A lost dog, a problematic motor, teenagers on bath salts, and a knee-trembling encounter with a leviathan
Our 13-year old Brittany, Skookum, picked a helluva’ time to go walkabout. Locked and loaded for pike camp, I’d just dropped our son off at school and swung by the hardware store to grab a proper net, when my wife called to tell me that Skook had taken one look at the groomer’s van and slipped the fence. She’d headed off-piste, up the trail towards our neighborhood box canyon. I needed to get to the lake. The forecast foretold 90-degree temps and a high, bright sun for sight fishing. The first warm days of summer can be magical on a pike lake, with big fish laid up like tarpon in the shallows. On the heels of the spawn and yet undisturbed by jet skis, wake boats, and bird watching kayakers, this fleeting opportunity is etched into my mental calendar. The stars don’t align every year but I quelled my anticipation and begrudgingly looped back around to join in the search, checking my problematic four stroke in my rearview mirror and pondering my family’s troubled past relative to bird dogs and outboards.
While a missing dog is certainly cause for alarm, particularly in a neighborhood transected by busy thoroughfares, we were confident that Skookum would find her way home or into the back of an animal control van. She was wearing her collar and was certainly car-savvy and familiar with the terrain. Plus, the cavalry was on the way. My sister-in-law and several friends had volunteered to play hooky in order to join the search for a dog that they had all known for many years. My wife urged me to forge onward, and I aimed for the highway appreciating that we lived in such a supportive community.
At the boat ramp, the 3.5HP Nissan attached to my drift boat sputtered to life. As I inspected the function of the newly replaced impeller, a fellow angler, pulling out his Crestliner, gave my outfit a curious once-over. A 14’ low profile drift boat draws a few furrowed brows on a lake rife with glittered bass boats. “Find any pike?” I asked.
“I got a few keepers. They’re hard to find, no weed growth yet, I had to use my fish finder,” he replied, insinuating that my chances were akin to a snowball descending through purgatory.
“What color did you get ‘em on?” I asked.
He stroked his beard and pondered a moment, apparently coming to the conclusion that I was of little threat to the pike population. I’ve noticed that strangers are more likely to part with info when I’m fishing alone, which is more often the case these days.
“A purple bladed (some lure I’d never heard of). The fish are deep, between 8-14 feet.”
I thanked him for the beta and took note, then began my ferry across the lake, bound for a shallow bay. Periodically, the motor would struggle and belch a plume of black smoke, but the water pump was doing its thing, so I chalked the emission up to bad gas-the bane of a stillwater angler. I figured a lap around the lake might clean out the guts and allow for fresh, ethanol-free fuel to gleam the innards.
I killed the struggling motor a hundred meters from the weed line and eased into the bay under oar power, standing on my cooler and rowing upright to gain a high vantage. Tucked into the invasive aquatics, a log-shaped outline morphed into the fins and sloped snout of a mature northern. The fish was “laid up”, just resting in place, and I aimed my cast beyond and to the side of her nose. My proven pike fly, a homemade creation of feathers and synthetics, slipped by her and she slowly turned. I anticipated a reaction, but she didn’t follow. I tried again to get her attention but she nonchalantly vanished into the pondweed.
There is a commonly held misconception that pike are indiscriminate predators. In northern Saskatchewan, that may well be the case, the sum of an abbreviated season combined with geographic remoteness. The fish here in Montana see plenty of flies, plastics, and spinnerbaits, and are quite discerning. Successful pike fishing requires stealth and accurate presentations. Line a fish and it’s gone. Approach too closely with the boat and the jig is up. The latter is an important consideration, once a fish has seen the boat; it is far less likely that it will terrorize the fly.
The next several fish refused the fly and I started to get into my head. I changed flies, multiple times, and went so far as to remove my wire tippet, opting for 20lb. fluorocarbon, always a risky proposition. Likely, none of these countermoves had much to do with my eventual success, and the solar radiation of early afternoon eventually spurred the fish into relative action. A laid up fish, three feet long, followed and smashed my fly, (the same proven pattern, incidentally, that I had started with.) After a few fish worthy of the cooler, I figured I’d tend to the matter of my struggling motor.
A short lap around the lake and the motor belched out the gremlin. Brazened with the confidence of a humming outboard, I expanded my range and idled up to the edge of a shallow flat, killing the motor and scanning the scene. An obese beaver sat on the bank, not busy in the slightest, as a muskrat did his bidding (beavers and muskrats often share a lodge, as I’d recently discovered via podcast.) A whitetail doe and her fawn snuck through the cattails at lake’s edge, and above, a swoop of Sandhill Cranes sang their way across the lake. The Attenborough moment was interrupted by four words booming across the lake from a dated Bayliner. “Pass the bath salts!!!” Funny how voices carry on a calm lake?
Casting 360 around the boat, fruitlessly, I began to contemplate a fly change when a huge boil on the surface startled me. There was a monster on the prowl. Armed with a fly that I’d tied in a cabin in Saskatchewan many moons prior, I quietly rowed within casting range of the disturbance. The sun sank behind the range to the west as the foot-long fly landed like an oversized Stimulator, then slowly began to sink into the film on the retrieve. I felt the resistance at the very moment a yard-long back broke the surface, exposing a dorsal fin the size of a dessert plate. The moment vanished like a first, and last, kiss at summer camp.
At twilight, I landed a couple of eater-sized pike and returned to the boat ramp, the brief encounter with the massive fish still gnawing. The same gent that had provided the initial advice rolled up to remove his Crestliner.
“Well, how’d you fare today?” I asked.
“Nothing man, the fish must’ve gone deeper?” the fella’ replied.