. His first try failed. He got the bow on but the strong wind pushed the hull sideways and he was crossed on the trailer. Revving reverse got him back into the lake and he circled around for another try. Same result. I set my coffee cup in the holder and walked down to help the third effort. With knee high boots I waded out and grabbed the side of the boat before the wind could turn it, hooked the winch strap and the next thing you knew their boat was safely up and dripping on the parking lot.

Twenty minutes before I was at the less popular south landing watching waves crash over the dock and pound the gravel ramp. No wonder no one was there. So I drove around to the bigger concrete launch where those folks were just taking out. I think they thanked me – I heard something – but in the howling wind I couldn't be sure. I got back in my truck and spent five minutes just looking at the rolling whitecaps and felt just a tinge of hesitation. I wasn't worried about safety, it wasn't that bad, but I knew it'd be a heck of a time trying to fish the spot I had in mind with that heavy north wind. There was only one other vehicle in the big lot, looked like most were waiting for a better day.

I'd received a tip from a friend that the crappies were in shallow and biting, but four days of cold rain kept me off the lake. Then the sun came out and brought wind. It didn't seem bad at home but driving north it pummeled and rocked my truck. When I saw the lake it was like, wow! I'd came to fish, however, so I backed my boat into the water, on the upwind side of the dock. It was cold in that wind so my heavy coat felt good and I pulled a knit hat down over my ears. Another boat approached as I backed away from the dock and the gal in the front seat yelled, “You're gonna' get wet!” I pointed the bow into the wind and took off. A couple of odd swells broke and sent a light spray over the gunwale but I wasn't going to get wet.

On the drive up I'd stopped at the Country Store/Bait Shop and carried my minnow bucket past the woman behind the counter and straight to the bait tanks in the back. There were two teenage boys passing a fishing rod back and forth but no one else in the building. I dipped some water into the bucket and added a small scoop of crappie minnows. Up at the register I told the woman what I had and she asked if I'd gotten them myself. It seemed obvious, but when I offered to show her she just said, “5.09.” I dislike buying minnows but decided to hedge my bet – I was thinking about a fish fry and wasn't confident the fly rod would be the way to get it.

I turned the boat into the big part of the lake and bounced out into the waves and whitecaps. The reef I wanted was a mile away but there was no way I'd be able to hold the boat there. I stopped lee-side of an island and anchored up. If the crappies were in shallow this rocky island looked promising. I tossed a minnow-tipped jig out with my light spinning rod and sat back for some bobber watching, coffee sipping, and trying to come up with a plan. After a while with no action I motored up and eased into a protected bay with the kind of rocky shoreline that had me rigging the fly rod.

100 feet away the wind roared and waves busted into whitecaps, the sheer line as true as a laser, but on this side the water showed only the slightest riffling and I was soon down to my tee-shirt in the warm sun. I cast easily to the bank, operating the electric motor with my foot. It's a good way to fish, slower than a river drift, a chance to really work the water and go over it again if desired. When you're in the zone it's easy to forget everything else but the rocky bank slipping past. Cast and strip becomes the intended activity and good casting is it's own reward. Sometimes it takes a fish strike to remind that you are, after all, fishing.

A little white Murdoch type streamer was on the tippet, I was still prospecting for crappies, but the water looked like bass cover to me, and it wasn't long before a nice smallmouth was under the fly but wouldn't bite. Working along the bank, it took two more bass flashing on the fly before I changed to a pink hairball leech, wondering if the bright streamer would trigger a strike on that bright day. Nothing. So I clipped off the pink and went with a black wooly bugger for a natural approach. Stripping the line on the fourth cast it stopped dead, and I first thought it was snagged. Then it pulled back and shook and a hefty smallmouth bass was putting up a fight! I could see the bronzeback several feet deep darting before it rocketed up and out of the water. The day suddenly took a different turn and this was more like it! It was a good bass that taped just under 20 inches. Satisfied for the moment, I drifted out into the bay to eat my sandwich, finish the last of the coffee, and gaze out at the rough lake. An osprey splashed down nearby. Perfect.

Sandwiches. When I was a kid my dad took me duck hunting and we always packed along a box full of fried egg sandwiches and ham sandwiches. I never grew to be real superstitious, but came to believe a ham sandwich was the correct hunting trip lunch. We always shot ducks. Now, I'll eat most anything and enjoy it, but things do seem to go a little better with a ham sandwich along.

Two more bass were landed along that shoreline before I worked around a point and into another small bay. A couple of light strikes near a submerged boulder had me excited but no hookups so I turned back and cast again. Fish on, and I was surprised to see a nice crappie had taken the big black streamer. Where there's one there're likely more so I dropped anchor and changed flies again, going back to the white Murdoch. Crappie action can be fast and it was. Nearly every cast landed a fish and a bit of greedy guilt set in as I hurried to unhook one and catch another. Too soon there was a limit – the makings for that fish fry – in the live well.

Out on the lake was like a different climate. I motored back to the landing lurching and surfing through wind and waves wearing my coat again. When I had the boat loaded an old pickup drove up and the driver said it was too rough for him on the lake, he'd try tomorrow. He had an empty pail in his truck so he went home with five bucks worth of minnows.