DULUTH, Minn. Jim Blauch sent the orange and yellow popper toward a rocky point off the end of an island on this small lake. The fly landed lightly just inches from a rock protruding from the water.
Blauch began stripping line in quick tugs. The fly advanced in abbreviated pops.
Before Blauch could make another tug, something swirled behind the popper. In a vacuum-like implosion, the fly disappeared and Blauch's line went taut.
The smallmouth bass tore for the depths off the point of the lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, then shot for the sky, leaving a trail of spray in the air. Once back in the water, the chunky bass dived again.
''He's so strong,'' Blauch said.
He held on and finally brought the bass alongside the canoe. He landed it a thick 19-incher that would weigh right at 4 pounds. He removed the popper from its upper jaw, kissed the fish on the head and set it free.
Blauch, a 41-year-old Ely fishing guide and resort owner, had brought four of us into the canoe country near Basswood Lake to sample the northern pike and smallmouth bass population on fly rods. Making the mid-June trip were Blauch's longtime friend Chris Parthun, 51, of Bemidji; Ray Lou, 60, of Marshall; Mike Munford, 38, of Marshall; and me.
For parts of two days, we had struggled to catch a few smallish pike. Now, fishing our third lake, we were after smallmouth ''footballs'' in Blauch's vernacular. He spends much of his time guiding anglers seeking Minnesota's marquee fish.
''I'm a smallmouth bass fisherman at heart, but I'm forced to fish for walleyes,'' Blauch said.
His second cast, near the same rocky point, produced a 17-inch smallmouth. His third cast took one just over 19 inches. We worked along the cedar-choked shoreline until Blauch had caught and released probably a dozen bass. We hadn't paddled the canoe 100 feet.
In the other canoe, our partners were having similar luck along another shoreline.
We hoped to catch a few smaller bass to keep for dinner, but that was proving difficult. Finally, Blauch hooked one that felt smaller.
''An eater,'' he announced from the bow.
Then the bass made one of those classic smallmouth runs.
''He's getting bigger,'' Blauch said. ''He's rippin' line.''
It proved to be another 19-incher. Not an eater.
''This is what I live for,'' Blauch said, releasing the fish.
Blauch grew up in Pennsylvania fishing smallmouth, but none this large. He found his way to Bemidji State University, where he met Parthun, and the two began traveling the canoe country in all seasons. They caught walleyes, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pike and lake trout.
Blauch moved to Ely and began guiding anglers in 1993. A man of eclectic interests, he also guided wolf ecology trips, canoe trips, dogsledding trips and skijoring trips.
He met his wife, Joan, while guiding a canoe trip. Soon after they were married, they bought a resort on Farm Lake near Ely and named their resort, outfitting and guiding operation Moose Track Adventures. They have six cabins for guests and send canoeists into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park.
Jim guides day and overnight trips into Basswood and other lakes. He often uses portage wheels to carry his 14-foot boat into Basswood for walleyes. On trips like ours, he uses the wheels on canoes. On other trips, he simply shoulders his canoes for trips into less-traveled lakes.
Affable and colorful, Blauch has made lots of interesting trips, and he loves to share the stories. It would be a long trip before he ran out of tales. He's a superb camp cook. Our first night out, he cooked steaks over the fire and served them alongside Caesar salads and baked potatoes roasted on the fire grate.
Now, on this bass lake, we were beginning to wonder if the fishing was too good. We needed to catch a few bass small enough to serve alongside Blauch's trademark hash browns for dinner that night.
He finally caught a smaller bass, but even then Blauch had second thoughts. ''This is a 16-incher,'' he said, holding the bass. ''I just can't eat him. He's such a beautiful fish.''
Back to the water it went. Parthun paddled over with Lou and Munford. They had caught 25 or 30 bass, they reported, and some of the smaller ones were on the stringer. The hash browns wouldn't be lonely.
Our partners were looking on when Blauch hooked the largest fish of the afternoon. He knew immediately it was a bruiser, and when he eventually landed it, he made a mark on his paddle to verify its length. At camp that night, he would measure it at 19 3/4 inches.
''I haven't caught one this big for a while,'' he said, all smiles.
We could have caught these bass on spinning gear, certainly, but Blauch enjoys fly fishing for bass and pike.
''It's more interactive,'' he said, re-lighting his corncob pipe that night after supper. ''How do you explain it? You're interacting not only with the fish, but the fly itself. You're imitating natural prey.''
A popper a thimble-sized piece of painted cork with a concave face and a sprig of feathers imitates a bug struggling across the surface. Munford had fooled most of his bass with a Dahlberg diver, a deer-hair fly that dives and resurfaces repeatedly. Both are surface flies.
''Fishing on the surface, you get to see the explosion,'' Blauch said. ''You get to feel the hook set, and then it's the immediate feel of that football or pike on the end of your line.''
Fly fishing is not as easy as conventional fishing in some cases. If the fish are deep, sinking-tip lines and more patience are required to get flies down to where the fish are. And if it's windy, the fly fisher must seek a lee shore to deliver his fly.
Whether his clients are catching fish at any given moment or not, Blauch and other Ely guides have something else going for them. They're fishing in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Bald eagles patrolled the lake where we camped. An osprey flew over as we fished bass. Beavers glided past our camp on their way to the cutting grounds. Clintonia, twinflower and bunchberry bloomed at our feet.
Rain fell during a good portion of our trip, but we sat under Blauch's well-rigged tarp and told stories. His colorful past spawned many of the stories. He has hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, once owned 72 guinea pigs and has led wine-tasting tours by mountain bike in California.
Our last night, we sat under the tarp eating fresh bass, northern pike and mounds of hash browns. Rain tapped on the tarp. Parthun's golden retriever, Belle, slept at our feet. Blauch kept delivering more piles of fillets from the frying pan.
Munford, who grew up fishing in Georgia, was impressed.
''I didn't think I'd ever say this, but you fix fish better than my mom,'' Munford said. ''I'm not gonna tell my mom that.''
The fishing itself, though, remained something to write home about.
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