Feasting on a tuna sandwich full of memories after leaving the muddy lake for a clear-water stream
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My erstwhile father-in-law and beloved fishing partner, Keith Keltgen, used to encourage me to focus.
On my fishing.
Which, when you think about it, makes pretty good sense, when you're fishing.
“Woster, did you come out here to fish or to eat,” he’d say, as I rummaged around in a cooler, looking for a Snickers bar.
“Woster, did you come out here to fish or to sleep,” he’d say, as I snoozed in the back of the boat.
And sometimes ...
“Woster, did you come out here to fish or watch the birds?” he’d say, as I scanned the shoreline trees with binoculars, or studied the flight pattern of passing ducks or gulls.
So, my focus? Not always so strong. At least, not on the fishing, if the fishing was slow at all.
So Keith -- who has been gone now almost 20 years -- wouldn’t have been that surprised that I started out today pitching jigs into Angostura Reservoir and somehow ended up miles away having a picnic at Cascade Falls.
But I also did some casting at Cascade, as sort of an afterthought. (See, Keith, I can focus, a little)
In my own defense, the entirety of Angostura — while now wide open — was about the color of chocolate milk, or really strong coffee with a little half-and-half poured in.
I checked three or four spots. All the same. Muddy. Then I saw a state parks guy in one of the recreation sites and stopped to chat:
“I don’t suppose there’s anyplace on the lake where the water isn’t so muddy,” I said.
“Nope,” he said. “It’s all the same. We’ve got all that muddy water running in from the Cheyenne River and all that muddy water running out. We have times where that Cheyenne bay over west will get muddy after a rain or heavy snowmelt. But I’ve never seen the whole lake like this.”
I never have, either, although my intimate relationship with the big reservoir southeast of Hot Springs goes back only to 2002, when I moved from Sioux Falls to Rapid City. I spent the first fews years learning to flyfish, and limiting my jig casting to trips back to the Missouri River, East River lakes or prairie stock dams.
And Angostura confounded me the first few times I fished it. And the second few times. And the third. It can be a moody body of water, especially for a shore fisherman.
But when it's good, and when you figure out a few things about its personality, Angostura is really good -- walleye-bass-crappie good. It's also down off the southern Black Hills, which is one of the mildest zones for winter weather in South Dakota. So most years I can figure on getting a jig wet -- usually a one-eigth-ounce leadhead with a 3-inch PowerBait ripple shade in the glow-chartreuse color -- there by the last week in March.
And more often than not during that pre-spawn bite, I can figure on coming home with a walleye or two.
This year was different. Colder. Snowier. Slower to warm up, more resistant to the thaw. But when it did thaw, it did it in a big way. A big muddy way.
Muddy water doesn't inspire confidence in a jig pitcher like me, not unless it's a nice mud line churned up by the wind with gradients of clearer water nearby. That edge is great place to wade and fish. But a whole lake full of muddy water? No, not so much. Not for me.
If I'd had minnnows or worms, I might have fished for a while. Fish find organics in pretty much any situation. But I rarely fish organic bait. I just don't like to mess with it anymore, unless I have a grandkid or two to please. A grandkid, specifically for this discussion, like Mick Duffy, who will look around the fishing gear and, not finding any worms or minnows, impatiently ask: "Where's the bait?"
He means live bait. But he doesn't consider anything else bait at all. He knows what works, and is pretty insistent about it.
But Mick and the other kids weren't with me at Angostura. So, neither was the bait. The live bait, at least.
And I didn’t have any noise-or-vibration-making crankbaits with me, to draw fish in to strike in conditions where sight feeding is tough. My regular slow, subtle jig-fishing patterns in low-to-no-visibility water didn't give me a great deal of hope.
Besides, it’s not much fun for me to fish when I can’t see my jig, and can't watch its action. And I like seeing the bottom, watching passing schools of baitfish and occasionally seeing a walleye or bass actually hit the jig, or take a swipe at it and miss, which is almost as good as catching the fish. Almost.
There's not much fun in muddy water for a shore angler my focus issues and visual inclinations.
So while I made a few casts at a couple of favorite spots, I felt like I was fishing in a dark room or strolling around the woods on a moonless night. And I didn’t really have faith in what I was doing.
I also wanted to see some clear water, to watch it flow and shine, tumble and whirl, to turn itself over in shades of blue and green and turquoise. Which is how I ended up at Cascade Falls, a place of lovely flowing water that is crystal clear almost all the time. That makes the fishing tough, because the fish can see you even better than you can see them. But it makes the experience sublime.
And there at Cascade, the sun, the stream and a delightfully clean little picnic table near the falls turned an otherwise-humble tuna-salad sandwich into a bit of a feast.
And feasting was just what I was doing when I paused to think of Keith, and what he might have said about my "fishing trip," with a familiar shake of the head:
“Woster, did come out here to fish or to eat?”
I smiled at the thought, then went back to my sandwich.