My Dinosaur Swamp
Pickerel Slough – Red Wing, Minnesota – July, 2003
Fluffy willow seeds drift like snow through the muggy summer air, alighting atop the chocolate-brown surface of Pickerel Slough. My once-white socks are sopping wet and an accretion of stinky black muck smothers my tennis shoes. Gnats swarm my face as I kneel in the spongy mud to rig up. The downward pressure of my knee on the ground forces murky water to well up and stain my blue jeans. To the end of my braided fishing line I attach only a wire leader and a sharp hook. Then I grab a large sucker minnow from my bait bucket and slice it into four chunks with a fillet knife. I slide a juicy, guts-filled piece onto the hook. A pair of horse flies buzz excitedly around the fresh cut fish.
Leafy silver maple branches hang overhead, an inconvenient casting hazard. I carefully lob the bait forward and it slaps the water with a gentle splash, just thirty or forty feet from shore. It sinks through the waist-deep water and slowly settles to the bottom.
After finding a y-shaped stick, I shove it down into the soft mud and set my fishing rod in its fork. Then I set the drag very loose so that a big fish can take line without pulling the whole setup into the drink. I rig up my second rod and cast out another chunk of bait near an old black willow that lies fallen, trunk and branches jutting into the murky shallows—the perfect haunt for big Bowfin. I take a seat on my hard case tackle box and enjoy a Milky Way candy bar while wait for the action to begin. Pickerel Slough, an elongate backwater slough of the Mississippi River surrounded by a mature floodplain forest, feels prehistoric. I know from experience that Bowfin and gar, ancient species little changed since the time of dinosaurs, lurk beneath the slough’s placid surface.
The sudden, loud croak of a great blue heron startles me. The big creature takes flight and against the blue sky its unusual silhouette reminds me of a pterodactyl. A big carp leaps from the water. I watch the concentric ripples spread out from where the fish splashed down. Then a dragonfly lands on my rod tip, lingering a moment before moving on with the next gentle breath of a breeze. This is a magical place.
Without warning, the slack in one of my lines slowly stretches taut. I approach the rod and open the bail, allowing the line to feed out without resistance until the fish stops. After a moment I close the bail, retrieve the slack line, and pull back hard on the rod. The hook sets into something heavy.
There is no drag-peeling run. None of the water-spraying leaps and tail-walking that I’ve come to expect from a Bowfin hooked in shallow water. Just stubborn resistance and a sluggish agitation of water. I pull hard, reeling down between rod pumps until I catch a glimpse of a scummy-shelled snapping turtle. The claws on its wrinkled, scaly limbs rake the mud in defiance as I slide it ashore. This situation is one of mutual displeasure. The turtle issues a rasping hiss. It sounds even more pissed-off than it looks. I contemplate the value of my fingers and wisely opt to attempt the hook removal using a comfortably long, sturdy stick. It makes for a clumsy tool but eventually I am able to work the hook free. Immediately thereafter, the turtle turns around and scuttles back to deeper water. Whew!
I notice my other rod, now bent deep, butt hovering several inches off the ground. Line is peeling off the reel. I run to it and this time I react with an immediate hookset. There is an explosion of water. The fish swims hard away from the shore, leaving a wake. I reel in and manage to get the fish to the shoreline, but it turns away with renewed energy and rockets into the tangle of submerged willow branches. My line has gotten hung up, but I can feel that the fish is still hooked so I walk out on the tree trunk. Balancing over the water I pull on the line from another angle to work the line free from the snag. Finally the fish runs back into open water, so I return to shore to resume the battle. A few moments later I slide the Bowfin onto the bank and away from the water’s edge. The hook pops free as the brown torpedo of a fish squirms around maniacally. I pin the powerful, slimy fish into the soft mud and examine it. The drab color, lack of prominent markings and relatively large size helps me determine that this fish is female. I estimate her weight at around six pounds and, after snapping a quick photograph, set the fish back in the shallow water. She rests there for a full minute as I crouch over her, watching. Eventually I nudge the fish and she suddenly blasts away like a rocket, splashing mucky water and gritty mud into my face. I wipe it away with my shirt sleeve and smile. That was fun!
As the lazy afternoon passes I miss the hookset on what I suspect was another Bowfin. I also manage to catch and release a nice-sized Channel Catfish. I check my lines occasionally to replace stale bait with fresher, smellier pieces and to pluck off the clumps of soggy willow seeds that drift into and then cling stubbornly to my fishing line.
When the sun dips beneath the horizon all hell breaks loose. I hook up with a fish and it stays deep, taking slow and steady runs. Probably a catfish. Before I can reel it in my other rod bends deep with a strong take. I decide to open the bail on the fish I’m fighting and, setting the rod down, run to set the hook on the second fish. This one feels bigger, so I stick with it. The fish explodes out of the water—a huge Bowfin! The fish is running hard for the branches of the downed willow but I can’t do much about it or the line may break. I curse aloud when I feel the fluid heaviness of the fish turn into the solid and immobile weight of a snag. I sense the fish tugging and for the second time today I follow the tree trunk out over the water to get a better angle, mindful to reel in the slack and guide the line around branches to avoid further entanglement. As I approach the fish it takes off away from me in a mad rush, ripping line off the reel and nearly pulling me into the water. When I regain my balance I make my way back to stable ground and continue to play the big fish. The dark water churns violently each time the fish runs until finally I have it within reach. I slide the impressive fish onto shore and with great excitement attempt to grab it. Alas, Bowfin have no handles and it slithers back into the water, forcing me to fight it back to shore again. A massive whoosh of water, and the line goes limp. The fish is gone. It would have been my largest Bowfin ever. Possibly even a state record fish, but now I will never know.
I realize I am being torn apart by frenzied mosquitoes. I slap the back of my neck, squishing three of the blood-swollen insects at once. They are attacking my hands, my arms, my legs—biting my back through my sweaty t-shirt. I indulge in a frantic moment of bug squashing before pulling on a hooded sweatshirt. Although stiflingly warm, it provides a welcome shield against the ferocious insects.
I return to my other line and reel in a small Bowfin, a male this time. This fish is missing an eye, but the wound is long healed and the stout girth of this particular fish suggests that its deformity has not been a major hindrance. I quickly release it, add a fresh chunk of cutbait, and cast the line back out. I walk over to set up the rod I just lost that big female with, but before I can even reach it the rod I just cast is already getting a take! I run to it and reflexively yank back, but this time I miss the hook set. I was too impatient this time. I hold the rod still for a minute, thinking maybe the fish will return. The line is still. After a few minutes I reel in to check the bait and I see the little cube of fish meat rise to the surface, skittering atop the water as I reel fast so I can recast and get my other line out. Just as I am about to lift it from the water, a Bowfin launches itself upon the bait, engulfing the meaty morsel and nearly beaching itself in the process. It turns and tears off on a single drag-peeling run. After a brief tussle I land the fish. It’s another chunky male.
Or, wait just a minute here. No, it can’t be…but it is! The fish is missing an eye. This is the same fish I released just moments ago! I remove the hook from its lip with a pliers and I can’t help but smile and stare at the fish in amazement. The fish rests calmly in my hands and I pause an extra moment to admire its rugged, prehistoric appearance—sharp canine teeth set in powerful bony jaws, tubular nostrils, long dorsal and anal fins and a rounded tail. In the dwindling light I slowly lower this amazing fish into the water and watch it slowly swim away to disappear beneath the mysterious surface of my dinosaur swamp.