Zen … Before the Storms

My little foam bug, one tied on a #12 hook complete with a couple of sets of rubber legs, landed in the shallow water. After a couple of strips a swirl happened and I raised the rod tip. What followed as one of those epic showdowns between a bull bluegill and man on a three-weight fly rod. I was in heaven!

My dear friend, Jack Griffin, rose from the captain’s chair with interest. Our bout over the little floater fly was a tough one, bending the rod in an arc that brings joy to the heart, and in such moments, hope the rod will remain intact. So far I’ve been fortunate, and would be again as the stout fish the southerners call brim made circles that would impress a dedicated barrel racer. “Wow, that’s a nice one,” said Jack as the fish drove for deeper water.

Finally the bruiser gave in to allow me to skim it across the surface and lift it into the boat. “That’s a mighty fine fish,” he said, and I couldn’t have agreed more.

“It’s too big to keep,” I said. “I’ll have to release it.”

This small topwater fly, half the size of a penny, worked magic with the bluegills!

Jack wanted a picture, so we posed, the bluegill and I, and then the beauty was released to the lake. This battle was start of a fantastic two days of fly fishing for perhaps my favorite fish. Saturday with Jack, and again on Sunday morning at Annie Battle in Glendalough State Park with old friends, Tom and Cindy Cherveny. Both times the “fish were on.” 

If I were asked what activity brings me the most enjoyment, joy and relaxation this might top the list. I don’t need to go back too far in the past to second that emotion. My son, Jake, and I had gone to Missouri last Thanksgiving, and the weather was favorable for some late fall fly fishing. All the ponds on our family farm were ice free and I had caught numerous bass and  few crappies but no bluegill. A few miles east of our farm lives a retired banker on rolling, timber-blessed acreage that is home to about a five acre pond and home to some incredible bluegill. Years ago he gave me “perpetual permission” to fish the pond, so I drove over, pushed the line through the guides of my three-weight, tied on a “softie” and laid out a cast. 

This wasn’t a very good angle, for the bluegill was larger than it looks … and that isn’t a fisherman’s tale!

Moments later my soul was restored in blissful joy as the first bluegill hit the fly. Those circular patterns of brawn seem to do that to me. Before an hour was up I had enough “keepers” and sat down next to my rod on the bank. If Zen is indeed a state of calm rapture, I had achieved it. This feeling occurred more than once over this Memorial Day weekend, and not just from fishing. Friendships count, too. And a saunter through a native prairie was a fine dessert. The fishing, though, was supreme. Jack and I would do well on his home lake Saturday afternoon, rimming around one corner of the lake in his pontoon. It was easy fishing, and his dog, Julie, loved those moments as much as Jack and I did. Maybe even more.

Sunday morning I hoisted my kayak onto the car and headed to Glendalough. Initially camping was planned, although getting ready for an arts show on Thursday poxed that idea. At Annie Battle, a southeasterly wind was already laying heavy waves across the surface, a prelude to the incoming storms that would batter us for the remainder of the holiday. Thinking the leeward edge of the forest across the lake near Minnesota’s only state park canoe-in campground where they were camped would be protected, I pushed off and was careful to keep the nose of the kayak into the waves. I was surprised at how well my muscle memory kicked in, and within a short time I made it across to calmer water. 

The burr oaks weren’t fully leafed, their hefty limbs still bared to the sky.

Moments after I got into the lee they paddled up in greeting with Tom lifting a healthy stringer of their catch. As we chatted I rigged up, using the same rod and fly. I let out some line and laid the fly into the shallows, and within three strips my first bluegill charged into battle. 

This is heritage lake managed for bluegill with a five-fish limit, and no motors or electronics are allowed. This is Tom’s country, for it’s beautiful and quiet, a portion of land nestled in the transition zone between prairie and hardwood forest. The park was named by a long ago owner of the land, E. E. Murphy, then owner of the Minneapolis Tribune, for an Irish word meaning a glen between two lakes … one of which is Annie Battle. 

The “spent” seedlings of the Pasqueflowers blanketed the upper prairie.

After catching and releasing dozens of bluegill and a handful of bass, the predicted storm announced itself with a sudden crack of thunder. I gave the four fish on my stringer to Tom, then took off for the landing on the distant shore trying to beat the storm.

Once I got the kayak settled into the car top carrier, I stopped per chance at the Prairie Hill Interpretive Trail near the park entrance for a sandwich, then grabbed my old Nikon and headed in through a woody ravine with a promised prairie at the apex. A few weeks earlier I had photographed an incredible display of spring Pasqueflowers on a southern exposure of this same prairie and was hopeful of finding more wildflowers. Finding a Prairie Smoke would have made my spring-to-summer wildflower voyage nearly complete. And thus far, the weather was cooperating. The storm was mostly just wind and threatening clouds.

Though leafing had certainly started, the burr oaks were coming late to provide me with a few more opportunities to continue my “limb” works. I saw my second ever scarlet tanager moments into the saunter, and once in the upper prairie portion of the trail, I spied a few Prairie Smoke hiding among a meadow seemingly full of spent Pasqueflower seed heads — nearly as pretty as the blossoms themselves. It was a day … a weekend, really … that offered perhaps more than I rightfully deserved.

And, yes, there was Prairie Smoke hiding in the prairie grasses!

Views from the top of the prairie were magnificent, and I settled onto a handy bench for a little meditation. Had my camera battery not died I might not have had reason to leave. As I headed back down the mile long trail toward the car a day old fawn suddenly stood awkwardly in the middle of the trail. On legs so spindly that it was wobbling to stand, it seemed to wonder if I was man or wolf, friend or foe, and I was kicking myself for not having my spare battery along. Eventually it stepped off to the side, still in newborn wonder as I scooted past toward the car.

Nice size bluegill on an ultralight fly rod. Time spent with good friends sharing a fellowship with nature. Chance encounters with beautiful wildflowers, a scarlet tanager and a newly welcomed whitetail deer to the world. I believe there is a Zen to be found within the natural world, and for a couple of days it was presented ever so lovingly. It was a beautiful peace before the storms rolled through on Monday … 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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