Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring: Stinky Asparagus Pee

The honeymoon has been cut a bit short.  The mercury tumbled down to more average levels the past couple nights, and while we are now experiencing temperatures still above average for this time of year, the nip in the air feels a bit foreign after the record-setting couple of weeks we just went through.

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 camper... forager!

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.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zen and Bob Uecker

I've failed to post here recently for a number of reasons.

Work has stolen innumerable hours better spent outside.  That's a cliché and an easy out, so we'll skip it here.  Work is a challenge at times for everyone.  You don't want to read about it anymore than I want to write about it.

Much more pertinent to the case concerning my lack of posts lately has been this ersatz spring.  It has simply been too nice out to sit here and pound away at the keyboard, especially after just having finished doing that all day at the office.

In a normal year, this month on the outdoor calendar can be a bit of slow time.  There are almost no hunting seasons open, the woods are still barren of forage, and the ice often gets soft and squirrelly, rendering the fishing treacherous at best.  This year the ice is completely gone already, and has been for quite some time.  Asparagus is up, nettles have been gathered for salad, and I'm starting to see mushrooms.  I'm pretty sure I can hear the crocuses freaking out like they're late for a flight.  Woodcock are peenting at dusk, and flushing on hikes through the low spots.  I can't help but smile when I think that, in a normal year, I'm often tip-toeing out onto questionable ice right now, spud bar tentatively prodding in front of me.  I never even got the spud bar out of the garage this year.  The ice seemingly sublimated overnight before I ever got the chance to use it.  Poof... summer.

Maybe.  Natives of the north soak up the rays while we apprehensively glance over our collective shoulders, dreading the evil April blizzard lurking in the deep shadows.  Winter surely will not give up this easily.  We cannot have lived so purely as to earn respite from the dreaded, limb-snapping slop and goo of an Easter whiteout.  The sun shines, and freckles reappear on the back of fishing hands, but we all know full well that it may be merely the pillow talk before the lovers quarrel.  Something will set her off.  There will be hell to pay and heavy snow to shovel.  It's an ancestral memory we cannot shake, imprinted in the DNA of everyone born north of St. Louis.  My boots and shovel are put away, but not that far back in the closet.

We had a little biblical weather last weekend while fishing for crappies in a spot that normally has to wait until late April or early May.  As dawn broke to reveal skies the color of a journeyman bantamweight's face a week after another lost bout, smudges of purple and yellow and green, lightning laced the sky behind an intensely vivid double rainbow.  Wind whipped, thunder rolled, and I was on the lookout for a plague of locusts.  Not your typical March morning on the water.

Despite pop-up thunderstorms more reminiscent of July, you have to get out there while the getting is good.  Make hay while the black kettle throws stones at the gift horse, as a playful mangler of the language I know likes to say.  Even though my internal clock feels like it's in the midst of a rollicking brandy bender, glowing with vague contentment but slightly confused, I'm down for anything in this stunningly glorious spring.  There is no way I'm going to sit inside one instant longer than I am forced to by the needs to eat and pay bills.  Except for one thing.

Time spent at the fly tying vice is a welcome rite of spring for me.  If I were another type of fly fisherman, this rite would no doubt consume more of my fall and winter.  But somehow, and I have no idea how this could have happened, the revered trout has not yet made it onto my laundry list of outdoor obsessions.

Trout season opens near the first of March around here, and while I do occasionally partake of our salaciously hued Salmonidae, I'm not much of a trout bum.  I live an hour or less from some of the greatest trout waters in this part of the country, but, maybe sadly, I've never been taken by the fish, beautiful as they are.  Fishing for them in the Driftless, while highly popular and productive, can be very technical and precise fishing.  A detail man's game.  Maybe it's my tendency to drift toward the ham-fisted galoot side of things in fishing and life overall -- give me the biggest stick in the rod rack, I'll over-line it and beat those fish out of the water come hell or Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (Charlie don't surf!) -- that prevents me from enjoying the quieter, gentler world of effete little trout on gently presented, miniscule flies.  More likely, it's the fact that I suck at tying those flies.

In any case, I'm a smallmouth bass guy, chucking big baits and flies that would most likely send the vestigial tweed and elbow patch trout crowd into paroxysms of laughter or disdain.  Norman Maclean brought many of us to this sport, me included.  While a river does run through my life, and waters do haunt me, my waters are haunted by the slab muscle, burning red eye, and warrior's creed of the tank smallie.

If I were a trout man, toting a limber English 4-weight and a box of dainty, perfectly proportioned flies to represent every benthic creepy-crawly we have, I'd have been tying them all winter in preparation for the early March opener.  As it stands, the smallie doesn't come alive, at least for the purposes of fishing, until later in the year, so my fly tying binges wait until ice fishing is over and the grass starts to turn green again.

I stumbled into fly tying in college.  My roommate Kirk was a steelhead and Lake Michigan salmon guy.  Fishermen, even those who worship exclusively at the alters of differing species, will form a strong bond, sharing knowledge and stories with each other.  This isn't Northern Ireland after all, we were fishermen despite our different styles of worship, and we got along immediately, having come from opposite ends of the fishing world and the group of friends, but still just a couple dudes with hooks and slime on the brain.

Kirk was much more the fly fisherman than I was at the time, and glad to show me the ropes.  He lent me his vice and bag of what I now know to be fairly ratty materials, mostly dusty chenille and old marabou used in steelheading flies.  I set to, that vice screwed to my little old desk in the bedroom because there was no place to accommodate the clamp, and began to tie some of the ugliest flies this world has ever seen.  Garish monstrosities and tiny disasters alike were born of my efforts.  Kirk graciously encouraged me to practice while somehow containing tear-inducing fits of laughter until I'd left the room.  

He passed away suddenly while we were fishing together some years ago.  We were all terribly hurt and stunned.  I was given his fly tying and jig making materials after his passing, the same vice I first learned on.  While I no longer use that vice, some of his tools remain in my arsenal.  Every single time I sit down to tie, I see them, and think of him, and what little is left of that particular hole in my fisherman's heart heals over just a little bit more.  I've come along slowly as a tyer, making toddler steps and stumbles into the vast world of fly tying, and now get great satisfaction out of a well tied fly.

 A meditative state can be achieved in fly tying when all is going well.  Like cooking a favorite dish you've done a thousand times before, you get deep in the groove, time passes without notice, your energy is focused on creating this thing, and suddenly, there it is.  Something that didn't exist minutes ago now does, and by your hand.  In the case of the fly, if Jupiter is aligned with Mars and I'm not in suck mode, it's part tool, part art, and completely engrossing to me.  Even more so when I've gathered some or all of the materials bird hunting the previous fall.

There is an advanced technique in fly tying called spinning deer hair.  The intrepid tyer cuts a clump of fur taken from the belly or body of the white-tailed deer, lashes that fur to the hook, and slowly increases pressure to the center point of the length of hair using consecutive wraps of thread.  When it goes well, the fur spins around the hook shank (a truly scary moment for the beginner!), and flares out into a fan shape, standing out in all directions like the quills of a frightened porcupine.  This continues, clump after clump of hair, until the shank of the hook is bristling with deer hair standing on end.  The hair is then trimmed with a razor or scissors into the shape of a body or head, which will float on the water.

 Three colors of deer hair, spun onto the hook, before trimming with the razor blade...
 ... and after a little attention from the barber.

That sounds like a time-consuming and difficult affair, and it is.  There are much easier and faster ways to build floating fish lures.  Plastic and balsa are much easier to work with and shape, and take much less time and experience to get right, but there's just something about spinning deer hair that intrigues me.  A conventional plug can last for seasons of hard fishing, but a floating fly of spun deer hair will often be destroyed by one fish.  Maybe even just a strike that fails to land that fish.  There's something philosophical in there, then, the making of something by harder means, requiring more time and skill, that will ultimately fail more quickly.  Not quite art solely for art's sake, but something like that.

Sometimes, when a fish comes to hand, a deer hair fly that I lovingly and painstakingly created hanging mutilated from its jaw, I think, Good for you, buddy.  You didn't go down without a fight.

I have many days of the year I look forward to.  The opening day of deer season, our dingleballs tournament and the Excess versus Moderation Tailgate Challenge, fishing opener and Halloween weekend when the woodcock hunting always seems to be the best.  I could never pick just one, but definitely somewhere in the running is that magical day in spring, when I can finally open all the windows. I turn on spring training baseball, maybe pour a cocktail if I feel daring about my fly tying skills, and get lost in spinning deer hair on a hook.  A Zen trance with Bob Uecker on the radio and dreams of smallmouth bass in wadable rivers.

That day came early this year, and that is my only excuse for those of you that have been pestering me to post more.  My ammunition stores have been nearly refilled, and the smallies will be given no quarter.  I'm coming, and I'm bringing my deer hair with me.

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