The sumer of 1981 graced the world with the perplexing puzzle that is Donkey Kong and I with this slab crappie. While this fish may seem inconsequential to most, it continues to influence me to this very day. The summer of ’81 was one of great agony for me since I had suffered a serious burn to my lower right leg and was undergoing painful daily treatments to heal my wounds.
If you were a member of my family you spent the summer fishing, it was just part of our DNA. Both weekend excursions and larger vacations were often planned around the pursuit of fish. I was fortunate enough on the trip featured in this photo to wear the “big fish” badge of honor. I have no idea how large this specimen actually was, but it was significantly larger than anything else that our ravenous pack of kids had caught. It spurred a 400-yard dash back to the cabin to share the spoils with the adult contingency, and this brief respite from my pain would prove to cement a life long affinity for the white and black speckled fish.
We were fortunate enough to spend our 2012 Memorial Day weekend at our friend’s cabin near Park Rapids in northern Minnesota. I had blown through Park Rapids a number of times en route to other fishing destinations, but had never fished the immediate area. One piece of water that had been on “the list” for some time is the Straight River, only a stones throw from our base camp on Lake Belle Taine. The Straight is generally regarded as a big brown producer and one of the only respectable northern Minnesota trout streams outside of the Lake Superior tribs.
One of the main issues confronting any angler in the last month has been rain. This month is the second wettest May in recorded Minnesota history, and we were far from exempt from the wrath of precipitation this weekend. Even when it was sunny it was raining. I’m not one to shy away from rain, but we were confronted with a 12 hour+ storm mixed with a healthy dose of intense thunder and lightening, and it spoiled any grandiose plans I may have had for any early morning sessions.
After waiting out the perpetual thunderstorm our first morning at the cabin I went down to the dock to survey the situation. I flipped up the seat on my boat and was greeted with a pleasant surprise. It turns out a sizable pack of freshly hatched brown drakes had taken up residency in many of the nooks and crannies in the craft. This number of passengers certainly put me over the legal limit, but I’ve never been so pleased to welcome a visitor aboard my boat.
The brain of an avid fly fisherman isn’t terribly complex. I feel compelled to back up a bit and clarify a few of the weekend goals. Like most of you on Memorial Day the plan is to hang out with friends and family. Furthermore our hosts were not particularly wise in the ways of the fishing arts, but had specifically requested that we have a traditional fish fry if I was “man enough” to help guide the crew to some edible eats. The goal was not a solo mission to dredge the depths of the Straight River for bruiser browns, but when I saw the big boy mayflys it sent my mind racing. I could only imagine what sort of pandemonium was going on come sundown on the Straight. I admittedly have never been to drug rehab, but I believe that one of the tenets of recovery is to not put yourself in a risky situation as to not relapse. There’s no question that I was like a crack addict looking to party it up with a bag of rocks just dangling within my grasp.
I was quick to regain my composure and get back to what really matters. There was a pack of eager beavers just itching to get a crack at Lake Belle Taine’s finest. My review of the lake told me that it was a somewhat lackluster walleye lake, but had a solid population of panfish. The water temps in the bay were right at 62 degrees and absolutely prime for crappie to be in the shallows “doing their thang”. This lake didn’t disappoint as big beautiful crappies were plentiful and we had nice stringer in short order, including this 13.5″ beauty that caused a minor earthquake in the ranks eerily similar to my ’81 trophy.
Is there anything more annoying than an overzealous parent going on and on about the accomplishments of their children? While I wouldn’t normally mention it in conversation, this is my blog and I get to write what I want, so feel free to hold your nose at this one (it will be over shortly). Jack nailed his first hammer handle pike from the dock in between “entomology lessons”. I’ve had a hard time getting him to hold the fish for pics this season but how can I be anything other than proud? Jack has approached fishing the same way he did with his bike, skipping the training wheels all together and going straight to the two wheeler by the age of four. He’s now fishing my old spinning reel setup and gets pissed at me when I try to help too much. Here’s a pic of my first pike possibly from 1981? My wife was an editorial assistant for North American Fisherman Magazine when we first met and had this fake magazine cover framed for me years ago as a gift. I’m sure most of you have similar photos and watershed moments in your evolution as an angler. The times may change but some things stay the same. Donkey Kong and PacMan were popular vices circa ’81, now we struggle to grapple the DS and ipods away from our children. And we wonder why there is a decline in participation in angling and other outdoor pursuits?
Nightfall fast approached and there was a brief flirtation with checking out the drakes on the Straight, but quickly dismissed as my “casual” fisherman buddy, Andre, didn’t have a trout stamp, waders, nor the drive for such pursuits. To be honest with you I haven’t targeted panfish on the fly in at least a decade. Typically my targets are more predatory in nature. I’ve always had the ability to adjust what I refer to as the “rewards system” in fishing. For whatever reason we’re conditioned to believe that bigger is always better. I spent my formative years chasing tiny warmwater creek species in the upper section of my neighborhood stream. Sure, I would have liked to have been chasing big trout, but creek chubs, bullhead, sunnies, and the holy grail smallmouth were what was available, and I pursued them with the same fervor. The “rewards” were not great, but the experience was.
We opted to take the boat out and see what the hatch would bring on Belle Taine. Sure enough at 9:45 the monster mayflies began their rising ritual with the fish hot on their heels. As darkness set in I blind casted to the signature “slurp” sound. The rising fish broke the plane of the dead calm lake like big batch of microwave popcorn just seconds away from burn mode. After pulling in a couple of dink panfish I set the hook into a much larger fish whose slurp was indiscernible from its neighbors. Unfortunately for me the excitement was short lived as the fish came unbuttoned before I could get a positive ID. A dozen casts later and the night sky was ablaze with the tell tale sign of impending doom. Dammit, lightening…are you kidding me? Out of nowhere our hatch was cut short by a thunderstorm, again. We dropped our rods, fired up the big motor and made the run back to the cabin.
Often times the trips that are fraught with adverse conditions or mishap are more memorable than the usual ones. We ended up with a couple rounds of decent panfishing, and had our fish fry which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. I know it’s a cheesy statement but take a kid fishing, you may never know what will come from that investment.
It was awesome to share new experiences with family and friends, and to witness the Brown Drakes hatch in mass numbers. One of my favorite times of year is the prolific late spring and early summer mayfly hatches. There’s no question: It’s On Like Donkey Kong!