The driver of a pickup truck with canoe lashed to its roof rolls his window down to speak to me:
“You have enough mosquito bites for the night or are you willing to try one more spot?” Shawn Perich asks me through the buzzing horde as twilight begins to settle over the woods along a trout stream on Lake Superior’s North Shore.
It’s the middle of July, and the height of mosquito season is underway.
Fishing with Perich has been something I’ve tried inviting my way into for a couple years. Perich has been a staple member of Minnesota’s outdoors writing community over four decades, racking up bylines In Fins And Feathers, Minnesota Sportsman, Minnesota Outdoor News, And Northern Wilds, To Name A Few.
I’ve Enjoyed His Work From Afar, Absorbing Perich’s Tales From Minnesota’s Remote Northeastern Corner, Contrasting His Observations From The Area’s Woods And Waters With Mine, And Taking In The Metamorphosis Of His Personal And Professional Lives.
He’s Lost A Life Partner To Cancer (Vikki Elberling), Raised And Loved His Share Of Hunting Dogs, Started A Very Successful Media Company (Northern Wilds) And Traveled Across The Best Woods And Waters That Lake Superior’s North Shore Has To Offer.
Born In Duluth, Perich Has Always Had A Deep Love For The Area, And The Passion Shows. He Tried Living In Georgia For One Media Job, But Found He Just Couldn’t Leave Home — His Place Is Along Lake Superior.
“I’m Here To Fish,” Is My Response Back To Perich’s Inquiry.
I’m Just Trying To Hold Serve Here. I Asked Shawn If He’d Permit Me To At The Very Least Buy Him Dinner On This Night For Going To All This Trouble In Mosquito-Infested Woods. His Reply Was Classic, The Response That Seals Him As An Outdoor Bona Fide: “If It’s All The Same, I’d Rather Just Fish.”
Music To My Ears.
Perich is a couple days shy of a landmark birthday. For purposes of staying in his good graces, neither his age nor the streams fished shall be named.
After a long drive down a goat path offshoot of a U.S. Forest Service road that challenged my vehicle’s chassis clearance with potholes and strewn cobble rock, we mercifully stop to check a creek so narrow you could blink and miss it. It’s moving at a fair clip and looks not too far to a decent put in, so we pull over to the side of the road as best we can, although doing so is more to satisfy our own urges to be thoughtful and courteous.
There’s no reason to think we’ll see another human or vehicle for the rest of the evening this far into Lake Superior’s hinterlands. We pull halfway off the road, unlash the canoe, and begin our bushwhack through the cedar trees. A plunge pool girded by boulders near the road and sedges on the pool’s rear beckons us. We carefully load into Perich’s Wenonah canoe and slide to the pool’s inside edge.
“They usually don’t start biting until 8 or whenever the sun hits the tree tops, but this spot is usually worth a longer try,” Perich says.
I warn Perich that I’m a poor caster. It’s not a nod to modesty, it’s the simple truth. I don’t hide it. I fly cast poorly on account of not having nor putting the effort forth to cast and not getting in enough sessions to improve on the fly.
With my reconciliation offered, we are free to enjoy the evening in absolution. I give the plunge pool a good flogging with streamers and a nymph before we float on to try some more water.
We hop a few pools before it’s my turn to navigate some low water spots, hopping overboard to muscle our royalex craft through. We get through a couple boulder riffles before I climb back in and the stream opens to a gorgeous run of straightaways and meanders through sedge wetlands lined with water lilies and blue flag irises.
“There are some places so beautiful,” Perich says, “that it really doesn’t matter if you catch fish.”
It’s a shrewd observation, one that must hang in the following silence and breathe in the quiet solitude. I cast quietly in the moment. We reach a wide opening where the stream seems to flatten and become more lakelike, before Perich announces it’s time to turn around and head back. We work quickly and make a decision about where to head next, returning the canoe to the roof rack as the mosquito mob builds.
After we return to gravel, Perich asks that pivotal question: Have I had enough of the bugs?
I’m ready for another stop, so we push ahead to race the clock and fading daylight. After a short drive, we stop atop an overlook near some cabins. The rods come back out and we each tie up a dry fly. We head through a wall of spruce into a thicket of tag alder that pokes eyes, grasps at clothing, and snares fly rods.
With some careful maneuvering, we make our landing, dropping into a small pond with a tiny inlet trickling in nearby. There are fish feeding along the seams of current that are only barely visible in the fading light. I don’t want to impede Perich, so we each take a side of the inlet and work on landing dry flies in the path of the rising trout.
It’s fishing by feel more than sight, with this level of darkness setting in. I don’t want to put my backcast into the timber behind me, nor do I want to have to turn on a light to tie on a fly and blind whatever is feeding just 20 yards out from me.
A few minutes pass before I hear, partially see, and somewhat anticipate my first take. It’s as close to clairvoyance fly fishing as I’ll ever get, so the misses and repositioning greatly outnumber the successes. Finally I land my first fish in the darkness. Always a sucker for the beauty of a brook trout, I fumble the fish in the darkness before I can snap a picture using the phone in my pants pocket. Perich hooks one, dropping it, too, as I’m quietly striding over for a photo.
In one of those mysteries of the universe, we land a handful of trout between us and each, and every one wriggles away before a camera can capture its individual splendor.
“Curse of the outdoor writer,” Perich quips when I note the peculiarity.
By now the mosquitoes are voracious. I’m wiping away a dozen from the top of each hand, and just as quickly as they are crushed and scraped off, another dozen touches down. The last few dimples of rising trout diminish and become mirage-like memories. The end of feeding for trout and the rise of feeding mosquitoes means its time to call it a night.
In some sort of twisted puritanical view, avid trout bums can justify catching a few fish as meaningful because they suffer the annoyances and welts of mosquitoes without complaint. I could at least count myself amongst their ranks on this night.
The people you admire from a distance can break your heart when you meet them. Often the folks you put on a pedestal can be nothing as they seem in public. Shawn Perich and I discuss this notion while fumbling through stripping off waders and taking down fly rods by headlamp. Perich believes you won’t last long in outdoors media if you’re not one of the good guys; it’s too easy to be outted.
Perich certainly is one of those good guys. It feels good to get the chance to fish with him, to experience this slice of the North Woods, to know he’s still out there doing his thing and not slowing down. In a time when more and more folks are hanging up rods and guns, Perich’s passion to hunt, fish, and forage still burns bright.
“I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can,” he says.
Thankfully, he’ll continue to take his readers along for the ride.