Larry Keen has probably caught thousands of largemouth bass from Northwoods lakes the past 35 years, but the next bass he hooks will be just as fun as the first one he fought decades before.
Don’t believe it? Then you’re not within earshot of Keen’s kayak whenever he sets his hook and sends a bass torpedoing into the depths or belly-dancing across the surface. Each hook-up triggers a laugh so appreciative you know there’s few things Keen would rather be doing, even if it also requires swatting mosquitoes while defying mist and rain.
Keen and I met in band class at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s, but we mostly lost track of each other in the years since, except for reunions and, more recently, on Facebook. As our 40th class reunion approached this year, Keen suggested we go kayak fishing sometime at the cottage he and his wife, Clare own in Wisconsin’s Iron County near the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
He didn’t have to suggest it twice. When we learned he would be up north the same weekend I’d be in Eagle River for the annual Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association conference, we made plans to go fishing in late July.
When arriving at his doorstep at 6:30 a.m. in a steady rain, I realized Keen is no casual angler. His fishing rods and tackle were on the screened porch, and he didn’t ask if I wanted to relax, drink some coffee, and eat breakfast while hoping for the rain to pass.
No, we just checked the radar-weather on my iPhone, confirmed the storm had us surrounded, and then carried our gear down to his minivan, which already held two nine-foot, lightweight kayaks.
As we drove toward the first lake Keen picked, we discussed work, how we met our wives, and why every shelf in the minivan held three bottles of mosquito repellent. Keen explained that the mosquitoes are so bad this year in the Northwoods that they swarm into the van every time a door opens.
You don’t want to get caught anywhere without protection, especially during long rides in a minivan. He and Clare also have a backup defense system for those four-hour rides home to Waunakee, Wisconsin—an electronic flyswatter that zaps mosquitoes just in case the swat isn’t lethal.
As we talked, Keen slipped on latex gloves, sprayed Off into his hands and wiped down his face, neck, ears, wrists, forehead, and any other skin he couldn’t cover. “What’s with the gloves?” I asked, thinking maybe he had a rash or sensitive skin he had to protect.
“Mosquitoes,” he replied. “They can’t sting through latex. You hardly know you’re wearing them, and it’s one less thing to spray. Take a pair if you want.”
I did, and pulled them on with a few tugs and snaps.
Minutes later we turned down an unpaved, unmarked forest road, and hoped we wouldn’t get stuck as we bounced along. Keen said this was his favorite lake, and he’d done well on his previous trip.
I didn’t ask the lake’s name and he didn’t tell. Then again, some Northwoods bass lakes are so small you wonder if anyone bothered naming them. The minivan carried us there without slipping or bottoming once, and minutes later we had the kayaks at the water’s edge.
“Sit down and I’ll shove you out,” Keen instructed. I grabbed a double-ended paddle and began stroking as my kayak cleared nearshore weed-beds. Before I completed my third stroke, I heard Keen calling to me.
“I forgot to give you a fishing rod,” he said.
“Good idea. I could probably use one,” I replied.
We then paddled to the other side and cast Mighty Mite jigs into the shallows. We took turns catching and releasing small perch and sunfish for a few minutes, and then paddled to the lake’s southeastern corner. We eventually split up while working the shoreline without much action. About 15 minutes later I caught an eating-size crappie, took its photo, and released it. Soon after, I heard Keen shout, “Got one!”
“Be right there,” I shouted back, and crossed the lake to take photos of the day’s first decent bass. After catching a couple more, Keen said the lake wasn’t living up to expectations, and suggested we return to the cottage for an early lunch.
After eating, we relaunched the kayaks on a lake Keen declared as his brother’s favorite. Keen also said it holds big muskies, two of which he spotted near shore this spring while tapping the surface repeatedly with the tip of his spin-casting rod.
We paddled and cast our way down the lake’s eastern shoreline, picking up a couple of decent bass in the process. Then, as we started working the lake’s northwestern corner, the action increased. At times it seemed Keen never stopped laughing, either at his own success or when seeing a spunky bass tow my little kayak into the lily beds.
That’s where experience helps. When Keen hooked bigger bass, he held his fishing pole high with one hand and paddled into open water with the other. I tried mimicking the move, but learned it’s not as easy as Keen makes it look. He said I’d improve with practice.
We didn’t catch a bass on every cast as we worked the western shoreline. It just seemed that way. “I’ve lost track how many bass we’ve caught,” I said while photographing Keen unhooking and releasing yet another dark-green, broad-shouldered fish.
“So have I,” Keen replied. “You must be good luck. This is the best day I’ve ever had on this lake.”
As much as I wanted to take credit, I couldn’t.
“Or maybe it’s because the weather the past hour was the best it’s been all morning,” I said.
Keen seemed to laugh in agreement, but I was mistaken. He had just hooked another bass.
Images by Patrick Durkin