May 28, 2011

Lakers in the fridge

The first week of the Minnesota fishing season passed uneventfully here in the eastern Boundary Waters... Too cold, nothing doing. 
But we kept after them, day after day, paddling after work against the gusting winds. Crankbaits, spoons silvery blue and copper with pink, dead oily ciscos, tiny spinners and monstrous depthraiders. We hit 'em with the kitchen sink and the cast iron stove and a pile of buttermilk pancakes. We whistled at 'em, called out to them from the shoreline during the work-day.

Hey so yous get any down at the other end of the lake? Oh you don't say? Interesting, very interesting. Heard the folks in cabin six got a couple, too. Gotta get back out there after work tonight, storm is moving in, air feels right.

Yep yep. 

Finally amidst a mist Erik cracked the cork on Clearwater, right where we'd been expecting them, just before sunset. A real nice one, too, just over 23 inches, spotted and slippery. 
The clouds hung around the entire next day so we planned on hopping up to the border lake north of us after work and doing some trolling in a richer environment. We flew threw the portage and within 15 minutes of starting our run Erik popped another one on the same bait from the night before. Another nice one, just under 20. We circled the bay and the next time through I finally got my first laker of the season. May 24, ten days since the season opener. We got a few legit bites in other spots, but it turned out we had some kind of action every time we'd pass this one ordinary-looking stretch of shoreline. I got another one just before sunset, and on the next run, Erik got our fourth of the night, ensuring we got our limit for the day. Those lakers went in the fridge, and our first fish dinner of the summer is now on the menu for Saturday night, coinciding with the arrival of our final crew member and the completion of a productive month.

Tonight they've predicted lows in the 20s again and the herb garden has been covered. The window on lakers has just opened and in a few weeks the nights will warm and the mysterious predators of Clearwater Lake will retreat to freakish depths, taking canoe trolling out of play until autumn. 

And as the nights warm the mosquitos will rise up in great numbers, and the hum of traffic on the trail will similarily increase, and I will associate the difficulty and reward of lake trout pursuits with the quietness of May and the beginning of my active isolation. Funny how a month up here changes your definition of busy. 


More photos at my Wild Almanac Logbook

May 20, 2011

Cold Waters

I've never missed a Wisconsin fishing opener until this spring, and it hurt to spend the first Saturday of the month painting boats on shore rather than rocking across a lake with my buddies, but I knew I'd miss certain things in order to live up here: Fishing trips, weddings, the comforts of familiar surroundings.

Such is the price of animalization...

Fishing opener is one of the most important holidays for me, and I try to explain this to people, but most fail to grasp the importance of shivering in a boat floating above cold waters. Saturdays in early May are rarely balmy, favoring hard winds and some form of precipitation most years. Since the water temperatures are also frigid, the fishing itself is also usually poor. But it doesn't matter. If I can be out there I will be out there with a smile on.

The Minnesota fishing opener was one week later than Wisconsin's, but being so much further north, I was sure we'd be seeing some nastiness from our friend Clearwater, who'd only dropped her winter-time ice on the preceeding Wednesday afternoon. Me and the boys worked out a scheduling change so we could work in the morning and then fish the entire afternoon in pursuit of Lake Trout - a finicky mystery of the deep that only nears the surface when the water's the coldest.

That's not to say cold waters will lead to actual catches. Lakers are tricky fish.

After trolling and casting the steep shorelines and numerous rock reefs of Clearwater from noon until sun-down, the three of us had nothing to show for our efforts, aside from the usual wind-burn and ideas (good or bad) on how to improve our tactics.

On Sunday we were back at work, but before dinner I set out again (in a canoe this time) to slowly troll a Little Cleo around our neighborhood bay and the adjouning "General Sherman's Reef"... Again, nothing was interested. Surely Ol' Sherm was giggling at my rustiness, watching my lure drift by as I struggled to keep my canoe in a straight line against the clipping east winds.

I've seen some slow fishing in the early season, but going Oh-for-Two didn't sit well with me. I was hungry for Lakers din-din!

On Monday afternoon we decided to give Clearwater a break, opting instead for a stocked Rainbow Lake down the way, but that, too, proved impenatrable. While I had a trout follow my lure to the boat and turn away, and I saw two more chasing each other (not me spoon) in the shallows, we got skunked for the third straight day.

Things were getting serious in camp. Drastic measures were required to unlock these cold waters. We decided to give the finicky trout a break.

Tuesday night we put a canoe on the tow boat and motored down to the back end of Clearwater to portage into a 'secondary lake' - that is, one step out from motored lakes. Generally, the further you get from the motors and cabins up here, the better the fishing. A simple concept, but it's not a condemnation of the perimeter lakes, either. We could have continued bashing away at the deep mysteries of Clearwater's Lakers, but by Tuesday we just wanted to put a fish in our hands.

And it worked. We landed three small pike trolling rapalas in the shallows, and returned to camp happy, even without a fish dinner on the table.

Kwas and I had off on Thursday, so Wednesday night we paddled back into another new lake that had a single campsite and was best fished early in the year, since it was shallow and weed-infested by mid-summer. By noon on Thursday we had landed ten pike, most of them small with a few in the mid-20s. It appeared we were the first to use that campsite this year, as dry wood was plentiful.

Today is Friday and for my first week of fishing in the Boundary Waters I've managed eight pike with nothing big, and been shut out on trout.

But I've also been able to fish every day of the week, and it's only going to get better as the waters warm, so I'm perfectly happy with the results so far.

The trout still haunts me, though, so I think my best bet will be getting after them at first light, before work, when the lake is glass calm. When it comes to Lakers you can never guarantee anything, but I'm fairly confident the next week will be better than the first, and that extends beyond fishing altogether.

May 11, 2011

Crazy Hike

Myself and Mike Kwas failed to reach Rose Falls a week earlier, due to the Daniels Lake Spur being a raging stream, so we set out again via a different, and much more difficult route along the border, ending with a stretch along the infamous Caribou Rock Trail, which I am told is rated as 'extreme'...
The 11-12 mile route was all hills, featuring lots of great vistas over South, Rat, Rose, Duncan, Moss and West Bearskin Lakes, several of those looking north into the Canadian wilds. I had paddled up to Rose Falls once before, but with the early spring melt going full-bore, the falls was really churning on this fine Sunday.
I was really sore (still am three days later), and I was definitely not in good enough shape to try this hike, but I am glad we took on the challenge and completed it safely. Saw a few grouse and many interesting plants. I have more pictures and information about our route in my Wild Almanac logbook, if you are interested.

May 4, 2011

Baby Clearwater Cabin

"I up in the woods, I down on my mind... I'm building a still, to slow down the time." - Bon Iver
I'm already starting to lose track of the days up here in the Baby Clearwater Cabin. It matters less that's it's a Tuesday night, but that the sky is clear and the stars are out. That tomorrow we're sanding a floor, that out here on the dead end in the north, sitting by space heater, it is quiet. Down the hill the lake is still frozen. The Minnesota Mountains present a far different climate than southern Wisconsin. I wake up shivering in the Baby Cabin, and is this really May 4?
Baby Cabin sits at the far edge of camp, isolated in an isolated pocket of wilderness. It's about 24 square feet with a door that doesn't quite fit it's frame and two windows that leak cold air and maybe bears. It's got a nice little front porch and a spot to park my truck, and maps of the entire Boundary Waters and Quetico lining the north and eastern walls over my bed. It has electricity but no running water. I wish it had a wood burning stove, but that won't matter once we hit the heat of northland summer. The handle to the screen door is a canoe paddle, and so far as I know, it is not haunted, but it might as well be. I've yet to really unpack, so I move stacks of clothing around from bed to bin to bin. A bright red rug I brought from home ties it all together nicely.
I've always wanted a little cabin in the woods and now I've got one, but I've never been more home-sick than now. Moving to the capillaries of society is scary and thrilling, and I've done it before, but I got used to that office job and that comfortable home. There's a guy here that drives sled dogs in the winter, and he's got a sweet little husky that's lived outside all her life and is just now being introduced to the strange comforts of space heaters and couches, car rides and leisure, and I feel like that doggy, inverted. I'm starting to realize the comforts of un-comfort, again - fresh air and hard physical work, deep sleep and troubling dreams in a 12-by-12 room in the woods. Feeling my heels harden. Hiding, and opening myself up. But just as that sled dog is still wary of being inside, I miss my home and those I left behind very badly. There is so much beauty around me but my heart aches. Loneliness is amplified by isolation, but that's no surprise.
I don't know what I'm doing up here, I don't know what I'm doing with my life, but I intend to use the next five months to think about that in this Baby Cabin. And until then, I intend to write about whatever I want.