Clyde meets the smallmouth of Mille Lacs

Clyde meets the smallmouth of Mille Lacs

"I THINK THE BEST TIRE is the spare in the trunk," says Pete, handing me the keys. The other four tires vary in brand and age but seem to be holding air. I drop onto the seat and close the sagging door with a little extra encouragement. Amy does the same on the passenger side. Between us, decades of dust whirls in a beam of evening light pinched flat by the narrow windshield. The air is a bouquet of sun-dried vinyl, stale foam rubber, and used motor oil. It reminds me of my grandpa's 1971 Dodge Power Wagon, which we bounced around in as kids hauling firewood to the house from the edge of the hayfield.

Like with the Power Wagon, I have to pump Clyde's gas pedal a few times before he fires up, and then feather it to keep him breathing until the engine warms up. The leaky-exhaust V8 growl—and smell—has me grinning as we back out of the driveway.

The Mercury Marquis Brougham came with an array of luxury features in 1974. Some of Clyde's still work: one power window; the wipers, though intermittently; the radio, though all we can find is AM Mariachi; and the powerplant, a Ford big-block 460—that's 7.5 liters—with no caveats other than forgivable oil consumption. At forty miles per hour we're out of gears, but with the pedal floored Clyde stacks speed slow and easy, like a train rolling downhill. The setting sun flares off every flaw in the 42-year-old glass so we keep it around sixty and watch for deer as we head west across the flatness of north-central Minnesota toward Mille Lacs.

MINNESOTA PINUP, CLYDE STYLE.
MINNESOTA PINUP, CLYDE STYLE.

Just after dusk, Amy and I are standing with Chris on the end of his dock. The western horizon glows with residual sunset and flashing-red casino lights. The dock is long, but the lake at the end is only two feet deep. Mille Lacs is like a giant mud puddle. Sand beaches and flats gradually descend to a network of slightly deeper mud flats peppered with rocky islands and reefs.

The warm night has the bugs going: mosquitoes, but also caddis in the trillions and a steady flight of brown drake duns headed for the trees. I snag one out of the air and it crawls excitedly over my skin, its system overclocked in the heat. "I bet the smallies here eat these," I say as it flutters back into the jet stream.

"I'm sure they do," Chris says. "But I didn't bring any dry flies."

Lake Mille Lacs is the center, the Grand Lac, of what the voyageurs called pays des mille lacs: land of a thousand lakes. It's also a walleye factory, and the historic and cultural center of Minnesota walleye-eating: native people relied on them for eons, and more recently came fur traders, loggers, and sportsmen. By the time Clyde rolled off the assembly line, the Mille Lacs resort culture was booming. Charter launches were loaded rail to rail with tourists trolling America's first Rapalas and catching walleye around the clock.

It couldn't last. The reasons for the walleye crash of the last decade are controversial and political. Sport anglers and local businesses and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) biologists and tribal interests disagree. But the DNR sets the rules, and this year, walleyes on Mille Lacs are catch-and-release only. In Minnesota terms, this is like cancelling Christmas.

The one undisputed fact the DNR has shared is that the lake is changing. Invasive species and warmer seasons have led to a lake that's clearer, warmer, and less friendly to baby walleyes. However, it's getting friendlier to smallmouth bass, and to the fly rod.

At sunrise we find the boat covered in bat shit. The brown drakes—guanoed. But it's hard to be annoyed, as dawn also reveals a glassy surface. It doesn't take much wind on a 200-square-mile lake to make things sporty in a 16-foot skiff. But so far there's not a breath and we're enjoying one of fishing's richest pleasures: an early morning run across flat water, hats backward, cutting through ribbons of chilled mist, optimistic about a long-anticipated day. By 6:30 we're casting Clousers along a reef edge. We can see only one shoreline; the lake is oceanic and empty.

"There are a lot of alcoholics on this lake," Chris says as he pries the cap from a Summit Extra Pale Ale, handing Amy and I each one. "They're just not up yet." But the truth is that the mud flats and drop-offs that normally draw walleye boats will remain mostly vacant all day and all summer.

The first fish eats blind, then pulls and charges around and jumps and dives before sliding into the net. Two hand-spans, darkly colored. He darts back to his rockpile—each stone encrusted with the invasive zebra mussels, nearly a thousand per square foot, that are responsible for the clear water. I'm not sure how to feel about them. But I am glad we brought eight-weights.

"There's one," Chris says, working line out and landing his Clouser next to a Clyde-sized boulder in about six feet of water. A football shadow is just to one side and it moves toward the fly. "Big one. It's following…" With a grunt he bends his rod to the cork and a giant fish explodes on the surface.

CAN'T YOU READ?! SIGN SAYS KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE. DAMMIT!
"CAN'T YOU READ?! SIGN SAYS KEEP OFF THE WALLEYE. DAMMIT!"

Smallmouth bass are strong and honest: no razor-sharp teeth or screaming runs or hiding in logjams. They just fight. Chris is pulling as hard as he can and the fish is doing the same and nobody is gaining line and we're all laughing. Except the fish. Eventually Amy gets him in the net and we stare. He almost doesn't look like a smallmouth. When big lake-fish break 20 (years and inches) they start getting fatter, not longer. But his dark sunburst face bars are classic Micropterus dolomieu. While he fins back toward his rock, a flash of morning light refracts him into an even more monstrous fish, bright bronze-shaded yellow, swimming bullion gold.

We sight-fish along the reef for a couple more hours. We'll be seeing these green shadows on the insides of our eyelids tonight. By noon our thumbprints are worn off, it's 85 degrees, and a breeze comes up. The fish have moved deeper, beyond the reach of flies. We're no longer alone, though there are still no walleye boats. Instead it's Rangers and Skeeters, long, heavy, fiberglass men-of-war with giant oil-injected two-strokes, pounding across the lake at a mile a minute—another nonnative species doing quite well on this changing lake.

We get lunch in the town of Wahkon. In the bar a nicotine-stained walleye hangs above an internet jukebox while locally-grown kale and asparagus are battered and fried in the kitchen. Afterward we circle Mille Lacs in the car, driver's window down for fresh air, 460 droning. We drive through the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation and pass the casino whose lights we saw last night. In Garrison we wait our turn for a photo in front of the giant walleye statue.

Mostly, the tourists and locals pay Clyde no mind. But those of Clyde's generation, the baby boomers, double-take and stare. Maybe he reminds them of the big American cars that used to drive up to the resorts from the Twin Cities so families could fill coolers with walleye fillets. Maybe they identify with him a little, spending retirement fishing in a changed world; in the trunk is a cooler that's never seen a walleye. I shift into drive and a moment later the transmission does too. We wait to turn onto Highway 169 as a new Japanese pickup pulling a glittery bass boat with twin Power Poles blows by. Groaning a little with the effort, Clyde follows.