Christmas in July
I grabbed the pink-and-purple deep running crankbait off the floor, almost as an afterthought. It had sat, stashed away for years in the miscellanea that most anglers have — lures, baits and other items of tackle that don’t quite make the cut, aren’t of any sort of confidence color, or just don’t fall into the standard offerings they’re used to putting out there. For a time after I had received it, it hung on my bulletin board with a number of unused baits until the recent move, when it ended up in the corner of my closet in a jumble of bass-shaped Christmas lights, unpainted jig heads and a dozen spools of line. But the flash of light blue glitter caught my eye as I was loading my tacklebox for the Fourth of July week, and I figured, “why the heck not,” so I popped the Reef Runner out of its well-aged cardboard and plastic packaging and into the crankbait box.
Upon my arrival on the rocky southern shores of Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota, and a quick meet-up with my wife’s cousin’s twin boys Billy and Cullen who had fished with me since they were 8 years old and were now a pair of stout lacrosse-crazed college students with red hair and matching battle beards that would put Canelo Alvarez to shame, we launched the boat and found out what we were up against. Slicks of dead mayflies coated the surface of the backwater bay which housed the marina for our resort. While I had read that big fish — particularly muskies — had been on a tear on the sprawling shield-style lake, picking off the baitfish which feasted on the rising insect pods, I knew that no matter what we offered — live bait or cranks or anything else — we’d be up against a smorgasbord of easy eating below. I watched the depthfinder as we cruised out of the channel and into the main bay, where soft breezes blew brown-crested waves covered in mayfly shucks and carcasses.
On the sonar, large blobs of red-and-yellow surrounded by arcs of all sizes signified the rising groups of mayflies coming off the lake bottom toward the surface, and the feeding frenzy of fish going on around them. In depths of 20 to 25 feet, the mid-afternoon rise seemed to be stuck in the 10-to 15-foot portion of the water column, and I attached the corresponding baits to the clips on my trolling rods. On the first two, a Berkley Flicker Shad in size 7 and a Rapala Shad Rap in size 9 to cover the 10 and 12-foot depths. On the rod that would sit in the holder to my right, the deepest-diving bait I had on hand, the bright pink Reef Runner, the oddball that suddenly found a home, and as we counted out the feet of line that rolled through our line counters, I told the boys the story of the bait.
Each Christmas, my dad was fond of finding last minute stocking stuffers for me and my brother, which usually consisted of one-off fishing equipment, half of which we would never use. There were store-brand cranks, 18-inch steel leaders, and a selection of Aberdeen hooks (the latter still sits in the corner of my office closet) among other things that for a casual angler like my dad seemed useful, but in reality just didn’t mesh with our specific angling styles or pursuits. Somewhere back in the holiday blur of 2012, the pink Reef Runner made it into my stocking, and a feigned smile of excitement on Christmas morning sent it on its merry way to the Island of Misfit Lures in my basement. This Christmas was the first without my dad after his death last summer, and the mixture of angling odds and ends in my stocking wasn’t missed as much as his presence in the family room was during the holiday season and in the times that followed.
The deep diver wobbled and pulsed as it reached the 120-foot mark on my line counter, and I watched the rod tip for signs of fouling. Every so often, the pulse on all of our rods would dwindle to a small twitch and we’d reel our cranks in to find gobs of brown-and-gray mayflies piled up on the bill of each bait. After a few passes, it was looking as if the never-ending pattern of mayflies-feeding-baitfish-feeding-big fish going on below us would be tough to break with the baits we had to offer throughout the column. In mid-comment on the situation, I glanced over to see my trolling rod bent and bouncing with the resistance of a fish on the other end, and I slammed the boat into neutral. With a shout of “Fish on!” the boys reeled up and I tightened the line on the fish that charged the boat. Headshakes suggested it was a pike, and after a few powerful runs and more thundering in the depths below, I called it as such. But Cullen quickly overruled me.
“I saw white…it’s a BIG walleye,” he said as the fish came up five feet from the bottom of the boat.
With a quick second glance at the charging fish, I confirmed it as well, and I saw the back treble lay tenuously connected to the corner of the big fish’s mouth by a single hook. I grabbed the net from Cullen, not wanting to have him chance losing the fish on the landing and feel bad about it and slid it into the water and angled the biggest walleye I had ever hooked into on that lake toward it. As it rolled, the bait popped to the surface, and the one hook held its mark. The walleye slid over the rim and into the mesh of the small net and we celebrated the 27-incher that helped break the mayfly curse.
With an effortless turn of the pliers the pink-and-purple Reef Runner fell into the mesh and quickly tangled in the black nylon while I lifted the walleye for a few pictures before releasing it back into the water. As I slipped the boat into drive with the freed bait in my hand, I thought back on the Christmas morning and smiled a real smile of excitement before dropping the lure back on the insect-covered surface of the water, watching the line counter run its way back up into the triple digits, knowing that like fatherly advice or those nuggets of wisdom that get buried in the years of our youth, the lure had come back to me, at just the right time…in our outdoors.