I never forgot that summer day at Crow Lake, nearly six decades ago, when I landed my first smallie, 13 inches and a pound.  Over the years, I’d catch perch, sunnies, rock bass, pike, largemouth and other smallies (smallmouth bass), always happy, but of course never quite recapturing the thrill that I had with the first one.  I can still see the rock under water where I caught him, the tug on the rod,  bending almost in two.  One has to understand this thrill to fully understand what’s coming next.  I’m writing about fishin’, no “g”, because every fisherman knows that.  You go fishin’.  I guess a few folks from the Cities go fishing, but the rest of us go fishin’.  We use leeches and crawlers, the latter being nightcrawlers, or earthworms that come out at night, after we water the lawn during the day.  These are “live bait,” which a segment of the fishin’ population considers the only way to fish.  It’s a bit religious, although we’ll use lures like Raps, spinners, jitterbugs, and spoons, ‘cause some places don’t allow live bait, because of contamination concerns.

Oh, we don’t use the metric system, either.  My bass was not 33 cm long and 0.45 kg.  Give me a break.  My heavens, nobody here would know what the hell you were talking about if you said that.  I’m vegetarian now, but I eat fish, because I’m willing to catch, kill, clean and cook them.  While I don’t fish any more, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for fishin’.

I hadn’t planned on soloing into the Boundary Waters this September, because my wife and I usually go together.  Illness entered our house this year, however, and while she was doing well, canoeing was out of the question. Stuff happens.  She told me to go.  I felt a bit guilty, but I get over it quickly.  I think she’s glad to have me gone for a while.  I come back better for the trip.

Sunset, Basswood Lake, top of Pipestone and Jackfish Bays.

Red Maple leaf.

I’ve soloed into the Boundary Waters on the good side of twenty times.  I usually go with the plan that I will think a lot about my life, family, place in the world, all the heady stuff people believe is important.  Usually, though, I end up fascinated with what most would call trivialities.  I round the corner of an island, and an immature Bald Eagle takes off in front of me. Or I’m lazing under a few jack pines on a cliff and see a dozen mergies diving in unison. Or, if I’m lucky, I see a Pileated Woodpecker fly back and forth across the bay out front, a real treat.  The world’s problems, my own, tend to wait.  A red tree leaf on the trail  is highly significant,  as is morning mist on the lake, an incredible sunset  or a rising last quarter Moon, with a loon calling, when I take my midnight break.

I process what I see and hear slowly, so it might take hours or days to discover what is truly meaningful.  Readers of my post “Dreams”, should know that I left that men’s room without the slightest thought of writing about what had just transpired.  By the time I got home, 12 hours later, the story wrote itself.

My first night out, I was on a campsite my wife and I had discovered last year.  We were camped in the motor zone on Basswood and found this one out of the zone.  We should have moved, but we didn’t.  There are many lovely tent sites, quiet bays, and lots of room.  She couldn’t see it this year; I decided if my 64 year old arms could do it, I’d go in 14 miles for a couple of nights.  I got there in 4 hours, which I thought decent.  And so the first night, I sat on a fallen Norway and started to write about the day.

What surprised me was that my thoughts were not of the eagle perched by Newton Falls, nor the Aster

Aster plant, end of portage from Newton to Pipestone Bay.

Aster plant, end of portage from Newton to Pipestone Bay.

and Hawkweed blooms

Orange hawkweed.  This is worth kneeling down to smell.

Orange hawkweed. This is worth kneeling down to smell.

by Pipestone Bay, near the end of the portage.  It wasn’t even the site itself, which was better than I remembered.

Nope, it was a fishin’ story I heard that morning, back in Ely.  Yep, fishin’.

I heard the fishin’ story because I went to a bakery the morning of my departure into the woods.  My wife asked me to go to that bakery, because we always had gone there together before heading out.  We got coffee and a scone, one of her fondest memories of the trip.  We remember these things every year with hopes next year will be the same.  Except at some point, next year won’t work out.  Always.  It is the way of the world.  Not working out happened to be 2013, a bummer.  But I still went to the bakery, got my coffee and scone from the same woman, who was helped by a man I hadn’t seen before.  I don’t know their relationship, and it doesn’t particularly matter.  I was there for scones and coffee; I was about to get a lot, lot more than I paid for, and fishin’ stories ought to be told in the present tense.

A second customer comes in, and the man who is helping the woman starts talking about a fishin’ trip he guided the prior week.  OK, now I understand the relationship.  They have a bakery, and he works as a guide.  Oh yeah, he works holding ducts, too.  That came up in the conversation:  “It’s about 30 hours of work, and while I know nothing about ducts, I can hold them.”  This is Ely, where they measure jobs by hours they will last, not salary, bonuses, or bennies, which are non-existent.  But that’s for another time.  I’m telling a fishin’ story now.

The man is guiding out on a lake that I know well, but will remain unnamed, because guides do not tell ordinary people where good fishing is, and as a listener, it is completely unethical for me to mention the name.  Guides do a lot of “water time” to find the honey holes that help them live.  When you put in a lot of “water time,” you don’t give it away.  The guide talks about a day trip that he and his charges took. Wow.  I’ve done that day trip, and it’s a haul.  I’m starting to listen closely, for while I’ve been in 300 lakes up here, camped out as many nights, this guy knows fishin’ and this country a lot better than I.  If you haven’t figured that out, I’ve just paid him a hell of a compliment.

I’m still sitting at the window looking out on Sheridan Street but turn around when the guide says, “I caught the biggest walleye in my life last week–32 1/2 inches.”  I look at him as he continues, “took a picture and let her go.  She was old, had a big head, and I could see the unusual coloration on her.”  Big walleyes are breeders, and they should all be thrown back after a quick picture. If a good guide sees you keeping one of these for dinner, he will quietly direct the fishin’ elsewhere to make sure you don’t catch anything more. I heard that from an expert. Good sportsmen practice catch and release. Good sportsmen, however, often don’t do what this guide does next.

“She comes belly up about 100 yards away.  I went over, because the gulls were circling.  She was alive, so I worked her gills for a few minutes, made sure they were going, and let her go.  She dived deep and was gone.”  Working the gills means move the fish back and forth, so the dissolved oxygen can fix to the hemoglobin on the gills.

My story that first night was right before my eyes. I wanted to write something profound, and here it was: I spread my hands about 32 1/2 inches apart and dreamt of having that on my line.  Wow.  Best fishin’ story I’ve heard in a long time.  Nothing trivial about this.  Not when you know fishin’.

That guy is a real sportsman, too, and it’s a helluva fishin’ story.  I respect him.  He gets it.  He knows how to take people fishin’.  I like the bakery.  I left a decent tip when I got my order; I decided I would stop in and grab another one of those scones when I came back before the long drive to the Cities.  I doubt I will hear another fishin’ story, because maybe the guy is holding ducts.  Still, maybe it will be my lucky day.  I will leave a lot bigger tip for the woman, not just for the scone but for the fishin’ story.  I bet she knows a lot of fishin’ stories.  My wife doesn’t believe half of mine.  Bet she believes his.  He’s a guide.  He knows fishin’.

Well, I’m in the woods for a few days, cover some miles, see some sunsets, eagles, fall colors, and spend 30 minutes watching an ant move a pine needle.  Yes, trivial stuff.  Unless one is an ant.  Did you ever watch an ant carry something 10 times longer than he is?  I was fascinated.  Anyway, I finally came out of the woods 3 hours before a big boomer pounded the land.  Temperature dropped like a stone, but I had a September trip where I never wore my rain clothes and slept without a hat on.  That’s a great trip.

It got better.

I had breakfast at the Moose (The Chocolate Moose) at the corner of Sheridan and Central in Ely, and I’m ready to leave town, when I go by the bakery for the blueberry scone and coffee.  The scone is to die for.  I’m normally pretty shy, but four days alone in the woods makes me talkative, so I just ask the woman how big the walleye was, ‘cause I like to have my facts right.  She immediately asks the man to come out.  It really is my lucky day–dry trip, blueberry scone, and I’m going to talk to the man himself, a guy who knows fishin’.

He is a guide.  Name is Don Beans, and he runs  Jasper Creek Guide Service in Ely.  He’s on Facebook.  I got the brochure.  I started with a real dumb question:  “Where did you catch it?”  Completely nonplussed, Don answered, “Not saying.”  I was embarrassed as hell with my faux pas, forgetting that no guide ever divulges his secrets, but hey, I haven’t been fishin’ for a while.  I replied saying the lake began with one of two letters, and named the letters.  The first one was correct.  I told him I was familiar with that lake, having spent time with the Forest Service.  He must have thought I was for real, so we both talked about a secret lake that we both knew well.  I ain’t telling you the name of the lake.  No way.  You want to know, take a trip with Don.

Then I told him about back in ’92 when Steve Cochran and  I were out working, when we spent an evening jiggin’ for walleyes on Pipestone Bay, where I had just been.  Cochran, a Forest Service worker, guided on his days off.  Don is a guide who probably does bakery and duct work on his days off.  Probably does any other work he can, too.  Bet he’s good at it.  Doesn’t ask dumb questions, the way I do.

“Lot of water time to find that hole,” Don said, when I told him about the school of walleyes we were jigging into.  I had never caught a walleye before and pulled in 8 that night.  Threw them all back.  I told Don that I was impressed with his throwing the fish back and then going out to rescue it from the gulls.  I liked his response:

“What else could I do?”

Not “it was the right thing to do,” which implies that one has a choice, but the implication was clear: the right thing is one’s only action.  This is a good guide. Come to think of it, this is a good person, too.  I’m writing a 2100 word fishin’ story, and Don Beans has summarized the jist of it in 5 words.  He’d probably be a good editor, too.  His next 5 words were even better.

“Want to see a picture?”  he asked.  That was like asking me if I wanted a lifetime supply of blueberry scones.  Oh man, did I strike gold today.  First the scone, then the story in depth, and now a picture.

I saw Don with the fish.  I don’t have to spread my arms 32 1/2 inches.  I’ve seen what it looks like.  That walleye is a treasure in American waters, thanks to Don.  She won’t be around much longer, but she has done her job in nature.  Wow, what a fishin’ story.

And the whole thing is true.  Makes me want to take up fishin’ again.

If I do, I know who will guide me,  where that secret lake is, and what I’m having for breakfast that first morning.  I may ask dumb questions, but I ain’t stupid.


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