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Al Agnew
Al Agnew

Three days...

I am a member of a loose organization made up of a bunch of guys who get together twice a year just to enjoy each others' company, drink a bunch of adult beverages, eat good food, and fish.  We were laughing this time that our organization never does any good works, we just have organized to have fun with good friends in a systematic manner.  We usually have our gatherings at a cabin near Maramec Spring, but this spring it was decided to have it down at Dawt Mill on the North Fork, since two of our members have houses on the river in the vicinity.

So Thursday found me leaving the house at about 8:30 AM, headed south for the North Fork.  My buddy Tom was going to be there much of the day, though the real gathering wouldn't begin until Friday, and he planned to fish part of the trout section.  My plan was to float a half day on Bryant Creek, and he would pick me up at the end of the float.  But he texted and said that there had been heavy rains in the Bryant and North Fork watershed, and the rivers might not be fishable.  Later, he texted again and said the North Fork was muddy where they had planned to fish.

I crossed the North Fork at Twin Bridges not long after I got that text, and it was slightly high but plenty clear enough to fish, so I filed that fact away and went on to my put-in on Bryant Creek at Sycamore.  But when I got there, it was high and very murky, pretty much unfishable.  So I texted Tom back and told him I had a change of plans and would get the folks at Twin Bridges to shuttle me up to Hebron for a float back down to their place.

It was weird.  The water had about 3 feet visibility, and that often makes for good fishing with my homemade crankbait as well as other lures I liked to use, especially on these streams that are ordinarily very clear.  So I started out with the crankbait, my twin spin, and a larger walk the dog topwater.  Nothing was working.  In fact, I went well over two miles and nearly three hours without hooking a fish.  Then, I switched the twin spin for a tandem willow leaf spinnerbait.  Very quickly, I caught a fat 18 incher, and two casts later a 14 incher.  Three casts after that, a 12 incher.  Wow.  Suddenly, most of the spots that looked like they would hold a smallmouth were producing fish.  I was drifting down a fast, rock-lined run when I hooked another big fish.  This one was 19 inches!  In the next fast run, I hooked another very good fish, and realized I was drifting right for a big log in heavy current.  I had to take one hand off the rod to do a hard sculling draw stroke to miss the log, and couldn't control the fish, which went into some brush piled up against the log and broke me off.  That was my only spinnerbait exactly like that, so I put on another that was somewhat similar.  It didn't quite work as well, but ended up producing my third good fish, a 17.5 incher.  I finished the float with a total of well over 30 smallmouth, after not catching a thing the first half of the float.

I drove down to the house of the member of our group who had set the whole thing up, Randy, and Tom was grilling porterhouse steaks.  It was me, Tom, Danny (Tom's fishing partner for the day), Randy, Randy's wife, and Tom Shipley of Brewer and Shipley fame, our newest member.  We spent the night at Randy's house.

The next day, another member, Chris, made it down early in the morning, and we all planned to float from Patrick Bridge to Dawt Mill.  We drove to Dawt to get the keys to our rooms where we would be staying the rest of the weekend, and arrange to park vehicles there for the day, and then went up to Patrick Bridge to put in.  Tom and Danny had not done well yesterday, having opted to wade up at Kelly's, where the water had been clearer than it had been downstream.  They caught a half dozen trout, but nothing special.  But the river had cleared during the day, and though it was still high it appeared to be very fishable where we were floating, with about 4 feet visibility.  The others were floating in pontoon craft, while I was in my solo canoe.  Everybody had brought both fly and spinning tackle, and under those conditions there was a good chance of catching a big brown with spinning tackle and minnow lures.  Indeed, Randy scored on a nice brown soon after we started.  But nobody else was catching anything.  We were stopping at every riffle and drifting nymphs with little luck.  So, I had brought all my bass fishing tackle, and I decided to see how many bass I could catch in the trout water.  I mainly fished the slower water areas with a spinnerbait and crankbait to begin with, and quickly caught a 14 inch largemouth.  Then I had a big striper or hybrid follow the spinnerbait in, at least a 10 pounder, and thought I might be a little under-rodded for that kind of fish.  I saw one more of them, but didn't hook any.  I did catch several more largemouth and spotted bass before switching to a topwater lure and catching a nice 16 inch smallmouth.  I ended the day with 20 bass caught, while nobody else caught more than two or three trout.

The amount of damage the huge flood last year had caused was amazing.  There were long stretches of bank where nearly all the trees had been uprooted and lost.  A lot of the local anglers were afraid that far too many trout had been washed away, but I think the biggest problem the trout in the river will have in the future is the lack of shade, with all those trees gone.  The water temps in the stretch we floated already seemed to warm for the trout.  I didn't measure the water temp, but I'd guess it to have been in the upper 60s to near 70, which is not good for trout.  I'm afraid that the lower sections of the trout water are really going to suffer from those warmer temps due to the lack of shade.

The other members of our group who were coming all arrived that evening at Randy's, where we had brats and burgers and spent the evening catching up on each other, drinking good wine and home-brewed beer.  Then those of us staying at Dawt Mill headed for our rooms.  It had been many years since I'd been to Dawt Mill, and it was nothing like I remembered it.  I remembered just the mill building and a store, but there seemed to be a whole little city there.  The rooms were nice.  The mill dam is now half gone, with a good rapid at the site.

Yesterday, having had poor luck on the trout the day before, nobody could decide where to fish.  The others were all geared for trout, and finally opted to float from Blair Bridge down to Randy's place.  But I wanted to got back to smallmouth water, so Randy helped me with a shuttle from Twin Bridges to the North Fork Forest Service campground.  The float started out crazy, with smaller smallies hitting topwater with wild abandon.  I caught 15 in the first half hour and half mile, in decent but not great habitat, and I was thinking it was going to be a terrific day.  Then I came to a bigger, deeper pool where I thought I'd really catch some fish, and went down the whole pool without a strike.  And just like that, the good fishing was done.  I only caught 15 more bass the rest of the five mile float, none of them over 14 inches.  I paddled quickly through the last half mile of the float, because there was thunder and lightning and ominous skies to the northwest.  I quickly loaded the canoe, and just as I finished tying it down, hail started bombarding me as the crowd of swimmers at the take-out scrambled for their vehicles.

The others had not fared well with trout, either.  But that evening, we gathered at Dawt at their restaurant, where they prepared salmon, pork loin, duck meat tacos, and other side dishes on their outdoor grill while we relaxed at the outside patio and bar.  After eating, we played cards and told jokes and stories until nearly midnight.  It was a great finish to the gathering.

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