A chapter from the book, "Hook, Line and Shelter"
JJ Johnson is a teacher in a small town near the Canadian border. His fishing buddies all call him Crazy JJ, and he thinks of himself as a fishing outlaw. In this story JJ explains some of the tricks of the poaching trade and tells how he first met Pete Aspen. We changed the names in this one to stay out of trouble with the Minnesota Walleye Mafia.
I was ice fishing in Canada with Axel, the principal of the school where I teach. We went up on a Friday afternoon to Lost Lake and put in a couple of lines near the island. You've probably never seen anything like the set-ups that we use. They're a lot different than a tip-up, and we call them mouse traps. We made them out of brazed rod, and they looked like flat thread bobbins. I was only 20 years old when I learned how to make them from an old warden who is long dead. He taught me every trick in the book.
I taught a shop class at the school and I told the kids we were making these hanging, brazed metal photo frames for their projects. At the end of the semester I told them there had been a change in plans and they wouldn't be able to take their projects home. And that's how we built up our mousetrap inventory.
So, back to my story...We set up two mouse traps on Firday night and hid them so they couldn't be seen. Saturday morning the lines were still untouched, so we rehid them and went to another lake and fished all day. When we came back in the afternoon, there were two guys we had never seen before standing by the island fishing.
It's no secret that I used to be an outlaw, but now I've gone straight. I've even worked with the game wardens and shown them some of my tricks. You know, some of the best game wardens are actually reformed outlaws.
Anyway, this is how we set up those mouse traps. We would take our snow machines out on the lake, one following the other, so that there was only one track. Axel would go first and I would stop my machine so there was only a short distance between the two of us. I put one foot on the back bumper of Axel's machine and the other foot on the front bumper of mine, never putting a foot print in the snow, while I augured a hole through the ice.
Then I would take a 12 by 12 inch piece of white quarter inch paneling, tie the mouse trap to it, put it over the hole with the white side up and cover it with snow. I then drove my snow machine over it until there wasn't any evidence that we had stopped there. We then went three snowmobile lengths past the set-up and made a mark in the snow or we would take a chunk of ice and throw it off to one side. Sometimes when a storm came up, we would have to spend 45 minutes to an hour looking for the holes, but in all the years of fishing we never lost a set-up.
Anyway, when we came back to the island where the set-ups were, there were these two strangers standing there fishing. Not knowing what to do, we decided to go over and talk to them. After a couple of minutes of small talk, the bigger of the two guys asked me if I were Crazy JJ. I said that some people had called me that, but I wondered how he heard of me since I had never seen him before on this lake. The big guy said that it was his first trip to this part of the country and that he had stopped at the lodge/resort/general-store/bait shop where Bob, the owner, had told him that if he wanted to fish lake trout, he had to talk to Crazy JJ. I was madder than hell at Bob for opening his mouth, but after we talked for awhile I realized we had some things in common. The big guy introduced himself as Pete Aspen and said the old guy with him was Maury. I asked Pete if he had any fish.
'You know something? We have 21 lines out here right now. We've mined this lake.'
I asked Pete what kind of rig he was using, and he described an old version of the mouse trap that I had heard of but never tried. Pete took coffee cans and wrapped the line around them. The fish would take the bait and pull the line out from under the rubber band that was holding it in place.
That's what they had, but they weren't catching a thing.
Pete and Maury said they'd been fishing all day since early that morning. They had a tent set up, and they were going to fish all week on Lost Lake. Pete said, 'We haven't got a fish'.
'Sometimes it works that way. I'll tell you what, we got two lines sitting here, and we've got to pull them up.'
Pete asked where they were and I said, 'You're standing on one of them.' Well, Pete thought I was putting him on, but he moved anyway. I reached down, scraped the snow from the board, pulled it up, and sure enough the line was all striped off the mouse trap. It took about fifteen minutes to land the fish. Pete just stood there saying over and over, 'I don't believe this, I don't believe this. It's not happening.'
I pulled in the Lake Trout, and it was a 17 pounder.
Pete said, 'I got to get a picture of that.'
'We've got another line about 200 yards over there.'
Axel went over to that one, uncovered it and hollered back, 'Hey, this one is all stripped out too.' By the time we all got over there, Axel had the line half way in, and he said, 'JJ, this looks like another pretty good fish.' He pulled up a 15 pounder, and Pete said, 'If I didn't see it, I wouldn't believe it.'
Pete wanted to know what he was doing wrong. There wasn't a thing on any of his 21 lines. It turned out that he was using smelt for bait. I told him that the trout in Lost Lake wouldn't touch smelt because they weren't a native species. The trout didn't know what smelt were. Axel and I always used cisco, a fresh water herring that was common to all the lakes in the area. I told him that it was the best natural trout bait there was.
Pete took a picture of Axel and me with our fish, and a few weeks later he sent us a copy. So that's how I first met Pete and that's when he started using our kind of mouse trap and cisco for bait.
Before I went straight, Pete and I got together at least once a year to compare notes and mine another lake. They ran Pete out of here several years ago, but there are still a couple of places where they don't know who he is.
It's the end of an era, and Crazy JJ Johnson is caught between the new technology and an old game warden with a new attitude.
Axel and I had gone up into Canada late in the winter. The snow was gone on most of the portages, but the ice was still okay. We took our snow machines, and we had a devil of a time getting over the portages. It was mostly rocks and no snow, and it really tore up the machines.
When we got to the lake, I said to Axel, "We got nothing to worry about, there aren't going to be any game wardens around this weekend, not a thing to worry about." So we put a couple of lines out and we didn't cover them or anything. I admit it, we got careless and lazy.
This was a Saturday, and we left about ten lines in the lake. We didn't use any of our mouse trap covers, just left them all out there in the open. Sunday morning two of our friends went up about 6:30 to the narrows. They hadn't been fishing very long when the Canadian game warden came along. They couldn't believe it. He just appeared out of nowhere and said he wanted to check them out. He had been out on the lake late Saturday afternoon, found the lines we left out, and now he was looking for poachers. Our friends played dumb, and since they weren't doing anything wrong, he left them and headed out onto the lake.
About the same time, Axel and I came tooling up to the lake on our machines, and as soon as we get to the first hole I can see that something is wrong. It had been a cold night and there should have been a layer of fresh ice covering the hole. It is obvious that the ice has recently been broken. Since I had already decided that there wasn't any way the game warden would have come this far, I figured that the other guys had checked our lines before going up to the narrows to fish.
So I left the line in the water and we got the auger to put in a couple of more lines. Axel looked up and saw a snow machine coming over the lake. Sure enough there was a little black spot on the horizon. I thought, "Well, it can't be Jamie, but let's play it safe and sit on shore." Pretty soon the dot became a snow machine. and it got close enough for us to recognize the driver. It was Jamie. I was saying to myself that it was too late in the season for him to be out, but there he was sitting right in front of us.
"Hi JJ, I figured it was you."
I told him that I would have bet good money that he wouldn't be showing up this late in the season, especially on a Sunday.
He just smiled, and we made some small talk for awhile before he wandered out to where the fishing holes were. Well, when I had first seen him coming I'd had enough sense to grab the lines and stash them in the engine compartment of my machine right next to the muffler. Anyway he walked out to the hole and there was no tip-up, no rod, and no fishing line. He went to the other hole and saw that it was empty too.
Axel and I were sitting there thinking, "What do we do now?" Jamie came back and said, "JJ, where are the lines that were in those holes?"
"Jamie, I don't know what holes you're talking about, we just got here."
"JJ, look at those footprints going out to the hole. Those boot prints are just exactly like what you've got on."
"Jamie! These are Sorels; every fisherman who comes up here wears Sorels. There's no way those are my footprints. Those were made by someone else." Jamie and I were both getting a little embarrassed, because we have all known each other for a long time, and we consider ourselves friends even though Jamie is a warden.
Jamie said, "Those are your foot prints."
I knew he didn't have a case against us. He walked around kicking snow and looking for the set-ups. He checked the snow machines. We all knew he had a legal right to check the packs and everything, and he did just that, but somehow he never thought to lift the hood.
We felt foolish. How could we explain the fact that we were out here in the middle of the wilderness sitting on the bank of a frozen lake watching a couple of empty fish holes? And how did we explain that we didn't have any tip-ups or lines in our packs? Jamie knew that we were up to no good, but he had to catch us in the act if he was going to write us up. He finally said to me, "JJ, we've been friends for a long time, but I gotta give you a ticket."
"But you don't have any grounds to give me a ticket."
"Those are your boot prints going out there."
"As far as I'm concerned, you don't have any evidence," I said. Axel and I just sat there while he wrote the ticket. I was feeling kind of bad too, because, after all, I was guilty as hell. Jamie asked me to sign the ticket, and I refused. "I'm not signing anything." Jamie told me that if I signed it I was just acknowledging the fact that the ticket was issued, but I still wouldn't sign it. Jamie gave me the ticket and told me where I would have to go to court. I was lying through my teeth, but I still said, "Jamie, I'm not guilty."
Before we went back to the states, I talked to some other Canadian wardens who told me that there wasn't any way Jamie could have arrested me. But I still got a letter from the court about two months later saying that I had been found quilty and I was to pay $35.00. I just threw it away. I wasn't going to go clear back up there to court for a lousy $35.00 fine. About three months after that, I got another letter, this time from a court closer to where I live, stating that I had a second chance to come and defend myself. They were actually pretty nice. They went to a lot of trouble to explain the court system and how I would be able to go one on one with the judge. There wasn't a chance I would lose. I started to worry. Hunting season was coming on; I hunt in Canada, and I wouldn't be able to go back there if I didn't go to court or pay the fine.
I put it off as long as I could, waiting to send my check until early in the fall. Jamie knew that I went duck hunting in his area, and I figured that he would be looking for me. So finally, a week before hunting season started, I sent the money along with a letter that stated that I was not guilty. After the deduction for the exchange rate, it cost me 26 bucks. I even got a thank you letter from them.
A week later, Axel and I were sitting in our boat there on the river hunting, and, sure enough, up the river comes Jamie in his boat. He looked really nervous.
"Hi JJ, How are things going?" He scratched his head and just sat there looking at us. Finally, he said, "JJ, there's a warrant for your arrest on the dash of my truck."
I said, "Jamie, I'll put your mind at ease. I paid it a week ago."
"Geeze, did you really pay it?"
"Yes, you don't have to worry anymore."
After that they changed their tactics. The wardens couldn't pin anything on us, but somone must have been tipping them off because they really started to turn up the heat. Once, I was fishing with some friends and it was at a nice spot where there was a high wall to keep the wind down, and we built a fire because it was so cold. We wanted to stay on shore by the fire. The lines were out and I knew they were over 200 feet away, which is illegal there in Canada. I looked down the lake and I see this machine coming. I thought oh, oh. I quick got on my machine and went out there. They saw me and sure enough it was Jamie, and he was riding with the American warden. I don't know why they were together, but sometimes they rode together on the border lakes. That way if someone said, "I'm on the American side." They could say, "Okay, he's the American warden."
Anyhow, we talked for awhile and Jamie said, "JJ, show me the insurance papers for your machine." Canada passed a law the year before that you could not go into Canada without liability insurance. I knew that, but thought that it shouldn't matter in an area as sparsely populated as that was, so I didn't have insurance.
I said, "Jamie! What are you talking about?"
"JJ, it's the law, you gotta have insurance in Canada. It's a $105.00 fine if you don't have it."
"Jamie! I don't have insurance. I never knew you had to have it."
He looked at me and said, "I think you did know about it, but I'm not going to do anything about it this time. Tell me where your helmet is."
I didn't have my helmet on. It wasn't even on my machine. I said, "It's back at the fire." There is a law in Canada that whenever you get on your snowmobile and go any place, you have to have your helmet on.
I knew what he was doing, and I knew he had seen me drive out to the holes; in fact, what he was doing was telling me to shape up. I looked at the American warden who was also a friend, and he just shrugged his shoulders as if to say it wasn't his problem, and I said to Jamie, "Okay. Fine. From now on you can have the lake. I'm done. Canada is getting too picky for me." And that was the last time I was trout fishing up there. Let's face it, it just wasn't fun anymore...
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