NEAR WALKER, MINN. – Dallas Hudson takes things as they come. This includes the bald eagles that perch in white pines high over his northern Minnesota home, also the black bears that target his bird feeders and the deer that munch quietly along the gravel road that borders his favorite fishing lake.
As a kid growing up near Akeley, not far from Walker, Dallas hunted, trapped and fished. A curious sort, he kept an eye peeled during these escapades. Butterflies piqued his interest, their many varieties, not just monarchs but anglewings and mourning cloaks, among many others, also the flowering times of various plants and the arrivals and departures of birds, from juncos to lesser scaup to snow buntings.
Waiting the other evening in his small boat at the end of his dock, Dallas waved an arm. Or more precisely lifted it in greeting. In his ball cap and short-sleeved shirt, with a vintage Evinrude swinging from a vintage Lund, he could have been any guy in this part of Minnesota on this flawless summer night.
But Dallas is not any guy. A phenologist by vocation and avocation, he’s encyclopedic in his knowledge of the world around him.
“They’ve been biting,” he said.
“Crappies,” Dallas said. “Some bluegills too. But not every evening.”
A low-tech angler who on many summer outings eschews even bait, Dallas was outfitted with a couple of spinning rods, a small tackle pack, a plastic tray filled with Twister-Tail style baits and a 5-gallon bucket.
Rather than yanking on the flywheel of the Evinrude, Dallas went for the oars, and we cast off.
Not many people row boats anymore. But Dallas leaned into the chore without hesitation, propelling the Lund’s riveted bow forward.
The lake, which sees limited angling pressure, was mirror-flat, and a loon’s melancholy tremolo echoed from the far shore.
For a few years now, Dallas has called me in June or July to report that fish were biting. Sometimes he meant bluegills that could be taken on a fly rod. Other times he meant crappies.
This summer I heeded the call.
Pulling on the oars a dozen times, before allowing the boat to drift to a stop, Dallas airmailed a tiny jig toward vegetation that buffered the lakeshore.
Turning his reel handle a few times to gather line slack, he then tightened it against the pull of a bottom-diving fish.
This was a crappie, maybe 10 inches, dandy but not a keeper, and as quickly as the fish was boated, it was released.
My turn, I figured, and I tossed a jig of my own.
Along shore, bulrush sprouted in a couple feet of water, fronted by lily pads. Dimpling the water’s surface, my jig dropped just outside this vegetative barrier.
“You don’t tip the jigs with worms?” I asked.
“Too much hassle,” Dallas said. “No need.”
I missed a crappie on this first cast, yielding to Dallas — who by then had landed three fish — an insurmountable start.
But with my second throw I hooked an 11-incher.
The trick, I learned, was to allow the jig to sink a brief moment before retrieving slowly.
The evening was peerless, with fleecy white clouds paint-brushed against a summer-blue sky.
“What’s been going on around here?” I asked.
“We have plenty of eagles, and too many loons, I sometimes think,” Dallas said. “It seems the more loons we have on the lake, the fewer young they produce.
“And I’m seeing signs of the changing season. I call this time of year the beginning of the end of summer. Chokecherries are starting to turn, and baneberry, and blazing star is blooming, which provides the nectar for southbound monarchs.”
We caught crappies hand over fist. And occasionally a bluegill.
But targeting bluegills would have required a different approach, and perhaps a different location on the lake.
The night unfolded, and I learned from Dallas that jewelweed, woodland sunflowers and asters are blooming, signaling the onset of fall, and that common wood nymphs — butterflies — were plentiful just now near his home.
Dallas logs each species he observes, flora or fauna, and his many years of collected data are telltale of seasons coming, and passing.
“On my last two afternoon walks, I counted 24 species of butterflies,” he said. “I’m seeing high numbers of anglewings, which will over-winter as adults, also gray and eastern commas, compton tortoiseshells and mourning cloaks. In the evenings, I’m also seeing fall meadowhawks and darner swarms.”
Whether we caught 70 crappies or 80, or more, I’m unsure.
We kept a few, plopping them into the bottom of the 5-gallon bucket.
When we tied up to the dock, long shadows blanketed the lake.
Perhaps, I thought, this is the beginning of the end of summer.
If so, fare thee well.
I’d take it.