Sunday, November 15, 2020

Nothin' to prove...


I guess you could call it an Indian Summer, though it came on so quickly I think everyone just went outside and basked in the sun without thinking to call it anything but welcome. When it snows in mid-October, even here in northern Minnesota, it catches us all unaware. Sure, it was predicted but the temperatures had been hanging in at 35-40 degrees and we all figured a bit of snow would melt quickly. But temps dropped with the snow and here we were dealing with 20 degrees and six inches of snow. In a few days the smaller lakes were ice covered and it looked like winter had arrived.

Low and behold, a couple of days before the month ended we were treated to a warm spell. The sun broke out and heated things up to 60 or a little better. The snow melted, the roads (at least the country roads around my place) turned to mud and suddenly every vehicle around wore the same brown coat. No one was about to wash their car until things dried up.

I'd pretty much stowed my fishing stuff for the year and Gabby and I were happily content hunting grouse, but sunny calm 60 degree days in November offered a rare open water angling opportunity. I only had to decide where.

Everyone knows that muskies feed heavily in the fall to supposedly fatten up for winter. Or so they say, though it could strain the definition of common knowledge. I've fished for, and caught, muskie late in the season but I'm still waiting to hit the feeding frenzy. I recently heard of a guy who hooked 13 muskies in one day fly fishing, and landed nine of them. He wasn't in this part of the country but still, I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. I mean, just when you get to feeling pretty savvy about your musky skills you hear something like that.

I figured to slide my jon boat down the bank into my favorite musky river, motor upstream for an hour or so and float/fish my way back. That would eat up most of the short autumn day and I'd still be off the water before dark. No telling how many muskies I'd hook.

The river was running a little high and dirty, which I knew it would  thanks to the melting snow, meaning I could run my motor without too much worry of hitting obstacles or bottom. Of course lower water concentrates the fish and may mean easier fishing so there's always that trade-off. I've paddled my canoe upstream during low water periods and enjoyed wading to mid-river and casting to deep runs at outside bends but I've never been as far up as I expected to with the jon boat. Part of this trip was exploratory.

My little 2.5 horsepower motor puttered me against the current at the comfortable rate. I slowed her down when I knew I was over shallows and twisted the throttle when it seemed safe. I did hit a rock in mid-river once – my homemade lower unit guard provided some comfort but the unprotected prop took the brunt. It wasn't the first time that motor tangled with rocks and though no real damage occurred, the leading edges of that three bladed prop are looking like chair legs the puppy has chewed.

The river itself is a beauty no matter the time of year. There's a hunting shack near the road and put-in, but from there upstream it's wild and undeveloped. You'll have no cell phone service and it doesn't take long to realize if you have trouble it could be real trouble, but I figured if I didn't fall out of the boat I should be OK. The bare shoreline hardwoods allowed a good view into the woods and I kept looking for wildlife, which seemed missing that day.

I stopped motoring at an inlet stream that looked too good to pass. My small folding anchor held while I stood and fan cast the area with a bright 6/0 streamer on a 10wt intermediate line, to no avail. On the way up I'd seen a boil of a big fish near the bank and it's wake out in midstream but didn't stop to try for it, thinking I'd get it on the way back. So after I poured some coffee and ate a sandwich I pulled anchor for the float down.

Float fishing from a boat by yourself is not the easiest thing to do, but the river was good to me and I could drift and cast a decent way without grabbing an oar for correction – there was no wind, which helped – although here and there it seemed prudent to anchor and cast to a run or some kind of cover be it a fallen tree or rocky shoreline. If anything, I drifted too fast – my handheld GPS read the current 1 ½ mph – giving me one shot, and one shot only, at some of the spots I wanted to cast to. In much of the river you can float down the middle and reach both banks with a good cast. Then you'll go around a bend and the river spreads out and widens. If you're fishing the left bank you'll be looking at the right side and wonder if you should move over there.

I didn't see the fish hit. I'd been working the banksides for a couple of miles with no activity and had pretty much given up the idea of any fish feeding binge. Lulled into distraction, between gazing into the passing forest, a satisfying pastime in itself, and watching for any downstream deadheads I was basically going through the motions. I don't know if I first felt the tightening line or saw the boil just under the surface from the corner of my eye, but I do recall making one deliberate long and hard strip set before losing some line to the musky torpedoing away.

Fighting a big fish is always fun, that's why we do it, but add the element of standing in a narrow out-of-control jon boat being turned by a hard pulling fish on collision course with a brush-lined riverbank and you have the makings for a mild tragedy or hilarious comedy. Just before hitting the bank I sat down to avoid being thrown off balance (I once drifted into a submerged log that stopped the boat dead and I nearly pitched backwards into the drink) and continued playing the fish.

I ended up on my knees one-handing the net under the fish and bracing the handle on the gunwale as a fulcrum to lift. Somewhere along the way I tossed the anchor and stopped the boat bouncing along the shoreline. The barbless hook came out easily and I admired the fish still in the net. Compared to the width of my boat this fish was probably 38, maybe 40 inches of spotted silvery green firm muscled musky. Awesome! It was a two-second decision to can the monkey-motion it would take to get a decent photo, so the net was lowered and this beauty of a fish swam away with a swish of it's tail. I'd have no proof to show for the catch, but the experience was all mine and as right as it could be. I smiled at the thought.

Getting the boat up the take-out wasn't as simple as getting it down, but thanks to a stout rope and long winch strap I was on the road for home as the sun went down. A good adventure and a great memory to be thankful for.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Grouse are flyin'


As bird dogs go, my Gabby may not be the best I've ever seen but now on our sixth season we know each other pretty well. She finds and points birds as best she can and I try to shoot them as best I can. She hunts hard and I've never seen a dog that takes more delight in the hunt. If she could I believe she'd be laughing as she darts in and out of the cover. Now days it's become common to buckle expensive GPS locating collars on bird dogs, even those claimed to be grouse and woodcock dogs. No need for that with Gabby because though she's not always working close, I'm able to keep track of her with only the bell on her collar which seems right for a grouse dog. If time could be backed up I think I would have enjoyed developing a line of easy-handling English setters for grouse hunters.

I recently re-read George Bird Grinnell's article Woodcock Shooting. In it he describes the ideal grouse and woodcock dog to be close ranging – never beyond a gunshot – nor desirable to work at high speed – to know thoroughly the best manner of working to the gun – as silently as possible, though a small bell can be useful in thick cover. I like the phrase “best manner of working to the gun” but I fear today's gunners have no use for any of Grinnell's opinion. Of course when that article was published in 1910 bird hunting was much different than today and I have to believe grouse and woodcock were far more plentiful as Grinnell recounts day's total kills that modern gunners would be lucky to match in a lifetime.

Grinnell would be disappointed in my Gabby's range, within gunshot is a flushing dogs job, but he might have appreciated her change in style when she's working game. She'll often slow her pace and strike a point, then move a bit, creeping forward or sometimes to the side until she is convinced the bird is located. Two days ago I watched her work scent from a distance and when she finally locked up I pushed ahead to flush and kill one of the largest ruffed grouse I've ever seen. When it works like that it's something to see. Then yesterday I saw her skid to a point when she found scent and never twitched while I flushed the grouse ahead of her. After that I stood and watched her for a long minute as she stop-started a semi circle around a blowdown that looked good for grouse but on my approach a woodcock surprised me and offered an easy shot. You can never be sure of how it will happen and I've come to appreciate Gabby's method of making game – sometimes it's the best part of the sport.


I would have liked gunning in Grinnell's day. Today's gear is certainly more high-tech, maybe even more comfortable but I like the idea of wool and canvas shooting clothes, and felt hats. A compass and paper map and brass bell worn by intelligent setters pointing more and running less, Give me a pair of high lace-up boots and a solid hand finished double gun. No need for electronics.

A cold rain is falling this morning and it looks to be an all-dayer. We'll not be in the woods today but the rain is welcome in what's been a very dry Autumn. We'll be at it again, soon. The grouse are flyin' and we're shootin' pretty good!

Friday, August 14, 2020

It takes a boat


I don't remember the first time I was in a boat, but it was likely one of the little wooden duck boats that Dad set me in before I was even old enough to go to school. I can't say what Mother had to say about taking a little kid out into a cold marsh in a tiny boat complete with wet dogs and loud shotguns, but in those days people took that sort of thing as normal. When we returned with ducks Mom would take out the instamatic for photos before I'd watch my dad pluck and gut the birds. The next night it was roast duck for dinner.

I was a little older when some of my fondest memories were of sliding those same boats across frosty leaves down to the water before sunup. Flashlights, retrievers, uncles and cousins. Even then the boat was tool: a transport, a means to get to were the fun would begin. Little thought was given to how it looked, how it handled, or even how comfortable it was. If it didn't leak and Dad could pile decoys, dog, and me with space for him to stand in back with a push pole it was all good.

All my life there's been a boat of some kind around. Never anything fancy – no party barges or ski-boats – just blue-collar craft to get us hunting or fishing.  There was the 10 foot pram when I was learning to trap muskrats and turtles and miraculously never swamped with the gear I overloaded on it. And there's the shallow 14 foot aluminum job that was built in the 1960's. Bench seats, camo paint, and a small motor. It sits in my yard today and doesn't see much use anymore.  A handful of canoes taught a lot about wind, water, and manual propulsion.                                  

Then the the present fishing boat: 16 feet long, pedestal seats, storage, and an outboard motor just big enough to get off a lake quickly if the weather turns bad with an electric trolling motor up front.. Still nothing fancy or impressive – there are many nicer boats out there – but a comfortable and simple way to get out and fish. If these boat have anything in common, it's the fact that they have a workman's purpose. Sometimes it's function over  form.             

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Fish Camp

There might be better places to wake up than in a tent alongside a remote northwoods river, but I couldn't think of one that morning. Camp was made after a day's float on Scott's raft, flycasting for muskies. There's a small campsite at the canoe put-in where we finished our day, complete with a table and fire ring and easy to drive to. We'd enjoyed the early summer sunshine and ducked under the hoods of rain jackets when several thunderstorms passed over. Every hour or so we took our turn at the oars and watched our partner cast. When we finally dragged the raft up the takeout, we'd layed eyes on nine muskies and boated three. I fell asleep recalling the events of the day and listening to Barred Owls calling back and forth across the river.

I'm not sure how much a big fish following your fly without touching it counts, but few are the muskie anglers who don't count it for something. I should have done something differently, I suppose, when a very large one stayed right behind my streamer almost to the boat but turned away when I started a figure-eight move. About the only thing we agreed I could have done was plunge my rod deep into the river to make the fly dive. That's fishing, of course, and there are more important things in my life that I probably should have done differently.

My highlight of the day was the 40+ incher that chased half-way to the boat and quit on it to return to it's hiding spot. Scott pulled oars against current so I cast back to the fish which broke a wake, a swirl and a take. I can't say what my first-second reaction was but I do know I gave it a couple of hard, arm length strip sets and the fish was hooked! Muskies don't generally make long runs but there was some give and take with this one. Like they say, the tug is the drug, and a pulsing deeply bent 10wt rod in hand is a heck of a fine feeling. It took some doing but ended up with me out of the raft standing in the shallows for a quick pose with a nice muskie.

It would have been nice to linger in camp and let the rising sun dry morning dew from the tent, but we'd planned to meet again 20 miles downstream for another day's float, so I put the coffee to boil and packed up a wet tent. Breakfast finished, I savored hot coffee, the smell of the outdoors, the view of an early morning river and the promises it would bring.

No, I couldn't think of a better place to be. I don't have the spring in my step that I used to have. My beard is gray and eyeglasses are standard equipment. A sore back is pretty much normal these days. But I've lived and hunted and fished in these northwoods for a long time and I'll never tire of it. Good Lord willing there'll be a long time ahead.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wind from the east...

The weatherman forecast an east/southeasterly wind for all week. This could have been better news because the water I wanted to try would be tough to fly-cast in a strong east wind, not to mention that “fish bite the least” thing. A few days before I was early on a lake and enjoying the sunrise stillness but catching nothing along the shoreline I was casting to. The surface temp of the water read a cold 47-48 degrees, which I supposed kept the smallmouth down in the depths and mostly inactive. All too soon the wind picked up enough to form whitecaps so I put away the fly rod and moved the boat out to catch a few walleyes for the pan with spinning gear. I've caught walleyes with the fly rod before and I even tied a special streamer for them using a lock of my daughter's blond hair. The circumstances were just right and not something that can be counted on. Walleyes are typically a deeper water proposition and when I'm doing it I always have a fly rod in the boat and will aim for a shallow rocky shoreline when I see it.

I'd been looking at a particular bay for years. It's called a bay because it's apparently part of the larger lake it's connected to by a channel, but it would appear to be a little lake in it's own right. A third of a mile wide and a mile long, it lies near the end of a 15 mile twisted and hilly dirt road that I was in charge of maintaining during my working days. It always looked like pike water to me but I'd never fished it. There is a decent boat ramp on the north side and talking to some locals I heard it was, indeed, a shallow and weedy bay that was home to mostly waterfowl, beavers, and northern pike. Sounded good to me.

It was calm and the water glass smooth when I pushed my boat off the trailer. The sun was just breaking over the treetops and I figured I should have a couple of hours before that predicted east wind showed up. My plan was to target pike because John, a friend who guides south of here, has been posting photos of pike on social media and I figured to get in on the fun – so my two rods were rigged with streamers at the end of wire bite tippets. A foot-controlled trolling motor moved me along the shoreline as I fired casts towards the bank. A hundred yards from the landing, facing a sun that put a glare on the water even my polarized lens couldn't handle, I made out a swirl in the weeds and the fish had my fly! It wasn't the biggest pike I've ever seen but full of fight before I reached overboard with pliers to release it. A good start to a good day!

An osprey didn't agree with my method and showed me how it was done, hitting the water and coming up with a fish like it was easy. For the osprey it probably was. Three eagles put on an aerial show chasing each other around with swooshing wings and that chircking sound they make. A beaver slapped it's tail at me suggesting I go somewhere else. I turned to see a big pike roll the surface and flip it's tail clear before sliding under. Of course I fan-cast at it with no result. I hooked some others but nothing all that large. I missed some strikes, too. These pike know how to use their teeth and are hard on flies. About halfway around the bay my chartreuse/white streamer was pretty ragged looking with one eye missing and half the tail gone. The largest of the fish I caught hit thirty inches, but I saw two much bigger pike so I know they're in there. That last, and largest pike provided a neat take when I tossed a streamer to the outside edge of a bed of lily pads. The pads parted eight feet away and the wake to the fly nearly had me pulling it out of the water before the fish got to it. The ensuing fight had me believing it was a much larger fish than it turned out to be, taking line from the reel several times (I have a line cut on my finger) in it's short but powerful runs.

After I took the boat around the bay I steered it into the half-mile channel leading to the main lake. It was lunchtime by then and I was hungry. I'd earlier thought I'd fish a few hours and go home for lunch so I'd only brought my big insulated steel cup of coffee, which was long gone. But the day was too nice to stop then. Yes, I should know better by now. I can't remember all the times I've went out early for a couple hours fishing and ended up dodging deer in the twilight hours on the road home. 

There's enough depth in the channel to run the outboard motor but the ominous looking boulders just under the surface remind you to go slow and keep your boat in the middle. The wind picked up when I entered the lake but rather then coming out of the east, it was a west wind. I aimed the boat at a promising looking bay and minutes after starting the bow-mounted electric motor I was hooked up to a feisty smallmouth bass. The water temperature was warmer at 58-64 degrees in the rocky bay but only that one bass took the deerhair popper. The bass seemed to hold just off the rocky shelf in deeper water. As much as I prefer topwater bass fishing, my success increased when I switched to a weighted crawfish pattern and intermediate line.

The wind did switch around to the east and after hours casting and controlling the boat it became more of a chore than I wanted, so I just motored across the lake to another promising looking bay out of the wind where another nice bass was hooked minutes later. Perhaps it was my imagination after a long winter but this fish, too, fought strongly and felt bigger than it was. I also spotted a very nice campsite on the shore with a sandy boat landing – another benefit of exploring this new water, and a place to remember.

This spring I've tied up a number of deerhair poppers and some different style divers I'm eager to try. This corona virus thing has everyone confused about where to go, and when. There's a lot of water around here and local fishing is easy to come by, but I have some favored fishing holes several hours away. I've had to cancel one trip to Canada because of the closed border. The Covid cases are rising here in MN and there's a few cases reported not all that far from home, and these are younger folks. I can't blame the Canadians closing the border. I'm lucky to live a lifestyle where isolating is somewhat commonplace but still, it doesn't hurt to be careful. Whatever you think about it, whatever you believe, I hope you stay well. And good fishing!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Winter grouse

Ruffed grouse are my favorite game bird during hunting season and I love where and how they live throughout the year. I often see their snow roosts during my snowshoe hikes and when I spotted this one I had my camera at hand. The bird jumped in an explosion of snow and I missed that shot, but was able to get a decent photo of it's departure. I hope to hear him drumming before too long. Interesting stuff.

Winter continues here, but there's a promise of Spring in the air. The last three days have seen melting temperatures and though it's too early to believe Winter isn't going to give us another blast, we're all hoping it won't.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A cup and a book

When it was light enough to see our thermometer hanging below the bird feeder the needle pointed at 20 below zero this morning. It wasn't much of a surprise – the TV weatherman said it would be cold – so I kinda' figured it would be an indoor day. Oh, I had some chores to do outside but it wasn't long before I settled into my chair with a book and a mug of coffee. I might be old-fashioned but I believe a good book is one of the finest, and under-rated pleasures a man can have. So while the sunlight cut the frigid air and warmed me through the window I settled in as comfortable as could be.

There have been a couple of books I've read cover to cover in one or two sittings but they weren't very long and they weren't very good. I'm mostly a slow reader and if it's something I enjoy I'll often stop at a sentence, paragraph, or passage just to turn away and think it over. I may have been reminded of something or somewhere I've been, something I'd like to do, or maybe something to learn. A good book takes me a long time to read and there can be a ting of disappointment when I'm on the final pages. The similarities to a fishing trip are obvious, sure, I need to finish it but I hate to see it end. A good book should be sipped, not gulped.

Bookmarks are handy and I make mine from birch bark. A couple layers of the thicker stuff under the white papery sheet, a bit of glue and maybe a little design added. A tail feather from a grouse works, too, as does about any scrap of paper but I enjoy making them and we all have our quirks. For awhile I was burning a bass figure on them and passing 'em out on our fishing trips. The thin bookmarks are more functional than the wooden things (I don't know what to call them) I make now, but the wood will likely last longer and my fishing friends like them. Capt Jack has a couple of the wooden ones hanging from his rear-view mirror that click together on rough roads, which can be either irritating or delightful, depending on your perspective.

So I sat in the morning sun and read a chapter on pike fishing. Up here they're called “northerns” by the locals and I've lately been thinking about fly fishing for them. Pike fishing is fun. They are wild and hit violently. There's an air of danger about them. They're toothy and hard on flies and leaders. Big ones are awesome impressive predators; two footers fight hard and taste good if you wanna' keep 'em. Little ones, the hammer handles... well, they're kind of a pain, but they miss your fly as often as they hit it. Like everything else, some folk just don't like pike. Suit yourself. 

Winter is just getting started so it'll be awhile before there's any fly fishing around here. The lake and rivers are frozen and there's about three feet of snow on the ground. It's cold out and I can't think of a better thing to do than relax with a cup of hot coffee and a book.