The Magic Numbers

A hot month passes and it seems I spend the whole time working and coming home from work and working around the house. Getting it ready. Paying for previous procrastination. And then a particular Saturday comes and goes and dozens of people visit our new home and talk and laugh and eat and drink and when the last leave at 7:00 we collapse on the couch, the dog in a pile at our feet, and know that such rest is righteous.

And I want to sleep all night and all the next day but there are better things for my soul if not my body so I doubtfully set the alarm for a little after 6 a.m. and go to bed early. The alarm is indeed unpleasant but somehow welcome. A return to going going going for the sake of rivers and the adventure possible on and in them.

It is drizzling and it is wonderful. Cool damp weather that makes me and many others ache for autumn which will come soon enough and which we will lament when it does. But now, after all these humid sun-baked weeks, it is ideal.

Still feeling indulgent, breakfast is McDonald’s — supersize the coffee, thanks — on the drive to the valley. Fisherman is hooking up the boat when I arrive and I pretend to help but mostly stand there drinking my coffee, wearing actual layers of clothes (layers!) and looking forward to whatever the day brings.

Quiet, now. My mood, the day. Respite from this relentless season. Just a cautious drive upriver towing the little boat behind the little car. Little traffic, low gray skies, the rain lets up though I couldn’t care either way for on this Sabbath I am more interested in what I am given than what I want.

Just a couple other vehicles at the little hidden landing. The water in the river down so low, it makes launching difficult because the river drops off just a foot or two out. But we could basically lift the craft off the trailer and into the water if we had to.

A fish jumps out in the channel.

We motor directly to the other side of the river where there’s a rocky point surrounded by sand where Rosie once snapped off a good one. We know smallmouth like rocks and these look like likely rocks.

They are. I’m still rigging up when Fisherman gets his first strike and his first fish. It puts a surprising bend in his rod. For a day with few expectations for the fishing, already boating one isn’t doing too bad. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get one.

I’m still rigging up — an important insight into Fisherman’s and my different styles: I’m slow, he’s not — when he gets another fish. Promising. But smallies are supposed to be good in the morning. It’ll probably shut down by the time I get this damn fly tied on.

We bounce from bank to bank upriver, heading for some rocky shorelines I know of from numerous non-angling canoe trips down this stretch, casting only when irresistible opportunity presents itself. A couple strikes, none hooked.

The river is shallow and shallower and I spend a good bit of time perched on the bow bench peering into the water, looking for the bottom to come up at us before the prop finds it. We are successful, but soon find ourselves with nowhere to go, barely-submerged gravel and sand in every direction. We explore further and get a bit higher upriver, then I hop out and drag the boat ten feet over and the channel continues and we’re soon motoring in water where we can’t see the bottom again.

And further up. Another shallow shoal and more careful navigation — I must appear as an unlikely figurehead at the prow of this vessel to any observer — and then we pass under the railroad bridge and forge upstream through a bottom of sand dunes, rolling up and down, but never nonnavigable.

Finally we are as far as we’ll go. We motor up to the top of a long stretch of limestone shoreline, the rock smoothed by ages of water flowing past and seeping over out of riparian springs. Somehow, I am tying on a fly again when something funny happens. I feel bad for finding it funny, but Fisherman strikes too hard on a fish and flings it out of the water and it smacks me hard in the back before I know what’s happening. I look back to figure out what just hit me, figure it out, and can’t help laughing very long and very hard.

Of course, you, reader, don’t have to laugh. (If you want to, but aren’t sure if you should, perhaps it will help to know that the fish went back to his watery world stunned and inconvenienced but perfectly healthy and with a story to tell on a scale not unlike of mine from another adventure on the St. Croix. Nature, for all her graces, can be a bitch to all her subjects.)

And now we come to the point where no further delay is available and I find myself again faced with writing about fishing without really wanting to write about the fishing. But it would be negligent and anti-climactic not to do so.

The fishing, you see, is fantastic.

And by fantastic, I mean that post-piscine pummeling we have steady action for the next six or more hours. Smallmouth bass, as the turn of the previous century writer J.A. Henshall is almost always cited when talking about their fight, truly are “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.”

We don’t much employ the little motor for the subsequent hours. Instead we both stand in the boat and cast toward shore as we drift downstream. When the current turns the boat to a difficult angle, one of us works one oar or both to realign things. To really work a good stretch, one of us might sit at the oars and row a bit while the other fishes.

Other river disciples are infrequent. Later in the day, floatillas of canoes that had descended from Taylor’s Falls would start passing us, but for the early hours we have it to ourselves for the most part. Those canoes that do pass seemed to have camping gear in them and are Kevlar or Royalex, generally not beat-up Alumacrafts. Greetings are brief and friendly and quiet.

The fish keep hitting. My arm grows a little sore from their relentless pull. When hooked, the fish either first leap clear of the water or else plumb the depths. Whichever they do first, they do the other shortly after, and repeat. Even small fish put unprecedented effort into their struggle. I occasionally can’t help just giggling with joy at these small battles. Even Fisherman breaks a smile once or twice. And the fish always leave our hands with plenty of leftover vigor.

We lunch at “The Spot,” a favorite secret campsite of mine. It is positioned just below a stretch of picture perfect smallie water, with 12-16″ diameter chunks of granite lining the banks and disappearing into the water. A beaver does not appreciate our presence but a missed strike on a very good-sized fish keeps us in the area. The fish, on the other hand, appears to have left for less dangerous waters.

Lunch is leftover sandwiches, cold beer, some grapes and some bars. The campsite is its usual wonderful. Fisherman has never been before and already I see in his eyes appreciation and ambition. Much like my own every time I visit. We must bring a party here for some extended solitude and camping.

I am tired when we return to the water. Relentless casting, a warming day, the short night of sleep all add up. Rowing proves to be a nice change of pace and a good excuse to sit down. I reel in more than once, thinking to just take it easy from here on out. It’s almost as much to watch Fisherman work the water as it is to do so myself.

Or so I think. But every time I watch him fight another fish to the boat I am re-inspired and I take my position again and resume my own angling. And with enough success to convince me it was the right thing to do. These mid-afternoon fish are as aggressive as they were in the morning, both in taking our offerings and protesting their disingenuity.

Ultimately we find ourselves back at the rocky point across from the landing where we had first started casting some hours ago. We fish structure just down from it and more fish are had. Then we cross the river and cast to rocks there. Only one small one is brought in and we identify a last outcropping and agree to fish down to there and then pack it in.

No more fish come to us but we leave the river surprised by our success and more than satisfied, not sure if we have discovered some special stretch of river, some irresistible flies, perfect weather conditions, or if we were just lucky.

Wrapping this up, I wonder if it has any potential as an enjoyable read. Is a compelling story not one with a protagonist toward which the reader feels some sympathy? And then that protagonist facing some challenge or another? For here we find nothing more than a lucky guy having a great day of fishing. But so, a great memory, its value as a story remains to be seen…

13 thoughts on “The Magic Numbers

  1. rosie

    that was a fantastic story, bum! what a fun, roller coaster of a ride. i could really feel your emotions, your crazy, wiped-out state of mind in the words. it sounds like such a fun day.

  2. GerardH


    Wonderful story. I “rediscovered” smallie fishing this summer after a 15 year hiatus…I forgot how fun it truly is. Thanks to buddies like GC and DA, I was able to get flies that actually worked. ;-) Keep those stories rolling!


  3. Terry

    Yes, an enjoyable read. I have let the summer go by and am getting out tomorrow — for the first time since Memorial day weekend. A prisoner to my own version of the eat-sleep-work rut that you described.

    The only thing worse than writing about fishing when you don’t want to write about fishing is to read about fishing when you would rather be fishing.

    Glad to hear you had such a ball with those St. Croix smallies. Cast for cast they are my favorite species.

    Thanks for the post and take care -

  4. eric

    Geez, Greg. So well written. As a fellow smallmouth enthusiast, the whole tale really strikes a chord. Also, I picked up that quote from Henshall from some outdoor magazine or another as a kid and have paraphased it on more than one occasion – usually to some sullen dupe with a freshly broken line. ;-) Very cool to see it here. Thumbs up to a great story about a great trip. You know, there’s still some summer left…

  5. Greg Post author

    So I guess the tale of a lucky going having a good day of fishing can be an enjoyable story. Good to know. :)

    Glad you all enjoyed the tale and thanks for your comments.

    rosie – thanks as always for accomodating my need to set an obnoxious early alarm clock and disappear for a day. Heck of a woman. :)

    Gerard – always a pleasure when you stop by and comment. Did you go to the smallmouth clave this summer? Obviously I now get the attraction….

    Terry – do tell. How was your day of fishing?

    eric – I bet smallies could keep a kid (or a grown man) pretty far from bored all summer long. It was fun re-reading that post in light of my adventures last weekend. I’m definitely considering bringing my fly rod on my short little BWCA trip I have planned for the end of the month though I’m not sure if it’ll be prime time for topwater action… I sure would love to explore Vermilion with you sometime.

  6. Night Editor

    I copied the same quote above with plans to tell you the very same thing: “for on this Sabbath I am more interested in what I am given than what I want.” I’ll write that down and put in my pocket before leaving to the border waters. . . .

  7. Greg Post author

    Terry – I bet you would have driven 100 miles more, wouldn’t you? Days like that reinforce that fishing isn’t always about the fish.

    TMF and Night Editor – Your comments make me smile because that’s probably one of my favorite lines too and it’s always nice when my view and other people’s views of what’s “good” match up.

    I wish I could remember that mantra and live by it every single day — and I’ll always try to — but I guess it has to be enough to feel it wholly some days and just strive for it the others.

    Night Editor, I can think of no better place than the lake country to try to live that sentiment. And if you can carry the thought with you there, it’ll help you carry it with you in the life of distraction we find in the Twin Cities.

  8. Terry

    Greg – An unrelated note!

    I visited your BWCA wiki site today and saw that it’s getting flooded by porn spammers. It looks like it needs to get put on lock down until it’s cleaned up.

    It’s too bad that some people got to ruin a good thing.

  9. Greg Post author

    Thanks for the note on that. You’re right, the spammers have been brutal. I’ve tried to stay on top of it, but it was a discouraging battle. Anyway, I finally decided to block unregistered users from editing… something I really have not wanted to do. The whole idea when launching it was that anybody should be able to stop by and drop some knowledge as easily as possible. But alas, Spammers: 1, BWCAWiki and anything else “good” on the Internet: 0. My loathing spammers is really soaring right now…


  10. Lene

    I agree, great read, Greg! I definitely felt tension, especially early on in your story. I did find myself wanting to know more about which fly you were using (but that’s b/c I’m trying to learn :)).

    I think part of your success in this piece lies in your vivid description of the landscape. As readers, we trust you and believe that you know this place. Your casual tone invites us to stay for the story.

    Personally, I most enjoy stories that are moved by internal revelations or insights rather than big-time, human drama. Keep writing (and sending your work out).

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