COL 'Trouble can't find me here'
We went to Canada to catch fish. But in the end, the fish caught us.
So did the northern lights, the loons and the swimming bear. We got snagged by the dark, deep water -- all bog-stained and clean. Perhaps it was the 800-year-old Indian art, painted on the sheer wall above the water line, that netted us. It could have been the gulls and their buddy, the turkey vulture. We kept those "bums in bird suits" supplied with all the walleye heads and entrails they could eat while we were there.
We lived good, and so did they.
The good living started the day we left. Our goal was to get to Ear Falls, Ontario, before 7 p.m. on the evening before we boarded the floatplane. If we arrived in time, we could get our work done, receive our orientation and, hopefully, be the first group out in the morning.
Our friend Jeff Middleton had traveled from Australia to accompany us on this trip, so any grousing we did about being "anxious" to get there was stifled by his stare.
This man loves to fish, and flying in from the other side of the world for a chance at a 24-inch walleye sure proved it.
A few years back, Jeff came out to Oxbow Park with a hearty smile and said he'd like to work for us. "You can't pay me, though," he said. He told us that his wife, Justine, was on a special assignment at IBM for two years, and U.S. laws prevented him from earning money during his stay.
"If you'll have me, I'd like to come out here two or three days a week and just work to stay busy," he told us. "I love this park, especially the animals, and would like to help in any way I can."
It's not every day a facility gets an experienced craftsman who wants to work for free. We snatched him up. His pay was our respect and friendship, laced with frequent insults about his manner of speech.
So this trip to Ear Falls was a reunion. We hadn't seen Jeff for a couple of years. He's the same old Jeff. We knew he'd been gone too long, though, because we couldn't understand a thing he said for the first few days. He reported that when he went back home to Sydney, everybody wanted to know where he'd been because he talked so funny.
That tickled us. Yep -- we taught him a word or two, all right.
Easy does it
We hammered the fish, period. That's about all the vanity you'll get out of this sportsman. There were six of us, including me, Jeff, Pat Gerken, Doug Budensiek, Craig Connelley and Tad Burns, and we didn't merely catch fish; rather, we experienced what fishing is like in heaven. We were witnesses to a bounty of nature that nearly defies description.
In a word, we were, well, privileged.
I laugh inside when some swaggering fishing jock boasts about making one of these wilderness fishing trips. The worst of them will regale you with stories of their skill and prowess in making a wilderness walleye take the bait.
Don't believe it. These fish are born to eat, and it's my opinion that a can of corn could catch fish in northern Ontario. You could bring along your favorite potted tomato plant and it would go fish-for-fish with you.
Don't kid yourself -- catching fish up yonder doesn't mean you're good. It just means you've saved a few bucks and know how to tie a knot. Bring along a bunch of half-ounce jigs and a pile of crawlers and you're a fishing rock star.
The fish ate everything we dropped on their heads. We laced each jig with a twisty tail, but to be honest, I'm not sure it mattered. White jigs and fluorescent green-and-orange jigs held up well in our boat, I think we could have used pink with purple speckles and it wouldn't have made a difference.
I recall looking at everyone's bait as we drifted between an island and a hard shore. We were catching 10 to 12 fish per boat in the 30 minutes it took to drift this distance, then we'd motor up and do it again; not one of us was using the same bait.
Fish: It's what's for dinner
The take slot on this trophy lake was nothing over 18 inches, and on at least one occasion one boat had a hard time catching anything under 18 inches for shore lunch. Most of the fish were in the 17- to 22-inch class. We caught plenty of 23- and 24- inchers, and the northerns mostly left us alone unless we went looking for them.
It's a good day in a walleye boat when, after a northern bites you off, you're not compelled to curse. When it did happen, you'd sigh, and then your partner would giggle and say, "Oops! That must have been Mi-i-i-ister Toothy."
We laughed and ate until our bellies ached, and like in any camp, everyone took their fair share of ribbing. Our cabin was first-rate, and the only one on the 12-mile-long Black Birch Lake. We had solar-powered lights and a fridge and freezer. The cabin came equipped with a shower, a flush toilet and an outhouse. The boats were 14-foot, deep-hulled Lunds and the motors were new.
Being committed to fish conservation isn't just lip service with Lac Seul Airways Fly-in Trips Limited. In their office they have a picture of a dandy 22-inch walleye left dead and pale on a stringer. Underneath the photo is a caption declaring their devotion to ethics and fair chase, and a warning that says something like, "If we see this in your camp, your wilderness fishing vacation is over."
Now that's my kind of resource management.
Escape to solitude
On the morning we flew in, I was delighted by the beauty of the wilderness below. I wanted to gobble it all in. We flew for 90 minutes into pure wilderness. No roads, towers, homes, nothing. Due north ... and away. Far away.
That day after lunch, I took the first of my daily skinny-dips in cold Black Birch Lake. As I sat on the dock afterward, drying off, naked to the world, taking it all in, I thought about the brutal summer my family's had.
About our lovely daughter, still alive but without her best friend after a terrible auto accident in May. I thought about her little brother, who came very close to being the only surviving child of three born to my wife and me. And how brave and strong he's had to become. He's a rock.
I thought about our loss and the dark days ahead for our friends who now have their own angel. And I thought about the grief in our town. And I thought about how beat-up my soul was.
I guess I kind of snapped. I'd had too much. To no one except the gull and the vulture, I suppose, I yelled. Just as loud as I could. And then I did it again. And then I let out a whoop.
And then I screamed at the top of my lungs, "There's no trouble here! Trouble can't find me here!"
And the fish ate everything I dropped on 'em.
Ryan is a naturalist at Olmsted County's Oxbow Park north of Byron and writes a monthly column for the Post-Bulletin. To comment, call him at (507) 775-2451.