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Sleet dribbles steadily from a glowering sky, the last vestiges of Winter returning to haunt us. To prove it, thick wet flakes fell earlier in the morn, managing to stick just enough. Parked cars now sported frozen, sloughing calluses of ice from windshields and hoods. My feet are cold, and the sleet’s windblown patter skitters across the roads, freezing and melting by turns.

But now the central heating kicks on. Ah, isn’t living in this time and place so grand sometimes?

No, today I am not crazy enough to go brave the cold and nasty to catch more pike. I have caught them, and walleye, though little else. I tried for smallmouth last week, but… I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have much to catch you up on, dear reader, so off we go.

My arrival in North Dakota you’ve already seen, culminating a grand journey through the plains which allowed me to see and enjoy country that I’d never been to, as well as savor the parts that I knew and loved.

But once I got here, then what happened? Well, of course I immediately tried to start finding places to fish. I was hungry to catch a northern pike. The only issue was that Nature hadn’t caught up with me yet. The ice was still on the lakes, and fish were, for the most part, inaccessible to fly fishermen.

I scouted out a couple local dam tailraces that were clear of ice, but the flows were extremely low and locals had fished those areas hard all winter. I had no recourse but to be patient while Spring got things kickstarted, opening the lakes up and getting the fish thinking amorously. The pike spawn soon after iceout, and then linger in the steadily warming shallow bays and wait for other fish to move shallow.

I knew that, and I went looking. I focused on shallow water, especially edges thick with cattails and brush. I got hung up enough that I started tying big flashy bendbacks to slither through the sticks.

Finally, after a couple of weeks of searching, I hook a stick that wasn’t a stick. Fish on!... off. Though I had lost the first one, I felt triumphant. The next sunny afternoon, I went back.

Working the edge of the marshy slough, I moved down the bank towards a fishy looking clump of timber. Probing casts hit every likely pike lair, but no strikes. Somewhat perplexed, I started to move on down the bank. Out in the open water past the trees, I got my first solid jolt - hooked up! A few moments later, I said hello to my first northern on fly. I was stoked.

First pike on fly!
First pike on fly!

 

Their tails are beautiful.
Their tails are beautiful.

Hard work, research, planning and execution... plus a good dollop of that secret sauce, luck. I'll take it! 

North Dakota has never really made it onto the 'list of places I'd like to go'. The fish that are here I can catch elsewhere, and there are no steelhead or giant trevally.That I know of.

The first thing I did after I got the call offering me the job was to start researching the local fishing opportunities. Turns out there are lots of choices, as long as you want to catch walleye, yellow perch and northern pike. I'm told that 40" is the magic trophy mark to break, and I'm chasing it. The funny thing is that the locals refer to pike in pounds, which doesn't help me a bit. A little internet searching reveals that a 40" pike might weigh 20 pounds. That's a lot of meanness on a fly rod. They ought to hit a popper like a freight train. A bit of a drive gets me a shot at smallmouth on fly, and a longer drive gets me within range of big pike, rainbows, browns, lake trout and even salmon. You can bet I'll pick a pretty weekend and make that trek.

So what am I doing up here? Well, you aren't the first one to ask that. In fact, since I've gotten here, mostly everyone seems to want to know. They're a clannish sort, prone to be suspicious of outsiders. That's fine with me; these are my people, and I know how to talk to them. Hard working farmers, country folk, and the kind you want on your team. So I'll tell you what I tell them - I'm up here keeping an eye on the whooping crane migration. Yep. The outfit that I'm working with has a few of the birds tagged with GPS trackers, and every couple days I download the updated data and display it on a map to see where the cranes have stopped along the way. The short story is we use this information to send in a ground crew - that'd be me, plus a partner - to go check out the rest stop areas and see the types of habitat that the birds are using on their way north. Pretty cool eh?

Also cool is the journey the birds take - they winter down on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and then fly on up to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. I left at the same time as the first whoopers started their journey and barely beat the first birds to North Dakota. They can cover some territory when the conditions are right.

 

Below are some pictures I took on the trip up. They're in chronological order through the plains states.

 

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Welcome to North Dakota. Let the adventure roll on.

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