Friday, December 23, 2011

Redds, Southern-Style

Until recently, I never gave much thought, either way, to fishing over redds.  A redd (pronounced “reh-du-du”, I guess) is that hollow depression in the river bottom made by a spawning trout or salmon where later the eggs will be laid and subsequently fertilized. Recently, Gary pointed out the irony inherent in Great Lakes steelheaders, i.e. that they violently oppose fishing over steelhead redds, despite that steelhead are not native to the Great Lakes, and in most cases, no natural reproduction occurs anyway.  Well, the truth is that, as far as I can tell, most Lake Erie steelheaders have no such qualms about fishing over redds, or about anything, for that matter.  For example, on my last trip, I watched an angler snag all of these fish from one very small pool. Lacking a stringer, he simply threaded a nylon tie-down strap through their gills, and then placed them in this puddle to keep them alive.

Good eats

And this brings me to today’s recipe, just in time for the holidays. This recipe is courtesy of Ironic Gary, as he is known, and I have to admit, it’s a real winner.  I was skeptical, initially, but this has become a staple in the Brayshaw household.

You can adjust the batter to suit your tastes, but it is absolutely essential that you keep the redds very cold until they’re dipped in the batter.  This helps the batter to stick to the redd. Fortunately, the redds are naturally cold, since steelhead, trout and salmon are cold-water fish. In addition, the recipe’s proportions can be adjusted to accommodate brook trout redds, which are usually much smaller than steelhead redds. (In fact, at home we sometimes simply sauté a batch of brook trout redds in a stove-top skillet, thus obviating the need for a deep fryer altogether.)

    6 steelhead redds (trout, salmon redds may be substituted)
    1/2 cup evaporated milk
    1 tablespoon salt
    dash pepper
    1 cup flour
    1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
    2 teaspoons paprika
    Deep fryer, with oil

Clean, wash and dry the redds. It is essential to keep the redds very cold if the batter is going to stick to them. Combine milk, salt and pepper in a bowl. In a pie plate or shallow dish, combine flour, cornmeal and paprika. Dip redds in milk mixture then roll in flour and cornmeal mixture. Fry redds in hot oil for about 4 minutes. Test carefully with a fork or felt-studded wader boot and fry for 4 to 6 minutes longer, or until the redds flake easily with a fork and are browned. Drain on paper towels. Serve with bacon and hush puppies and coleslaw, if desired. Serves 6.

Carefully lower the battered redds into the fryer

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Medium Falutin

It's a trout

The problem I’ve long had with trout isn’t really fair to trout. Little pale-colored stocked rainbows don’t represent all trout, but they’ve sort of clouded my impression of trout anyway, much the way that my ex-girlfriend Sharon clouds my vision of crazy women. Just as I know there are great crazy women, I know there are some great trout.  The problem is that stockies have few, if any, of the attributes of a desirable fly fishing quarry. As I see it, the perfect fish is beautiful, lives in places where I want to fish, gets to a respectable size, fights well, is wild and is native to where I’m fishing for it.  Now, before you start screaming “But you’re a carp fisherman!!”, let me make clear that what I’ve just described is a perfect fish.  A perfect fish scores high in all categories. In fact, we can quantify the score in units I call falutins.  If you want to fish for a high falutin Atlantic salmon, get yourself to the Gaspe.  Or head to Key West for some high falutin tarpon.

            Most of us, most of the time, must settle for fish that are not perfect, but are perfectly respectable.  Carp, for example, while not native, are big and strong, wild and wildly attractive, and live in lovely places. Up until recently, the only accessible trout that didn’t make my bowels churn were Great Lakes steelhead. They’re not native to my region, and the ones I’ve caught didn’t fight well, but I’ve heard they’re capable of fighting well.  Their other attributes are evident. And, they’re sort of wild. When I first developed my falutin scale, I only allowed a fish to get a “Yea” or a “Nay”.  But these steelhead, though hatched in a hatchery, then go on to spend their formative years living legitimately. I now give partial credit.

            And this brings us to yesterday’s fishing. Right now, cold-water fish are really the only game in town. Seth, also a dyed-in-the-wool warm water fly fisherman, suggested a trip for stocked browns (trout, that is).  My gut reaction was negative, but it turns out that our local browns, while clearly non-native and also stocked, are stocked as youngins but, because of cold, spring-fed water, manage to holdover for multiple seasons.  As such, they are, I am not too proud to admit, perfectly respectable medium falutin fish.

Seth drifts...
And hooks up.

Medium falutin

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Musky Man, part II

A few days ago, I put up a post about my grandfather and the large musky he caught years ago. If you have not yet read that one, I suggest you do, as it will put the following post in context. Here, my father, Grandpa's son, provides more details about the musky, and about the Musky Man.  Thanks, Dad.

Brayshaw, Sr. recounts...

Since T.J. had promised you that that I would soon add some details about the Great Fish and its catching, I will keep his promise for him. I loved his tribute to his Grandpa as much as most of the rest of you did, but since he wasn't living in that era when the events occurred, and I was, I'll try to truthfully embellish that event and also add some stuff that relates to other issues that T.J. mentioned.

First, about cussin' in general and specifically about cussin' in front of adults, women, girls and children. Dad (“Grandpa” to T.J.) enlisted in the Navy very shortly after that Date Which Will Live in Infamy and he was in the Navy until the end of the war. In later years when I came to know him better, I quickly learned that somewhere, sometime he had come to know and to practice “swearing like a drunken sailor”. During my entire life, I never saw him drunk, but he could swear like a sailor any time he needed to, and he frequently needed to. In further defense of his character, I will add that I have no memory of his ever having intentionally sworn in the presence of a woman or girl, and I have no memory of his ever having sworn at another human being. He wasn't even into calling people names, even if he was angry. Now I don't really know why he was so reserved about cussin' under such circumstances, but I have a theory. I think he just didn't need to, because he had such a personal and satisfying relationship with the tools of his trade and the tools of his hobbies.

When I was very young, the family bought a small farm with an old semi-modern farm house and a few unfenced acres on a narrow and very deep tract of land. The house needed better indoor plumbing and the land needed perimeter fencing to hold a little bit of livestock. Dad, being a plumber by trade and a true hardworking handy-man decided that he would tackle it all and do it himself. He had all of the tools and he had a personal relationship with all of them. Once I was grown enough to serve as an inept go-fer, I got to be around him a lot while he was working with his tool friends, and you should have heard how he talked to them. That's when I learned that an adult male didn't have to watch out for cussin' around young male offspring. If a tool that he was using didn't do its job exactly as it was created to perform the job, you could expect it to get cussed at, lividly. Wrenches, saws, chisels, hammers and nails and fence staples regularly were called by their first, middle and last names, and sometimes by their professions. I was surprised by how many tools were “filthy whores” and “ worthless son-of-a bitches” and “fucking assholes”. I kept my cussin' mouth shut for years. It would have been too hard to get a word in edgewise. But I learned.

In the late 1950s, when I was about 12 years old, my older cousin Ralph persuaded Dad and me to go fishing with him in Canada about 70 miles north of International Falls, MN, at the lower end of Lake of the Woods. We fished there for years almost each July, (the month following the closed season for taking muskies), but for some years, we clung to the smaller adjoining lakes because Lake of the Woods is one “big fucking place” (Dad's description) with thousands of islands that, to us, all looked the same, and we didn't want to get lost. Finally the lure of the bigger fish in that “big fucking place” got the better of us and we started fishing there with a professional guide. The guide pictured with Dad in one of the musky pictures, “John”, was one of the best. We fished with him or with his brother Mike for years, and they both learned that we were after BIG fish, not fish that we could catch oursselves, without his knowledge of when and how to find them, and still find our way back to camp.

One July, in a year that I had forgot, on a chilly, windy, bright morning, we boated up with John and he told us that we were in for a longer boat ride than we were used to because he was taking us to “Stoney” Bay, called Big Stone Bay by some. On the way into Stoney, John pointed out a small protected bay sheltered by a 50 yard long rocky peninsula, and in the back of the bay, along the shore, was a quaint little sandy beach about 20 yards wide. The water was about 15 feet deep ending up very shallow just off the beach. Cabbage weeds were growing submerged about 18” to 24'” below the surface. John told us that he and his brother more than once had moved a very big musky in the pool just off that beach, but the fish wouldn't take on bright days. He promised that we would stop on the way back if clouds moved in and the sun was lowering. We fished away the rest of the day, raised a few medium sized muskies, but we boated a lot of nice northerns.

Brayshaw Sr. on leftt, Guide John center, Grandpa at right

The sun was lowering and the clouds had moved in, and so we went after the Great Fish. As we always liked to do when fishing over submerged weeds, we tied on large musky-sized artificials that we could run either slightly below the surface or on top. If you've never met one of those “fucking Musky Hawks” (a fish-catching tool), let me describe one. The one Dad tied on was about 8-9 inches long, with a black bushy bucktail hiding a large treble hook and a lead weight, ahead of the bucktail was a band of red saddle hackles, and at the front was a large double spinner that moved a lot of water. To fish one of those things and to keep it on the surface, the instant it hit the water at the end of your cast, you had to sweep up the tip of the rod to keep the Hawk from sinking and you had to start reeling FAST to keep it on top. I was tossing a very large Mepps with a tan bucktail at the rear.

Musky Hawk, by the Marathon Bait Company

We started in deeper water and kept casting and raising Cain as John worked us closer to the beach. When we were about close enough to reach it, at the end of about an eighty foot cast, Dad's Hawk landed about 3 feet from the beach and he swept up his rod tip, and the spinning blade broke the surface, and started twirling and spattering water. At the same instant, there was a huge swirl in the water about 5 feet a way, the sign of a very large fish swapping ends. John yelled, “Don't take it away from him but don't slow down!” Within seconds we could see a trail in the water behind the Hawk that reminded me somewhat of the wake that a shallow running torpedo might make. The fish was closing, but by now the Hawk was only about 15 feet from the gunwale. Half that distance away from the boat, The Great Fish became visible just beneath the surface behind the Hawk, and she opened a mouth big enough to lose your hand in, swallowed the Hawk hole, and dived straight down under the boat. In an instant, she came out from under the boat and drove straight away, back in the direction of the beach. At a distance of about 20 feet, she came straight up out of the water and walked her entire length above the surface on her tail. Think for a moment of how long that short event might have lasted. Not very long. A shaking fish can't defy gravity for long. Well, no matter how long the instant might have lasted, during the instant, I was the only one to speak, and I had just enough time to say, “Jesus Fucking Christ!” So much for not cussin' in front of my Dad.

The fight lasted a little more than half an hour. It would have been longer had the Great Fish not swallowed the Musky Hawk all the way down into her gills. John said that in all of his years up there, it was the longest musky he had ever boated. Fifty-two inches, by the way. She was a recently spawned-out female that he said would have been well over 40 pounds within another week or two. That's how it happened, as if it were yesterday.
For years, the owners of the fishing resort where we stayed had a custom. Whenever one of their guests brought in a trophy musky, as a reminder to the guest of the date it happened, they gave the guest a new Canadian silver dollar, minted that year. I have that silver dollar. It all happened in July, 1966, just another yesterday 45 years ago.

[These two musky stories were merged into one, and published in a slightly different form in the Spring 2014 issue of "The Drake" magazine.  Thanks to Tom Bie and "The Drake" for putting it out there.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Musky Man

The Musky Man with The Great Fish
I didn't catch the fish that is probably responsible for my infatuation with fishing.  In fact, I didn't even see it get caught.  Indeed, I hadn't even been born yet. But my fate was sealed, it seems, one summer day on Lake of the Woods, on the Minnesota/Canada border, back in the mid-1960s. The guide knew the big musky was there, but so far it had not been caught. Through what I now recognize must have involved at least some luck, the great fish inhaled my grandfather's big top-water Marathon Musky-Hawk spinner. Then, through what must have involved at least some skill, my grandfather landed this fish. Photos were taken at lunch on one of the rocky islands, and then again later at the dock.  Then he called my grandmother to let her know he was bringing this one back home, to hang on the wall.  "Like hell,", she replied, and so the great fish instead spent the next decade or so on Grandpa's office wall.  Up to this point, I had only seen photographs, but upon his retirement, the fish finally came home, where it found a the garage.

First photo: Guide in the shirt, Grandpa in the jacket

At the dock, with my father

Grandpa's routine was largely the same every day: he woke up very early every morning, hours before sunrise, and headed straight for the nearby golf course.  There, he fished the golf course ponds.  He had been a plumber by trade, and had been clever enough to work out a deal with the pro: Grandpa would do any routine plumbing tasks that the pro shop required, in exchange for nothing other than permission to fish the ponds. The pro agreed, provided that Grandpa didn't interfere with the golfers.  And so, his fishing routine was the same each morning.  He'd start at the pond closest to the first hole.  Shortly before sunrise, the first golfers would arrive.  He knew that from the time he first saw headlights in the parking lot, he would have 19 more minutes of fishing at this pond before he had to move to the next.  It didn't matter if the fishing was good - he had to move.  But several of the course ponds fished well, and by staying just ahead of the first party, he could fish all of the ponds in rotation, until finally he was forced to gather his gear and leave.  Then, home he went to clean his fish, change his clothes, and head back to the golf.

I was fortunate enough to live close enough to my grandparents when I was a child that I could visit often, and when I did, my routine, too, did not vary.  I would greet Grandpa, give Grandma a kiss, and head straight for the garage.  There I would spend as much time as I could staring at the mounted musky, fantasizing about what it must have been like to catch that fish.  For my entire childhood, I was convinced that this fish was the baddest-ass of all bad-ass fish, and of course it only logically followed that one would have to be quite the bad-ass fisherman to catch the most bad-ass of all fishes. 

Grandpa, the Bad Ass (about age 16)

Grandpa and his pal, Louie, with a stringer of bass

And so, it was pretty exciting to me when I was finally old enough to go fishing with Grandpa.  (I had, by this time, already spent considerable time fishing with my father - no slouch himself - but of course, it was Grandpa who had caught The Great Fish.)  When I stayed with my grandparents, we almost always went to one of the local cafeterias the evening before for dinner.  I doubt I could stomach the food now, but I recall at the time being pretty excited about the fact that when I reached the end of the line, right there before the cash register, I was face-to-face with The Desserts.  The Desserts!!  So many choices!!  What to do!?  I always got a piece of cherry pie.

Early the next morning, Grandpa would wake me up early and we'd skip breakfast, get into his yellow Malibu, and head for the golf course.  It may be that my memory is hazy after 30 years, but I seem to recall some of the most fabulous largemouth bass fishing imaginable.  Given that there were several of these ponds, and we had them entirely to ourselves, the fishing may really have been as good as I remember it.  Then again, the fishing is always as good as we remember it, isn't it?

On one of these trips, when I was perhaps 8 years old, I caught my first big bass.  Unlike the spunky 10 to 12 inch one-pounders that were so common, this fish was 16 inches and weighed two-and-one-half pounds. I could not have been more proud. Of course, Grandpa typically caught one bass of seven to eight pounds each year, but he was bad-ass, so this was to be expected.  When he caught one of these big bass, he would take it home, clean it and eat it, and then hang the head on a nail on the back of the shed. Over the course of the next year, this big bass head would rot and dry, so that by the following spring, it would be almost unrecognizable.  Almost as if on cue, Grandpa would catch another big bass and replace the shriveled head with a fresh one.  I know, because I spent hours staring at these bass heads, too.

Young T.J. Brayshaw, with big bass

Grandpa, with bigger bass

When I was old enough to drive, Grandpa got me a summer job working at the golf course so that I could fish the ponds myself.  At about this time, I became serious about my bass fishing.  I read all the magazines, but most of all, I read B.A.S.S. magazine.  Unlike Grandpa, I approached my bass fishing scientifically.  I took water temperature measurements and learned all the latest ways to rig plastic worms.  I learned how to finesse a worm, slowly working it across the bottom, one finger touching the line so I could feel every move the worm made. I tried to explain all of this to Grandpa, but he refused to change his methods, which largely consisted of tossing out a pre-rigged plastic worm and reeling it back in. All I could do was watch him and shake my head. 

I never caught a bass of more than about four pounds from those ponds, while he continued to catch seven and eight pounders.  I now shudder to think of what an asshole I was.

My grandfather died of cancer when I was twenty. The last weeks were tough because the pain medications he was taking sometimes made him hallucinate.  Sometimes during conversations, he would suddenly begin yelling at me for spilling all over the place something that, because of the drugs, only he could see.  But on their 50th wedding anniversary, he instructed my grandmother, who was taking care of him during these last days, not to give him any pain meds.  As a result, he was completely lucid that day, and while he must have been in great pain, it never showed. The entire family spent the day together, celebrating their half-century marriage, and we all spent some time speaking with him alone. When he and I spoke, we didn't talk about how he was going to beat the cancer, because it was clear this wasn't going to happen.  Because I was in college, and would be going back to school soon, we both knew that this was likely to be our last conversation, and indeed it was.  He told me then that one thing he truly regretted was that he and I never got a chance to go musky fishing in Canada.

While I remember this conversation like it was yesterday, one of my most vivid memories of my grandfather was from one of those early fishing trips to the golf course, over ten years before his death and now, it occurs to me, over thirty years ago.  He was trying to change lures, but was having trouble threading the fishing line through the small ring on the lure.  He called me over and asked me if I would do it for him.  "Here," he said. "You do this.  You've got young eyes.  They make these rings so God-damned small nowadays."

I swelled with pride, partly because he clearly trusted me enough to have me tie his knot for him, but also because he swore in front of me.  I was afraid I might get in trouble if I swore in front of any adults, but I recall many times, after that, when I was alone fishing, mumbling under my breath every time I tied on a new lure "They make these rings so God-damned small nowadays."  I practiced this so often, surely I must have sounded just like him.

Grandpa, in hat, my father (shirtless) and childhood friend fishing in Canada, late 1950s

[These two musky stories were merged into one, and published in a slightly different form in the Spring 2014 issue of "The Drake" magazine.  Thanks to Tom Bie and "The Drake" for putting it out there.]