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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 fishable water!!!


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" battlers!


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 way.


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...  What then?


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.








A View of the dam at Orwell Recreation Center, Fergus Falls Minnesota








Bruce with his first largemouth on a fly, which hit his first bluegill on a fly!








Del with a nice Norway Lake largemouth








Low water on the Ottertail River, the MDNR places these rocks for smallmouth habitat








Bonus "hammer handle" from below the dam








Bruce caught a 12lb smallmouth, half a pound at a time!








Bronze is my favorite color!








Also known as a "dogfish" this bowfin is the toughest customer I've ever handled on a fly rod.  I could have easily been convinced this fish was four times its actual size!

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