Monday, August 22, 2011

Chris Beckstrom: Suburban kayak adventurer

my adventure- distance paddled: 5 miles. distance portaged: 1/2 mile
I'm pretty fascinated with the idea that so many bodies of water are connected, and it's possible to travel between them in a boat or something (or if you're a fish, just swimming). It's pretty cool to think that before there were roads and expressways, the indigenous people of the area (and european "explorers") used the waterways as their transportation (and of course a major source of food!)

Busse Lake
When I discovered that our new house was a mile from Salt Creek, which connects to Busse Lake - one of my most frequented bodies of water - I immediately thought "whoa, that means I could kayak from near my house to Busse!" Just the idea of that made me excited. I can't really explain it, but traveling a distance in a kayak just excites me. I've fished Salt Creek a bunch of times, and always had great luck in numbers, if not size. Tons of bluegill, pumpkinseed, some crappie, even the smallest LMB I'd ever caught.

Of course, there's no real need to kayak up the creek to Busse- I have a car carrier for my yak, and could just as easily drive up there and launch at Busse proper... But kayaking the 3-ish miles upstream to Busse to go fishing seemed like an adventure worth having, and Sunday was the day to do it!

this awesome spider was hanging out where I launched
(the internet tells me it's a female
"garden spider," Argiope aurantia )
I woke up at 4am, drank my coffee, ate my oatmeal, grabbed my crawlers and frozen water bottles out of the fridge, sprayed down with bug spray, and hopped in my car, kayak and fishing gear loaded a few short hours ago before I went to sleep. My plan was to be on the water by 5am, and I roughly estimated I could be to Busse by 6am, just in time for sunrise and good fishing. And there is such a thing at Busse, I promise!

Reading this account, please keep in mind that in general, "the outdoors" is a completely new thing to me. Just a few short years ago, the idea of waking up before 9am if I didn't have to was incomprehensible; I couldn't stand to be in 75°F heat longer than a few minutes; I had always been an "inside kid." When my friends were outside playing, I was inside practicing saxophone or playing video games. I don't regret that at all; I still love music, computers, video games, and playing the saxophone. So this whole waking up at 4am to go kayaking is a pretty radical thing for me...

I'm either going mining or kayaking in the dark
Anyway, since I'm so new to all this, sometimes key things don't occur to me. Things like at 5am in the summer, it's dark. Of course intellectually I knew this, and the whole reason I was launching so early was predicated on this fact... But I didn't think about how I would not only launch in complete darkness, but paddle for an hour before the sun came up.

Good thing I had my LED headlamp! Best purchase ever, after the kayaks and collapsible fishing rod of course. The water level was so high I the kayak floated in the tall grass that is usually 20' from the water. I hopped in, and paddled through what is normally definitely land. About a million bugs fell on me as I made my way through the grass, something that even 3 months ago would have creeped me out so much I would have turned around right then... But not today. I brushed them off, and shortly I heard the quiet gurgling sound that meant I was in open water, in the creek proper.

It was so dark. It was 5am, the sun wasn't showing up in full force for at least an hour, and the many trees lining the banks blocked whatever light there was in the sky- so it was very dark. My LED headlamp illuminated just enough in front of me I could avoid logs and branches, but not a lot more. This was a surreal experience, paddling in basically complete darkness, surrounded by buzzing insects, knowing there was a myriad of wildlife on all sides, but not being able to see any of it. Illinois law says any water craft must have the appropriate lights to legally be on the water in darkness, but since it didn't occur to me it would be so dark, I didn't equip my kayak with lights.

As I paddled, I tried best I could to keep to the middle of the creek, avoiding blocked areas, and trying not to get too close to the shore on either side (the bugs really intensified a few feet from the bank). I looked around with my headlamp, and I was surprised to see many pair of eyes reflecting back at me. Honestly, I didn't know that was a real thing! I thought it was just in disney cartoons animals in the jungle watched from the dark- but nope, it was real. I was as anxious about it as I was curious.

At one point a pair of eyes near the top of a tree was clearly watching me. I couldn't tell what it was, maybe a raccoon? A possum? To big to be a squirrel. I stopped paddling. The animal came down the tree a little bit, and looked back at me. We stared each other down, trying to figure out what we were looking at. The animal came closer; it was as interested in me as I was in it. It was too dark to really see what it was, but I enjoyed my animal-nature-bonding moment.

something tells me they know where the fish are
Back to paddling, I started to see more detail in my surroundings. Although I knew from satellite pictures there were residential and commercial areas on all sides of the creek, from where I was sitting I could have been in upstate New York, or the Everglades, or some remote creek in Montana or Canada somewhere. There was so much wildlife! I heard the quacking of ducks, who seemed to be swimming the same route I was paddling, only a few yards in front of me. I saw the silhouettes of many many heron in the trees; a few times my presence startled them and I was delighted to hear the sound of their wings beating the air only a short distance above my head. A few fish jumped all around me. This is what is so great about kayaking- since paddling is very quiet, you can get extremely close to wildlife before they realize you're there.

The sun was higher in the sky, and I noticed fog all around me, my headlamp turning everything white. The fog was rising from the water, something I'd often seen early in the morning, but I'd never been in it's midst when it was happening! This was great. This was exactly what I wanted to experience.

on the great salt creek
I passed under some bridges, counting them to get an idea how far a distance I had to my destination. I'd been studying the map and satellite photos, and I figured by this point I was more than half way. The water level was so high, on one bridge I had to recline in the kayak to avoid hitting my head.

Planes flew overhead, the ducks maintained their distance in front of me, and I seemed to be following a bunch of herons, who were doing what I would soon be doing- looking for fish. Fog rose all around me, bugs buzzed, the sound of my paddling was so soothing I didn't even notice how much my arms were burning until I stopped to drink some water and coffee. This was by far the farthest I'd ever paddled all at once, and I'd never paddled continuously for so long. If I stopped paddling, I would start to go downstream, away from Busse, so I had to keep paddling!

Finally I got to the Arlington Heights Road bridge, which was the dividing line between the residential area and Busse woods. I made it! Part of me wasn't sure I'd be able to make the almost 3 mile journey in the kayak, against the current, but I made it. There was a pool just inside the preserve that was my first fishing stop.

arlington heights road bridge, the dividing line between the world and Busse, my destination
Once I got into Busse, the current went away, and I could calmly float as I prepared my rods. I started with a 1 oz. white spinnerbait, hoping to entice some of the fish jumping around me to hop into my kayak for a quick hello and a picture. I'd never caught a bass in the kayak, I really hoped this would be the day. I put a crawler on a 1/16oz jig with a bobber, and wet that line as well.

A few minutes later a fisherman emerged from the forest, rods and bucket in hand. I think I surprised him; I was only about 10' from the shore, and he didn't notice me until I said "hello." He said he was fishing for carp and catfish, and he'd caught some pretty big ones in this pool. I wished him luck, and he followed the shoreline to his spot.

After a half hour, I didn't even get any nibbles. It was time to move on, so I bid my fishing friend farewell and paddled north. The water came back to a creek's width for a bit before it met with Busse's south dam, and that was where I planned on portaging to get to the main pool.

As soon as I rounded the bend, I saw a huge fallen tree blocking the entire creek. It was creating a small rapids, and making what I thought was going to be a smooth paddle very difficult. I adjusted my rod holders so my rods were horizontal - to avoid hangups on the tree - and prepared to navigate through the obstruction. Let's do it!

Well, it wasn't going to happen. Not only was the current extremely strong - flowing in the wrong direction, but there were branches everywhere, scraping my neck and dropping spiders on me. I could barely get the paddle out of the water before it hit branch after branch. I scanned the banks for a possible portaging route, and that wasn't going to happen either- the high water level had changed the grassy area into a marsh, where I would certainly sink into the earth, unable to get to the main pool. My only real choice at this point was to go back to the pool and portage through the forest, reconnecting with the creek past the obstruction.

the great portage of salt creek
On land, I could see a path leading north, that I hoped would curve west again and meet the creek. I grabbed some rope from my tackle box, and tied it to the front of my yak. With my new knot-tying chops, I tied a few butterfly knots, which are great for making handles if you have to pull something... like a kayak.

I'm glad there was a trail
The ground was still wet from yesterday's rain, and so was the grass. This made it possible to pull my boat instead of carry it, which was pretty nice. I made my way through the forest, following a muddy path which I hoped would lead me to water sooner than later. As I pulled my yak, I was really glad I didn't bring an anchor, which would have made it even heavier. I felt like an explorer, portaging around an undiscovered stream through an unknown forest, not knowing what I would find on the other side. Obviously people had been here before me, but it was true I didn't know what would be on the other side.

What was on the other side was a parking lot. I knew this lot was quite a bit west from the creek, and even farther south from the main pool. I decided I'd better follow the bike path instead of trekking through the forest- I was wearing shorts, and can't yet identify poison ivy and stuff...

I dragged my yak along the wet grass until I got to the bike path that goes over the south dam (where Busse spills back into Salt Creek). Many bicyclists passed me, many of them looked perplexed by what I was doing... As they should have been! I got the kayak over the bike path, down the rocks, and back into the forest. I had fished this spot before, I knew the water was very close and there wasn't a steep dropoff- perfect place to launch.

herons know what's up with fishing
Got the yak in the water, pushed past the tall plants growing out the marshy area, and I was on the water! To my left was the south dam, where many families seemed to be having a great time fishing; to my right was a fishing wall, lined every foot with a fisherman; in front of me, on the other side of the lake, was a shoreline lined with fallen timber and weeds. I saw a heron perched on a tree very close to the water, and in the blink of an eye it's knife-life beak went into the water and pulled out a fish.

I don't have a fish-finder on my kayak, so I have to rely on other clues to find fish. I study depth maps like a crazy person, I take careful note of weedlines and what look like dropoffs from the surface, and I always watch the birds. The birds are fishing too, and they usually have a better idea where the fish are than I do- so I go where they are. 

sorry I stole your spot dude
I got to the spot where the heron was (it flew away- like most fisherman, herons aren't fans of b**** fishing - when another fisherman fishes in your spot). I dropped a line in the water, hoping the fish didn't notice my paddling and were still in the area.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I pulled out the first fish of the day!

thanks mr. fish, you made it all worth it!
I can't express how happy I was to have gotten this dink fish in the boat! I was so incredibly happy, not only to break my 3-4 day skunk, but to have made it to my destination, and successfully caught a fish. Small as it was, this was a trophy fish to me. I thanked it profusely, and was glad it seemed fine when I carefully placed it back in the water. This fish did me a tremendous favor, and I was eternally grateful. I have often gotten the skunk at Busse, and catching a fish there at all is a big feat- but especially today!

I continued to catch fish on my 1/16oz chartreuse jig and nightcrawler, rigged without a bobber. The fish were hanging out just past the weedline, toward the bottom. The heron had unintentionally tipped me off to a great spot! I hoped the bird had found another and could get enough to eat. I think you're supposed to tip your fishing guide- if it had still been around, I definitely would have tossed it a fish to say "thanks."

Each fish I caught was bigger than the last, I was slayin'em at Busse! After the bite died down in that spot, I moved north along the coast to find some more fish. I found a good looking spot, where there was a nice change from weeds to open water, a large dropoff, and there were a bunch of ducks eating. Thanks to the birds, again, I began catching fish. Some more bluegill/pumpkinseed, again I was incredibly elated. At this point I decided to rename my kayak the S.S. Silent But Deadly, for her silent fish-hunting ability.

Then I hooked into a fish that seemed to be bigger than the others, and had a very different fight. To my astonishment, I pulled out this awesome fish:

perch! at busse!
At first I thought walleye. I'd never caught a walleye, and I thought they look kind of like this... But the eyes were wrong, and the teeth weren't right... A perch!!?? At Busse!!?? I'd never heard of anyone catching perch at busse; I thought perch were only found in deeper, bigger lakes, and of course Lake Michigan. Who knew!!? Not me.

I snapped some pictures and quickly re-cast to the same area, just along the bottom at the dropoff. I knew perch usually hung out in schools, so if there's one I might be able to catch more. I did!

The school of perch must have been a class of two, because that's all I caught. I decided to move on, working my way up the coast. Wasn't getting any action, although I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I had come a long way, had caught fish, and the day was still young. After hitting some nice-looking spots (and seeing one of my heron friends again) I decided to move toward the south pool/main pool dam where I'd caught some nice bass in the past. Actually that's where I'd caught my largest bass ever, at night, on a black spinnerbait.

The sun was up in full force, not much wind, not many clouds, and I tried to think where I would be if I were a fish. Well first of all, I'd be in the shade. I headed to a promising spot- sunken wood, weeds, shade, and I cast.

what a pretty fish
more perch
Fish on! This was turning out to be a great day fishing. I caught some more gills, and pulled out another perch. What!?? How is it after all the times I'd fished Busse, I'd never caught a perch, and now I was catching a bunch of them? Maybe they prefer to be as far from shore fisherman as possible, maybe they know how tasty they are.

As morning turned to early afternoon, the bite died down. I worked some more spots, to no avail. The fish were taking a siesta in either deep or in the shade, and I got the hint that maybe I should do the same. My lovely wife agreed to come pick me up, as I wasn't mentally prepared to do the reverse portage and long paddle back to my car. I headed toward the boat launch, completely satisfied with my suburban kayak angling adventure, happy that I made it in one piece, caught a new species (for me, on that lake), and all-in-all had an incredibly great morning.

next time I'll be sure to tip my guide with a nice juicy bluegill

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell me what you think!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.