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NIGHT FISHING ON THE BRULE
By: Dennis Anderson
September 17, 2014 12:30 AM Central
Star Tribune, Sunday, July 10, 2011
Though often short of cash, fishermen are gamblers. Otherwise you can't explain why they play such long odds. I myself have tossed a hat into the lottery ring on occasion, thinking big.
Dave Zentner was waiting for us in the small town of Brule, Wis., his canoe on top of his truck. He had driven from his home in Duluth, and with him were the paraphernalia of a night fisherman: fly rod, mosquito dope, headlamp, extra batteries. His wide-brimmed hat lay on the seat beside him, and through the truck windows his varnished canoe paddles glistened, catching the low angle of early evening sun.
Warm, with a clear sky, this was July 4th, Independence Day.
"Looks like it could be a good night,' Dave said.
My sons were along, and the four of us angled in our two vehicles toward the Brule River, hoping to time the hatch of Hexagenia Limbata, the second-largest mayfly in the nation -- a real airplane.
Coming and going according to its own schedule, the "hex' is mysterious almost beyond understanding. Good setups for its emergence from river mud are hot and humid late June and early July days. Once atop a river's surface ("duns'), these bugs soon fly, mate, drop eggs and die, creating what we were hoping for tonight: a spinner fall of spent mayflies onto still water.
Nothing so much as the sight of a hex spinner floating topside on a hot summer night triggers the rise of fat-sided brown trout, whose giant slurpings can be telltale of their positions, and their vulnerability.
It's then that an angler casts a hex spinner imitation, judging in the dark distances that he can only imagine, and hoping his fly hits the target.
Launching our canoes, we paddled with the current, finessing our craft among boulders and around deadfalls. This portion of the river divides bogs where jack pine and spruce, tamarack and cedar stand thick. Also there are white pines, and a bald eagle soon lifted from one, dipping low over the river before struggling for altitude.
We hadn't paddled long when we rounded a bend, surprising a big doe that stood brisket deep in the chilled stream. Not far away, a hooded merganser scurried her young away from our approach. To the west, thunderstorms threatened that we hoped would hold off until we finished our business sometime after midnight.
Darkness gathered, and we paddled on.
"Night fishing,' the fly fisherman and entomology guru Ernie Schweibert once said, "can get into your blood, and your senses become amazingly attuned to it. You will find yourself casting accurately to rises you only hear. The slightest disturbance near your fly puts the reflex on edge; you must strike at these rises, for it is easy to assume your fly to be elsewhere and never strike at a good fish.'
After not quite an hour of stroking, we settled our canoes alongside a heavily vegetated shoreline and tied on big hex imitations, sizes 6 and 8. No duns lay on the water, which in itself wasn't a bummer. As many as three days can separate the time a dun takes wing and when it falls back to the river as a spinner.
Looping some line over the river, getting a feel for things, my younger son, Cole, asked: "You think it will happen?'
He was in the front of my canoe.
"I don't know,' I said. "I hope so.'
Often hex spinners start to fall about the time whippoorwills croon their signature tunes.
Sedge wrens sing out also, and howls of coyotes often rattle through the unseen forest. On nights when the sky hangs over anglers like a black umbrella, with barely a moon, the effect is otherworldly, ethereal.
"There's one bug,' Dave said, seeing a single hex spinner on the water.
He and my other son, Trevor, were upstream a short distance from Cole and me, just far enough to be unseen in the dark, save for when one of their headlamps flashed on.
The lights weren't kept on long because they gathered so many mosquitoes so quickly. Wood ticks were another issue: The other night when Dave quit fishing, he had more than 100 on him.
Were there but that many hex spinners to fish to.
"As far as hex hatches, it hasn't been a very good year so far,' Dave had told the boys and me before we headed north Monday. "Maybe it will happen tonight. Maybe not. We can only try.'
The gamble seemed a fair one to us, with warm weather prevailing, and we bet the hatch would happen. After all, turtles, frogs, cedar waxwings and blackbirds were also waiting for it, and if history was prologue, they wouldn't be disappointed.
Again a light flashed on and off upstream.
"There's another spinner,' Dave said.
We had nearly forgotten by then it was a holiday, and were surprised when fireworks exploded in the distance. Irregular at first, then piling on top of one another, the booms suggested a wartime ombardment.
It wasn't long afterward, holiday festivities or not, that we acknowledged defeat, and began to ease back upstream. A couple of spinners on the water meant, really, nothing. There would be no hatch or spinner fall of consequence, no casts into the good night, no betting that a big brown that was slurping his way though a mess of mayflies would confuse an imitation with the real thing.
A person might have to experience for himself the wonder of reefing back on a long rod in the dark and feel the tightening of a line against a fat trout to appreciate the attraction. It's not a matter of what's for dinner, because the fish are released. And many that are hooked aren't brought to hand because they wrap lines around submerged trees or beneath rocks. The rush instead is fueled by the anticipation of a hatch or spinner fall, the imagining of it, and finally the slinking in a canoe atop a glassy ribbon that winds deep into the dark forest.
Trevor hooked one fish on the way out. He and Dave heard it slurping and from the bow Trevor looped a hex spinner imitation in the direction of the sound. As quickly as it landed, the fly was consumed, and nearly as quickly dislodged from the fish's mouth by an unseen obstruction.
At the landing, we loaded the canoes. I found a country station and pointed the truck toward home. Soon the boys were asleep.
A break here or there, I figured, and we would have fooled some trout.
Fishermen make that bet every day.
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