Posted by: justawriter | August 13, 2009

Far Afield – Summertime … and the lake is rising

Well, I had my first look in a long while at some Lake Sakakawea walleyes this past Friday. I must say, for a depressed fishery there were some awfully fine looking fish being weighed that day. Looking at the results, the other encouraging result is that there were only a handful of boats that were skunked and a good number that limited out. All and all, it was a result that shows promise for the future as fish populations bounce back from years of drought.
I wonder if it isn’t a good thing in the long run that Lake Sakakawea had an extended period of low water. Please don’t take this to mean that there was anything good about all the lost profits, added expenses and disrupted lives of those who rely on the lake for water or their livelihood, or both. I am talking about the effect it has had on those of us who are a bit further removed from the lake – the occasional weekend visitors or folks who make the lake their one big vacation a year. The differences in the lake were so drastic that even the most casual angler or camper couldn’t help but notice.
As the old song says, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” My dad was a child of the Depression and Dust Bowl in North Dakota. He would tell stories of that time when the land was so bare the grasshoppers started chewing on the barbed wire. In those days Devils Lake had sunk down to a mud puddle 4 feet deep at most and half again as salty as seawater. A person could step across the Red River in high summer as often as not. In those days, too much water seemed like a dream come true.
The rains came back, eventually. Starting in 60s Devils Lake had freshened enough for perch and northerns to survive. The Chain of Lakes north of Devils Lake became one of our regular getaways. Boy did we catch fish.
Mom and Dad taxed their ingenuity figuring out new ways to eat fish. Baked and fried were staples of course, and sometimes the baked fish were filled with stuffing. But then there were pickled fish by the gallon and fish burgers and on and on. That was the other carryover of the dirty 30s, nothing went to waste. I’m glad my dad had never heard of Thai fish sauce made from salted, fermented fish guts because he probably would have tried to make it himself.
As an aside, Dad had no patience for people who wouldn’t eat northerns because they had too many bones. He said God put those bones there so you would eat slowly enough to appreciate the flavor of the fish.
But beyond the fish, I think it was the water that called to Dad. The lake shore was always green with trees and knee high grass. If the fish weren’t biting especially fast he would watch the hawks and duck, rabbits and foxes and every sort of wild creature that had seemed to flee the state during those lean, hungry years. He never needed a radio or a DVD player to keep himself entertained. He could watch the world’s biggest and longest running reality show in the original HD format.
I don’t think there was a minute of that time he didn’t give thanks for, because he knew it could all dry up and blow away again.
Hunger is the best sauce, the philosopher said (looking it up, it seems to be one of those quotes that has a thousand fathers, from Cicero to Cervantes). Sakakawea had gone through droughts in its 40 years of existence but it had never been this low for this long before. Having gone without for so long seems to have made people more appreciative of the truly incredible resource we are privileged to enjoy. Everyone I talked to at the lake this weekend were so happy the lake had returned they didn’t mind the forecasts that the fishing would be tougher than ever. Just the fact that all the old ramps that had been high and dry for so many years could be put back into service, and so many areas were once again available – not just for fishing, but for sailing, skiing, tubing and the full gamut of recreation – put a smile on everyone’s face.
I got the feeling from talking to folks at the Dakota Walleye Classic that they were welcoming back an old friend who had recovered from a long and debilitating illness. They knew things weren’t going to be up to snuff right away but they were just glad to see her out of the sickbed and walking around then. And like any convalescing invalid, sunshine and fresh air seems to have been the best cure. The 28-pound haul is the largest winning weight in the tournament for several years. The lake surprised us by bouncing back nearly 40 feet in one spring. Maybe it has more surprises – pleasant surprises for anglers – in the years to come.

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