This blip in the cosmic weather trends has certainly been enjoyable for most of us paddlers, fishermen and foragers, but it was a painful reminder for some that Mother Nature holds their financial well being in her fickle hands. Local syrup producers took it on the chin, a terrible season for them. Orchard owners are spraying earlier than ever, and standing in wait to see if they will have a crop at all this year. They can do nothing except wait and see now, like crowding around a craps table in Vegas, betting is closed and there is nothing to do but hope.
Still, the bounty of spring has lightened the hearts of those of us who look forward to her gifts every year.
We fished again last weekend. Brian and I put yet more time in on Lake Delavan, the fish up in the shallows a full month earlier than they normally are. It wasn't difficult to find the spots, an armada of fishing boats populated all the regular haunts, hungry for sunshine and a fish fry just as we were.
The fish were a little slow, but the conditions were pretty close to perfect so it was easy to sit in the boat all day, making the milk run around the lake and checking the likely spots. When there is no wind, when the sun is warm and the churlish rain clouds scatter, you sometimes just take what you can get and remain thankful for that.
It's our habit, during such days, to recall trips that were not so pleasant, and smile -- that trip to the Prairie du Sac dam when the wind whipped and howled all day, so intense the anchors pulled free continuously, and we were forced into unwilling rounds of bumper boats with the other walleye fishermen. Or that hellish float down the Wisconsin out past Arena. Frisbee's housewarming party had gone long into the blurry morning hours, the hours when nothing good ever happens. We arose early, and grimly fished through the blistering heat and pummeling hangovers, all day in the boat without a drop of water or an ounce of food because, in our foggy states after the festivities, nobody thought to buy any. I have never felt worse in a boat; groggy, nauseated, and drying up to a cinder, but in that company, you never want to be the (and I can't use any other word here) pussy who calls it off. The judgement would be unbearable. We fished in the pained silence of our own making, and secretly prayed for it to all be over. Less beer and more (any) water would've been a grand idea.
So we laughed and remembered as we picked away at the fish last Saturday. They were definitely not up on their shallow spawning beds, the glory days of spring panfishing, but they were milling around just outside where their spawning beds will be, and we were happy to be there with them.
In a quirky twist of fate that sometimes hits a fishing partnership, I somehow had all the fish in the cooler by noon, and Brian had none. There's no difference in our fishing abilities -- a hook under a bobber in this case, no technical skill required. We were fishing the same spots while sitting four feet away from each other. It just happens from time to time. I razzed him a bit, claiming to be the far better fisherman and asking if he needed any pointers, because that's what you do, but I had no real claim to superiority. There have been plenty of times in that very boat when our positions have been reversed. You absorb the ribbing, and try to remember it can all change with that one big fish.
I'd hoped to surprise him that evening with morel mushrooms picked by a friend in Illinois, but that fell through at the last minute. I took my turn cleaning the fish, made a beer batter, and we fried them up along with Brian's homemade corn fritters. Our efforts were rewarded well, as we enjoyed the fish and fritters alongside asparagus fresh from the garden. I eschew bland grocery store asparagus most of the year so it is that much more precious when it finally arrives, free to pick in the garden or discovered wild out in the woods. It was bright green and sweet and delicious, perfectly cooked next to our fresh caught feast as we toasted our success with a few beers.
I know it sounds odd, but I count among the many glorious harbingers of spring that certain strong aroma that arises when the bladder is emptied after consuming the first fresh asparagus of spring. And I apologize for bringing you into the bathroom with me, but there it is.
Sunday morning, having had our bellies warmed with fresh fish and a much more controlled celebration than that fateful housewarming party, it was time to forage.
As we set out for a big parcel of unique public land, ramps (wild leeks, spring onions... call them what you will) were to be our main quarry. The weather this spring has my internal timing all discombobulated, so I had no idea what we would find during our long stomp over hill and dale.
The parking area for this spot is a long way from the area in which we would be foraging. We strode quickly across the fields, Brian with absurd jocular pride, asserting the wonders of his newly fashioned walking stick. He let his English Cocker, Buddy, run long and free in front of us, and I smiled to myself, as I always do, at the perennial energy and bounding happiness of that little dog.
It can occasionally be somewhat difficult, as a combined hunter and general enthusiast of the forest, to concentrate on one objective. Especially this spring when everything is so in-your-face right here right now. I found my brain (and my eyes) bouncing madly from one subject to another. Looking at or for entirely too many things in a rambunctious, flitting burst of velocity without guidance, energy wasted and unproductive.
Wildflowers peeked up from winter hiding, there was a better than average possibility of stumbling upon Indian artifacts in that area, I was on the lookout for squirrel nests in the trees for future hunting excursions, and we wanted to find deer and turkey sign (which we did). I stared down into a kettle bog and wondered if it was considered an official part of the Kettle Moraine that covers much of that part of the state, then I wondered if there were two of the state's four carnivorous plants down in that bog. I hoped for very early morels, and had my eyes peeled for ramps, lambsquarter, nettles, fiddleheads, and other yummy bits of green. I pointed my imaginary shotgun at the woodcock Buddy flushed from a thicket, and listened to the alarm of wood ducks as he splashed down a creek. I've never missed a bird using a pretend scatter gun in spring. They're all easy shots when the gun is your finger.
Overload. I was so out of sorts that I failed to identify Bloodroot when Brian asked, a quaint little spring wildflower I've known since childhood. It can be toxic, so it wasn't found in my mental cacophony of edible plants, humming like the chaos of a tuning orchestra in that moment.
Slow down, knucklehead. Take a breath.
I managed to slow the twirling Rolodex in my brain, and got myself together. We spotted an Eastern Towhee with that unmistakable slash of rusty orange lighting up his flank, and a little turtle sunning himself in the grass. We walked for a few hours over the moraines and down into the kettles, eventually stopping to sit in the shade, the unfamiliar sun and heat causing a sweat more suited for late July. That's where we encountered another sure sign that warmer weather was with us. We've already been in the bathroom once during this post so I won't go into detail, but ticks were found and removed from delicate places upon returning home. Once again, more than a month early.
We never did find the ramps we were seeking for salads and pickling. Not unless you count the ones spied on private land during the drive home. There is time yet, and they will make their way across my table. Nettles and lambsquarter have been procured, and the first morel of the year was spotted just this morning. We are definitely in the foraging bloom of spring, whether another frost comes to put a damper on the party or not. Nettle pasta with turkey (wish I had a pheasant) is on the menu tonight, and I am a happy
Buddy doesn't know or care about foraging, but he was elated to work the woodcock thickets like October. And he still can't sit down for a break or stop that tail from wagging, even after all these years.