Wacky weed walleyes.
"A narc," Doc said. "A drug cop. Carries a gat.
A Roscoe. A rod."
"A-Rod? I thought he played third base for the Yankees."
"You're cruisin', pal," Doc said. "Playin' with fire."
"Are you okay?" I asked. I remembered when Doc slipped into tough-guy crazy mode years ago, and it was not a pretty sight.
"I feel like I got a belly full of lead," Doc said.
"A belly as big as yours, that would take a whole lot of lead," I said.
Doc gave me a tremendously unkind look.
"I have a roll of Turns. Will that help?"
"Not likely," Doc said. "I need lots stronger medicine."
"What's the problem?"
"Simple," Doc said, "I need a fish fix."
For some of us, catching fish is the ultimate high. Better than the morphine I got with my kidney stone. Better than the pain pills they gave me after my hip replacement. Maybe not as powerful as holding my first granddaughter for the first time, but feeling the tentative tug of a hungry fish through that impossibly thin line is an emotional and physical kick. And once you're hooked, all you want is more! More! More!
It's nearing the first of June. The same core bunch of friends have been fishing together since Noah learned to count to two. And we'll do it again this year. Doc, my dentist, is the self-declared ringleader, but he doesn't always lead, and the rest of us hardly ever follow. An odd relationship, to say the least.
Then there's the policeman, the attorney, the banker, and me, the writer. We added the kid a few years ago when one of our original group, the plant manager, went to that big walleye hatchery in the sky. Some of us like to think that when there are particularly large blasts of colorful Northern Lights, it's him passing gas up there. And lighting it.
"It won't be long now, Doc," I said. "Just three and a wake-up, and we'll be beating up the water for fish like Aunt Lucy will beat up on the presidential candidates before the Iowa caucuses."
Doc had the shakes and bit his fingernails. "You just had to toss in politics, didn't you? Thanks for making my stomach ache even more."
"My pleasure," I said.
A few days and 750 miles later, we drove into Knobby's in Sioux Lookout. While the rest of the boys were filling out paperwork, I asked about fishing conditions.
Knobby Clark, our fly-in specialist, was quick with answers but short on specifics. "It's been a strange winter," he said. "Had a relatively mild April, then an early ice-out, then a hard freeze, then record-breaking heat, then a ton of rain, then more heat. I think you'll catch plenty of fish, but finding them may be a challenge."
"What? High water?"
"No. High weeds."
An hour later the float plane deposited us and our gear at the single cabin on Bamaji. Provisions were stowed, tackle rigged, and we were in the boats before noon.
Doc and I had barely motored away from the dock when the engine lugged and died. I hit the tilt lever and discovered the prop was entwined with weeds.
"Arugula?" Doc asked.
"Looks more like cilantro."
"Or parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme."
"Some of each," I said, leaning over the back of the boat, and ridding the engine of its leafy load.
I yanked the rope, put 'er in gear, and plowed ahead for a good 60 feet before we were dragged to a stop again.
"I guess this is what Knobby meant by weeds," I said.
"I recall problems with reeds and lilies in the past, but nothing like this," Doc said.
I peered into the clear, tea-colored water. "Looks to be a shag carpet about eight inches down," I said. "Maybe if we run shallow we can make some headway." I angled the engine on the second tilt setting, started up, and the cooling stream still squirted, so we burbled out to deeper water to develop a strategy.
We had fished this lake many times, and Doc said, "Let's try the spring." Now in deep water, I dropped the lower unit and ran full bore a few miles up the west shore. There was a sandy area fanning out from a small spring that trickled into the lake. The depth was about two feet at the shore with a gradual drop to 14 feet 100 yards out. It had been a walleye hot spot for us for years.
I shifted to idle, we rigged jigs and salted minnows, and tossed them into the gentle flow. What we got for our trouble was tossed salad.
"This may prove rather difficult," Doc said.
The next few few casts we retrieved before our jigs hit lettuce, and we hooked several scrappy pike. I tried an old Luhr-Jensen Nip-I-Diddee floater with propellers on either end, and ax handle pike came up to smash it four casts in a row. Doc had the same result with a floating Rapala.
Ten minutes of that, and Doc said, "Let's find the walleyes."
The depth finder said 12 feet. We switched back to the salted minnows on jigs. Brought up less salad, but no walleyes.
"You suppose they migrated somewhere else?" I asked.
"It's been their habitat right here for probably centuries," Doc said. "We need to work harder."
After several attempts, we determined the weeds were growing at least a foot tall, even on the flats that were rocky and bald as long as we could remember. Must have been a strange winter, indeed, as Knobby said. With an eye on the depth, we carefully lowered our jigs to two feet above the bottom, and jerked away.
Paydirt came almost immediately. Doc hooked three before I got one of my own, but soon the walleyes were doubles. And decent ones, too. After 10,15, 20, Doc began to relax, got a glassy look. Smiled like a teenager who just got her braces off. The fix.
"Feeling better?" I asked.
"Oh, man," Doc said. "All I need now is some munchies."
Later that day we motored below a serious rapids where our compatriots were parked, encountered far fewer weeds, and managed to catch and release enough fish to feed every cat in Des Moines for a week. If we hadn't released them back into the wild, that is. The cats will never know.
The days on the water passed dreamily that year, all of us supremely satisfied with the euphoria, and content in the knowledge that the fishing fix would linger for months, if not longer.
A week later, back at our careers, adoring our families, sneaking out for an occasional poker game or round of golf and, for the more venturous ones, a visit to a fishing hole, I wondered what it was, specifically, that interrupted our quest for fish. By the photos on a Northwest Ontario website, I positively identified our nemeses: milfoil, horsetail, bladderwort, bulrush, arrowhead, and duckweed.
When I called Doc to tell him the names of all those weeds, he chuckled a while, then said, "You want to come over for dinner tonight? I have some walleye filets in my freezer that will get you higher than a kite." If there's a sensory experience more powerful than a fusion of fishing and friendship, I don't know what it is. I said, "I'm on my way. Thanks, Doc!"
Illustrations by Peter Koblsaat
BY GREG KNOWLES *
* North with Doc columnist Greg Knowles lives in Green Valley, Arizona. A 5-volume set of the first 20 years of North with Doc is available in e-reader form at amazon.com.