AKELEY, MINN. — This small northern Minnesota town lies not far from a slightly larger town, Walker, which lies hard by the shores of Leech Lake. Trees that flank the two-lane blacktop connecting these burgs include red and white pines, two types of oaks and the various aspens, spruces and maples that populate this part of the state.
But on this day, Dallas Hudson isn’t on top of, or even alongside, a paved road. Instead he’s on his daily hike on property near his rural home, a wooded loop that spans about a mile.
Hudson’s mosquito-slapping ramble is made with his eyes wide open. Showy lady’s slippers, the state flower, were blooming for the first time this summer. Elegant spreadwings, a damselfly, were making an initial appearance, while jewelwings, another damselfly, remained abundant. Additionally, high-bush cranberry was still in full bloom and three breeding pairs of monarch butterflies were spotted, along with a few that were nectaring.
“We probably have 100 species of butterflies in this area,’’ Hudson said. “Typically, the first ones we see in spring have overwintered here. Then, of course, we have the migrators, the monarchs most notable among them.”
An employee of the U.S. Geological Survey, Hudson is by avocation and lifestyle a phenologist, or one who studies the life cycles of plants and animals and how they are influenced by seasons and climate.
“This spring around here the birds came back pretty close to on schedule,” Hudson said. “Maybe some were a couple or three days late. But the blooming plants — the dandelions, hepatica and leatherwood — were all two to three weeks late.”
As temperatures warmed in April, Hudson said, and lake and river ice disappeared, returning warblers feasted on midges that arose from nearby lakes. High in a white pine not far away, and while aloft on warming thermals, a pair of eagles would have noted this food fest, and observed as well the day the lake’s loons returned, and when the osprey duo that competes for fish with the eagles began building a new nest in a dead ash tree.
Hudson carries a camera, a pair of binoculars and a voice recorder on his observational treks. Dictating into the recorder, on this day he noted the presence of 19 different butterfly species, among them Canadian tiger swallowtails. A surfeit of whitetailed fawns also seems present this year, by his observations, and bears are plentiful as well.
An angler, and a studious one, Hudson is aware, too, that Hexagenia limbata, the giant mayfly that can signal a feeding frenzy among brown trout on the nearby Straight River, is just now making its appearance. On the fisheries front, he also knows that crappies, having spawned, are setting up their summer patterns.
“The more you study nature, the more you realize everything is connected,” Hudson said. “It’s a web of life that supports us, and if you start breaking strands of that web, it’s going to collapse.”
Pausing a long moment, he then added, “And we’ve been breaking a lot of strands lately.”
His daily phenology foray complete, Hudson clambered into the stern of his small aluminum fishing boat. In his right hand, and mine, were ultralight rods and reels, and soon we were casting toward the edge of a weed line in 10 feet of water.
To ensure a fair fight, neither of us had live bait on our 1/16-ounce jigs. Instead, we impaled plastic Puddle Jumpers onto the jigs, hoping crappies would whack the lures with an early summer vengeance.
“We could fish them with bobbers,” I said. “It’s a tried and true method.”
“Let’s try it this way,” Hudson said.
Overcast and breezy, the evening was nonetheless warm. We didn’t fire up the vintage Johnson outboard that swung from the boat’s transom. Instead Hudson manned the oars to counter the wind’s attempt to push us too close to shore.
“That’s a dandy,” I said when I boated a 14-incher.
Not far from our boat, a single loon issued a haunting tremolo. Out of sight, its mate had hatched two young. Time will tell if one or both make it.
So it went, Hudson and I casting and allowing our lines to snug up as the Puddle Jumpers drifted toward bottom, their forked tails portraying wounded baitfish. Or whatever.
If our lines went slack, the bait had reached bottom — or a crappie had inhaled it.
The latter was preferred.