Flyfisher’s Guide to NW Montana’s Mountain Lakes

How about taking your fly rod on a hike into Montana’s  backcountry and catching wild mountain trout? Or maybe you’d prefer  reading about it while relaxing in your recliner? Maybe you want to both read up and plan that self-guided fly fishing trip into the remote mountainous areas of the Last, Best Place?

If you find yourself in one of the above groups, (or somewhere between) you might enjoy my new book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes soon to be released in print by Wilderness Adventures Press. The first 40 or so pages contain valuable information for fly fishers from beginners to experts, including tackle info, backcountry navigation, guidance on how to rig up for backpacking, tips for camping in bear country, information about using goats as pack stock, and much more. The remainder of the book is dedicated to individual reports on some of the best mountain lakes of Northwest Montana, including driving directions, trail info, GPS coordinates, and best-in-class maps by Wilderness Adventures Press. You can sample it as an e-book online  at Amazon and Google Play, and purchase it there if you like. Or you can buy a signed print copy here.

The online samples will give you a peek at the first 40 or so pages, but I thought you also might want to see a sample lake report from the book. So with permission from the publisher, here ya go –

Trail Lake

GPS:  

Trailhead: 47.00634, -115.01147

Lake: 47.00603, -115.04137

Summary: Probably the best eastern brook mountain lake in Mineral County, Trail Lake covers about 12 fishy acres.

Location: 17 miles south-southwest of the town of Superior

Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle Illinois Peak (for reference only—trail to Trail Lake not shown on topo map). USDA Forest Service map Lolo National Forest, Superior Ranger District; DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer, page 52; Benchmark Montana Road and Recreation Atlas, page 61

Elevations:

Trailhead: 4,723 feet

Lake: 5,740 feet

Round-Trip Hike: 4.4 miles

Hike Difficulty: Moderate

Sometimes you just hit the jackpot, and the jackpot in this case was fat, feisty, eastern brook averaging 10 to 12 inches.

Knowing that mountain trout don’t usually get up early, I didn’t arrive at the trailhead and start my hike on a bright and lovely July morning until 11 a.m. The forecast was for light and variable winds and a sunny afternoon in the low 80s. Nice.

I took my time hiking in, enjoying my time on the trail just as much as the prospect of sampling a new lake. It was two p.m. by the time I arrived at Trail Lake, unpacked, and inflated my little boat. My hiking partner for the day had arrived at the lake before me and was already out on the lake fishing and catching fish. He kept hollering, “Got another one, Mike! Got another one! Hurry up and get out here!”

But I’m never in a hurry when I’m in the mountains. I want to savor every moment. So with my friend still hollering, “Got another one!” I found a comfortable perch on a log, shared a PBJ with my poodle, and had a cool drink.

After lunch, I rigged up double flies on my 3-weight with a size 16 green foam beetle and a size 14 Royal Wulff as the caboose. I walked my boat down to the lake shore and eased it into the lake. Just then a mayfly hatch exploded.

Suddenly there were mayflies everywhere: in the air, on the water, landing on my boat, my shirt, and my dog. I pulled out a fly box and searched for something to imitate the hatch. I found a size 16 Callibaetis (mayfly) spinner with a green thorax. The color wasn’t a match to the hatch, but the size was right on. Remembering that size is more important than color, I hurriedly clipped off the Royal Wulff, replaced it with the mayfly spinner, and shoved off.

My first two casts didn’t produce, but after that it was cheesecake. I had two takes in a row on the mayfly spinner, but I foul-hooked both fish. Thus began a lesson in flyfishing adaptability.

I removed the beetle, replaced it with the spinner for a one-fly setup, and settled my offering a few feet from shore. Trout were rising all around the fly, but they ignored the spinner. Try something different, I thought. I gave the fly line a little tug to sink the fly and started a slow, stripping retrieve. Fish on.

I landed and released the fish and figuring the fly was too slimed up to float, I decided to send it back to work. But after I double-hauled the line back out, the darn bug dried out and floated. No takers. Once again I tugged the line to sink the fly and repeated the slow retrieve. Bam. Fish on.

Okay, you idiots, I thought, you want it wet, I’ll give it to you wet. I retrieved the fly and clipped off the white spinner wings which were drying out and causing the fly to float. I sealed the deal by dousing the fly in sinkum.

I sent the fly back on the job with a smug smile. This time it sank. I repeated the retrieve. This time no fish. Another cast. No fish. Hmmm. I retrieved the line.

I sat in the boat thinking for a moment as a gentle breeze nudged me along the shore. What had I learned so far?

1. They want it wet.
2. They want the white.

I had one of those “light-bulb-over-the-head” moments.

I clipped off the mutilated fly and tied on another identical to the first. After a good soak in sinkum, I sent the fly on mission. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. And so it went as long as the mayfly hatch lasted. Ahh…. Sometimes you just hit the jackpot.

Getting There

From Interstate 90 at the town of Superior, take Exit 47, travel east on FR 250, which is also named Diamond Match Road and later becomes Trout Creek Road. Continue about 17 miles from Superior to FR 7813 and turn right (north). At 1.9 miles, turn south (left) on FR 388. Follow FR 388 about 1 mile to the trailhead for Trail 256. The trailhead is not signed, but it starts just before you cross the bridge over the North Fork of Trout Creek.

Caution: That last mile on FR 388 is kind of nasty. You won’t need four-wheel drive, but forget it if you’re driving a Corvette.

The Hike

For the most part, the trail follows the course of an old mining road. In fact, as I started the hike I asked myself, What’s a nice trail like you doing in a place like this? The trail ascended gradually until it crossed the North Fork of Trout Creek and then the switchbacks began. When I came to the switchbacks I asked myself, What’s a nice fisherman like you doing on a trail like this? However, the switchbacks marked the final ascent and only climbed about 0.25 mile to the lake.

Camping

There are a few very nice but primitive campsites at the lake.

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Picture Perfect

A Nice Clark Fork River Cutthroat, copyright 2018 Mike L. Raether

So you caught a monster fish, were inspired by great views, and had a wonderful trip. Can you capture the memory? Well, no, not exactly. Feelings can’t be recorded on photos. But this doesn’t mean you can’t share the memories.

However, poor photography is lifeless and boring. How can we make our photos exciting? How can we tell the story? How can we make them shine?

I’m still learning the “how” of this, even though I supplied all but one of the photos in my book, Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes, due to release next month by Wilderness Adventures PressHowever, I’d like to pass along a few of the things I’ve learned to my photographically-inclined friends.

First off, if you’re serious get serious equipment. Forget about using the camera on your smartphone. It’s okay for grabbing quick pics and sticking them under the noses of your victims, but not if you’re serious. Get a good DSLR and a compliment of lenses, such as a micro lens for close-ups, a mid-range zoom such as 18-70 mm for wide angle to standard stuff, and about a 70-300 mm telephoto zoom lens. Zoom lenses are sometimes snubbed by snobby photographers, but the newer zoom lenses take some pretty good stuff, even good enough for publication. You’re also going to need a good tripod, especially for low light conditions and telephoto work. I’ve bought much of my equipment from B&H and have been very happy with them.

Second, learn how to use the various custom settings of your DSRL, such as aperture, shutter, and manual settings. Once you learn how to use the “professional” settings, you won’t go back to the “auto” setting. Commercial photographer Bryan Peterson has some great resources to help with this. Like it or not, you’re going to have to study.

Third, practice. Take a lot of photos. Learn about the varying qualities of light. Learn how to see creatively. One of the beauties of digital photography is that you have access to almost instant editing. If you don’t like some of the stuff you snapped, delete. Delete. DELETE.

Fourth, and this is where fishing comes in, whether of people or fish or both, unless you’re doing a panoramic get close. Fill the frame.

Last for now, if you’re trying for close-ups of live fish, keep your hands out of the way. Remember, your subject is the fish, not your thumbs. Cradle live fish, and include a background of water and/or net. Personally, I think dead fish pictures suck, with the exception of photos of fish on the Bar-B. Or perhaps a piece of BBQ’d fish on a fork on its way to your very eager and wide open mouth. Again, get creative.

Well, that’s enough from me. But maybe you’d like to pass along some tips? You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.

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Please Pass the Fly

Fly fishers, I’ve seen the enemy, and he’s not an anti-conservation whacko or the member of a radical environmental group. The enemy of fly fishing is us.

Royal Coachman copyright Mike L. Raether, 2018

According to the 2015 Special Report on Fishing, although fly fishing is less popular than either freshwater or saltwater fishing, it’s normally the first choice among beginners. Nevertheless, fly fishing is gradually losing participants.

Why?

The number one cause is a lack of mentorship.

Almost half of all fly fishers are 45 years of age or older, and the majority of fishers (more than 65%) choose to go fishing with a fellow adult. Only about 7% bother with taking someone fishing under the age of 18. Very sad, in my opinion.

It’s when we’re young that many new things are tried and many stay with us. If you liked riding a bicycle, swimming, or hiking as a kid, you probably still enjoy such things (I love riding a bike, even though I fall off a lot. One time I ran over my wife who’d just fallen off her bike in front of me). The 2015 Special Fishing Report I mentioned above notes, “An early introduction to fishing is critical to participation later in life. More than 85 percent of current participants started as children ages 12 and younger. Participants associate fishing with positive memories, such as being immersed in nature and spending time with friends and family.” Of those who tried fishing as kids, over 85% are still fishing today.

So in the interest of preserving our tribe, consider the following –

  • Take a ride on the mentor train. Take a young person fly fishing. And don’t overlook the ladies – almost half of all those who embrace fishing are female.
  • Make sure they have good equipment. How would you like trying to fly fish with a utility-pole rod and house wire fly line?
  • Take ‘em someplace where they can catch fish. The number one attraction for first-time fishers is catching fish. The number one detraction for first-time fishers is not catching fish.

So – go pass the fly. You might even have more fun teaching someone else to fly fish than fly fishing yourself. And as a bonus, once he or she gets the hang of it, you no longer have fishy-smelling hands.

Perhaps you have some tips to pass along? Maybe you have some advice or an experience you’d like to share? Please do. You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.

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The Joys of Still Water Fly Fishing

Mention fly fishing to most anglers and a picture comes to mind of a fly fisher standing knee deep in a sparking river while casting a fly line, or perhaps of a fly fisher sitting in a drift boat and working a fly rod while happily sliding downstream on a gentle current.  But this is only half of the story. The other half of the story unfolds on still water.

Little Spar Lake, Montana

Lake fly fishing has some great advantages over moving water fly fishing —

  • You don’t have to mend line to maintain a drag-free drift,
  • Flies can spend more time on or in the water, rather than flying above it (most fish can’t jump high enough to grab a fly whizzing by on false casts 8′ above the water). Flies that spend more time on or in the water than above it equal more fish on the end of the line,
  • The particular piece of water can be worked thoroughly, rather than rue the hole you just missed as you drifted by, and
  • You don’t have to be concerned about spring runoff. Most still water remains fishable throughout the season.

The one big disadvantage with still water fly fishing is that you have to provide the movement; there’s no river current to stimulate action when wanted. But neither is there a current to fight. Provide fish-enticing movement of wet flies and nymphs via stripping, hand twists, or a combination. Vary retrieve type and speed until you find the sweet spot.

A first look at a lake can be puzzling: Where are the fish? On a flowing water you have seams, back eddies, and pools to prospect for trout. But a lake can be a daunting; at least on the surface the water all looks the same. Don’t you believe it. Before you make a cast, study the shoreline topography. A gently-sloping shore usually indicates a gently-sloping bottom. A steep shoreline often means deep water offshore. Also note inlets as they float fresh food to trout, often offering the fish a virtual bug buffet. Of course, you’ll also want to watch for rising fish. One more tip: Research your choice of still water in advance of your adventure. Try You Tube, Google Earth, and if you’re considering Montana where I live check out Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks FishMT for info. Another good resource is Wilderness Adventures Press.

However, whether they live in flowing water or still water, all trout need the same things: Chow, cover, and comfort. Paying attention to these three will lead you to the fish. Here’s a quick summary of each:

Chow. Just like you and me, fish like to eat. But fish diets include things we’d rather not have for supper, such as bugs, minnows, worms, leeches and the like. You can learn a ton about the food in a lake by dredging an aquarium net along the shore especially in weedy areas and emptying the contents into a clear plastic bottle containing a few inches of lake water. Check out your “catch” and you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to fly selection.

Cover. Fish have enemies, both the finny kind that swims under the surface and feathery kind that flies above it. They need shelter. This could take the form of a weed bed, a drop-off, or other underwater structure such as logs, boulders, and brush.

Comfort. Just like you and me, trout need certain conditions to be cozy. Water temperature is especially important; trout like their water at 50-60 degrees. Research the lake temp by lowering a stream thermometer down through the depths on a line marked at one-foot intervals to find the right level.

Now go do it, and tell us how you like fishing still water. Perhaps you have some tips to pass along? Maybe you’d like to say something about flowing water fly fishing?

You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog. 

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Getting Old Doesn’t Always Suck

“You’re going to have to start respecting your age.”

“Never let an old man in your body.”

Two different responses from two different people when they looked at the cast on my right arm and asked what had happened.

No, it ain’t me – at least not yet!

I’d hiked into one of our mountain lakes looking forward to a couple of hours of fly fishing and relaxation. I’d been hopping from log to log along the shoreline like a man in his 30s, not his 60s, seeking a little extra casting room. Suddenly one of the logs rolled out from under me. As I fell, I stuck out my right hand to break my fall. My glasses went in the drink along with my hat and cell phone. I broke my right wrist, but at least I didn’t break my $500 fly rod, which I held high above my head in my left hand. The water was only a foot or so deep next to shore, so it was easy to retrieve my glasses and cell phone. I used the tip of the fly rod to hook my hat, which was merrily drifting away. So much for a couple of hours of fly fishing and relaxation.

The end game was a hike back to my truck, and a trip to the doctor to get an X-ray which confirmed the break. But this post isn’t really about a broken wrist. This post is about the joys of being old.

I’d been kind of moaning about getting older and not able to do some of the things I used to do, such as hopping from log to log. But rather than feel sorry for myself, I decided to focus on the benefits of getting old, of which there are many. Here are a few—

  • Most days I don’t have to set an alarm clock,
  • I can sleep when I’m tired,
  • I can eat when I’m hungry,
  • I can go fishing during the week when everyone else is working,
  • And speaking of working, I work part time because I want to not because I have to,
  • I can have an extra cookie and nobody says a word, ‘cause I’m old and fat anyway.
  • Senior discounts!

On the downside, I’m slower on the trail than I used to be. But if the day comes when I can’t hike anymore, I’ll find something else to do like climb aboard a drift boat. It’s called “adapting”. And that broken wrist? It sure didn’t keep me from fly fishing, and it had a good side. The cast on my right arm held my wrist stiff, so I stopped flexing my wrist when fly casting.

What about you? Can you think of any benefits of getting old?

 But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.

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Bad, Bad Santa!

Just read somewhere that Santa Claus has been accused of sexual assault for having little girls sit on his lap and ask them if they’re naughty. I mentioned this to one of my daughters who said, “Always thought the guy had a problem. He’s been breaking into homes for years.”

Graffiti of Evil Santa by Tijms, licensed under CC by-SA 2.0

Last night my wife and I were streaming an old episode of NCIS. Toward the end of the program, Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon) gave Abby (Pauley Perrette) a peck on the cheek to show his appreciation for a job well done. My wife turned to me and said, “That would never fly today.”

Last week week while getting a stash of winter hay for my pack goat, I got to chatting with the farmer about the situation. He shook his head and said, “Crazy. It’s getting so I’m afraid to hug my granddaughter.”

When is this crap going to end? Don’t get me wrong; I think men who commit sexual assault ought to be castrated, to put it nicely. But, c’mon, enough is enough! The other day I stopped at my local Post Office to get my mail, and noticed a woman who happens to be a friend. I said “Hi,” and gave her upper arm a gentle squeeze. I promptly apologized for assaulting her. With a wry smile she said, “That’ll be in the papers tomorrow.”

No doubt. What do you think?

But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.

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If You’re Not Like Me, You Suck – Revisited

About a year ago I posted a blog under the title, “If You’re Not Like Me, You Suck.” In that post I lamented that our country is so divided – those on the left don’t like the those on the right, and those on the right don’t like those on the left. It seemed to me that many had the opinion that the world would be a better place if everyone was like just like them.

“Angry Face” by Graeme Maclean, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I concluded the post by encouraging readers to risk engagement with others who may be different socially, politically, culturally, or economically. I don’t know if anyone took my advice, but one thing I do know: attitudes in America are getting worse.

Last week Joy Behar, panelist on the liberal ABC television program The View was a guest on the MSNBC morning talk show Morning Joe. Ms. Behar shared her disdain for Trump voters, as reported on the website Real Clear Politics November 24. During the interview Ms. Behare proclaimed that she could never go to dinner with a Trump supporter. When she was asked why by host Joe Scarborough, Ms. Behar replied:

“Because if you are a Trump supporter, there’s something going on with you that I can’t abide. That means that you don’t care about the environment. It means that you don’t care about women’s issues. It means you don’t care about the fact that he provokes that nutcase in North Korea. I’m worried about the country.”

I’m worried about the country too. Especially when a leftist like Ms. Behar expresses such divisive opinions. But those on the right don’t get a pass. I also don’t care for it when righties express divisive opinions of lefties. How childish.

To set the record straight, I voted for Trump and I’m glad he got elected. But I can’t really say I like the guy. He appears to me to be a bit of a buffoon. But like or not, he is the president, so I respect the office he holds as POTUS, even if I don’t respect the office holder.

The challenge I gave in that earlier post still stands. Risk engagement with someone different than you. Maybe even have dinner with them. You don’t have to talk politics. You can just agree to disagree about politics and talk about something else. You may find that you have more in common with the person than you originally thought.

Maybe the world won’t be a better because you reached out. But you’ll be a better person. 

But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). I’m interested in your thoughts. You can comment by clicking “leave a comment” under the title of this post, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe to my blog.

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We Have a Winner!

About a month ago, I ran a contest on my blog. The winner was to receive a 48 piece survival kit by Zombie Tinder. Today I’m pleased to announce the winner of the kit: Kim in Lexington, and Kim is a very happy hiker. Here’s what she had to say about the survival kit–

“The survival kit arrived today and it’s the coolest… my husband was impressed too! Very thoughtfully put together and something we will keep on hand for that unforeseen emergency situation. Thanks again!!”

We LOVE giving stuff away. So much so, in fact, that we decided to run another contest for the month of June.

Zomber Tinder SAR tin. Copyright M.J.C. Raether 2017

Here’s the deal–

Everyone new subscriber to this blog from today through June, 2017 will be entered into a drawing for a SAR (Search and Rescue) Survival Tin. But don’t let the name fool you: the SAR kit isn’t just for search and rescue personnel, but for anyone who might need to start a survival fire. Igniting a life-sustaining fire is Job Number One when in a survival situation.

New subscriber’s names will go into a hat, and one winner will be drawn. No cost, no obligation, no crap. Your prize will be shipped direct to you from the manufacturer, Zombie Tinder. Zombie Tinder is a resource for survivalists and preppers. The company was created by my entrepreneurial son, who shares my name. You may want to check out some of Zombie Tinder’s offerings as well and their YouTube videos.

A few brief contest rules—

  • You must be 18 years of age or older to win
  • Members of my immediate family and employees of Zombie Tinder are ineligible
  • If you win, you’re responsible for any tax assessment
  • The winner must provide name and address in order to receive the prize by mail
  • Winner must agree to having at least his or her first name and city published.

Please email me if you have any questions. But otherwise, just enter. You can’t win if you don’t enter! If you don’t pull the trigger, you can’t hit the target.

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Let’s Do This

“It’s a  tough job, but someone has to do it.” This comment usually comes to me with a smile, but he/she has no clue. When you turn your hobby into your job, suddenly your hobby becomes work.

Heart Lake

A couple of years ago, I entered into a contract with Wilderness Adventures Press to write a fly fishing guide to the mountain lakes of Northwest Montana. Basically this boils down to visiting some of our mountain lakes, fishing, and writing about it. Sounds great, right? Hah!

Recently I sat down and took inventory of all the mountain lakes I need to visit this summer and scratched my head. I’d compiled a list of about 60 lakes. Whoa! I thought. I think I might need some company. And maybe a little help.

Maybe this is where you come in. I have a poodle and a pack goat and they’re good listeners but lousy conversationalists. And they’re not much for sharing camp chores. Wanna go? You could even bring a friend if you want.

Most of the mountain lakes on my list are reached via backpacking, although many of the hikes are under five miles. I usually camp overnight. This gives me an evening and a morning in order to get to know each lake. Then it’s on to the next one. I have trips planned for each week beginning in June, so you could plug in for a couple of days, a week, or a month or more. I need someone who can handle a camera and/or wouldn’t mind having his picture in the book. I have all the camera equipment.

Oh, and for the record this isn’t a job offer. But it is an offer to be a backpacking trout bum this summer. As the saying goes, the pay is lousy but the benefits are out of this world.

Send me an e-mail if you’re interested and I’ll share more. Of course, we don’t know each other so if it looks like we click I’d need references from you. And you’d need references from me. Fair’s fair.

Shall we do this?

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Out-Fished 22 to One

How could this be happening? I was usually the one with all the luck, but today my fishing rod had about as much life as a stand of last year’s cattails in the dead of winter.  However, my friend Ben’s rod continued to dance as fish after fish climbed aboard as eagerly as kids offered free candy.

Public domain

I rehearsed the events that had led to this situation.

It was a frigid winter’s morning, and Ben and me had elected to do some ice fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River. The target was rocky mountain whitefish. Sleek, silvery, and averaging perhaps a foot in length, they’re scrappy on the line and hard to beat on the table, especially when smoked. The Montana catch limit is liberal, and if lady luck smiles on a guy he can take home a bucketful of good eating. However, lady luck wasn’t smiling on this particular guy. 

Silvery whitefish flopped all about Ben like water droplets on a hot griddle. One after another Ben pulled them up through the whole he’d chopped in the ice, and he hooked up again almost as quickly as he could freshen his bait and lower his offering to the river bottom.

What was I doing wrong? I was using the same bait as Ben. I was rigged up the way same as Ben. I was fishing six inches off the bottom, just like Ben. My ice fishing hole was only a dozen feet away from Ben’s. I should have been catching fish right along with him. But the fish seemed as excited about my bait as a kid faced with a pile of spinach.

At first I got getting frustrated, but then the thought struck me: this was Ben’s day. I snapped out of my grumbling and started rejoicing with Ben. It was this verse from Scripture that turned me around— “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

To “rejoice always” is to make a decision to rejoice regardless of the circumstances. Two brief words, four short syllables, but how hard it is to put them to work sometimes!  And yet, as we do we are refreshed with joy as with a cool summer rain after a hot spell. To refuse to rejoice is to admit that our pride is only exceeded by our selfishness.

As I pondered these things on that cold winter’s day, it didn’t matter anymore that Ben was catching all the fish. I began to rejoice with him, and congratulated him on his luck.  After a while the fish stopped biting even for Ben, and we decided to call it a day.  However, just before we left I finally managed to put one whitefish on the ice. In the end, Ben had out-fished me 22 to one. But it didn’t faze me a bit. Not only was I happy for Ben, but I was happy that I didn’t have to clean all those fish.

But wait, there’s more! I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more. You can comment, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe.

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