The first cast: A fly fishing essay

A canoe in the Superior National Forest // Photo by Tom Hazelton

7am • Friday

The coffeemaker does its thing just like every other Friday morning, perking away automatically at seven. But this is not any other Friday.

There’s work ahead of us, of course—unloading, paddling, at least one serious portage—but this work is eagerly anticipated. Work that brings sweat, physical progress, distance made from city and suburb and freeway and highway. For now, the canoe straps are humming and so are we as the miles click north.

Today we head up the North Shore of the big lake before turning west into the Superior National Forest, Minnesota’s boreal gem: nearly four million acres of federal land, thousands of streams, rivers, and lakes, miles of trails and roads, no permits or fees. If you’re an American, it belongs to you.

It’s a big place—we’re glad but not surprised to find our trailhead empty. The portage is in good shape, recently cleared of blowdowns after the summer storms. But at 160 rods (about a half-mile) of slippery mud and rocks, it’s a challenge. We carefully place each step through the dark black spruce and cedar lowlands and the blazing white of the birch on the dry gravel hills. The Forest Service has built a boardwalk across a swampy stretch, and perfectly centered on it is a neat pile of wolf scat—easily identified by the deer hair and bone chips. A territory marker. You don’t have to go far into the national forest to find wildness.

Portaging in Superior National Forest // Photo by Tom Hazelton

We descend the final hill and the lake is before us, riffled by a west wind under the grey overcast. It’s a welcome sight after the portage, and home for the next two nights. The north and south shores are low and green, spiked with spruces and tamaracks; the east and west shores rise steeply to mature birch and balsam second-growth forest. A few scattered white and red pines tower above the rest.

The canoe feels sluggish loaded with all our gear, but paddling beats carrying it on our backs. We pick a campsite among tall spruces on a high bank on the eastern shore. There’s a slow-moving wall of rain dragging toward us, so we set up in a rush. I light our wood-burning camp stove, dead balsam branches producing a soft roar and a jet of orange flame even as the rain begins. A pasta salad goes on to boil.

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Dinner at camp // Photo by Tom Hazelton

After dinner we string up our fly rods and put on our raincoats and slide the canoe back into the water. It paddles much livelier without all our gear—the movement such pleasure that we don’t even fish, but just paddle, following the shore, wondering at the impossible stretch of a bankside cedar tree or the massive diameter of an old-growth stump barely visible beneath the moss.

A deer swims across the lake—she only turns her ears toward us as she passes, and scrambles out onto the far shore, white rump bouncing into the underbrush. The light rain on the lake makes an impossibly delicate sound, musical, enveloping. We’re soaked but warm.

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Paddling on an overcast evening // Photo by Tom Hazelton

8am • Saturday

It’s still raining and a thousand mosquitos are silhouetted against the morning light on the outside of the tent. The prospect of coffee is stronger than the comfort of our sleeping bags and we crawl into a world of grey and green and wet. We can’t see across the lake. I scrounge for some dry balsam twigs, getting soaked again in the dripping woods, and get a fire going in the stove.

The coffee seems to wake up the whole place. A light breeze filters the fog through the trees and the sun cuts in. A band of chickadees flits through camp, inspecting us and our gear, some perched atop branches, others hanging upside-down, leapfrogging along and chattering. A pair of loons are hooting down the lake and a pileated woodpecker lands on a dead snag with a thwack and glares down with his terrible pterodactyl eye before launching himself back across the lake.

An hour later we’re paddling again, seeing the lake with new eyes in the sunlight. The water is stained dark by muskeg and sedge swamps. Massive boulders appear from nowhere beneath us, as do old-growth white pine logs, sawed by long-dead lumberjacks, lost in the lake on their way to the mill. These things tell the history of this place, but at this moment, they also say smallmouth bass.

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Fishing lines find their way into the water on the second day // Photo by Tom Hazelton

Amy unhooks her fly from the keeper on the rod. It’s a store-bought popper, hot orange, tough enough resist damage from shoreline rocks and teeth. Of course, a fluorescent balsa-wood cylinder with rubber legs doesn’t really look like any natural food. In fact, the diet of smallmouth bass in these northern lakes is largely crayfish—maybe as much as 90 percent. But as fly anglers we make trade-offs in favor of aesthetics. Getting a fish to eat a fly feels more honest.

Amy lands the popper just off the bank over a steep rocky drop-off. She lets it sit almost a half-minute before giving it a single strip of the line—pop—and immediately a bass comes from the right, pushing a wake, dorsal and tail out of the water, shark-like. The popper is gone and Amy’s fly rod bows deeply, bouncing as the bass pulls toward deep water. Smallmouth bass are fighters, not runners, and they do not give up. Amy’s six-weight rod is up to the task, but barely, and it takes a while to tire the fish out enough for me to slide the net beneath him. We hop out of the canoe in the shallows and take a couple photos and then he’s free again, rocketing off to deep water, cranky but otherwise unhurt.

Amy’s smallmouth bass // Photo by Tom Hazelton

“The first cast of the trip,” I say. “That’s either a really good sign or a really bad sign.” Such omens make even the least superstitious angler wonder about the deeper mysteries of why fish eat on what days and under what conditions and how can we begin to figure it out, if it’s even possible.

“Well,” Amy says with a grin, “let’s get another one.” She is still relatively new to these troubling questions, and she digs her paddle in hard, angling the canoe so I can make a cast. We explore the inlet and outlet creeks, an island, a perfectly-round bay, countless logs and boulders and weed patches. We catch fish only on the sunken bouldery peninsulas. I’m not sure what glacial micro-action created them, these piles of basketball-sized stones that extend from the shore down out of sight, but the local smallmouth love them.

The last bass of the day comes just in front of our camp. I cradle him in one hand and his fins glow sunset orange, and the evening glare on the lake makes the surface white and opaque like quicksilver as he slides back in.

We don’t go back out after dinner, though it’s tempting. The breeze has faded and we can hear fish feeding on the surface. The smoke from the dinner fire hangs around camp and the loons are calling again, not their characteristic wailing but soft intimate whistles. This’ll be our only sunset here. Might as well soak it in.

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Photos by Tom Hazelton

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