Ten feet to go… The weathered decking creaks beneath your feet as you run feverishly with a head full of steam. One giant leap with the warm summer wind blowing against your sun-freckled frame. SPLASH! You’ve emerged yourself in an aquatic world full of new treasures to discover. With neon green goggles tugging uncomfortably at your freshly buzz-cut hair, and the August sun beating down on your back, the curiosities abound. Packs of sunfish play a game of “nibble and dart” with your toes, and crayfish dance defensively on the sandy bottom. Straining your neck upward, the scene instills complementary sensations of both fear and intrigue. Long stems of broad leaf pondweeds mark the dark, motionless view into the deep abyss of the large Minnesota lake.
Aside from the title reference to an early 2000’s murder-thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, this experience was the pinnacle of my childhood. Instilling cherished memories of entire days devoted to the water. Slowly and subconsciously marking a lifelong obsession to what lies beneath the surface. Jacque Cousteau certainly spoke true when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”.
Although my mom always referred to me as a “fish” when I was younger, I like to think my persona was closer to a deranged duck. Dabbling up and down in the clear water, emerging every twenty seconds for a gasp of air, I was perfectly content with my elementary exploration. It wasn’t until adulthood, that I started paying attention to the entirety of sub-aquatic ecosystems.
While lackadaisically casting for dock-dwelling largemouth bass at my family’s cabin in north-central Minnesota, my attention is often drawn to the year’s brownish brood of mallards tipping downward to feed in the bulrushes to the east. I slowly wade from the shoreline into the lukewarm water to catch a glimpse of the fledgling’s vittles. Giving time to let the swirling sandstorm settle at the bottom, my polarized sunglasses reveal an alien world beneath the surface. Scanty invertebrate scuds cling to the narrow reeds, darting forward and back to avoid detection. Bright green algae bubbles blanket the base of the reeds at the water line, holding incalculable microorganisms and the occasional freshwater snail. Fine table fair for maturing mallards set to lift their wings towards Missouri in the fall.
As an outdoorsman who spends a majority of his free-time around the water, I believe that it’s crucial to understand the ecosystem of the body of water that I hunt, fish, or leisurely enjoy. As a fisherman, some basic information comes somewhat easily in today’s age of high tech sonar (of which I personally can’t afford). Weed beds, sunken islands, and rock piles illuminate the translucent screen with amazing accuracy. Side imaging sonar even allows the user to fully scope the size and position of a foraging fish beneath the bow.
Although these tools can make the sport more precise, but in my opinion, it’s intimacy with the water that pays dividends. When my brother Jase and I were boys, we would net silver shiner minnows from the shallow reeds, slide my grandpa’s twelve foot boat off of the sandy shore, and try our luck on the lake next to our cabin for walleye. Barefoot and sun-burned, we tried every tactic our bantam brains could conjure over the summer. Without sonar to establish depth, or sunglasses to block the glare off the water, we were figuratively and literally fishing blind. It wasn’t until we attempted trolling over one section of the lake at dusk that our persistence would pay off.
Jase’s gray zebco reel zinged as the drag let out, and he managed to man-handle a fourteen inch walleye into the boat. Our youthful shouts of joy must have echoed for miles as our tiny trophy was fastened to our rusty stringer. We continued to troll the same section of the lake, and it produced two more walleyes of equal size. As the sun quickly set, we kicked the three-horse Evinrude into gear, and returned to the cabin with the hearts of champions.
It wasn’t until we cut a six foot hole in the ice for view-fishing winters later, that we realized why this area was so ideal for walleye. A shallow sunken island stood at the tip of a long finger of gravel, and to the northwest it dropped to twelve feet, and then sharply to a 60 foot bowl. Bright lime-green cabbage filled our eyes in the heart of winter, and walleyes continued to peruse the ledge. The evident key to our success lay in our exploration of the structure and vegetation beneath, and still stands as a hot-spot to this day.
When it comes to my favorite fall activity of water fowling, the investigative techniques are more corporeal in nature. Sonar can detect underwater structures and depth, but while scoping waterfowl food and behavior, your naked senses take the brunt of the work. When a group of ducks congregate in one spot, my mind instantly begs the questions “What are they eating?” or “What makes them feel comfortable there?” I can usually answer the question in one of two ways.
Working smarter not harder is usually my mantra, so I beeline to the grizzled veterans who have dominated these lakes for most of their lifetimes. Bringing a fresh beer is always a good conversation starter, and usually unties tongues to share tales and knowledge about bodies of water that I would have suffered years to obtain. “There’s a bed of wild celery over there” or “I’ve consistently had luck with mallards in this cove”, are the priceless tidbits that can work to my advantage for years to come.
When the first method fails (which it rarely does), I dive back to my first love, the water. I’ve found that a two hour excursion in my twelve foot boat not only yields valuable information, it’s also a great way to spend time with my son or yellow Labrador Penny. Banking the watercraft on the bank of an unexplored area gives me plenty of time to leisurely wade and discover the intricacies of that position, teach my son about the importance of an ecosystem, or practice pre-season retrieves with the dog.
Seemingly the split-second summer fades to fall, and I’m tucked in a duck blind watching the spectacle of waterfowl buzz above. My gaze takes me to tranquil water, where I know what lies beneath.