Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Big smallmouth: A hand-powered fishing adventure

It was like turning back time — our deciding to fish Up North the old-fashioned way, that is.

No motors, no electronics, no gizmos or doodads, just handpaddled canoes and flyrods, sweat and persistence.

But the goal was the same as ever — big fish, specifically smallmouth bass. It turned out that the trip produced a “best day ever,” but it didn’t start out that way.

At first it seemed as if this classic hand-powered angling adventure would come to naught — other than great tent-camping, canoeing, and camaraderie on a scenic northern Wisconsin stream, the Flambeau. The vaunted smallmouth stream had been drowned by a spate of rain, including a frog-gagging six inches in just a few hours the first night in camp.

It was simply too high and too fast to fish. There is such a thing as too much water, as many outdoors folks have found out over the years, when they have headed to the tall and uncut northern latitudes only to grapple with fickle, nasty weather.

But all’s well that ends well, even though the final venue in this summery endeavor ended up at a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Lesson: It pays to adapt.

Brothers Mark and Sean O -Leary had decided, after the Great Flambeau Flame-out, to head south in Wisconsin toward Mark’s hometown of New Glarus in search of smallmouth bass for their flyrods. They never did find the fish.

Their dad, Joe, and I, the two older guys, headed east 250 miles to Joe's camp on upper Michigan's Lake Superior shore.

His camp is named Sisu, a Finnish word that implies tenacity in the face of adversity. It seemed like a perfectly operative word for our situation, having faced a North Country weather dilemma.

All of which prompted Joe to suggest that we try canoeing into a remote lake, the name of which will remain un-uttered, to seek smallmouth there.

The term “canoeing” into the lake, moreover, is used advisedly in this case. It turned out to be an hour-long task involving as much dragging, pushing, and shoving [shallow marshes and three beaver dams to portage] as it did paddling. But the reward was to glide onto a little slice of smallmouth heaven.

We spent a morning and part of the afternoon quietly paddling the lakeshore, casting flies and baits into shoreline cover. And the smallmouth — feisty, strong, acrobatic — did all that they could to reinforce their reputation as a premier freshwater gamefish. We never even bemoaned the fact that we forgot to pack lunch.

And it was not just a matter of catching fish, though about 35 smallmouth from two to six pounds [yes, six pounds], caught and released, is a heck of a good day's fishing by any measure. It was about the total package:

An isolated lake all your own for the day. No other boats, or fishermen. No motors, nothing artificial. Deep, serene quiet. The occasional calls of ravens and crows, both so talented of tongue. The swoop of a bald eagle on seven-foot wings, virtually overhead. The cooing of mourning doves, unseen in the shoreline wood. It was indeed a slice of smallmouth heaven. The fish god had smiled.

Joe had prefaced the day by saying that “Lake Sisu” likely would be a 100-fish-or-nothing lake. In this angler's math, 35 equals 100.

Contact Steve Pollick at:

or 419-724-6068.

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