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Life, memories, lures & muskies: Sampling the North Woods this spring

Joe McCartin eyes a fellow fisherman, a great blue heron, during the Spring Classic in Eagle River, Wis.
Credit: Dale Bowman

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — As Joe McCartin turned us out of a channel Saturday, two guys fly-fished from a purple boat, one of two made by Ranger.

I would’ve thought earth tones would be better for fly-fishing muskies, but who explains life?

My sister died last year — too young — of cancer. On the drive back from her funeral in Washington, I promised to savor life, both the profound (the afterlife, humanity here and now) and the mundane (daily family life, the Midwest Fishing Report).

That explains fishing the Spring Classic, a fundraising tournament by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies Inc., with McCartin, a Southwest Side dentist.

I enjoy McCartin, his wife and their family. He also happens to be a legendary cook among outdoorsmen of the Midwest.

We go back almost 20 years. Our conversations, like the best of life, range from the profound to the mundane: sleep apnea, testosterone, the state of my teeth, family evolutions, the presidency, Chicago politics and fishing gossip.

Fishing the North Woods this spring is behind, particularly the weeds.

“We’re not going to be fishing weed edges,” McCartin said during a drive-around Friday. “Maybe in two weeks we will be.”

Weed lines were remarkably underdeveloped.

‘‘Some of the spots aren’t the same, but I am still fishing memories, Dale,’’ McCartin said.

Memories are the gold bricks of a rich life.

What I will hold are crows harassing eagles feeding eaglets, a great blue heron fishing next to us in a channel, a deer gingerly walking the water’s edge and those guys making muskie fishing more challenging with fly rods.

Fly-fishing team in the Spring Classic in Eagle River, Wis.
Credit: Dale Bowman

On the final morning, McCartin drifted next to the purple ‘‘Beast Teaser,” so I could talk to Jim Chamberlin, who lives in Palm City, Florida, and Tony Sandrone, who guides and ties flies in Eagle River.

As to their chances, Sandrone said, ‘‘We have as good a shot as anyone.’’

Nate Osfar and Matt Raley took the best shot, winning with muskies of 44 1/2 and 34 1/2 inches caught Saturday. But it took a tiebreaker (earliest fish caught) for them to hold off the Chicago-area team of Bill and Steve Pabst, who caught their second at 11:58 a.m. Sunday, two minutes before the end.

McCartin and I raised one undersized muskie each day. On Saturday, a day with winds to 40 mph, McCartin caught a northern pike on a custom Buchertail.

On Sunday, I caught the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve caught recently on a Crane Bait. The prespawn female was another sign of behind the times. It was probably two weeks from spawning.

The excitement of Sunday included me impaling my pinkie with a treble hook while unhooking a northern. McCartin performed on-water surgery to free me. Then a violent thunderstorm hit a half-hour before the tournament ended.

McCartin and I think alike on lightning: You can’t outrun it, you can’t out-macho it and you can’t beat it.

McCartin raced like hell to get us off the water, but the storm caught us. As he backed up the trailer, bolts slammed the shore and the water around me in the boat. My thoughts turned to God.

It was time.

Father’s Day

“A Season to Remember,” Billy Kats’ documentary ode to his late father, airs from 5-7 p.m. Saturday on the Sportsman Channel.

Coffee conversation

The Wetlands Initiative’s open house on Calumet restoration work is 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Bridgeport Coffee.

Stray cast

The pre-Cabinet meeting this week reminded me of feeding time at a Missouri trout hatchery.

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.


Surprises of local ponds: Mirror carp & flathead for Fish of the Week