Steven Simpson’s Blog
Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting. Most entries will be about nature or other environmental topics, but occasionally I will write about writing, family, travel, or the Driftless Region.
I used to take lots of pictures. I almost never stepped or paddled into a natural area without a camera in hand. Then I began to wonder whether the desire for a good photograph was keeping me from encountering my experiences with an open mind. In the same way I see only birds when I am birdwatching, I tended to see only the next photo when I was carrying my camera. I am sure I exaggerate this tendency, but it was enough to keep me from investing heavily into new equipment when amateur photography went digital. I did buy a small inexpensive digital camera, but I usually don’t carry it with me. I pretty much removed nature photography from my recreation repertoire.
Lately I have been rethinking this decision, and it is because of my blog. Every weekend I write about something that happened to me during the previous week, and I sometimes regret not having a photograph to accompany the prose. About half of the time I am able to obtain an acceptable photo after I’ve written a blog. If I am sitting on my front porch writing about my front porch, I can go back into the house and retrieve my camera. If the subject is paddling with Clare, she usually brings her smart phone and I can use one of her shots. Overall she has a better eye than I do anyway. If I paddle or fish or bike alone, I can sometimes return to the site with my camera afterwards. More often than not I have to go without a photo.
I did try carrying my camera with me on my bicycle rides, but my old bad habit of allowing the camera to be a distraction returned. Instead of enjoying the ride, I was actively looking for the next blog entry and the photo to accompany it. Without the camera, I seldom thought in those terms. I enjoyed the hike or the paddle or the bike ride, and only days later while reflecting on the week did a particular happening turn into a story.
This blog about photography came to mind because I do not have a picture of the gar I wrote about in last week’s blog. A photograph of a Jurassic Period fish with 21st Century fluorocarbon fishing line wrapped around its snout would have made for an evocative photo.
Thursday I took my kayak to Green Island on the Mississippi River. It is one of about a half dozen places I regularly put in to go fishing. Every other time I’ve gone there, I’ve paddled west and fished the inlets just off the main channel. On Thursday, mostly on a whim, I headed east, paddled under the Green Island Bridge, and fished the backside of the island behind Gundersen Lutheran Hospital. Over the years I’d ice fished that particular slough a couple of times during the winter, but had never been there after ice out. Much of the shoreline is residential, and I usually look for places less developed.
For an hour and a half I worked the water’s edge without success. Then I noticed fish surfacing out toward the middle. Within a sixty-foot diameter, there were two or three swirls at any given moment. I quietly paddled to the edge of the activity and gently put down my anchor. The water was deeper than my twenty-foot anchor rope, but I left the anchor in. Even if it didn’t catch on the bottom, it would slow my drifting.
I began tossing a weighted green jig into the circle of swirls. About every third cast, I felt something hit my line, but nothing ever took the hook. Ordinarily I would assume that the fish were too small for the size of lure I was using. That day it had to be something else, because even though I never saw a fish break the surface, the dimensions of the swirls suggested something fairly large. I began to wonder whether there was a floating weed bed just under the surface. Maybe I was getting my lure momentarily caught on aquatic plants and mistaking it for a strike. I pulled up my anchor and paddled directly into the circle of swirls. There were no weeds. Fish had to be hitting my lure, but not taking it in their mouths.
Now I wanted to catch at least one fish just to see what I was dealing with. After what seemed like the twentieth strike, I finally hooked something. Often I can distinguish a northern pike from a small-mouthed bass from a walleye from a catfish by the way that the fish pulls against the line, but this fish was reacting in a way unfamiliar to me. It almost seemed to be spinning lengthwise in the water. I’ve had northerns spin once or twice in their attempts to break free, but this fish was rotating repeatedly.
After the fish made a couple of long runs, I got it alongside my kayak. It was a gar. I don’t know gars well enough to say whether it was a longnose gar or a shortnose gar, and I didn’t really care. Gars are so prehistoric and so nasty looking that I don’t like to touch them to take the hook out. In that way, they have something in common with dogfish and eels. About once a year I see a half dozen gar basking together on the surface of the water. I always paddle up to the small pod to get a good look, but never try to catch one.
I was right about the twisting. The gar’s sawlike teeth had cut my line, and my lure was somewhere on the bottom of the river. I landed the fish only because it had tightly wrapped my line a half dozen times around its snout. Basically I had lassoed it. I needed only to unravel the line to set the fish free.
One gar was enough to satisfy my curiosity. I called it a day and paddled back to my car.