A day on the lake

From a miserable beginning came a very memorable and rewarding day.

One never knows exactly what will happen after pushing a boat away from a dock for a day of fishing. Yes, fishermen like to catch fish, but there always seems to be a good number of things other than placing fish in the livewell that contribute to a good day on the water. A startling example comes from a fishing excursion I made to Lake Darling July 3.

My daughter Kelli, three dogs and I launched from the boat ramp at the east end of Lake Darling Dam under very pleasant weather conditions. The condition of the water was another story entirely. The lower end of the reservoir was covered in mats of algae, much of it the blue-green type that can be toxic during certain life-stages.

We stopped at several of my favorite fishing locations on the lower end of Lake Darling, only to be disappointed at the amount of algae that obscured fishing lures, attached to fishing line and otherwise dampened our enthusiasm for being on the water. The algae, I presumed, was carried to the lower end of the lake by wind and current spurred by recent heavy rainfall.

After only a few minutes of fishing at each of several locations, all of which were thickly infected with algae, I made a decision to move several miles north in the hopes of finding clearer water. The move worked. Water clarity began to improve as our boat moved well above what is known as the former buoy line at Lake Darling.

The first order of business was to water the dogs, something that was not advisable on the lower end of the lake due to the presence of unknown strains of algae. Second was to do some exploring to find a likely area to fish.

It was during this time that we encountered painted turtles, pelicans, great blue herons and a large brood of blue-winged teal. A coyote was also seen strolling through the grass on a hillside above the lake. We took the time to watch all the wildlife closely and thoroughly enjoyed it. Such times make for great moments on the water. Unknown at the time, and still to come, was the most memorable moment of the day.

Eventually I arrived at a fishing spot that I had not fished for nearly two years. I’ve had success there in the past but did not know what to expect, although I was encouraged by a slight southerly wind. I was reminded of an old fisherman’s adage, “wind from the south blows bait in their mouth.” There is also my own rule – “you don’t know if you don’t throw.”

Sometimes I think fishermen like sayings as much as they enjoy fishing. This time, both

proved quit true.

Within minutes I had hooked into a nice walleye and my daughter a northern pike, which is what we were seeking. The walleye had plowed hard into a spinner-bait, telling me that the competition for food beneath the water must be pretty intense. It was a very encouraging sign.

For well over an hour we had numerous follows, fish that came unhooked at the boat and several that we landed and returned to the water. I don’t know how many fish were seen between the two of us, but scarcely a cast went by without some indication of action. We measured numerous pike that exceeded 30 inches. Through it all, we put three fish in the livewell: two very nice pike caught by my daughter and one walleye. Then one of the strangest encounters I’ve ever had on the water took place.

After making several casts toward a shoreline, I decided to make a cast off the opposite side of the boat. When I looked to choose a target area I was flabbergasted to see a face staring back at me. There, in the middle of Lake Darling, I made eye contact with a white-tailed deer.

Without taking my eyes off the deer, I told Kelli to turn around and take a look. All I heard was a gasp and an, “Oh my God. That can’t be real!” The deer seemed to pause in the water and then resumed swimming, turning directly toward the boat. It had no fear of us. The deer was obviously growing very tired of swimming and would have been happy to climb aboard.

With the deer in danger of drowning at any moment, I told Kelli to grasp it with her arms around all four legs to avoid being kicked. The young fawn appeared to be in complete agreement and was swimming straight toward the boat when my dog stood up to peer over the edge. Upon seeing the dog, the deer determined coming aboard was too dangerous and it changed its course. Drowning now seemed inevitable. We could clearly hear the small deer wheezing and coughing up water as it passed in front of the boat.

I guessed the deer was within about 150 yards of shore, but it chose a path that would keep it swimming against the waves and well away from the shoreline. I made the decision to start the boat and do what I could to influence the deer to turn toward the shoreline and dry ground. It required some tricky maneuvering while not causing the tired deer to panic, but it worked. Fortunately, very fortunately, the young animal made it safely to shore.

The deer stumbled when getting out of the lake and then paused to look back toward the water, possibly to look for its mother. The weary deer stumbled again while climbing up the small bank. It walked briskly through grass and appeared to lay down only yards from the water’s edge. I’m sure it was exhausted and bewildered.

On land the deer at least had a chance of survival. I’m sure it wouldn’t have lasted many more minutes in the lake. My guess is that the fawn somehow slipped into the water on the opposite side of the lake, became separated from its mother and simply swam the wrong direction.

We tried fishing some more after the incident with the deer, but had lost our focus and our enthusiasm. Even though the fishing action had been virtually non-stop, we decided to take a lunch break. The break was as much for the purpose of resting weary arms and wrists as it was to eat and put the morning’s events into perspective.

We were glad the deer made it out of the water and we were glad we had helped in some way, but we also realized the deer’s survival was another matter entirely. I guess I’ll always wonder if it survived. Nature can be both beautiful and cruel.

While enjoying lunch in the boat we laughed about how good the fishing was, marveled at how nice it was too see all the wildlife and discussed that we’d never forget what was a very unusual and eventful day on the water. After coming to an agreement about how much longer we would fish, we were once again tossing favorite spinnerbaits into the depths.

The fish were still there. Still biting. We caught more, released more, saw more and then left the area after another half-hour of action. It was a very memorable day, even remarkable, but anything can and usually does happen when on the water. As I mentioned earlier, fishing is often so much more than putting fish in a livewell.