Some summer evenings, walking the trail along the Fox River after the sun’s gone down, I’ll see a fishing boat returning to the landing with its running lights on—red/green on the bow, white astern. Seeing those lights, and hearing the droning hum of the outboard, I’ll be transported in memory, instantly, to certain nights of smallmouth fishing in Ontario, nights when we’d return to Crow Rock Camp beneath a haze of stars, our guide slaloming between the wild rice beds and through the rockbound channels of Lake of the Woods with the throttle wide open, the wind raising goosebumps on my arms, one hand on my hat to keep it from blowing off.
For a number of years, beginning in the late-1980s, a visit to Crow Rock was a fixture on my summer calendar. It was there that I learned most of what I know about fly-fishing for smallmouth bass; there that I developed my stubbornly retrograde affection for deerhair bugs in general and for chartreuse Dahlberg strip-divers in particular; there that I came to love nothing in angling so much as the tense, anticipatory drama of casting a bug over dark, rocky water, twitching it once, waiting… waiting… waiting—and then experiencing the shuddering sensory overload of having a big smallmouth bass arrow up, as if he’d suddenly materialized from another dimension, to crush it.
When a big smallie detonates on a topwater bug, you don’t say “Fish on.” You whoop and hoot and holler like a sailor on shore leave. And when this encounter plays out to a background score of loon music on a jewel-like lake hidden in the Ontario wilderness—a lake that by all appearances is untouched by human hands—you find yourself inclined to believe that you, too, have passed through the looking glass.
I have so many enduring memories of the Crow Rock years that it’s hard to pick out just a few for the highlight reel. There was the morning on Hatmaker Lake when my fishing partner Ed Houston landed so many big smallies that Kurt Dafcik, who was guiding us, dubbed him “The Hogmeister”; there was the evening on Fox Lake when Bob Kuhn, the legendary wildlife artist, and my dad, Harlan, seemed to catch a fish on every cast and, in the process, had about as much legal fun as it’s possible for two men to have.
And there was the day those same two men, both born in the 1920s, stripped to their birthday suits to take a lunchtime swim in the cool waters of Lake of the Woods, then sat side-by-side on a convenient log to dry off in the sun. The sight of them made me think of John Updike’s wonderful description of his golfing partners, “a couple of warty pickles, blanching in the brine of time.”
It was on another Fox Lake evening that my great friend Andy “Bwana” Cook landed a four-pounder on a classic Messinger-style deerhair frog—and I hooked and landed its twin on my very next cast. Andy’s and my trips to Crow Rock spawned our continuing debate over which tastes better: an ice-cold Labatt’s Blue after a day of smallmouth fishing in Ontario or an ice-cold Kalik after a day of bonefishing in the Bahamas. The closest we’ve come to a definitive answer is that both are unimprovable in their respective situations.
There were the raucous gin rummy games in our cabin (a dollar a game, double for a skunk), cooling our heels there during the midday heat before heading out again for the evening’s fishing; there were the wild blueberries, gloriously sweet, that we feasted on when we found them growing everywhere on the island on Hatmaker Lake; there was the evening, preternaturally warm and still, when so many loons queued up above comely little Joan Lake they looked like jets at O’Hare. And when they landed, skidding down one-by-one as if they were under the command of air traffic control, they filled that wilderness amphitheater with music of such volume, and such alien intensity, that it was as if it issued from a crack in the walls of time.
There was the quality of light in the hour before sunset as well, the way it seemed to throw the details of the perceivable world into heightened relief, pulling out the shapes and textures of the trees—cedars, spruces, balsams—until it felt as if you were looking through 3-D glasses, or an antique stereoscope.
Still, if there’s one Crow Rock memory that stands out above the rest, it’s the evening Wendel Dafcik took Dad and me into Emerald Lake. Of all the Crow Rock “back lakes,” Emerald (not its real name, by the way) holds the biggest bass. That’s the good news; the bad news is that they tend to be uncommonly moody, meaning that fishing Emerald is always a roll of the dice.
On this particular evening, though, all the stars, planets, and assorted celestial objects were clearly in perfect alignment—and the result was magic. The “Big Boys,” as Wendel calls them, were on the prowl, and they responded to the chartreuse bug I was throwing the way ravenous wolves respond to fresh venison. The strikes were explosive; the fights, punctuated by the twisting, torquing leaps that are the smallmouth bass’s stock-in-trade, were epic. Most of the fish were in the 3- to 4-pound class—the smallmouth “sweet spot,” as far as I’m concerned—and on a 7-weight flyrod they damn near wore me out.
Even now, when I recall that evening, I find myself reflexively reaching with my left hand to massage the remembered ache in my right wrist and forearm.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear even to me, I haven’t been back to Crow Rock in, well, a while. Schedules conflicted, life interfered; it’s almost as if I just got out of the habit. Dad’s passing had something to do with it, too. We visited a lot of places over the 40 years we fished together—he took me on my first trip to Canada in 1965—but nowhere did we have more fun, or enjoy better smallmouth fishing, than we did at Crow Rock.
I’ve kept in touch with Wendel Dafcik, though. He tells me that the fishing’s only gotten better—and that if I make it back we’ll hike into Emerald Lake to see if the Big Boys are on the prowl. It’s a tempting offer, one that someday soon I hope I’ll be able to take him up on.
In the meantime, walking the Fox River Trail at dusk, I’ll watch for the running lights of the fishing boats, listen for the hum of the outboards, and dream.