I knew that I was in trouble the minute we rolled into our 4th of July vacation destination. My wife’s Aunt has been lobbying us to visit her cabin in Mercer, Wisconsin for a number of years. I’m not sure why we haven’t take her up on the offer sooner? There is no arm twisting necessary for me when it comes to cabin life. This summer would prove to be different. Thankfully the fishing gods smiled upon me and a trip materialized out of thin air. As the holiday grew near we eagerly prepped and plotted our course for the remote shores of Echo Lake. Prior to departure I had done a healthy amount of research into Echo Lake, Iron County and the adjacent waters of the UP of Michigan. My interwebs search for Echo yielded some lackluster reviews but informed me of its population of Muskie and Smallmouth Bass. Much to my chagrin there was little in the way of productive trout water in the immediate Mercer area. I didn’t let the facts get in the way of the anticipation of unexplored water. A little “Lewis and Clark” was just what the doctor ordered since the extraordinary summer heat was beginning to fry the synapses, and this would be my first visit to this slice of Northwoods heaven.
Is there any finer confection than Apple Pie and Ice Cream? I suppose I’ve raved about plain cake donuts in previous entries, but Apple Pie a la Mode really is the cat’s ass. Sure this is a thinly veiled nod to the Americana of the 4th of July holiday, but it’s also no joke. I’m a sucker for the cool, creamy, flakiness of this delight. I can suck it down like a nuclear powered Dyson vacuum. Too bad Apple Pie is something reserved for special occasions. As much as I’d like to have it for a mid-afternoon snack, it just isn’t readily available. Ice Cream on the other hand is a daily tussle. As the parent of a tandem of whipper snappers we go through ice cream like oxygen. It’s not just that I’m incredibly weak in the “no” department, I’m also a recovering addict. The two treats are equally great on their own merits, but when they “make sweet love” it’s definitely something to behold.
As we slowly wandered our way around the prototypical lake road surrounding Echo I was transfixed with the makeshift wayfinding signage that is a staple of cabin culture. Out of the deep forest appeared Aunt Darlene waving us towards her lair. As I intently commanded my vehicle and watercraft down the last 100 yards of narrow road I was immediately struck by the beer colored ribbon that emerged from my port side. Holy shit. A killer piece of tannic fly water careened towards the cabin upon arrival. We got of the car and said our hellos. The kids immediately ran down to the dock to take a look the lake, which also exuded the tell tale tannins that helped reinforce our “up north” locale. After a brief tour of the digs the “business in the front/party in the back” nature of this property fully dawned on me. Out the back door was the Turtle River. Fifteen paces from the cabin kitchen was a deep, rock-lined pool followed by a corner bend that appeared to rip downstream into what I could only imagine was a Smallmouth freestone frenzy. Out the front door was the dock to Echo Lake where Esox masquinongy would be the order of the day. And thus the Apple pie vs. Ice Cream conundrum was born. Two temptations, one existence, what’s a man to do?
I opted to start my first early morning outing with a healthy dose of Apple Pie (the Turtle River). After much consternation I came to the conclusion that prime Smallie water was more of a special occasion than chasing Muskies in the boat. As I’ve mentioned many times my home turf is Minneapolis, the “City of Lakes.” Pretty much every square inch of that water will put your bait in harms way. I no longer consider myself stricken with Muskie fever, as I’ve gotten most of it out of my system when I was in my twenties, though I still indulge from time to time.
I started the morning by flinging a clouser to every fishy looking lie I could find and it didn’t take me long to connect. This little jewel was putting out pint-sized bronzebacks in droves. It wasn’t exactly the Gallatin Canyon but it fished like a miniature version, dropping quickly from Echo Lake down to Rice Lake. A welcome change of pace from the Driftless streams back home. Wet wading has been the soup du jour. Our record run of days above 90 degrees has me shedding the waders like hard crusty exoskeleton.
There is a part of me really enjoyed not knowing much about these fisheries. Technology and experience typically tunes us into the results portion of the endeavor before we even wet a line. There was virtually no fishing information readily available via Google. My weekend of fishing this small portion of the Turtle revealed two things. It was absolutely thick with Smallies, and not surprisingly, the big ones were hard to find. I don’t really get into the numbers game in fishing. While most anglers obsess over the exact number or size of the fish they catch, I often leave with a general impression. My estimate is that I landed in the neighborhood of forty fish in the first few hours of fishing, which I consider a good day on the water. I periodically took a stroll down to a spot that the locals call “the Falls” to see if anyone was home. Upon arrival at the Falls on the second morning I witnessed what appeared to be trout hatch like behavior. A closer inspection revealed a pretty strong mixed hatch of skittering caddis and tricos. A few Smallies responded by positioning themselves in prime position to slurp the bugs off the surface without much regularity. One specimen immediately drew my attention as it would porpoise out of the water to reveal its size. It was much larger then anything I had been catching on Clousers and Sloppy Joes. I tied on a dry to see if I could elicit a strike which immediately sent the big fish back to the depths. I picked up a few smaller fish, but it was little consolation. On the last morning I began to depart the stream when I heard what sounded like a small animal jumping into the river. I walked back and reviewed the area which was comprised of thick overhanging stream side cover. I stood and watched for a few minutes and sure enough another big Smallie, which I can only deduce was the same fish, had found a perfect sheltered lie to feed on the helpless bugs as they got sucked into his vortex. I successfully placed a streamer deep into the cover using my unorthodox “bass flippin” technique, only to be disappointed again. The one the got away was in full effect.
On day two we took a run up to Lake Superior and the Montreal River. I had marked up the Gazetter with a few spots on the Montreal that appeared to be good Brook Trout water. Unfortunately for me, this was more of a family sightseeing excursion than a fishing trip. I was forced to keep my “trout brain” in check, as we ran further downstream to the warmwater section at Superior Falls. I brought a few fly rods and a spinning rod with me. I spent some time bombing a Panther Martin spinner across the vast expense at the bottom of the Falls with little hope of connecting. I’m sure if it was Spring or Fall there might be some eager participants, but there were no takers on this steamy July afternoon. I was struck with how amazing the Superior coastline is at Little Girl Point in the UP of Michigan. After a dip in the unusually balmy waters of Lake Superior, my wife and I were drooling over an old Jeep Grand Wagoneer parked at Saxon Harbor beach. For some reason this gas guzzling behemoth has always been a favorite of ours. I suggested we make a swap for our family truckster, but it never came to fruition.
On the Ice Cream side of the equation things proceeded at a slower pace. My level of encouragement with Echo Lake didn’t hit a feverish pitch when Aunt Darlene suggested that I take my boat down the road to the famed Turtle Flambeau Flowage. I dismissed her suggestion with the typical ego of a crusty old veteran. I was committed to fish Echo despite it’s lackluster reputation. With many years of Muskie madness under my belt my perception was a bit skewed . If anyone can find fish certainly I can, I told myself. Our neighbor to the north was a young woman named Beth who runs a Driftless trout shocking crew for the Wisconsin DNR. She spent more time fishing the river and lake than I did last week, and gave me her lukewarm synopsis of the watershed, with a lifetime of local knowledge to back it up. I made a run into Mercer to pick up some additional crawlers, as the dock panfishing was on fire with youngsters. The fine folks at Flambeau Flowage Sports added insult to injury as they also gave the lake less than stellar reviews.
I set out bright and early one morning to prove the naysayers wrong. My depthfinder was reading 83 degree water temps at dawn. If the low temps of the day were 83 I could only imagine how the lake responded to the stifling afternoon heat. I didn’t let this dissuade me I often times see increased Muskie activity during low light situations during the hottest of days. The sunrise over Echo Lake was one of the finest I’ve seen since Puerto Morelos Mexico earlier this year. I was so enamored with it that I snapped over 100 frames and wasted a half hour of precious fishing time just floating and shooting. With that introduction, let’s just get to a cavalcade of sunrise shots.
I was fairly impressed with how my Panasonic TS3 handled some of the morning light situations on this trip. The bad news is that I shot a fair amount of photos with my Canon DSLR, none of which made the cut for the blog entry. I’ll reserve those for the family scrapbook. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime has quickly become one of my favorite lenses for photos and video. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve been shooting video all season long, and I’ve compiled a pretty decent cache of action. I just haven’t been inspired to cut it into an episode of Adrift. I’d imagine episode 5 will percolate to the top in the not too distant future.
But I digress. I blanketed Echo Lake with a variety of offerings only to be rewarded with a handful of average Pike. To be honest with you I’ve become somewhat of a Pike snob, and I didn’t even bother to photograph any of them. This is a bad habit I’ve had a hard time shedding from the pre-blog days. It’s not very compelling when you don’t have images to support your story. But when you are looking for Muskies and rewarded with uninspiring Pike, you just land the fish and go about your business. The entire trip I only saw one Muskie and it wasn’t following my bait. One evening before some storms rolled through I saw what appeared to be a 14-16″ walleye float to the surface as if it was on it’s last leg. I repeatedly cast my big streamer to his general vicinity for the better part of 15 minutes. It was a scene right out of Jaws with the signature dorsal and tail appearing next to the hapless victim. A brief thrash on the surface then both disappeared into the abyss. That was the high point of what Echo Lake had to offer. Hopefully on my next visit I can make a better showing.
My obsessive routine of having my gear ready to go for an early morning departure hit a snag on Saturday. I blanked the portion of remembering my waterproof iphone case. For some unexplainable reason I decided to wear one of my pairs of leaky waders instead of wet wading. My phone spent the remainder of trip in a jar of rice (my feeble attempt to dry it out). I have a long and illustrious career killing electronics devices via water torture and this is just the latest chapter. The funny thing is that I didn’t even need to be carrying it with me as I had no plans of using it. You live and learn I guess. As I write this I’m a proud and somewhat reluctant owner of a new iphone 4s and MacBook Pro. Thanks Steve!
As my wife dozed off an hour into our return trip to the Twin Cities she was awoken by a faint thud sound. A fresh case of coon roadkill had entangled itself in the underside of my boat trailer. We continued on for some time until the lunch bell sounded. As I walked to the back of my boat I noticed a distinct foul odor emanating from the undercarriage. I leaned down to discover a tough, leathery length of interstate intestines had woven it’s nastiness to my craft. The sight and smell put a serious dent in my appetite. We reappeared to civilization and gastrological setbacks after days in the Northwoods. My mind was still filled with many memories and the beautiful dilemma that is Apple Pie and Ice Cream.