Roughing It in the North Country

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on…. send me YOUR travel essays, up to 1500 words! -Sarah White

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By Doug Elwell

It was high summer and the man wasn’t sure any fish would bite. He didn’t know. But the boy said he knew so they went out on the Brule to try for a muskie or walleye or maybe a bass at the mouth of the stream. The man and the boy paddled the canoe upwind to where the lake narrowed into the stream that fed into it. And the sun continued on west up the stream then stopped and began its descent into it.

They put their paddles down and let the canoe drift a few more yards west to the mouth of the stream. He watched the boy rig a steel leader and a yellow spinner on his line and nodded when he held it up. They were in the shallows at the mouth of the stream. He guessed they were in ten or twelve feet of water. Weeds undulated with the water pouring out of the stream into the lake around and over the boulders piled at the bottom. When he was ready, the man told the boy they would let the breeze push them back out into the lake and he could cast back into the wind.

The man leaned back against a life jacket and stretched his legs and watched the boy. He watched him study the action of his rod and reel in his arm and hand and they became one. He cranked the spinner almost to the surface then let it fall back then flicked the rod left then right and watched it move through the water. He cast again and again and the man could see he was putting the spinner in the water where he wanted it and repeated until they did his bidding as if they had become a part of him. It was just the boy and the fish there.

The man looked to the bottom and guessed they were in about twenty feet. “Let the lure drop deep before you bring it up—jig it along deep because he will be in the deeper water where it’s cool.” The boy considered that and nodded. They drifted with the breeze and it was silent on the lake save for the whip of the rod through the air and the crank of the reel.

They drifted in this way for a long time and the sun was nearing the river. The canoe was nearing their campsite and the breeze was dying in the late afternoon.

The boy looked to the shore and saw their tent and a wisp of white smoke rising out of the fire pit, “Do we have to go in?”

“Soon.” The man said.

It was almost on the horizon when the man picked up his paddle and started for the shore. He told the boy to keep fishing. When he stood about thirty yards off shore he turned and paralleled it back toward the campsite.

The boy was reeling in the spinner and they watched it flash yellow through the water near the canoe and something dark bumped into it a few feet away. The boy stood straight on his knees. He looked to the man. Eyes wide, “I think I hit a rock.” then let the lure fall back.

“Easy son, that wasn’t no rock.” the man whispered. “Jig it up and down a couple times like it was wounded then pull it in slow and steady.”

He handed the rod to the man, “Here. You do it. I can’t.”

“Be patient son. That ole’ boy is ready to jump on that thing.”

“I can’t do it.” He sat back on his haunches in the bottom of the canoe.

“Be patient and get ready for him to make another pass.”

“What if he jerks the rod out of my hand?”

“He won’t. Now get back up there and work that spinner just like you were doing before.”

The boy brought it in a couple feet then pointed the rod out over the bow of the canoe and trailed the spinner away from it and around the bow. The man back-paddled silently. Then the boy brought the rod back and jigged the lure a couple times then cranked it slowly toward the surface. The reel seemed to explode when line flew out and the tip of the rod bent sharp. “Mind your drag son.” The boy eased the drag and pulled the rod up and the man started paddling in the direction of the fish—toward the deep water. The boy cranked in line when the fish cut left and right then played it out again when he sounded. “Keep your rod up—keep him off the bottom.”


“Let him play hisself out.” The man spoke softly almost in a whisper, “Let him have his head but keep the slack out of your line when you can.”


The man put the paddle in the bottom of the canoe and picked up the net and watched the boy play the fish. He sighted the line to the water and saw it swirl, “He’s right there son.”

“Yessir. I see ’im.”

The man put the net in the water. “Work him in to the net—easy.” When the fish was in it he scooped up and brought it into the canoe.

The man smiled wide, “Watcha got there son?”

The boy looked up at the man and grinned, “—pretty fair walleye I’d say.”

The spinner was hooked solidly in the fish’s mouth, but the boy got it out then ran the stringer through the gill and out the mouth.


They pulled the canoe up onto the shore of the lake and the boy tied the stringer onto a tree root at the edge of the water. The fish sat itself quietly in the sand as if biding time. The man brought out his camera and had the boy hold his rod and reel in one hand and the fish in the other, “Face into the sun so we’ll have a clear shot of you and the fish.” He snapped a few pictures then the boy put the fish back in the water.


The man stirred the coals and built up the fire while the boy put the rest of their shore lunch into the skillet and re-heated it for their supper. When they finished, the boy scoured the skillet and their forks with sand from the shore of the lake and filled the pot with water to boil for tea. They lay back and looked to the darkening sky. Stars emerged and dotted the dome of it and it made the loons crazy and they laughed far into the night. Far to the west across the lake heat lightening flashed and lit up the far shore line. The boy took a sip of his tea, “—think it’ll rain on us tonight?”

“I doubt it. It’s too far north and is moving to the east.”

“—think that fish will make it ’til morning?”

“That’s a good question. What do you think?”

“Probably if a bear or raccoon doesn’t come along I’d say he has a chance.”

“At least we have pictures to take home unless he eats the camera too.”

The boy chuckled, “He sure is a beauty isn’t he.”

“He is that. We’ll have a good breakfast in the morning.”


At sunup, the boy ran down to the bank to check on his fish. It sat moving its fins enough to hold its place. He stirred the fire and lowered the food pack out of the tree. The man gathered enough wood to keep a cooking fire going through breakfast.

“You remember how to dress him out for the skillet?’
“Yessir, I think so.”

“Mind if I watch?”


“You go on and I’ll get the breading and oil out.”

He rummaged through the pack—kept one eye on the boy and pulled out the last of their eggs, hash browns, bread and marmalade. He put a pot of water on for coffee. They laughed when the boy’s stomach growled loud enough for them to hear. They sat upwind of the fire while the fish and eggs and potatoes sizzled in the skillet. Shafts of yellow-green sunlight sifted through the trees onto the green moss that carpeted the floor around them while they ate. Crisp, new air smelled of pine. Hot, black coffee steeped while they struck camp and packed the canoe. Before they shoved off, the boy rigged his fishing line with the yellow spinner and laid it across the Duluth packs in the center of the canoe.


A recovering educator, Doug Elwell spends most days writing, reading about writing and thinking about writing. His work occasionally appears on True Stories Well Told. Doug can be contacted via email at:

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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