Monday, September 19, 2011

BWCA 2011

I may be getting old enough to use the phrase years ago, but I’m not sure. Years ago, in the previous millennium, I woke up somewhere along the shore of Jackfish Bay to a clear and starry morning sky. Probably cold but not too bad. We’d scorned the tents that night and decided to line up our sleeping bags on the billion-year rock. I was with some guys who slept a lot and didn’t fish much. Don’t get me wrong: good guys. They chewed a lot of tobacco which I sampled and got a good high from but probably overdid it and got a little uneasy. Not as uneasy as the first time I sampled it and ended up running out of a van into the woods to vomit. This was more of an interesting high that peaked as we were paddling down a river in the afternoon sun. Then the high edged toward uneasiness and I thought back to that vomit but then the high pulled back just in time and I did not drop over that dreaded edge and I did not hurl into the shining surface waters of the BWCA. So the point is that chew, alcohol, sleep were priorities on that trip. Thus every morning I was the first to rise. Including this morning. I probably went out and caught some fish while the other guys slept. Not sure but the one memory that is burned into my mind is the point of this whole recollection: one guy rose from his bag, bleary-eyed, and executed the traditional bicep-flexing stretch in the sun while exclaiming “man, I love getting back to nature.” And as I write it now I’m doing the same thing I did at that time: chuckling in my mind and wondering about it.

Why would one drive the length of the state of MN, making all kinds of trouble and hassle for yourself, burning a significant volume of fuel, and leaving your family to fend for themselves? I don’t think you can offer a sincere report on something without working out just why you’re doing it. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but here is my take on it:

These are not reasons I go to BWCA:
(1) To get back to nature. Granted, that is a vague phrase and could be interpreted in numerous lights. But I’ve always hated that line. Don’t like “get back to nature” or “environmentalist” or any terms like that. Neither this world nor any of its places is an "environment.” (W. Berry). There is no “place” that is nature next to a place that is not nature. And thus you can’t get back to it because you don’t leave it.
a. And if this is to be interpreted as getting back to a place in which humans are not readily obvious and their impacts are not severe… Well, there are a lot of those. Despite common opinion on that, there are a lot of those and they aren’t that far away. I can go five minutes north or five minutes east of my front door and be pretty well lost in a place that doesn’t show much for human touch.
(2) For the fishing. Or rather, for the number of fish available to catch or the number of big fish available to catch. This may seem odd because I spend most of the time up there fishing. But the result (the fish brought to hand) is not unique to the BWCA. A guy can catch 100 SMB and some pretty nice ones right here. Literally minutes from where I am standing right now. A guy can catch very large northern pike – bigger than any I’ve seen in person in the BWCA – minutes from here. And the biggest walleye I’ve ever seen in person (7.5 lbs) was caught by me, while standing knee deep in the Cannon River.
(3) To buy a bunch of gear and make a “hobby” out of paddling. And you could do a lot of that. Hats, gloves, thousand dollar outfits, etc. You’ll see it all up there. But I hate buying stuff and I always feel guilty on doing it. I do kind of like gear to some degree but man can it be overdone. I own one piece of gear that is specific to BWCA travel: Duluth Pack – and even that has been subjected to other applications (like carrying four rotors for my car while biking through Northfield MN).

These are potential/probable reasons I go to BWCA (I can’t say for sure that these are the reasons because that would imply that I somehow know everything about my own inner-workings and psyche, which is clearly untrue).
(1) To revere something old. It hurts your brain to look at striations on a rock and think about how long they’ve been there, who has stepped on them, who has pissed all over them, etc.
a. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota fascinates thousands of visitors each year because of its true wilderness aspect of lakes and forest. But there is much more here, for the rocks exposed along the lakeshores and on the portages between lakes in most of the BWCA reveal a fascinating story of what this wilderness region, including the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park across the border, was like 2,700 million years ago when explosive volcanoes rose out of a practically lifeless sea to dominate the landscape (page 184).
Weathering and erosion by running water over a period of more than 2 billion years have reduced the entire Canadian Shield, including the present BWCA, to a low-lying, generally featureless topography. Then came the glaciers of the Ice Age to gouge out rock that was either softer than adjacent rocks or more thoroughly fractured, thus forming deep, commonly elongate lake basins separated by more resistant ridges (page 185).

-Minnesota’s Geology, by Richard W. Ojakangas and Charles L. Matsch

(2) To get the hell away from garbage pixels like the ones I’m staring at right now. As you know, we’ve passed the point of interacting with pixels and cell phones on an incidental basis and moved into the world of “fixtures.” Soon, they will literally be in skulls and control will be via thought-wave. It will come to that 100% sure. So the point is that in such an environment, one must be proactive in abandoning such equipment to wallow in its own electrical soup while you do something better, more meaningful and more memorable. The fact is that I don’t really use this stuff that much as it is, but clearly I use it too much. “I don't like machines,which are neither mortal nor immortal,though I am constrained to use them.(Thus the age perfects its clench.)Some day they will be gone, and that will be a glad and a holy day. (W. Berry).” Substance, feeling: you can’t get those things from looking at screens. No wave can come over your bow and no cold wind can hit your tent wall. You can’t tell your dad via email good job after he steers you into a lee shore. No fish teeth can wear out your thumb and no smoke can burn the inside of your nose by way of a computer. No matter how “virtual reality” you get. Being in the dirt and water is real. Kicking a rock down the hill is a real thing. Mixing coffee in the remnant beer from the previous night is a tangible thing. And it tastes okay by the way.

(3) Fellowship. Being in camp with people is a good means of bonding with them. You don’t have to do anything special; just be in camp with them, paddle around with them, bitch at them, fish with them. Do dishes after they cook, etc. I don’t get to see these guys all that much but these trips are impactful and memorable and thus we are able to forge relationships.

(4) For the fishing – some aspects of it anyway. Like opportunities to bring dozens of SMBs to the top in 8-10 feet of water to crush poppers. Sighting down your rod length at a blockhead popper on glass-still water under a full moon. You can mark that as a reason a guy would go to BWCA. Mark it twice in fact. God, giving me jitters right now just thinking about it. The best way to fish SMB. And BWCA offers that up in ready fashion.

(5) Some form of abstract adjustment of your person and/or magic. Not sure what it is exactly but I think old places can seep into you and make you better. I don’t need to know much more than that. I can feel trips like this one adding substance to my life. One could argue that such substance is the stuff of good memories; one could further argue that making good memories for you and others ought to be a primary goal in life.

Fishing Report: the fishing was fine. Not super, not bad. After 25-30 years of fishing the same water up there, my dad agreed to try another lake. It’s folly to think that you can walk into a lake complex and have it mastered in a few days. No way to do it. The bait guys couldn’t find the walleyes, save a couple dinks and one big dragon-headed rogue that my dad caught on the first day (4 lbs 8 ounces, digital scale). Only one pike was caught, but we didn’t really go after them much. The SMB were ever-present, but the size distribution was not what we were used to: it was a notch down. Meaning we caught unlimited 10-12” fish, a lot of 15-16” fish, but only one fish that broke 17” (KLW fish). This had it pluses and minuses. The 10-12” SMB are very good for frying pan: taste is good. Younger fish lower in toxics. We had such meals every day. Sometimes twice. And you could get these fish on whatever flies you put out there: poppers, clousers, buggers. I figure I caught 12-15 SMB per day, fishing the early morning and evening hours. That’s an average. A couple days were well into the 20s. My mates fishing bait caught plenty of these SMB too. One note to take away is that this marked the most SMB I’ve ever taken on poppers: many fish on top. There are only two notable specific fishing instances (other than the big walleye mentioned previously):

(1) The biggest SMB I caught was a loner fish just off a rock ledge, early in the morning (630). I had scouted the day before and noted the submerged ledge. Put the popper on the ledge… this fish executed the big-fish-sip. Glass water, and she just mouthed up and sipped a blockhead. I measured by ticks on my rod and estimated 16.5”.
(2) Got into what Holschlag refers to as a “wolf pack” of SMB. Highly memorable. I found an island with good bathymetry (spent a lot of time studying the lake map) and fished it for the first time one evening as night came on. Moving east to west along a north shore. Pattern casting with a popper. Smaller fish here and there. Then in a burst, four consecutive hits, three fish landed 15-16” range. I slowed down and concentrated on this little pocket of fish… first cast with a clouser and I watched my line jolt away from me before I even came tight on the strip. Proceeded to get ~20 fish to hand in ~30 minutes from this ridiculously small concentration of SMB. Half were smaller 10-13” and half were solid 15-16” fish. No hawgs though.

Logistical notes (mainly pertaining to fly fishing, not necessarily for spin fishing):
(1) 100% bring breathable waders and not rain pants. I started doing this a while back. Waders, wading boots, rain coat.
(2) Don’t fish from a canoe. This gets away from the romantic image of BWCA. But I’m telling you that you can cover more water and catch more fish walking the shore.
(3) Bring more footwear than underwear. Your feet must be comfortable and readily useable at all times. Boots for hiking back on portage trails (wading boots); sandals or wet shoes for canoeing; something dry for being around camp. Took a while but I’ve got this down now.
(4) If you eliminated every fly from your box save your poppers and clousers, you’d be okay. Different sizes and colors of those basic patterns is what you need. The flies that “push a lot of water” may deserve more exploration. However, two flies can weigh exactly the same, but sink at markedly different rates due to surface area and related resistance. I like the clouser sink rates: they are wispy and heavy. They drop like stones. I basically fish poppers, and then move to clousers, which can be effectively fished in up to 8-10 feet of water with a floating line and long leader. Deeper with a sink tip line.

There are some other things to note: the fire and an encounter with a snapping turtle. Subsequent posts if time allows.

Thanks to my paddling partners, and to KLW for another well-planned and well-executed adventure. And to my family for allotting me time away. Won’t be long and the boys will be paddlers themselves.

Following picture selection is in chronological order. Not many fish pictures because you can’t really gain much by posting 33 images of a 15 or 16” SMB.































11 Comments:

Blogger John Montana said...

Awesome. I will make this trip one year.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous winonaflyfactory said...

Good read, enjoyed the coffee/beer note. Glad the new camera worked out well for you, that walleye shot is pretty sweet. Glad you had a good trip and made it home safe and sound, interested in the snapping turtle note and the fire as well.

9:48 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great post Wendy. Really liked #2 of probable reasons to go to BWCA.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Mr. P. said...

Good report with thoughtful reflections.

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