Summer arrived one day last week when river levels dropped and the sun rose against a clear sky. This wasn’t summer by the calendar, a meaningless demarcation. But summer measured by a cool morning yielding to a warming midday with scant winds rippling the surface of the St. Croix.
A television show popular a while back offered stumped competitors the opportunity to “phone a friend” for advice and counsel. I had done this the day before, calling Bob Nasby of St. Paul to ask whether he was doing anything the next day more important than fishing.
Before I could say, “We could throw a few lines and maybe pick up a smallmouth or two,” Bob offered that he had nothing on his calendar more important than fishing, and that he would meet me in the morning, riverside.
“I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do,” I said.
“Right,” Bob said.
Puttering, then, the following sunup, into the St. Croix’s current, fly rods at the ready, we surely motored atop ageless red and white pines that clutter the river bottom.
From the late 1830s until the early part of the last century, most pines standing within a mile or so of the St. Croix were felled and stacked on the riverbank, waiting for spring floods to float them downstream to sawmills.
To accomplish this, horses strained against their traces and manpower was ginned up by taskmaster bosses.
Higher than normal on its banks in mid-July, the St. Croix in that respect resembles the Mississippi, the Minnesota and the Rum. Yet fishing on these rivers has been pretty good this early summer, and Bob and I expected no less.
“Did I ever tell you about the day I quit guiding forever?”
Bob was speaking from his boat’s stern, where he powered up an electric trolling motor while watching me loop 10 feet or so of line into the air before sending a yellow popper toward the flooded timber that lined the shore.
My casts didn’t recall the handiwork of Jason Borger “shadow casting” as a stand-in for Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It.” But neither were they chopped liver, or so I convinced myself.
“I think you did tell me that story,” I said. “You got stuck with a client who couldn’t cast, right?”
“He said he could cast. But he couldn’t cast, and finally I took his rod from him, made a cast and caught a bass. Which is when he said, ‘Are you trying to intimidate me?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m trying to instruct you.’ Anyway, that was it for me, the last straw. I was out of guiding.”
Ever higher now, the sun arched over the tree-lined Wisconsin side of the St. Croix, erasing its shadows. Downriver from Stillwater and downriver also from the new bridge that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin, we saw a few other boats trolling hither and yon, their anglers outfitted with rods and reels but their routings circuitous, suggesting that, strategy-wise, they were throwing darts.
“You might want to smooth out that double-haul,” Bob advised, watching me cast.
“I’ll get right on it,” I said.
Having made a living for many years as a casting instructor, Bob doesn’t truck fly-angling incompetence easily. He had rigged the rod I was casting with a 9-weight single-handed spey line, new recently from Scientific Anglers by way of Orvis, which now owns the former 3M brand.
Like a dream is how the line cast. I stretched some long tosses toward shore attempting to find a taker.
“Smooth out that double-haul,” Bob said.
“Again, sound advice,” I said.
About this time, the first smallmouth bass of the day arose from its dark lair, intrigued by the sight and sound of my popper skittering across the river surface.
Its mouth agape, the smallie nonetheless missed my popper. Or, while attempting to set the hook, I pulled the lure away too soon.
“I’ll get the next one,” I said.
Upon us now, with eagles aloft and cormorants perched hauntingly on tree limbs, the morning’s full blush enveloped Bob and me. As it did, we cast again and again, the day’s rhythm and ours in sync.
Having fished together beginning some 30 years ago off Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, casting flies at night into Lake Michigan for brown trout, and in the years since trying to fool steelhead at the mouth of the Cross River on the North Shore, and tarpon off Key West, among other waters near and far, Bob and I these days have a pretty good idea who to call when a fishing fix is needed.
“There he is,” I said.
This time when my popper fooled a smallmouth bass, and I set the hook, I felt the fish’s weight against my line.
Airborne once, and again and again, the fish soon was boatside, and then in hand.
Summer had arrived.