Rain didn’t fall Tuesday, and that was the news. Or part of it. But the wind blew, even early, and Bob Nasby and I thought we might miss the worst of it if we were on the water not long after sunup, the water being the St. Croix.
We were after smallmouth bass, using fly rods, and when Bob arrived at the dock, he carried with him a pair of 9-foot sticks, brandishing them comfortably, like six-guns in the Old West. Bob is a born fisherman. And while for decades he has chased fish of all sizes and stripes only with flies and fly rods, he is no stranger to jigging for walleyes or popping panfish on a spring day with bobbers and bait. In bygone times these were his bread and butter, and he ate heartily.
Easing the throttle ahead, I brought the boat on plane and pointed the bow downriver. A month ago or so, the St. Croix, like the Mississippi, was a little plaything, its water low and riverbanks exposed. This was the face of the coming drought, or so everyone thought, and even anglers in small johnboats got hung up while plying the river’s backwaters.
Not so Tuesday. By then, high water congealed and swirled along the St. Croix’s riverbanks as it eddied and churned past Stillwater, on to Hudson, beneath the I-94 Bridge and from there into the never-never land of Lake St. Croix, and, ultimately, the river’s meeting with the Mississippi at Prescott, Wis. In the high water, Bob and I knew we could catch fish. But the wind was another matter, blowing variously as it did from the south. A bad wind, this, a south wind, if you are casting flies on the St. Croix, because there are few places to hide from it.
Piloting us beneath the railroad swing bridge at Hudson, and beyond, I idled the boat toward a rocky shoreline, where we began casting.
Bob threw a popper, hoping for a surface strike, while I cast a fly that when retrieved ran a foot or so beneath the water’s top.
“Remember, Bob, if we don’t catch fish,” I said, “it’s OK.”
Years ago, before Bob became a fly-casting instructor, he earned a living guiding on the St. Croix, a vocation that landed him in the hospital a couple of times, sucking air like a cribbing horse. The fishing had been slow, and his clients were only marginally competent with fly rods.
“The first time it happened, we were three hours into a trip, we didn’t have a fish and I told the guy that was it, I had to go,” Bob said. “At the hospital, they thought I was dying. Finally, a doctor asked me, ‘What brought this on?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t catch fish.’ ‘Oh boy,’ the doctor said, and walked out of the room.’ ”
Time passed. The wind blew. Bob took a smallie on the popper, not a large specimen but feisty nonetheless, its bronze back and thick tail illustrative of its lineage. Bob released the fish just as a great blue heron lifted gracefully into the morning light, an action no less supple than the to-and-fro movement of a fly rod and line, properly executed. Sometimes referred to as the “mechanics” of this exercise, they are, more so, its artistry, and Tuesday morning with rod in hand Bob painted in broad colorful strokes against a backdrop of blue sky, green trees and flowing water.
Years ago, in the Marquesas Islands off Key West, Bob, Dick Hanousek of St. Paul and I were fishing tarpon. The day was getting long, Bob didn’t yet have a fish, and a bone-jarring skiff ride awaited us en route back to Garrison Bight. After that, dinner would be at Bagatelle, on the veranda upstairs, overlooking Duval Street.
These were good times, and Bob and I were with Bobby Montgomery, the late, great, Keys guide, and Bobby said, “Let’s take one more pass through this thing,” waving as he spoke toward an open-centered atoll of mangroves that held tarpon, but none we had fooled.
Bobby positioned us upwind, cut his motor, and climbed atop his poling platform. Soon afterward, we spotted a pod of daisy-chaining fish, and Bob got a big one to follow his fly, and to eat. A half-dozen jumps later and the tarpon was boatside, measured up at 125 pounds.
Before Bob released the fish, he jumped into the shallow, aquamarine water, turtle grass undulating at his feet, intent less so to pose for the obligatory photograph than to grasp first-hand the mystery of every living thing; not least, all water and all fish.
Bob and I looped and unfurled long lines Tuesday morning. Rain didn’t fall, and that was the news. Or part of it.
The rest was the wind, which blew from the south. Also, fish were caught, and no one panicked.