Snowy as this month has been, and chilly, Minnesota’s early days were even less of a picnic. Winters were colder, food scarcer and shelters flimsier.
Seeking an antidote to these discomforts, one that both tranquilized and energized, Native Americans settled along lakes and rivers. Not for nothing did Sleepy Eye, the Dakota chief, insist that 10 miles along both sides of the Minnesota River be reserved for his people when in 1851 he signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, ceding most of southern Minnesota to the federal government for 7½ cents an acre.
Water still sustains today, and calms, so much so that here, in Minnesota, with our plentiful rivers and lakes so easily accessed, it’s a wonder the state’s shrinks have any patients at all.
Certainly, no anglers are among them. Their remedy of choice for whatever ails them is a long stretch of monofilament draped over a boat gunnel, a jig at its end; braided line cast from a dock, a bobber telltale of its location; or a fly tethered to a whisper-thin tippet, looped from midstream. “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling,’’ Izaak Walton wrote in 1653, and he had it about right.
In Minnesota, even when fishing is hard, it’s easy to take, as I was reminded the other day while recalling with a friend some of this year’s attempts at fooling various finned species, most of which possess brains 1/15th the mass of similarly sized mammals.
In February, Stu McEntyre and I found the going tough soon after guiding our dog teams onto frozen Moose Lake, headed for Basswood Lake, which straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Stu is a friend from years ago, when I lived in Ely, and each winter we try to make a Boundary Waters trip to fish for lake trout or northerns through a foot or two of ice. On our chosen day this year, snow swirled horizontally, thrust southward from the Canadian barrens by an arctic squall, and the dogs, their tongues hanging, strained at times to break trail.
Stu’s daughter, Shelby, was along, and when we arrived on Basswood, she settled the dogs while Stu and I hand-augered through a couple of feet of ice. Setting our tip-ups over 12 feet of water, we then built a fire on shore and huddled near it, waiting for a flag to signal a strike, while waiting also for whatever was going to happen, to happen.
A few months later, in May, ice was well gone from Upper Red Lake when a small bunch of us descended on it for the opening weekend of fishing. In an hour, Upper Red can transform a finger-fumbling greenhorn into a walleye-catching machine, and in our collective mind’s eye we had fillets frying for dinner even before we baited up.
In a cakewalk on the season’s first day, John Weyrauch, his wife, Jodi, my wife, Jan, and I limited out. After contributing those fish to a group feast Saturday night, we cleaned house on Sunday, too, a half-morning of fishing ending with a veritable school of green-and-gold slabs sloshing about in our live well.
A week or two later, Jan was also along when I pulled a canoe behind a small motorboat up the same Moose Lake that Stu McEntyre and I had crossed with sled dogs.
Angling toward Prairie Portage, which connects the Moose-Newfound-Sucker chain of lakes to Basswood, we cached the boat at a portage into Ensign Lake, a 1,500-acre watery jewel on which I expected we would fill out on walleyes, northerns and smallmouth bass.
Overcast and spitting rain, the day on Ensign unfolded without a single walleye hooked. Fishing can be like that, forever surprising, and often ending with an empty stringer. Yet catching fish like there’s no tomorrow and getting blanked at times can yield the same benefits. Each promotes thinking, and tinkering, and more thinking, all of which help keep a person sharp, and inquisitive.
On the North Shore last spring, the Baptism River spilled high and dirty into Lake Superior when Dave Zentner of Duluth and I parked his truck overlooking the foamy waterway.
Seeking steelhead, our yarn flies, we guessed, brightly colored as they were, might be unseen in the stained water by the migratory rainbows we sought. Still, we strung 9-foot fly rods and in a cold rain hiked down to the river and began casting.
On site with us were a half-dozen gulls that circled above the craggy bluffs that bordered the river, and when Dave’s rod curved nearly parabolic with the weight of a good buck steelhead, they circled ever lower.
We caught a second fish, too, before returning to Dave’s truck and driving to Duluth, talking as we went, about fishing and not about fishing.
“If I fished only to capture fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago,’’ the writer and fisherman Zane Grey once said.
A century and a half ago, camped along the Minnesota River, Sleepy Eye, the Dakota chief, might have agreed.