St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Carpe Die-um

Late May days on the farm were busy ones getting the fields prepared for crops, the pasture fences fixed, hunting the elusive morel, planting and hoeing in Mom's great garden while finishing the last days of school -- that included taking the standardized tests to see if we met the right grade levels. 

While early May brought the suckers down Wolf Creek at Grandpa's, to be speared with pitchforks, sacked and brought to Grandpa to be smoked and enjoyed, late May was when the carp came down from Roger Lake into the slow moving channel below that widened into Lily Lake and then sluggishly moved on towards the St. Croix through wild rice bed and then down to the crossing--where the old road had forded the creek.  

Some years beavers chose to build a dam at the crossing and maintain it until they were either trapped out by neighbors or had eaten all the nearby brush and trees and moved on.  Those years when the dams were in, the water backed up nearly a half mile from the crossing to Roger Lake, allowing us to put in a boat on Grandpa's and row up to the Lake to fish, passing through the 80 acres owned by neighbor Bert, and then where Dad owned one side of the creek and Uncle Maurice the other side through the shallow weed filled Lily lake and the next channel into Roger, a small good fishing lake. 

One late May day, after the suckers were finished, Grandpa "Wish't I had a few carp to smoke. They don't come down the creek anymore past the beaver dam and I'm to old to put in a boat and row up the channel -- and wouldn't I look bad, a good Christian man getting arrested for spearing in a trout stream."  

Byron, who liked to do something different, talked me into going along with him with the Jon boat to get Grandpa his carp.   I can't remember if on this trip, brother Everett went along, but as he often did, I will throw him in the boat too.  Seems right as that will let two of us spear while one rows the boat. 

To spear a fish at night, you need a narrow beam bright flashlight that penetrates into the water to see the fish and you need a spear.   A pitch fork will work, but it lacks barbs, so you can't spear and then bring the fish up without it slipping off the smooth tines.   

Grandpa had an old hand black-smithed spear with a 10 foot handle left from the days when he lived just south of Nevers Dam on the St. Croix and often went spearing with Dad or one of his other nephews, usually Channy or Lloyd.  

The trouble with a flashlight is the beam not only penetrates into the water, but reflects off of it giving away your illegal activity to those on shore, often showing moving beams of light in the sky that, for game wardens, are dead giveaways to nefarious activity on the water.  The Native Americans used pine knots and birch torches to do light their spearing -- thus the name Lac du Flambeau (lake of the flames). 

Grandpa had his own invention,  a 6 volt car battery in the boat wired through a metal pipe soldered into a fruit jar holding a 6 volt car light that clamped to the front side of the boat--lighting the water 2 feet down while invisible above the surface.  

Anyway, Wolf Creek was isolated--half mile from the nearest road through rugged cow pastures with no neighbors who lived anywhere near the creek or lakes north of Grandpa.  We always figured that rather than getting arrested, if we were picked up by a game warden with a sack of suckers or carp, we probably would get an award from the sportsmen's club for ridding the trout stream and lake of rough and undesirable fish (undesirable to anyone but Grandpa and 
Grandma who relished anything that had fins).  

We put in the boat at dusk, and after rowing up the sluggish stream through the narrow rice bed, came to the open channel as it got dark.  The game fish, northerns, bass and panfish were through spawning, or so we thought as they were not in the channel.  Carp came down during spawning season.  

During the previous summer, often when we walked to the back of the cow pasture to get the cows, we walked down the hill to Lily Lake.  Schools of carp were always swimming in the shallow weeds, their back fins out of the water, often splashing around in the weeds.  Carp are bad in a lake as they root up the weeds and make it undesirable for game fish-at least that was the local view from most fishermen who wouldn't eat a carp or bullhead.  

Grandpa's family, although living most of their time in NW Wisconsin, had spent a few years in northern Iowa and Western MN and probably had gotten used to fish other than walleyes, northerns, bass and panfish, and Grandma came from Iowa too--that is my reason for excusing them for liking carp.  Great great grandpa, Olaus, from Sweden, even tried to find eels in the local creeks --a delicacy back in Sweden where they Hanssons lived on "The Stream" that went on into the ocean 10 kilometers from the farm at Stromstad.   Cousin Arne lives there still, and tells me that he remembers they used to have eels in the creek.  

As we rowed into the wider and deeper channel, Byron and I stood on each end of the 12 foot aluminum boat that we had mail ordered from Sears ($75 with the four boys coming up with $50 from hauling hay for neighbor Raymond, and Dad kicking in the other $25).   We could see several big carp along the shore. 

Ev manuevered us over to the edge barely rippling the water as we drifted in and stopped.   I with Grandpa's old spear readied myself, light shining on the tail end of a big one, barely moving at all.  The water was maybe a foot and a half deep. Shining the light near the eyes got the fish spooked, so when the boat was quiet I slowly positioned the spear to strike just behind the head. 

You know, I wonder if it was only Byron with me on this trip.  Or maybe it was only Everett and I.  If it was Byron and Everett, Byron would have been spearing right and left leaving me no time to spear--just have to keep the boat steady.  Yep, it had to be Ev and I, because on this trip I got the try at a  fish.  Byron and I, now that I think of it, went up later in the summer and tried to get a few game fish--but they are just too wary in summer to stay still when you shine a light on them. 

So, Ev steadied the boat, Byron was home watching TV, and I readied the spear and at the perfect moment struck hard and fast a few inches back of the head. 

"Whoa--Ev, my spear just bounced off!" I exclaimed.   

"Carp have a real boney head and shoulders," he replied, "you need to try back a little further."

The carp in getting away had stirred the muddy bottom and scared off any other fish nearby.  So Ev (or maybe it was Byron) eased us upstream a littler further and we lined up on another big carp near the shore.  This time I struck him right in the middle of the back--straight down the spear went burying the 6 inch narrow tines completely.  I pulled the spear up, and got him just over the boat when he fell off the spear onto the boat bottom. 

"Boy, just barely kept him on--too heavy for the barbs I suppose," commented Ev.  

So for then next hour or so we eased around the channel taking turns spearing a few carp and enjoying the beautiful star filled sky.  With evening, down in the low swampy creek bottoms the air cools rapidly and with no breeze, the swamp odors, familiar, strong, and strangely pleasant added to the enjoyment of an evening out in nature, with the thrill of being lawbreakers adding spice. 

Finally, we drifted back down stream and pulled the boat onto the old roadbed at the crossing and took two sacks with a half dozen carp, carrying them over the big hill to Grandpa's house.  The cow path along the creek bank would have been easier to take, but was narrow in places, easy to step off the edge and slide down to the creek. 

Grandpa was awake waiting for us.  "What a great mess of fish!" he chortled as we dumped them out on the picnic table!  Grandma and I will clean them tonight and get them soaking in brine and put them in the smoker tomorrow."

A few days later we visited Grandpa.  "I weighed those carp--one was 20 lbs!  Several were full of eggs--we fried them for breakfast.  Just as good as caviar!   Do you want some of the smoked carp?" Grandpa knew about caviar, as he had caught one or two big sturgeon on the St Croix back in the 40s.  
We politely turned him down, remembering the hippie joke "Heard smoked carp were pretty good." "Yeah, I tried one, but couldn't keep it lit."  And the old fisherman's joke on how to prepare a carp,"fillet it on a newly sawn basswood board, season it on the board, then cook it in the oven on the board, take it out, throw away the carp and eat the board." 
Grandpa, 5 foot 6 inches, 260 lbs most of his life, lived to be 87 years old and Grandma, also somewhat overweight, made 100.  Probably due to having fish every other meal in lean times and every meal when it was available!  

Nowadays with the mercury in most midwest fish, we are told to eat only one meal of home-caught fish per week or suffer from mercury poisoning.  However, there is a secret to getting the mercury out of a fish. Freeze the cleaned fish with the tail left on standing tail to the bottom in a very cold freezer until you are ready to eat it.  Then take it out and cut off the tail.  The cold will have caused the mercury to drop to the bottom!
  Read about sand carp, sand terns, sand alligators and more at 
Strange water beasts of the St Croix River Sand Barrens