Happy holidays, folks. For those of you still sifting through the blogosphere, I’ll offer you up a little respite from the Adrift™ historical record by providing some angling action from last week.
The early morning traffic on the Milwaukee River was less than I anticipated for a holiday weekend. My Black Friday tradition is usually an elbow-to-elbow undertaking. I use my standard, early-bird preventative measure to reduce human interaction. The crisp November air on this predawn journey was filled with farmers eager to finish up the harvest, throngs of shoppers willing to risk it all for the latest material possession, and myself, a half-crazed junkie hellbent on aquatic domination. I traversed the Badger state a few days earlier and sized-up the unusually winter-like conditions in the upper Midwest. I was not optimistic about my outing, but this game of chance is well worn territory for anyone that partakes in lake run shenanigans. My worst fear became realized when I peered over the bridge on the Milwaukee and discovered the entire thing was seized up like a fresh bag of Quikrete. I pulled my camera out and snapped a few pics. As the little point-and-shoot struggled to deal with the low light conditions, I contemplated the task at hand.
The odds of connecting with a beast took a serious hit, since my most cherished runs would be out of contention. I quickly put the setback in its proper place and moved on to searching for faster water. The lower most section of the river, before the inner harbor, spits out from a series of manmade riffles that I knew would be open. It’s not my first choice of spots, but beggars can’t be choosers and I just wanted to swing one more time this season. The weather app on my iPhone gave me the ambiguous “feels like 9 degrees” phrase to start the morning, so it’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Cold weather rarely prevents me from any outdoors activity, and I’ve got enough gear to allow myself to physically handle the icy conditions. Those who fear the chill may find this hard to believe, but when you dress properly you’re not even cold. Years of ice fishing, chairlift rides and neighborhood ice rinks have helped me see the light. There are, however, limits to what you can accomplish with a fly rod in your hand. Picking ice out of your guides was just the beginning. My leader was icing up like a freezee pop, not to mention the flies that looked like snow cones. I spent an hour or so mining the run for transients, but saw no signs of life. In fairly short order I came to the conclusion that I needed to punt.
I felt like a scuba diver in search of oxygen, only my most precious commodity was open water. The obvious choice was to head for the lakefront. I am by no means a harbor rat, but I’ve fished a number of spots over the years. Upon closer inspection several of the usual suspects were locked up tight. I was ill equipped to deal with the high seawalls that are commonplace on Lake Michigan. For starters, I lacked a long-handled net that would allow me to retrieve a fish. This forced me to explore a limited expanse of rip rapped banks and shallower water. For the first hour or two there were no takers, except I had a smaller Steelhead or Coho take a swipe and miss. I’d see the occasional commotion on the surface, but this was often well out of my casting range. As the morning progressed the banks were beginning to fill up with brothers in arms. I briefly chatted with a few other fellas throwing spawn and spoons, but nobody had hooked up yet. I blanketed my intended destination with little show for it other than a light case of snotsicles. My plan C destination was looking like a bust. I opted to circle back to my original starting point. This would be my last gasp attempt at a harbor connection, before plotting a course to explore a section of the Menomonee that would serve as my last stand. I spied an interesting looking weedbed surrounding by scattered rocks. In my head I told myself the tell tale words that no angler likes hear. I muttered “just one more cast” and I’ll move on to plan D. As luck would have it, my concession speech was short lived as I was greeted with a solid take. I could tell pretty quickly that it wasn’t the leviathan that I was seeking. It mattered little as I scooped up the good looking Brown, and felt privileged to have gotten on the board. A few locals stood around gawking at me like I’d lost my mind for wading in the chilly harbor waters. Waist deep in toasty waders ain’t nothing compared to my surfing compadres on the North Shore of Superior I thought to myself. While this fish by Milwaukee standards isn’t much to get excited about, I setup my tripod for a few grip-n-grins nevertheless. I learned long ago not to bemoan any lake running fish. Any slime on your hands is a good thing.
The art and purpose of the grip-n-grin fishing photo is fascinating to me. In the ever increasing world of purely catch and release angling, I suppose it serves as the last will and testament to a treasured experience. For me, it’s a somewhat complicated balance between corralling a wild animal and fiddling with the camera’s self timer. On my solo outings I rarely take the time to execute such a maneuver. When aliens invade our planet, what will they think of the grown men and women fondling these poor creatures? In this instance I couldn’t help but attempt to score a few style points by posing for a few “poser” shots. Fly fishing blogs everywhere attempt to outdo each other with their photographic savvy. Look at Moldy Chums slab of the month as an example. The array of stylish poses, with their hands and fish eight times the size of their heads. Make the fish bigger y’all. Elbows high boys, elbows high…and what are you looking at anyway? Should you pierce the soul of the viewer by looking at the camera lens or gaze longingly into the eyes of your quarry? On my first attempt with this beast the Panasonic fired off the flash and metered the scene pretty well, but my expression and stance makes it look like I’m trying to pass a stone. On the second frame I couldn’t help but trick it out a little more with some trendy moves, but the exposure is fucked up.
The art and science of the grip-n-grin is just another example of who we are as a community. So much of this sport is thinly veiled under the auspice of function when it’s really about vanity and aesthetics, and I’m just as guilty as the next lug. You may, however, notice that I’m rockin’ a killer Sospenders wading belt/life preserver. I wear it whenever I’m in conditions that I deem potentially unsafe, and wading ice shelves near deeper currents fits the bill. I also have the good fortune of suffering from a wicked case of Vertigo due to a plethora of concussions. To a certain extent I’m one errant step away from being face down in the drink, and I’m doing my level best to circumvent that fate.
After connecting with a decent chunk I couldn’t help but stick around for awhile. After a few more casts to the weedbed with no success I walked further south to where I began the morning. As I approached the sheltered area I noticed a wide array of fishing accoutrements, including the remnants of a beautiful, colored-up buck Brown. A young lad moseyed up to strike up a conversation. He mentioned that he only had caught one brown for the morning, and subdued the monster using skein. We didn’t exchange names, but for the purposes of the story I’ll call him Steven. The typical case of “angler envy” cast its shadow upon me. I had covered that area thoroughly, but didn’t see a single fish. Fortunately I’m usually able to keep my fish jealousy in check. I proceeded to give Steven his props and asked if I could snap a few pics for my blog. It was a chunky, hook-jawed male of about 28″, but had suffered the business end of his gaff and was D.O.A. I’m not casting judgement on Steven, or espousing C&R ethics, because I’m an ardent “each to their own” kind of angler and he’s well within his rights to harvest the fish. But, from a selfish standpoint, I would have loved to see the thing alive and kicking for my own amusement. Three and half seasons of The Walking Dead have completely desensitized me from the gore, but I could just see that it had been a cool looking fish. We had a brief compare and contrast session about the morning’s events and I suggested that Steven give the area around the weedbed a try, because I’d seen a few fish cruising around. My time was running out, but emboldened by his success I decided to walk the bank one more time to see if I could hookup. Steven moved over to the weedbed where there was a decent fish roaming the shallows. I did a ten minute tour where I surprisingly had two bites but couldn’t plant my hook in jaw. One of the encounters was a big Brown that followed to within five feet and hit once, but missed the target. Reluctantly, I walked back towards my car to call it a day. I looked to the north where I spotted Steven shuffling down the rocks with a full bend and proceeded to check it out. I asked him if he wanted help landing the fish, but he sheepishly claimed that he could take care of it himself. The fish hadn’t surfaced but, based upon the length of the battle, I figured it to be a reasonable specimen. Within a few minutes the fish surfaced and revealed it to be another solid Brown. As Steven bore down on the fish I noticed an issue. As it turns out the fish was hooked directly in the anus. Yes, I was saddened to realize that my new BFF Steven was a Snagger. I just wasn’t in the mood to question his methods directly. But this explained why he seemed so excited to be sight fishing for shallow water cruisers. I pretended to not notice that it was foul hooked as he held the fish up and I quickly documented it for the record.
Revel in the last selfie of my 2013 campaign. Prior to the day’s events I had really hoped to swing up some Steel, but was happy to see some quality Browns. I wish I had put up better numbers, but the morning was filled with sluggish short strikers and I know full well that experience isn’t always about the body count. There’s a fine line between desire and deceit. It’s human nature to go to great lengths to possess something, and fish have a historically uncanny ability to channel those demons. But, at what point do we sacrifice our dignity in the process? The maelstrom of humanity is on full display lined up outside your nearest discount store seeking the best deal on the latest “thing”, or at your favorite fishin’ hole for that matter. In the true spirit of the holidays, there’s no finer example of these regrettable tendencies than on Black Friday.