Hardly Any Musky

“You working or fishing?” asked Peter at the check-in on Thursday night. It’s an increasingly blurry line, but a reasonable question because the last time I came to McMinnville, Tennessee, I was covering the 2015 Hardly, Strictly Musky tournament for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Working, I guess. But not this time.

I’d even left my camera at the cabin. Surprising how doing so moderates the buzz of anxiety I usually carry to social events like this. Also shocking that a talented pro like Peter considers my photo- and note-taking “work.” It’s a feeling, sort of a jolt of panic, that I’m getting a lot during these early days of career-transition, when other folks take me more seriously than I take myself. Have to work on that.

“Fishing,” I answered.

“Good man,” Peter said with a grin, and headed off to the Foglight Foodhouse’s open bar.

Then I bumped into Mike. We exchanged “nice to finally meet you”s and talked about muskies for a while. We’d long been internet acquaintances. So goes the angling world these days.

The major benefit of the angling blogosphere is that writer/photog/anglers with similar outlooks and temperaments tend to find each other organically, so there’s little risk of winding up in a boat for three days with a dude you can’t get along with. Or likewise in a truck for ten hours of dodging semis between Indiana and Tennessee.

“He’s a heck of a fisherman,” Dave had said on that drive about Mike, the third angler on our team. “He’s also the kind of guy who’s infectiously happy just being in the boat, casting.”

“Sounds like a good guy to have in a musky boat,” I said, and Dave nodded.

“Exactly,” he said.

For Dave and I have done this together before. We know that a musky tournament angler must not only be indefatigable in the face of near-certain failure but also a little bit apathetic. A guy who wants to catch a musky too much is no fun to be around.

Dave and I know this. We’ve both been that guy.

But Mike? I doubt he’s ever been that guy.

Even after a big fish ate his fly in heavy current on day one, stayed stuck long enough for me to get the net unfolded, and then spit the fly back out. The rod unbowed and swear words crackled. Even after this, and a short meditation on the uncertainty and unfairness of life, Mike was again fishing with a smile.

Like I said: it’s organic. When friends are good enough there’s no worry about how friends-of-friends will fit in. It doesn’t take much math to calculate that so goes the entire tournament of 100 anglers. In compliance with the official tournament rules, there was not an asshole to be seen. Especially during the flotilla that developed on the upper Caney Fork, mid-day on a high-sun Saturday. It was a special group: a few of those faces have been seen in person by hundreds of muskies. Our boat excluded, probably the most concentrated river-acre of musky mojo ever in history. Luckily, muskies don’t use hand grenades, because we gave them a heck of a target for about a half hour. 

The only moment of concern all weekend came when when a couple of friendly tourney anglers in a canoe told us that a “grey tin boat with two dudes from Texas had an accident upriver.” That was a little worrisome since our cabinmates, Andrew and Winston, were in from Texas driving just such a boat, and had promised us BBQ chicken wings for a post-dinner snack. But when we learned that they’d turned down offers of aid, brushed off the treebark, and headed on upstream, we stopped worrying. 

It wasn’t until the drive back north, rolling in and out of early-morning mountainshade in rural Kentucky, that Dave and I realized that after a half-dozen musky trips together, this one had been the most on-paper successful: we saw six muskies, and even briefly had hooks in one. 

One of these days we’ll get one in the boat. Maybe.

The new hashtag that’s developed around this tournament seems to fit: #hardlyanymusky. It’s not a condemnation of the tournament. It’s just a damn fact of life. 

Many thanks to Dave, Mike, Andrew, and Winston for being good boat and cabin crew.

Also serious thanks to:

Hardly, Strictly Musky: The Southern Classic

Towee Boats

YETI

Patagonia

and the other fine other sponsors

 

Nowhere

A clear river intrigues, mystifies, and enchants. A muddy blown-out river obscures, chokes, and demoralizes. Opacity leaves way too much up to the imagination. We are deprived of the little signs of life that we take to heart on long days of fishing–minnows, crayfish, logs, boulders, shadows, undercuts. It’s as interesting as a dead television. 

But you’re here, towed the boat all this way, so you fish it. Convention says to fish streamers: big flies, black or white or chartreuse–something contrasty–and fish them close to structure, in deep holes, along current breaks, up against the banks.

‘Course, in musky fishing, you’re already doing all that. Not much to change. Musky fishing is normally a grind; now even more so, a finer grind, infinitely small particulate, infinitely discouraging. The river is like a driveway puddle that you can’t believe the dog’s drinking from–nothing suggests the complete ecosystem it used to be, must still be.

So you grind away. You try to stay alert and try to guess when to figure-eight so the fly doesn’t hit the rod tip. It’s neither hope nor optimism that keeps you casting–it’s more like martyrdom: pride at how much suffering without hope you can endure. So you keep doublehauling and staring into the turbid void.

And then the void looks back at you and explodes. From nowhere–nowhere behind the dead surface and amid the silt and leaves and detritus–there is a musky and its violence is shocking and then, in the net, its resentment seething.  When the hooks are free and you relax your hand from its tail, it doesn’t bolt in terror, but fins slowly back into the opaqueness, into nowhere. Reminding you that you’ve no lasting power there. 

Nowhere. This place the musky comes from is why musky fishing is more like hunting than it is like other kinds of fishing. A section of woods can be empty for days: no tracks, nothing, and then out of nowhere a deer is standing before you in the wide-open. Not sneaking out from the edge of the field or crunching through the dead underbrush, but just there, obvious, shocking. Out of nowhere.

Or maybe more appropriately, the wolf. It can take years or decades–you know they are out there but have never seen one on the paw and then one night, out of nowhere, there’s a lobo standing on the centerline of the dark highway. Not a fluffy nature-show star, but scruffy and wild, moonshine eyes and gangly legs and huge head held low, unmistakable for any other canid, breath boiling white in the cold headlight beams.

And it doesn’t bolt in terror, it lopes off into the dark woods — into nowhere. You’ve no power there.  

We Are Lost Without It.

My younger brothers wore hand-me-downs. As the oldest I usually got new clothes, but a lot of things were handed down to me, like my first hunting and fishing gear. A particular Fenwick FF80 and Remington 760 come to mind. I also inherited a profound passion for the woods, and access to plenty of acres to roam on family farms and homesteads, adjoining public lands, and a liberal post-logging water-access culture.

It wasn’t until I moved to Michigan after college and had to redraw my map from scratch that I started to think about public access — suddenly, I was the public. I grew to love the Huron-Manistee National Forest and its sandy pine forests and honey-gold trout streams, though it’s riddled by parcels of old private and state land with varying levels of river access. 

In 2014 I moved back to Minnesota and have been re-exploring my old hunting and fishing grounds, with public access fresh in my mind. It occurred to me this spring that the Superior National Forest — a name so familiar that I had to rediscover it — is four million acres of open public land. I’d been hunting and fishing within a tiny part of the southwest corner of it my entire life. I bought a paper Forest Service map. It’s four feet by six feet, both sides. It’s like the sun rose from behind a mountain, illuminating an entire kingdom I’d not known was there. That’s one hell of a hand-me-down.  

And that’s just one national forest. There are 153 more of them, and a total of 640 million acres of federal public land in this country, generally open to exploration to anyone with a pair of boots. This is over one fourth of the nation’s land area — and unlimited adventures with a fly rod or a rifle or a canoe or a horse or a bike or a camera, though even if I start tomorrow I’ll never get to do it all. Still, the existing possibility is thrilling.

And the existing possibility of that land being divested to state and local control is frightening. It’s a real risk, not a “back to the states” issue, and not a “Western” issue. Watch this short film and read more here and here and here and here.  Short story: certain political powers want to transfer this land to state ownership, and states will over time likely sell the land to private interests who will fence or log or mine or drill or otherwise restrict or eliminate its public use.

Obviously, we anglers and hunters and wilderness lovers don’t want to see this. We want these 640 million acres to remain held in public trust so that we can fish and hunt and hike and camp and so our kids and grandkids can do those things too. It’s a simple message, and, to me and other members of this sportsperson’s choir, it’s profound preaching. Time spent out there defines and nourishes us. We are lost without it.

It’s a powerful message, but it’s narrow. What if there aren’t enough of us? If we stake our argument on sportmen’s and women’s votes or dollars we’ll very likely come up short. We will always be dwarfed by the power and momentum of the big extractive industries. And plenty of Americans never set foot on public land beyond city parks, and don’t hunt or fish or care that we do.

It’s easy to say that we need to get more people into the outdoors, make them invested, win them over one at a time. Certainly can’t hurt. But I don’t think we have time for that. It’s also tempting to make the argument that much of this land is worth protecting even if none of us ever use it, especially the roadless tracts, the wilderness areas, the wild and scenic rivers. But miners and loggers aren’t very sympathetic to that perspective.

So we should consider what public use can mean. Recreation, yes, but also study and protection and managed use of landscapes and ecosystems, biodiversity, wilderness, responsible timber and mineral extraction, and other as-yet-unknown uses. As it stands, there’s something there for everyone.

And even aside from public use, that land is an investment, like a savings bond that our grandparents bought us before we were born. We, the people, quite literally own it, it’s incalculably valuable, and while we hold it, we can use it. Let’s not cash it in.

 

Sporting Art

I don’t care for the kitschy stuff: retriever puppy chewing on a duck call, pheasants flushing before a 1950s pickup, old timer sleeping on the deer stand while a big buck steals his lunch. I can’t say it’s bad, of course, and I think it’s mostly unpretentious. For one thing, it must sell. If you’ve been to a Ducks Unlimited banquet or the gifts section of a Cabela’s store you know what I mean.

But I’m not immune to all of it. I have a David Maass print that came from my grandfather. It is a stormy morning of bluebills decoying, dark and blue, whitecaps and wind-bent cattails.  It calls to mind unholy-early wake-ups with good friends and a wet chill and roaring wings and the press of “is it light enough yet?” anticipation in the pre-dawn.

And a Jake Keeler original watercolor hangs before me as I write. It is a impressionistic salmonid face that reminds me of the cruel and invincible Chinook salmon that beat me ten to one, overall, even while in their last days or moments on earth, dying but still strong and needing to prove it, overwhelming spirit overflowing those small, sandy northern Michigan streams.

But until bumping into Josh DeSmit at a recent art fair I’d never been arrested by a piece of art. Not sure how else to describe it and I don’t expect anyone else to understand — unless you, too, have had your twelve-inch fly eaten by a dark green northern musky on an October river, oak leaves rimmed with frost falling to the leaden mirror of a reflected overcast, heavy flannel shirt smelling of last night’s campfire and mouth tasting of last night’s whiskey. Probably helps that mornings lately have been cool enough to suggest the end of summer and this, also, stirs something deep in my psyche, something very much related to changing leaves and muskies.

Maybe that’s a sophomoric take on art appreciation: being moved by imagery that happens to literally depict a specific memory. But that’s okay with me.

In any case once I had picked it up — Josh says it’s a hand-pressed hand-colored linocut print — I wasn’t setting it back down except for the tense five minutes it took to find an ATM, not having planned to need cash.

Now, where to hang it?

For more on Josh DeSmit’s unique take on classic sporting art, click here.

If I am what I eat

If I am what I eat then I am usually at least partially composed of mineral elements from within the Saint Louis River watershed, which is the area north and west of Lake Superior that drains to the lake rather than north to Hudson Bay. All my life, I have accumulated these elements through game and fish taken from within the watershed, and garden vegetables, wild berries, and even the very water itself.

We take food very much for granted in this country so it seems a valuable exercise to consider our link, when possible, to its ultimate discrete source. For example, a given carbon atom in my body was once part of an inorganic molecule in the bedrock; one might in theory trace it from that rock to groundwater solution to cedar sprig to deer muscle to pot roast to me. Or similarly to micro to macroinvertebrate to stream chub to walleye and then a riverside skillet with butter.

At the root of these processes and all others is the water, which is why this exercise reframes my sense of land organization into watersheds rather than political boundaries. Unlike so many things in nature, watershed boundaries can be pleasantly discrete. You can straddle a divide, each foot draining to a different ocean.

This landscape whose water the Saint Louis River sheds is made of ultra-ancient precambrian lava flows known as the Duluth Complex. The most recent glaciers scraped and pulverized the earth here and left bare gabbro, intermittently buried by eskers, outwashes, and drumlins of gravel and sediment. The impermeable nature of this “basement bedrock” means that water sits on top of it in vast wetland networks, which drain slowly to Lake Superior via its largest American tributary, the Saint Louis River.

This watershed is part of me for reasons beyond, and maybe more meaningful than, what I eat from it. I grew up on top of it; so did most of my ancestors after they came here from familiar landscapes in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. I have hunted its pine and scrub forests and fished its cold tannic waters since I was old enough to do so. In my childhood it was just home, on the edge of wilderness, woods from here to Canada.

These days I fish it mostly with flies; in the bog-stained water the smallies are dark tarnished bronze, the northern pike are spotted with bright goldenrod, and the brook trout are shaded in charcoal relief. In the big waters, there are big fish, but many of these streams are small, and the season is short; if we can love small trout in headwaters streams then I submit that we can love small bass and pike in headwaters streams. 

I have realized over time that Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region is not all true wilderness, but is in fact actively managed by the government based on its uses — timber, mineral, or recreational. I tend to entertain the idea that such places are valuable on their own merit even if none of us ever “use” them — but I admit that such a stance is radical to the point of irrelevance in conservation discussions.

And so I’m forced to be a realist. And to be fair, it’s not that bad, here at least, because it’s managed as the Superior National Forest, which means I’ve never had to worry about access issues when poring over maps and planning the next trip, or that it will be recklessly clearcut 1890s style, or that that wildfires will burn out of control. Instead I can count on well-maintained roads and trails, boat and canoe landings, and as much solitude as a person could want. As a Minnesotan who travels a bit, I’m often asked if I spend a lot of time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Folks are shocked when I say no, but the truth is that the entire 3.9 million acre SNF (within which lies the BWCAW) is my backyard, and ten lifetimes isn’t enough time to explore it all, though I plan to try, via truck and boat and canoe and foot. And if you’re an American, you can too. It’s your backyard as much as mine. 

Today, the SNF faces the most significant long-term threat since the clearcutting of the last century that took the pines and the caribou: hard-rock sulfide-ore copper/nickel mining. Despite its rootbeer color, the water in the SNF is clean — as close to pristine as it can be in this age of mercury that falls from the sky. The shallow hydrology of the land here leaves its ecosystems especially vulnerable to pollution, and make that pollution nearly impossible to contain — and it all runs downhill into our Greatest Lake.

I won’t get into the technical details because millions of words have been written on these issues in the past years, both for and against, but the short story is that the aforementioned Duluth Complex is made up of sulfide-bearing rock that is extremely rich in copper and other precious metals, and international mining corporations want in. And local mining interests want them in. Two potential mines are in discussion: the PolyMet project within the Saint Louis River watershed and Twin Metals just north of the Laurentian divide in the Rainy River watershed, which drains via the BWCAW toward Hudson Bay. This kind of mining results in massive quantities of waste rock (up to 99% of the mined material) and water that must be carefully managed indefinitely — many hundreds of years — after the mine is closed.

Both projects are within the SNF, and in an unprecedented move, the Forest Service is taking public comment on the renewal of the mineral leases that Twin Metals Minnesota holds. Normally, such mineral leases are essentially rubber-stamped. But not this time. For brevity’s sake I’ll quote the Forest Service’s sober summary of the risks posed by the Twin Metals project, and why they are stepping in:

“…the Forest Service is deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW, and by the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations within that watershed. Those risks exist during all phases of mine development, implementation and long-term closure and remediation. Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations.”

Even though it would only directly impact Twin Metals, a non-renewal of these leases for environmental reasons may well have a chilling effect on future development of sulfide-ore mines within the Superior National Forest — and there is the potential for a lot of future development. Maps put together by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy show the entire region peppered with non-ferrous mineral leases in various stages of exploration.

Or the opposite could happen. If the USFS renews the leases, even if both Twin Metals and PolyMet are developed and manage to operate perfectly, with minimal environmental degradation, we will be staring down the barrel of a generation or more of hard-rock sulfide-ore mining in the Superior National Forest, and someday, some mine will have a disaster that my kids and grandkids and their great-grandkids will have to deal with, and the landscape will be altered forever.

I know these issues are complex; I know that the device I’m working on and the one you’re reading from right now both contain lots of copper. I know people in economically-depressed mining towns need jobs so they can raise their families in a part of the world that they love as much as I do. But the potential risk of not just Twin Metals, but also PolyMet, and a long future of sulfide-ore mining in Minnesota — that risk is just too much to ask.

Speaking of asking: please use the links below.

Groups working to prevent sulfide-ore mining in northeast Minnesota: