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Big Fork. Big Falls. Big Fish.

September 13, 2012

August 16, 2012

I’ve been burning the candle at both ends.  Up late last night packing and up early this morning, I hit the road just after six a.m.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a book that described canoeing opportunities on various rivers in Minnesota and was intrigued by both the remoteness of the Big Fork River and the description of the fishing opportunities for such game fish as walleye, musky, northern pike and small mouth bass. Filed away in my mind as one of those places I needed to try, I forgot about the Big Fork until I read Kip Vieth’s article, A North Country Beauty, in Eastern Fly Fishing (Dedicated to fly fishing, it covers both fresh and saltwater species, is well produced and a great magazine that always stokes my desire for fishing adventure).  One look at his photos of leaping small mouth bass and toothy musky had me chomping at the bit to give the Big Fork a try.  The only problem: it is a good five hours away from my home in the Twin Cities. Not exactly what one would call convenient.  Fortunately, my wife’s family booked a weekend trip in mid-August to Rutger’s Sugar Lake Lodge in Grand Rapids, MN, which put me within striking distance of the Big Fork.  Hmm….a plan is hatched.  I will leave a day early to fish the Big Fork from a kayak, camp in the City of Big Falls Campground and then sneak in more fishing on the Big Fork on Friday before meeting up with my family and in-laws.  With the help of Bill at Rivers North Outfitters of MN I’m booked up and raring to go.

My excitement is dampened early in the week.  Just as I feared, the weather is due to change the day before I leave.  The mild temps and fair weather are about to be replaced with rain, a strong 15 to 25 mph north wind and cool temps.  Just perfect for fishing, especially in a kayak.  I’ve only been in a kayak one other time, so the thought of strong winds has me more than a bit concerned and I’m tempted to call the whole trip off.  I call Bill and after grilling him about river levels, strength of the current, the weather/wind forecast, and the viability of kayaking in such conditions, he has me convinced just enough to proceed.  Having recently watched Dewitt Jones’ film, “Celebrate What’s Right With the World” thanks to a recommendation from a good friend, I am inspired to go for it. Stick with the plan I tell myself.  Catch a fish to celebrate.

Heading north on Hwy. 169 I keep my ears and eyes open for something spectacular.  The further north I get, the cloudier the skies and the stronger the wind.  A mix of sprinkles and fine mist dampen the cracked windshield of my Buick.  Soon enough, Lake Mille Lacs comes into sight and I lose radio reception from the Twin Cities as I travel along its western shore and I turn off the usual noise.  Next I blow through Aitkin and appreciate the pastoral beauty and marvel at the abundance of cattle ranches, an industry I was unaware of, as I get closer to Grand Rapids.  In the mist and fleeting sun, I can see Monet at his easel.  Through Grand Rapids and north on scenic Hwy. 38 – a gorgeous drive.  With enough dips, turns, and climbs to have both hands on the steering wheel I’m glad to have taken this route.  Somewhere along the way I stumble onto KAXE 91.7 and am rewarded with a groove of tunes from artists such as J.D. McPherson, Fred Eaglesmith, Etta James, Dr. John, Lisa Morales, and Stanton Moore, which are new or vaguely familiar to me.  I don’t change the station the rest of the way, which is highly unusual.

I roll into Big Falls, MN on time and find Rivers North Outfitters before heading to the campground at Big Falls.  A nice, clean campground, I pay my fee, pitch my tent and devour my Kramarczuks Cherry Bomb Sausage before checking in with Bill at Rivers North Outfitters, which is located in Gorden’s Hardware/Wild River Gifts.  There I pay for my trip and purchase a few hot lures to ensure my success.  Along the way, Bill and I discuss how to find the halfway point (a couple of brown houses along the bank) and what type of structure to look for when fishing for muskies, as that is my goal for day one.  About ten minutes later he turns his red truck onto a gravel road and we carry the kayak down the bank to the river.  We shake hands as  I confirm that he will pick me up in Big Falls at eight p.m. and poof, I’m adrift and alone on the Big Fork River.  Awesome.

Thank goodness no one is around because the first fifteen minutes is fit for a bloopers video as I struggle to control my kayak in the wind, all while trying to get a few casts in.  I snag a tree and paddle over to it to free my lure.  More than once I find myself wondering what I got myself into. Then…disaster.

Ditching my spinning rod and twister for my musky rod I begin chucking my favorite Buchertail buck tail.  A few casts later, bam.  I snag the nylon hand grip at the back of the kayak, which results in maybe the worst backlash I’ve experienced.  Beaching the kayak on a little island I’m forced to hack away with a dull knife.  Fortunately, I’m left with enough line to carry on.  Stepping out of the kayak to stretch I try to find humor in the situation and contemplate Celebrating What’s Right With My Backlash. I make a half-heart cast with my spinning rod and feel a little nip on the twister tail I’m throwing and set the hook.  A short run later I see a 20-inch musky holding on to the tail of the twister before it lets go and vanishes.   The next cast, another musky, maybe a few inches bigger, swoops in and misses my bait.  If there are little ones…there have got to be big ones.

Reluctantly, I clamber back into the kayak only to discover a decent sized leech on my foot as I’d been standing barefoot in the river.  Freeing the leech from my foot I release it back into the river and begin cautiously casting my buck tail, looking each time to make sure I don’t snag the handgrip again.  Not much later my futility and patience are rewarded with a subtle strike. Setting the hook the thoughts of another small musky vanish as a beauty jumps from water.  Fishing rod in one hand and kayak paddle in the other, this is the moment I feared: boating a good-sized fish in a kayak without a net.  Finding a spot out of the current I again beach the canoe and land the fish after several runs.  It is a plump 42″ musky that has made the trip a success.

Over the next several hours, I managed to land one other musky that was 30″ and missed several others, including a real beauty that left me shaking.

The kayak, as Bill suggested, handled itself well in the wind.  Nearing five-thirty it dawned on me that I hadn’t reached the halfway point.  Stowing the rods, I paddled and paddled and paddled.  Finally, at 6:30 p.m. I reached the halfway point – bucking the wind was turning into a battle.  Fueled by Jack Links beef jerky, water and fear of getting caught in the dark on an unfamiliar river, I picked up the pace and wondered how I was going to cover the remaining half in an hour and a half.  Ten minutes to eight and I was fearing the worst when around the bend appeared a cabin, then another cabin and in the near distance, a radio tower – that has got to be Big Falls.  I hope.  Encouraged by these signs of civilization my shoulders ache a little less. At about 8:05 p.m. I reach the landing just as Bill is pulling up.

Tired, wet, and muddy, I dry off by the fire.  The Knackwurst from Kramarczuks is delicious and the cold Summit Oktoberfest hits the spot.  Growing weary by the fire I soon  shuffle off to my tent and call it a day.  Tomorrow, small mouth bass.  I can’t wait.

– Hats

One Comment leave one →
  1. Benny permalink
    September 13, 2012 10:07 am

    Great story and a birds nest that I could be proud of (sounds less nasty than backlash). Can’t wait for smallie day. Will be interested in what lures and techniques you used.

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