Do Something New: Hook a Dinosaur

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I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its new, sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is. 

An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries department manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least. 

Now, I’ve known Scott for about a year. He’s a keen outdoorsman and biologist who naturally knows plenty about whatever fish he sets his sights on. He also shares many of my interests, including doing new things and helping other people enjoy outdoor experiences. 

So, last night I happily accepted the role of protégé. It would have been foolish to decline his offer. This was the best lead I’d ever had on a lake sturgeon fishing experience, after all. I grabbed three dozen nightcrawlers as directed and met him at the boat ramp at the appointed time. 

Act One

Not far on our way up the river, Scott took a sudden turn to greet the anglers in a boat he recognized. I understood immediately why he spotted it so quickly from afar- it’s bright yellow. As we pulled up alongside, a fellow named John reported some success at netting shad. Scott was eager to try and collect some for our purposes, so we took a short detour. 

On the far side of a large 12-foot flat we found good numbers of shad. Well, we found them on the sonar screen, anyway. Scott tossed his net while I tried to keep the boat over the school. He threw it 8 or 10 times without success. Those shad seemed wise to the game. I, for one, was having a great time watching the process, never having witnessed it in person before. Scott was definitely more disappointed than I was at not having picked up any free bait. 

With a few minutes of daylight left, we came within view of the first spot Scott had in mind. John’s banana barge was already parked there, so we anchored about 150 yards away and tossed our lines in. 

Before long we were catching up on jobs, family life, and the outdoor industry under constellations, airplanes, and meteors. The wind all but faded away. The scent of driftwood campfires along the riverbanks filled our nostrils. Though the temperature was dropping quickly, my body was relaxing noticeably and shedding the stresses of the week. I didn’t care at all what would happen or not happen; I was already getting what I needed. 

After about an hour and a half, John’s boat fired up the motor and headed downstream. There had been no signs of action from them, so it seemed they were doing as well as us. It wasn’t much consolation, of course, but the change prodded us to move on as well. 

Act Two

John’s instincts were apparently similar to Scott’s, and we again played second fiddle at the next spot. Scott positioned the boat at the upstream edge of a dropoff. Hooks and high hopes were cast toward the deep and the waiting resumed. We switched off our headlamps and picked up where we left off- about halfway between our kids and the new world we find ourselves navigating.

A familiar numbness began to grow on my toes, so I poured a mug of coffee. Once or twice Scott shook off the cold and let out an audible shudder. Between the chill and the lack of action, I think we both wondered how long we might be able to keep at it. All that was forgotten when a bell rang out in the dark and John’s boat lit up. 

A rod could be made out in a beam of light, bent over like a seven-foot question mark. There was splashing, talking, and the flash from a cell phone camera. Once or twice more in the next hour or so, they confirmed in the same way that there were indeed fish in the area…just not our area. We took it as a good sign and renewed our commitment to the mission. I did what I could to reinvigorate my enthusiasm by imagining lumbering behemoths slurping up our nightcrawlers. 

Lake sturgeon persist in Minnesota mostly in the bigger rivers, like the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Rainy. They cruise the depths, locating food with keen, albeit ancient senses. It is well known that they are an old fish species, dating back literally hundreds of millions of years. Their shark-like caudal fins and armored appearance harken back to a darker, more brutal age. They are survivors. As with crocodiles, their longevity on this earth testifies to the fact that good engineering isn’t necessarily pretty.

As the hands of the clock swept past midnight, I began to make peace with a fishless outing. All at once, Scott detected a bite. Then he second-guessed himself. 

“No, it’s there. Here, take it.” 

It didn’t put up too much of a fight, but then again, my first lake sturgeon was not a giant. After the release, Scott estimated its length at around 30 inches. We both forgot to take a measurement- something that would have been unforgivable with a 60+ inch specimen. But it did happen; I have pictures and a little video footage to prove it.

Knowing its exact size seems hardly important, compared to having the chance to reach out and touch the Triassic. 

 

 

Fish photos by Scott Mackenthun. 

 

Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries

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It’s blackberry season. While I sit here typing this out in mid-August, I have a hunch there are literally tons of them out there going unpicked. And while not every year is good for blackberry picking, we’ve had adequate rainfall in 2020, which is a good sign. It was the same last year, when I literally picked gallon after gallon throughout most of August and into September, within a mile of my home.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries”

Foraging in Minnesota: Hedgehog Mushrooms

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Yesterday I found my first hedgehog mushrooms of the season. It was on a short outing with my daughter; she was after raspberries and I wanted to follow up on the sudden burst of mushroom activity in the yard. I rightly suspected some edible mushrooms would be available, mostly chanterelles and lobsters. Those were good finds, but I hollered out loud when the first few hedgehogs appeared on the forest floor- they are among my most favorite mushrooms to eat. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Hedgehog Mushrooms”

Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries

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Every year about this time there is a lull in the foraging season here in Minnesota. The early season has passed and the frenzy over morels, fiddleheads, and ramps is over. The summer mushrooms and berries really haven’t started. However, while raspberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, and other members of the Rubus clan have yet to even finish blooming, their little brother is here to take center stage.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries”

BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake

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What do you get when you take a pandemic-weary man, work him nearly to exhaustion, cook him in the sun, and feed him a couple fish? A question for the ages, no doubt. In order to learn the answer, I left home hours before sunrise on May 18th. My destination was BWCA Entry Point 52, Brant Lake- somewhere I’d been trying to go for over a year. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake”

Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals

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It’s a bit niche, I’ll admit. This method of cooking doesn’t lend itself well to universal use. There aren’t many times and places a person will readily be able to throw it together. Still, it’s too good not to share.

Last year, when I haphazardly threw a trout over the campfire for breakfast one day, I had no idea it would turn out so good. This year, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do when I went back to the BWCA. In fact, I didn’t even leave myself any other options. It was this or nothing. Continue reading “Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns

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The Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) seems to be gaining in popularity among foragers, if mentions in social media are any indication. Posts about “fiddleheads” are becoming more and more common this time of year. Also apparent in the social media soup is how much confusion there is when it comes to knowing which species are edible and how they are identified. 

Some people- a proportional few- are vocal in their opinion that the Ostrich fern is not the only edible fern in Minnesota. While that may be true for sometimes complicated reasons, I will not subscribe to that school of thought. Allow me to explain why.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns”

What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps

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Ramps are special, and the season is short. For some foragers, it’s the taste of Spring, and they wouldn’t miss it. I’m not that fervent, but I do like them nonetheless. This year, I made a point to branch out and do more than scrambled eggs with ramps. Now, I’m no chef, so don’t expect any groundbreaking ideas or recipes here. My perspective is that of an avid forager and great fan of trying new things. Continue reading “What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps

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Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays. Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”

Stay Well, Stay Sane

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It’s been about three days since all the closures started, and one day since Minnesota declared a state of emergency. Everyone in my household is already feeling cooped up and anxious about how we will spend the next days and weeks. And we’ve already told the kids they’re going to have limited time with friends for a while. So, if we’re going to spend less time in public, avoid movie theaters and restaurants, and otherwise practice hermit life, what can we do? Continue reading “Stay Well, Stay Sane”

The Season for Outdoor Savings

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It seems every year I tell myself I’m going to get new hiking boots. And ice fishing boots. And snow bibs. And winter clothing layers. And a new backpacking stove. I’m sure I’ll get around to all those, but most of my procrastination has to do with finding the right items at the right prices. Well, now is the time of year when prices get slashed and I need to be on top of my shopping game. You should too, especially if you need any type of outdoor clothing.  Continue reading “The Season for Outdoor Savings”