It rained every day in June. At least so it seemed whenever I had time to go fishing. A couple of times when it didn’t rain, my free time wsas consumed with mowing the lawn before it became a hayfield or catching up on other yard work. At any rate, I began suffering from FDD–Fishing Deficit Disorder.
Sunshine appeared for the Independence Day weekend. Summer finally arrived on the North Shore. And that meant the mayflies were beginning to hatch on area lakes. Best of all, I had time to go fishing. I put the canoe on the truck and grabbed a fly rod. After a supper featuring summer’s first garden-fresh greens, I headed out for the evening hatch.
The midsummer mayfly hatch is one of the high points of my angling year. Usually I go after trout, but in recent years I’ve caught more white suckers (on dry flies!) than trout in a favorite lake. That prompted some exploration last summer, leading to the discovery of a place where walleyes rise to dry flies. My passion for trout fishing took a back seat to fresh walleye dinners.
Fishing conditions were perfect last Sunday evening. I launched the canoe just as the setting sun was touching the treetops. The lake was mirror calm, although the stillness was occasionally rocked by the wake of a passing fishing boat. From the cabin-dotted shores, the sounds of people enjoying the long weekend could be heard.
Nothing much was happening as I rowed along the shoreline, seeing just a mayfly or two resting on the water’s surface. As I passed an anchored pontoon boat, a fisherman told me, “Better get a line in the water. They’re biting.” I continued a couple of hundred yards farther to a small bay where I’d caught walleyes in the past.
Since there was no surface action, I started with a spinning rod and a jig. It wasn’t long before I missed a strike and then caught and released a small walleye. I worked along the shoreline, casting into the shallows. The sun was now below the trees. Where were the mayflies?
Then I heard the sound. Glurp. Soon, I heard it again. Glurp. It was coming from outside the bay, near a couple off half-submerged boulders that were likely part of a rocky bar extending into the lake. I rowed over there to investigate. Mayflies dotted the surface here and there like tiny sailboats. I watched one disappear in a swirl. It was time to put away the spinning rod.
I readied the fly rod with practiced deliberation, just to keep the adrenaline at bay. When the hatch begins, you know it won’t last long. Fish are rising all around, so excitement can get the best of you, inevitably leading to tangled lines and leaders from foolishly hurried moves. Precious fishing time is lost as you try to untangle the mess in diminishing light. It is far more effective to fish calmly, as though you have all the time in the world.
I tied on a mayfly imitation of my own design; one intended to look like a real bug and continue to float high after catching a fish or two. To keep it afloat I applied a silicone paste. Tugging the leader to check my knots, I was ready to fish. My first cast was into the rings of a rise where a fish had just taken a mayfly. Within seconds, it took my fly, too. I set the hook and was fast to a fish. It put a deep bow in my five weight fly rod and took some line as it struggled to get away, turning the canoe in the process. The tussle continued for a minute or two before I brought the plump, 16-inch walleye to hand.
That was when I discovered there was no stringer, bucket or bag on board to hold my catch. I rapped the walleye’s head on the canoe thwart and tossed it on the canoe floor. Call it primitive angling improvisation.
Now the fish were rising all around me. Unlike trout, which cruise beneath the surface looking for mayflies, walleyes seem to hang around in one place. When you see a rise within casting range, you drop your fly into the same place. While it isn’t a foolproof way to draw strikes, it is more effective than blind-casting and waiting for a strike.
It wasn’t long before a second walleye, perhaps an inch shorter than the first, was lying on the canoe floor. I hooked another and lost it after a brief tussle. Then I stopped seeing rises within casting distance of the canoe. But fish were rising just beyond my casting range. A couple of quick pulls on the oars moved me in that direction.
I cast to one of the risers and soon landed walleye number three. Number four was an 8-inch runt that went back into the lake. Number five was another keeper.
Thirty feet from the canoe, I watched a mayfly disappear in a slashing take, more aggressive that the deliberate slurps made by the walleyes. Whatever the fish was, it had shown a high dorsal fin and its tail. I made a cast to the rise. The strike came moments after the fly touched the water. I clearly saw the fish’s tail as it completed the porpoising rise. Setting the hook, I found myself attached to something that was obviously bigger than the walleyes lying in my canoe.
The fish didn’t make an initial run. But it didn’t want to come in. It stayed deep and just kept pulling. Sometimes it took a little line. Sometimes I gained line against it. We were evenly matched. There was no sense trying to force the fish, because I really wanted to catch it. Eventually, I was able to get it close enough to the canoe that part of my 15-foot leader was in the rod guides. Still it refused to turn my way. The fish made several short, strong runs, with the blood knots on the leader catching in the guides. I had to give the fly rod a quick shake to make the line flow.
Finally, I was able to lead the still unseen fish to the side of the canoe. I reached down and slipped my hand around a slab-sided lake whitefish. It was the first one I’d landed on a fly in two years. A great night of fly-fishing was suddenly even better.
Now walleyes are Minnesota’s state fish. Their primacy on the dinner table is undisputed. But the lake whitefish is one of the most underrated fish swimming in state waters. They are common in many northern lakes, difficult to catch and every bit as delectable as walleye. Vikki was alive when I caught the last one and we had baked fillets the following evening. We agreed it was one of the best fish we’d ever had. Given the declining course of her health over the remainder of the summer, I think it was her final meal of fresh fish.
The floor of my canoe was beginning to resemble a commercial fishing skiff. But I was a couple walleyes short of a limit and the rise was still happening. Once again, I took a couple of pulls with the oars to move toward active fish. Darkness was overtaking the twilight. It was difficult to see my fly on the water. A couple of times, I struck when a fish rose to take a real bug near my fly. The rises were becoming fewer and sporadic. I was pleased to catch the fifth walleye of my six-fish limit.
Whether I would “limit out” was a fair question. Now I could hear more rises than I could see. Casting to a rise no longer drew an immediate strike. One thing in my favor was the evening remained relatively warm. On most evenings, the chill in the air as darkness falls brings an end to the hatch. I thought about how some moose researchers say the animals are stressed out by hot weather. They clearly haven’t spent many summer nights in Minnesota’s moose country.
Finally, one last walleye came up for the fly. After the lengthy battle with the whitefish, bringing it to hand was anti-climatic. But these were the first walleyes I’d caught in 2016. It felt good, really good, to start back to the landing with a limit. It was just light enough to see my way. But the walleyes were no longer rising. A big frog splashed away from the ramp as the canoe touched the shore. I used the truck’s headlights to load up and tie down the canoe.
It was 10:30 p.m. when I started home. June had been a long, fishingless month. A night of July fly-fishing was just the tonic I needed to to stave off FDD. Driving home, I was sure of one thing. Further treatments were necessary.