ON THE ST. CROIX RIVER – Izaak Walton said a few centuries back that fishing is “so pleasant a pastime it is akin to virtue — a reward unto itself.’’ Hemingway, also a fisherman, and somewhat more of a rascal than Walton, with a taste for women, dry martinis and Havana’s sea-salt air, might have instead likened fishing’s many pleasures, and rewards, to vice, not virtue. Either way, the sport comes highly recommended.
Early Thursday morning on the stretch of the St. Croix extending from Stillwater to Prescott, Wis., that recommendation was made anew. In large boats moored along this river way, or swinging from anchors, people surely awoke to the sunny morning and were happy enough to bask in it, perhaps also with a cup of coffee and the gentle rocking of their boats. But the St. Croix’s early fishermen wanted more, among them Bob Nasby and Dale Wiehe, both of whom not long after sunup strung long fly rods and aired out lines that carried, variously, surface poppers and streamers. The target: smallmouth bass.
A longtime St. Croix guide who is now in recovery from that occupation, Bob these days teaches fly casters how to do what he was doing on this morning from his fine boat: hauling, back-casting and double-hauling, then forming tight loops of line that carried his fly toward likely looking smallie haunts.
Yet, artful casts or not, as Bob says, “You can’t make ’em bite.’’
Which of course is the frustration of guides worldwide.
“I’d get so nervous when I was guiding and the fish didn’t bite that I ended up in the hospital twice,’’ he said. “Hearing people whine on a boat gives me panic attacks.’’
Casting from the bow, Dale seemed no threat in this respect, and in fact appeared preternaturally upbeat, at least so long as he was tossing flies. A chemical engineer who works for 3M, in the past decade he has been variously involved with that company’s Scientific Anglers division — only recently sold to Orvis — and knows well the machinations of fly line technology.
Quite comfortable with words like “extruded,’’ Dale, I figured, could mop up on “Jeopardy.”
By way of fishing action, we weren’t asking for much. The Lower St. Croix is a smallie haven, or can be, day by day, and metro anglers who fail to take advantage of this real-life watercolor are deficient not only in their consideration of nearby fisheries, but in their appreciation of nature’s aesthetic, the latter critical to angling enjoyment. “You can’t beat a morning like this,’’ Dale said, soaking it all in.
And you couldn’t. Rising ever higher in the eastern sky, the warm sun soon beat back to the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix the night’s dark shadows. As it did, from black to green, the steep bluffs that bracket the river revealed their forests of trees. Immersed in this drama, the temptation is to make more of it than it is. But it was a wonderful morning on the water, a description that can’t be embellished. As Hemingway said, there’s no symbolism to decipher. “The sea is the sea. The boy is the boy. The old man is an old man. The fish is a fish.’’
An hour or so elapsed, and finally a volunteer smallie whacked Dale’s fly, pulling his extended rod into a broad arch that suggested a gateway to the future, and the past. Thirty years ago almost exactly, Bob and I were in the Marquises Islands off Key West, fishing tarpon. The water was flat, the hot sun had beat on us all day and we wanted to bring a fish to the skiff. But we hadn’t hooked up, and soon the Gulf would swallow our daylight. More than anything we wanted to begin the long run back to Key West, and find our way to the balcony of Bagatelle, the restaurant overlooking Duval Street, for refurbishment.
Instead we took one more drift, finding as we did a dozen or so daisy-chaining tarpon, one of which ate Bob’s fly. And he brought it to the boat, all 125 pounds of it.
Now on Thursday by midmorning the St. Croix was coming alive incrementally. Blue herons lifted from the shallows. Drake mallards sought their own company, away from hens’ nests. And the odd cabin cruiser chugged upriver or down, going nowhere and everywhere.
Soon, another bass took Dale’s fly. But by then we had been reminded again that, as the country song says, some days, the fish don’t bite. This was one of those days, and it couldn’t have been better.