Each bend in the river spilled spring out in front of us and with each moment on the ride through the winding valley, the memories of growing up on the flow and learning much of what I know about fishing came back with them. Whether it was the rising geese fleeing the hum of the boat motor, the squeaking call of a wood duck rising into the air, or simply the finally-green trees of this late-developing season that bent lightly in the breeze, every turn was a reminder of past days on the soft, chocolate waters of the Sheyenne River. Together for the first time in more than a decade on the flow, my buddy Holmes piloted his boat upstream while my Norwegian fishing buddy, Einar and I admired the scenery as we slowed down for the concrete-and-metal pilings of the Hi-Line bridge, the sweeping curves and sharp breaks of the channel along with some growing islands in the flow. I marked spots in the upstream trip where I had caught fish many years before and noted them for our return downstream later in the day.
While some change was evident from the past decade or so on a favorite stretch of smallmouth fishing north of Valley City, N.D., many top places in my mental treasure map remained in about the same condition and looked as if they’d hold a stash of bronze for the day. Starting with the feeder creek which was the source of many fishing memories — and big smallmouth bass, frequent evening walleyes and the occasional large northern pike — while coming up in my formative years on the river, we cast under the clear and sunny skies into the slightly brown waters of the Sheyenne. While the upper edge of the creek delta produced little action, save for a few small pike, our lures found their mark on the smallmouth staging just off the edge of the breakline. Bouncing through snags and around piled deadfalls, we hooked seven bronzebacks in the tiny spot, before cruising upriver to a funnel lined with rock and a downed tree which was always good for a couple of fish.
There I missed a slight bump off the fallen trunk between the rocky riffle and the eddy and flipped my tube out again with urgency into the same location. A deceptive tug turned into a fish, and a late hookset sent the bronzeback rocketing out of the water, showing off its acrobatics and large-shouldered frame. In the current, it battled mightily, wedging against the flowing water and powering its way to the depths before rising again and battling all the way to the net. Taping out at 17 inches before the release, it was one of the two fish the spot held for us once again, a reassuring note that things there remained the way they were so many years ago.
As we worked our way back to town, familiar structures gave up fish, while others were barren. The concrete horseshoe near the fish hatchery now eroded and showing some of its rebar frame, which in the past often held three smallmouth bass, had none. There we exhaustively cast after the memories we shared about the trio of smallies that one summer measured 19.5, 18 and 16 inches all within the 30-foot stretch of concrete, rip-rap and other structure. Further down, where a large area of trees had been pushed into the river adjacent to an old gazebo and concrete base that jutted out into the flow, we found a few nice fish as we slowly worked our plastics down the grade and into the water around the new webbing of wood framing the cement. There I would land my biggest of the day, a stout 18-incher with shoulders and a thickness I could not recall encountering at any time on the river in previous fishing adventures. It made me wonder if these thicker fish were the new sentinels on the Sheyenne, a shifted set of genetics or maybe my memory was just off and many previous lunkers from springs gone by sported the same traits.
Throughout our trip back to town, we found the protective males guarding the shallows where it appeared the brown bass were still staging or protecting the nests they had made. The larger females of 16 to 18 inches we encountered held just off the breaks or tight along those areas that dropped sharply from shore as we worked our way back into town and wrapped up a morning of fishing that connected us with old haunts holding new fish. With nearly 20 bass caught and released and memories recalled and recharged in familiar places along my home water, we wrapped in mid-afternoon and Einar and I said our good-byes to Holmes and the old flow. Though nearly a decade had passed, it had only taken the morning to reunite with friends and connect with some incredible fish tucked away in the memorable spots on a water that will always feel to me like home … in our outdoors.