It was June of 2019. Blake, Dad, and I were gathered around a fire on a tiny island deep in the Canadian backcountry on a trip that had become an annual tradition. Where for the last several years we had camped out and chased northern pike that folded rods, filled nets, and threw our hearts into our throats when they hit. Where we would laugh around the last burning embers each night after dinner and listen to the call of loons under an ink-black sky and stars that seemed so much brighter than the ones back home.
But on this outing things had gone drastically different.
It all started when we reached the first set of rapids and found the water lower than normal, much lower; and that meant we had to portage the 14-foot fishing boat, outboard motor, and all of the gear – an unexpected, exhausting, and time-consuming proposition. It went downhill from there when the aforementioned motor stopped working, the weather took a tangential turn for the worse, and the bugs decided it was feeding time – with the three of us serving as appetizer, main course, and dessert.
"Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?", one might have been tempted to ask.
Instead of throwing lines to toothy trophies, we spent our hours trapped in a tiny "three-man" tent – a claustrophobic attempt to escape the relentless rain and belligerent bugs. Not that the fishing was all that spectacular anyway. Maybe it was the weather, or the low water, or just how things were destined to go for us, but we put very few "Northerns" in the net that year, and none of the big ones we had grown accustomed to.
During a momentary break in the weather (but not the bugs) we managed that feeble fire where we tried to warm up, dry out (a relative term), and down some damp food before heading back to the nylon prison. We were soaked, cold, tired, sore, bug-bitten, bleeding, hungry, and really darn sick of the inside of a tent and not catching fish.
And so it came to be that around this fire oaths were made. Solemn promises never to return to this God-forsaken place with its ravenous bugs, miserable weather, and even more miserable fishing. I'll admit they were made in haste, given the mood of the moment, but I can assure you they were earnest.
And then 2020 happened and the world quite literally shut down. Travel ceased, outings with friends and family came to a halt, even outdoor recreation, for a time, moved into the realm of "off limits." And 2021 wasn't much better. "The lost years," as I've come to think of them.
In 2022 I finally made my first trip back to Canada in pursuit of Coaster brook trout with some friends. That drive took me through the familiar haunts of Wawa and White River and slowly rekindled a low-burning flame in my heart. Like running across a photo of your high school sweetheart while rummaging through dusty boxes in the attic.
Thoughts of that tiny island and those massive pike felt a little fonder than when we last parted. Memories of shitty weather, bothersome bugs, and empty nets were replaced with echoes of laughter, the scent of camp coffee hanging on a light morning breeze, sunglasses rubbing on sunburned noses, and the tell-tale wakes of giants when they gave chase.
Over the Christmas holiday I tentatively floated the idea of a return trip and, to my surprise, was met with enthusiasm. Time, it seemed, had healed more wounds than mine.
So we began to lay plans, determining that this year we would go earlier to get ahead of the bugs. The weather would always be a crapshoot, but if we could eliminate the bugs, life would be infinitely better.
It's now late May, and we find ourselves heading up the familiar curves of Highway 17. As is our tradition, we make a quick stop just outside Sault Ste. Marie to purchase licenses and last-minute supplies from Marge at the local gas station/bait shop/grocery store.
Just a little north we wader up for the first time to test one of the many rivers that feed Lake Superior along this route. We've fished a few of them in the past, but typically only offer a cursory cast or two to say we did, in a hurry to get to the beloved island. We're told they can hold steelhead and Coasters this time of year, so we've decided to give them a more thorough exploration this go round.
Wading out to a small sandbar I begin casting into a short riffle run that drops into a deep outside bend with an undercut bank and, after only a few strips through the tannic tail-out, I'm into a serious fish. The six weight is managing, but I won't be muscling this one in. The rod jumps and thrums while line peels from the reel. I see a quick flash but still have no idea what in the world I'm into.
I'm pretty sure it's either a smaller-sized steelhead or a really nice brookie and I'm more than okay with either of those options.
My arm is already burning, and as I finally begin to make a little headway, he makes another blistering run and holes up in heavy water.
I tighten the drag a couple clicks, putting faith in the 12-pound leader, and finally wrangle him into the shallows. To my complete surprise, it's neither a steelhead or a Coaster, but one of the biggest smallmouth bass I've ever tagged into. An absolute bruiser that fought like I had just insulted his mother. I fold him into a net that's two-sizes too small while he glares at me, hold him up, and let out a whoop.
When I send him back, he swims off slowly, still looking for a fight. I catch one more, work up into the fussier water, and manage to hook into an equally feisty brookie that pushes the twenty-inch mark.
The rekindled romance is off to a start that washes all memories of rain, bugs, and bad fishing out into the windswept waves of Gitche Gumee in a matter of minutes.
After the river warm up, we make our way to the small cabin we've rented for the night, where we char meat on a grill, continue our Yahtzee tournament that ends, as it always does, with Blake besting us, take our last showers for a few days, and sleep on real beds.
We put in early the next morning and begin the long, and at times treacherous, ride out to the island. But the water is high, the lake is as smooth as a mirror, and the sun is already burning off the cool of the morning. The anticipation is palpable as the site comes into view.
We quickly unpack, set up camp, and take to the water, even though it's getting close to that mid-day lull when the fishing tends to go as limp as a dish rag. The wind picks up as we work our proven spots. We find a few willing takers, breathe a sigh of relief, and head in for a late lunch and afternoon shut-eye before motoring back out for the evening.
Almost as if on cue the daylight fades, the wind quiets, and the fishing takes off. In a rhythm now, every third or fourth cast results in a swipe as we test the shoreline. We release a couple dozen but keep two in the upper twenties for dinner.
So far we've found the numbers and a few respectable fish, but none of the true monsters we know roam these waters. Nevertheless, each strike dumps another shot of adrenaline into the system. And, like addicts, none of us can wait for the fix the next cast might bring.
I make a shot near shore, give a strip, and hang up hard. Stuck in the thick weeds and sticks I think, until my line starts pulling out. There are none of the head-shakes and zippy darts and dashes we've come to associate with smaller fish. This one is staying low and pulling line (and the boat) wherever he wants to go. An arm-burning battle brings him within sight, and we all gasp, but he isn't ready. Turning hard, he dives deep, and begins ripping out line again, back towards shore. We go back and forth for a while until he eventually tires enough to bring alongside for the net. Blake scoops him, I release the hook, and finally remember to breathe. We let him (and me) recover a minute before I hoist him for a few quick pictures and send him back on his way.
We each attempt a couple more casts, but our hearts aren't in it. Honestly, I'm too shaky for any more action and we all decide dinner and a fire sounds just about right. Besides, we don't want to burn all of our luck on the first day. We slowly motor back to the plaintive call of loons, out somewhere in the dark distance.
Back on the island dad gets a fire going, Blake fillets the two keepers, and I oil up the cast iron skillet. I can't think of a better ending to the day. Stuffed beyond full, we sit around the campfire and relive the last time we gathered in this very spot under very different circumstances. It all seems like a distant memory now.
As the logs burn down to red coals, the northern lights put on a quick display, surely a sign of good things to come tomorrow, and further evidence that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.