Fun in Fergus Falls
by Joe Cornwall
The never ending rains were getting to me.
Every time the rivers would get low enough to fish well, another storm would
blow through and blast the rivers up again. It seemed as though the
"spring floods" were to become an everyday occurrence. "Enough is enough"
I heard myself saying as I watched the news about 7" of rain hitting
Indianapolis and heading towards Cincinnati. I've got to find some
Word from my friends in northwest Minnesota was that
they hadn't received any rain in nearly six weeks. Farmers were suffering
as their crops turned yellow and died. Rivers were low and clear.
Fish were concentrated in deep pools. The analysis showed that the
potential for some serious fishing was at hand and a frequent-flyer ticket would
surely get me where I was going. The better half said "yes". The
airline said "yes". The weekend was a go.
The flight from Cincinnati made a quick stop in
Chicago and everything remained on schedule. I arrived in Minneapolis just
minutes off of the airline schedule and my baggage arrived with me. So
far, so good. I checked the rod tube - two six weights, one eight, one
four. All in fine shape. The big duffle with my boat bag, vest,
reels and other accoutrements of travel looked no worse for the wear. The
rental car company even upgraded me to a 4wd SUV - this couldn't be any better!
The three hour drive from the Twin Cities to my
destination went without a hitch and I arrived on site by 4PM. Del and
Bruce were waiting to see what kind of mischief my arrival would bring (I have a
reputation to live up to) and by 5PM we had successfully launched Del's
beautiful Lund at Swan Lake for a little twilight bass bugging. Bruce was
almost speechless as he unwrapped his new Pflueger fly rod, fresh from
Hook&Hackle at the low, low price of $40. I was impressed as I waggled the
rod in my hand, it seemed a serviceable tool at a great price. A
weight-forward line was threaded and a first cast tentatively made, just to see
what the rod felt like. Sage need not worry, but the rod would prove to be
worth its price and then some as Bruce took his first tentative steps towards
what will surely become a life-long obsession.
The lake was clear and low. Well defined beds
of milfoil and coontail bordered the water's edge, dropping quickly and cleanly
to a fifteen foot break. Bruce took his place at the stern of the boat and
immediately began what, for all the world, looked like a strange Indian dance.
His whole body pushed and turned, fought and struggled. It was great fun
watching his first casts with the fly rod and laying bets on when he would pitch
himself into the water, such were his efforts at casting. What a trooper!
We were on the water little more than fifteen minute when the little Byrd
Gillbuster fly tied to Bruce's tippet was nailed by a three inch bluegill.
Bruce had hooked his first fly rod fish on a lake, having spent only a single
day last year trying out the fly rod game for the first time. The little
bluegill pulled this way and that as we chided our friend for catching 'bait'.
Those words proved to be an accurate prediction. As Bruce leaned to pull
his catch in, a large swirl appeared at the stern of the boat. Bruce's rod
bent double and we all knew the bluegill was gone. In its place was a
rather surprised looking largemouth of about 14 inches. Bruce had caught
his first largemouth on his first bluegill on a fly! Amazingly the little
hook slipped out of the 'gills mouth and into the corner of the bass' mouth.
A picture of this auspicious occasion was required and much laughter ensued.
As we worked out way around the west end of the
lake, we tossed Clousers and bass bugs towards the reeds and rushes. I
stood in the bow next to Del as we both practiced the "duck and cover" routine
common amongst boat- born fly fishers. Clearly Bruce was getting a
work out and after about an hour of casting he was panting. The fish,
while teasing, had refused to cooperate fully. Del suggested I toss a cast
to the weed line to see "if they were still home." Don't you know I hooked
a fine two pound largemouth on that very cast! Bruce looked like he was
ready to whip me with his new fly rod! A few more casts and a few lost
bugs to the toothy pike population and we were ready to call it a night.
The Friday morning dawn brought with it glorious
sunshine and the promise of high temperatures in the 80's. I headed
towards the Ottertail river for a morning of smallmouth hunting. The plan
was that I would hit the Ottertail in the morning and then catch up with Del and
Bruce for lunch. We would then explore a few lesser known spots and put
together a plan for the weekend. By 8 I was standing calf deep in the cool
river, amazed at a water line at least two feet below normal flow. Each
bolder in the river stood in stark relief and it was easy to see the four to six
foot deep "holes" that were scoured in the pea gravel and stone at the base of
the large rocks. I started at the bridge and on the third cast nailed a
fine 16" fish who jumped and ran through the shallows, forcing me to give chase.
I still had coffee in my cup when I took my first picture fish!
The bass were ravenous. The low water, far from stressing the fish, had
created an amazing fishery. The bass were stacked in small pockets, the
baitfish were uncomfortably close. The bass nailed just about anything
that looked like a shiner as soon as it got into water more than a foot deep.
Because this is a catch-and-release only fishery
(the Minnesota DNR is quite forward thinking - Ohio DNR are you listening?) the
population of smallmouth is large and the average fish is about 12" with many,
many fish pushing 18". All one needed to do was toss anything with a
streak of chartreuse and retrieve it downstream. I was alone on the water
and by lunch I had lost count of the bass I had hooked and released. Along
with smallmouth I found an obliging population of 8 to 10 inch crappie, channel
cats, hammer handle pike and others.
I duly reported my success at lunch. It was agreed
that Bruce and I would fish the river on Saturday and, rather than float as we
had planned, we would fish on foot. Returning to the river at 2PM, I
decided to keep a careful count in order not to exaggerate the day's exploits.
I met up with Bruce at 5:30P to head to Fladmark Lake for some panfish. In
the three hours of fishing I landed and released 43 more smallies from 8 to 18".
What a day!
Fladmark proved interesting. We launched
Bruce's boat and amazingly remembered to keep the transom plug in place.
The boat didn't sink and we didn't fall out, so it was a good trip. The
hybrid green sunfish the lake is managed for were on the shy side, though we
took enough sunfish and bass to keep our attention. Still the river
called. I was on a mission and her name was smallmouth!
Saturday was a carbon copy of Friday's weather.
The bass were just as aggressive. Because of the low water, we were able to wade
upstream on sand bars in the middle of what normally would be a fast five foot
deep run. Now it was just an ankle deep trickle. Using the same
upstream cast and downstream retrieve we found tiger striped smallmouth more
than willing to play. Before we broke for lunch we each had hooked and
released better than three dozen smallmouth. I accused Bruce of trying to
catch a 12 pound smallie one half pound at a time, such was his take of 10"
Shortly after lunch I hooked a real pig of a
smallmouth. After four magnificent jumps I brought her to hand.
Bruce managed the camera duties and I smiled at the 20" fish which surely pushed
the five pound mark and then some. If the trip ended there it would
have been a success, but there was more in store. The river would provide a rare
gift and give us amazing fishing till dark, even throwing a few surprises our
By 7PM my arms felt like dead weights at my sides.
All the fingers and toes in my family weren't enough to keep track of the number
of smallmouth bass we took. Bruce was having the time of his life and it
became clear to me that fly fishing was something he would pursue long after I
had returned south. After hooking several fine pike, Bruce finally had one
that didn't bite through his leader. His two foot long snake was his first
pike-on-a-fly and I turned jealous. I put on a steel bite guard and upped
my fly to the largest streamer my six weight would toss. After a dozen or
so casts my line came tight and I landed a twin to Bruce's pike. What a
day, oh what a day! But it still wasn't over.
As the sun went down and the sky turned a dusky blue
I continued to toss the giant streamer, catching a few smallies in the process.
Suddenly my line went tight and ripped off the reel. We saw a flash of
gold and knew this wasn't a pike. If it was a bass, she was having none of
the jumping and surface battling the other bass had provided. Thirty feet
melted off my real as I leaned into the lightweight graphite rod. The fish
came towards shore but I couldn't raise it's head to see what it was.
Again the line melted off the real. I figured perhaps I had hooked a
muskie, as they were known to inhabit the river and grow to impressive size
there. Not a muskie, though. And not a pike. Not a bass...
After an exciting fifteen minute battle that left me
sweating and aching I slid the beast onto the sandy shore. "It's a
dogfish" said Bruce. I had never seen anything like it. Long and
sleek with muted gold and olives the fish sported a mouth full of sharp teeth.
Its strength was impressive, even in hand never giving up and always struggling.
I hoisted the beast for a final picture as we called it a night. Between
us we had easily landed two hundred fish. My final count showed six bass
of 18" or better, including the one 20 inch fish. We also caught pike,
crappie, bluegill, golden eye and, of course, the "dogfish" which I later
identified as a northern bowfin.
As I sit here at my computer my heart beats quickly
thinking about this shining jewel of a river that has so much to offer and yet
receives so little pressure. I have fished it before, as I surely will
fish it again. And now I know that I won't be the only fly fisherman on
that northern river.