Cold Day on the Water

The skies were dark, nearly angry, as a cold wave blew in from the north west. Layers of purple clouds gave the sky an unusual feeling of depth. The lake was also maddened by the gusty 20 mile per hour winds. White caps adorned the straits where the lake is at its widest.

So, on this day, May 13th, my son, Liam, and I braved the waters on our first day of fishing on the Fishound of the year. The Fishound ia an older water craft, but seaworthy nonetheless. It has served us well over the last six years since we took our turn behind her old helm. On this day we sought small mouth bass, a fish that if caught, must be released in this early part of the season. As the rules require, we were prepared to angle only with artificial tackle; drop shot rigs, wacky worm rigs, jigs adorned with imitation critters made out of rubber and plastics, and crank baits.

After launching the Fishound off of the trailer attached to our truck the outboard motors started easily. The watercraft is equipped with a 40 horsepower Mercury and a 9.9 horsepower Johnson, the latter principally used for trolling and navigating in rocky areas because the propeller is not as deep in the water. We motored north on this wild lake. No other fisherman or boaters chose to wrangle with these waves today. The starting air temperature was in the mid-thirty degree (Fahrenheit) range, a bit cool for this time of year. The weather forecast predicted a cold windy day. A one day event that was apparently a special delivery from northwest Canada.

Life imitating art!

It was cold enough that Liam wore our “Elmer Fudd” visor cap, complete with red plaid ear flaps. We were dressed in four or five layers to combat the wind and chill; an unusual wardrobe for fishing in mid-May. As we proceeded slowly, an effort that was meant to prevent waves from splashing over the gunwhales of the boat, we saw scores of tree swallows acrobatically flying just above the rough water on the lake. The swallows swooped and dove. The flew utilizing tight turns and spins just over the surface of the lake. There were dozens of these avian athletes. All, apparently, taking advantage of a May fly hatch where benthic invertebrate insects shed their exoskeleton, rose to the surface of the water, and unfolded their wings when they turned from submarine into airplane for the final stage of their short lives. These amazing creatures, part of the group Ephemeroptera. Have long attracted my attention. As a long time angler I was acutely aware of these beautiful insects long before I became a person of science. As a young angler I attempted to tie flies to mimic their shape and size. I floated many of these replicas while learning to fly fish, an angling technique that I never mastered. When mayflies hatch they do so by the thousands. These swallows were taking full advantage of this phenomenon. It is perhaps a smorgasbord for the birds; an all you can eat affair. The Fishound passed through the cloud of birds and emerged on the other side with no bird droppings, a positive sign for the day to come.

Our first stop, some five miles up the lake, was on the east side of a rocky island. We cast different styles of artificial baits for some time yielding absolutely no results. The fish finder on boat indicated that there were plenty of fish around. I suspected most were yellow perch by their size and habits displayed on the viewing screen. Live bait would have been deadly here but we did not bring any on this day. From there we fished our way down the east side of the island, casting into rocky and gravelly shoals where we hoped some bass would be building nests for the upcoming spawning season. Our brightly colored artificial bait and camouflaged plastics brought no results. We changed tempos, presentations, techniques, and gear. There simply was no interest in what we had to offer. In response we moved further to the northeast where our style of fishing was met with equal contempt.

Not catching fish does not bother me in the least. I was surrounded by blue mountains, soon to be green as soon as it warms up, white capped steely gray water, and the song of both the wind and birds. The steady rhythm of the waves against the hill of the boat provided the perfect beat for this melody. A concert of magnitude that any nature lover would appreciate with deep gratitude. The winds remained steady. We sought shelter on the east side of peninsulas, within coves, and on the downwind side of the islands. The temperatures hovered around the 40 degree mark with winds lowering the wind chill to about 25 degrees.  Several times snow fell from the sky.  We kept casting in hopes of a strike from a hungry bass.

Liam and I chat when we are fishing. We talk about family, an upcoming fishing adventure to northern Quebec, and the old days when he was a child. Liam is one of the most kind and considerate people I’ve ever known. I’m proud to say that he is my son but recognize that many of his better traits he gets from his mother. He is cautious with his words and considerate of how others feel. My wife, Maureen, has a similar presentation. It is one of the reasons that I love her as much as I do.

We’ve noticed that we have not yet seen a bald eagle or a loon. Both of these birds are common on this wild lake and typically provide some entertainment as we fish. I suggest that both the loons and eagles are nesting. They are less likely to be seen during this most important of all seasons. I think to myself how fortunate we were to have two boys. Both are healthy, intelligent, and full of life. We’ve done good and we both rearing our children has been one of the best experiences that one could ever have. There is nothing quite like parenting. Love at first sight, the immediate and visceral will to protect, and the challenge of meeting their needs. Every moment is to be treasured. It is a temporary set of circumstances in life that passes with the blink of an eye. Most of us wish that it could last forever.

In one cove we find a brook that feeds the lake. We switch gear in hopes of attracting brook trout. These wild members of the char family are common in this lake. Areas where streams enter lakes have a high concentration of saturated oxygen. Fish enjoy these areas as do their prey. As we cast our lines adorned with trout spinners my mind drifts off into some sort of other angling dimension. My mood is supported by this wild environment. And my appreciation for all things wild and the miracles that are found in the natural world is enhanced.

While thinking about how to fish the highly oxygenated waters I drift into thoughts about the breathing mechanisms of fish. Fish have many similarities to other more complicated animals. They have a simple brain, they have a heart to pump blood, they have a stomach and intestines to process food, and they are adorned with many other organs to help them navigate life. They do not have lungs. Instead they are equipped with gills, a mechanism that extracts oxygen from water. One of our planets greatest miracles!

In order to respirate fish must extract oxygen from water. This is far more complicated than extracting oxygen from air. They have a specially adapted organ that are called gills. Some fish have gills that are so efficient that they extract 80% of the oxygen out of the water that passes through their gills. Gills are comprised of rows of filaments called lamellae. The total surface area of these lamellae can be several times greater than the surface area of the entire fish. The lamellae appear as folds that are supported physically by the water being pumped through through the mouth and over the gills. Interestingly the water flows in one direction and the blood in the gills flows in the opposite direction, a process known as counter current flow. This process can extract oxygen from the air more effectively than humans can extract oxygen from the air. If water and blood were to flow in the same direction than no more than 50% of the oxygen could ever by extracted. Fluids always move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Because they flow in the opposite direction there is a higher concentration of oxygen in the water than the blood for a longer period of time. This means that instead of the oxygen reaching a stasis of about 50% concentration in the blood it can continue to take oxygen from the water to levels near 80% because the blood is always being introduced to the water with the highest concentration of oxygen. It is important to note that water flows only in one direction in fish with gills contrary to the in and out breathing of mammals and birds, a two way exchange that produces both an inhale and an exhale.

This unusual and not very ofter thought about method of respiration is yet another miracle of biological evolution. Animals and plants have evolved to live in almost every situation and element on this planet. Water is one of most abundant commodities on earth. That it is the largest potential environment on our planet virtually guaranteed that a life form would evolve to fill this large niche. And some believe that life, in the form of a few cells, perhaps an algae, was found first in an aquatic environment. From these first simple organisms all other life may have eventually evolved.

Hobblebush, along with Shadbush (not shown) are the first flowering shrubs of these northern forests.

Back to reality after a strong and frigid gust of wind I suggest to Liam that we move to another fishing ground. Thus far we have no experienced a single bite or strike. We motor slowly over to the north end of the islands where the waters are more shallow. We are thinking that perhaps warmer aquatic temperatures might help our pursuits. Another hour of angling, now almost seven hours in all, yields no fish in our net.

As we prepare to return to the gravel boat launch Liam hears a loon in the distance, Its eery, almost laughing cry, finally interrupts even the wind. We note that this one sound alone is worth the price of admission to this wild theater. Loons are considered, by some, to be the symbol of all boreal waters.

We decide to return very slowly trolling for trout on the way south as we proceed towards the boat ramp. Our speed is set at slightly over 2 mph, a speed that most trout can handle. As I look forward Liam watches the line trailing off the two fishing poles. They pull steady, the bait trailing about 100 feet off of the stern of the Fishound. About halfway back down the lake Liam taps me on the shoulder and points to the shoreline off to the east. A mature bald eagle cruises the edge of the water in search of fish. These giant birds are king of the avian world in these parts. There majesty is accepted by all. Their white crown is symbolic of their position on the food chain. Both hunters and scavengers they are efficient at their craft.

In roughly the same area the swallows are still in their deft aerial display of collecting mayflies. Amongst all of the gray colored tree swallows that adorn white breasts I see a few that have rose color breasts. These are likely cliff swallows that have joined the insect harvest. I’ve never seen the two species mix. There seemed to be known overt objection between species in their shared hunting ground. Once again we passed through the display of acrobatic birds without one bird dropping striking our boat. An unintended success that can only be accounted for by luck. As good fortune would have it we managed to have a bass strike our offerings as we passed through the mayfly convention. Our one landed and released fish of the day meant we all of our efforts were not without reward.

After reaching shore Liam backed the truck and trailer down the boat ramp and into the water as I maneuvered the boat onto the trailer. The wind blew the stern a little off of the rollers on the trailer. I switched from my dungarees to shorts and hopped over the side into the 38 degree water and straightened the boat, attached the winch, and secured the boat to the trailer. Emerging from the icy lake I looked down to see a pair of blue legs and feet. I was cold enough that I started to shiver; something that I can only remembering happening a few times in my entire life despite the fact that I live and work outdoors in a cold climate.

As we headed for home on the dusty dirt road I looked at a mountain to the west. Dark clouds were breaking allowing shafts of yellow sunlight to shine down on this beautiful wilderness.

A fitting end for this day that was seemed almost like a caricature of all that is precious.

  • shoreacres

    Even though I don’t fish, I’ve picked up the habit of listening to a local radio outdoor show that airs Thursday-Sunday, from 4-7 a.m. The past two weeks, I’ve listened to guides and fishermen from up and down the Texas coast pondering the lack of good action. Here, water temperature, salinity, tidal movement and sheer fish-cussedness can lead to day after day with no bite. But like you, nearly all enjoy just being on the water. The exception, of course, are the guides, who want to provide their paying guests at least a fish dinner at the end!

    You’re right about the pleasures that come along even if the fish don’t – fishing is like porch sitting, in the sense that it provides an easy opportunity for converation (or not) and just looking around. Your mention of the eagle reminds me that I saw an article today about a pair that was fighting and got their talons entangled. They couldn’t separate and landed in a parking lot. Eventually they were separated by some folks who stopped to help. One flew away, while the other seemed perfectly happy to go to the rehab center for a little R&R.

    I used to fish with my dad, too. We’d go down to the Raccoon or Skunk River (Iowa) and I’d fish for sunfish with a bamboo pole and one of those little red and white bobbers.
    After reading this, I’m about ready to get a safety pin, a string and a popping cork and go give it another try. ;)

  • Montucky

    Catching fish is not a measurement of the success of a day of fishing. There is so much more…

    Your story reminded me that trout season here opens this coming weekend. It always coincides with the time when our streams are at the peak of snow runoff and so muddy the fish have to feed by touch. But the moose will be in the sloughs and the wildflowers will be blooming in the grassy meadows by the streams.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yep, one of the many great things about fishing is just being in the midst of all that is beautiful, all that is precious, all that is most important!

  • Wild_Bill

    My first real fishing pole was a bamboo rod given to me by my Grandfather Lattrell. It came without hooks so I, too, used a safety pin. I learned to catch brook trout with this rig, a feat that I now can appreciate, having no barb on the hook requires skill and persistence.

    Oh, and sitting on the porch watching the world go by, particularly in a rural atmosphere, its without equal.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Emily B

    Accounts like these are going to no doubt be precious to both you and your son throughout your lives. Sounds like a day full of mystery and wonder…especially that loon. They always remind me of summer. Here’s to more days on the lake!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily. I strive to continue to make memories, both for myself and those that I’m close to. Yes, loons are a certain sign of summer in the northwoods. Such a glorious bird, and the fact that they are reclusive adds to their mystery. Tough to photograph well, that’s for sure.

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