BWCA Entry Point 44- Ice-Out Lake Trout

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Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, dozens if not hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another. There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches. 

On the first portage out of the parking lot, I encountered a patch of snow on the trail; this did not surprise me much since that area received several late and heavy snowfalls, the most recent being not much more than a week before my arrival. A few aged footprints indicated others had gotten there first. BWCA self portraitBetween Ram and Kroft lakes, however, the untarnished snow drifts hinted I was the first of the season to get that far. Hints turned to proof when a deadfall over the trail required some cutting in order to pass. 

Little Trout Lake

Once in my chosen campsite on Little Trout Lake (the fourth lake in), I settled into the absolute and unspoiled solitude. There was not much time left for fishing, but I paddled around a bit, casting and trolling without any strikes. Nightfall found me nestled tight in my sleeping bag, in complete silence; insects were still dormant, it seemed, and the songbirds largely hadn’t migrated that far north yet. 

The next morning was darn cold; intricate ice crystals had formed in the water with my leeches overnight. In order to warm myself up, some paddling seemed in order. Just a little distance down the shoreline, a 19-inch lake trout struck my chartreuse shad rap. That trout- while large for one guy to eat- made a splendid breakfast after it was roasted over a campfire. In fact, it was the most tasty and most perfectly done trout I’ve ever had. 

Stuffed but invigorated, I packed up camp and prepared for the long portage toward Misquah and Vista Lakes, where more lake trout and walleyes waited, respectively. Another, more massive deadfall near the beginning of the portage made me reconsider my plans. It was obvious no one had cleared the trails yet, and other roadblocks seemed inevitable. After a protracted internal debate, I reluctantly turned around, reclaimed my campsite, and prepared for much more trout fishing. 

Now, one thing I learned in my preparation for this trip is that until the water reaches a certain temperature, lake trout will be anywhere and everywhere in a lake, including (and perhaps especially) in the shallows trying to nab a minnow meal. Immediately after ice-out, there was no doubt they’d still be in that mode. From what little information I could scrape up on the subject, it also seemed the trout would be shallow in the early and late hours, and deeper in the middle of the day. My experience over the course of my trip seemed to bear all of this out, more or less. 

That afternoon another trout impaled itself on my lure, this time a blade bait pulled behind the canoe over deeper water. It was a smaller specimen than the first, but the prospect of catching and eating my limit of lake trout in one day was a new and irresistible milestone. This second trout was fried over another campfire. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought tin foil to bake it in with perhaps onions and/or potatoes. But since I’d anticipated frying walleye over the fire, tin foil had been exchanged for frying pan. Yes, a foil meal would have been optimal, but as they say, you “gotta dance with the girl that brought ya.” 

Thoroughly satisfied, I spent the evening in the campsite. It occurred to me I could still catch even though I couldn’t keep, so in an impromptu experiment I rigged up a slip bobber and tossed one of the leeches I’d planned to offer the walleyes into about 5 feet of water. Sure enough, in the waning minutes of daylight, the bobber bobbed and I set the hook on the biggest trout of the trip: a gorgeous 21-incher. The icing on the cake was the fact that it was caught on an old Heddon fiberglass rod of Grandpa’s, on the eve of what would have been his hundred-and-third birthday. A memorable sunset capped off what I’ve come to call a “one-percent day.” 

The next morning started at 5:40, same as the one before. There was no plan to awaken so early, but it was clear I was done sleeping. It’s amazing how soon my body adopts a new sleeping schedule. Anyway, I climbed sluggishly into the canoe and began casting toward the shallows with a gold shallow-running Shad Rap. It took a little while, but eventually my lure seemed a little too alluring to my next fish, a 12.5-inch laker. It was promptly released in the hope that it might still be there to greet me again in a few years. 

At that point, I’d caught four trout on Little Trout, and a group of at least six other people had set up camp on the opposite end of that little lake. I was growing tired of seeing their three canoes and hearing their voices, albeit occasionally. Mentally, I had settled in for another night on Little Trout, but Ram Lake contains lake trout and also rainbow trout, which would make for a nice bonus fish. Besides, one of my goals was to take some fish home with me, so more time fishing that lake would mean a better chance for fulfilling that request from my wife and kids. I packed up camp and paddled my way off the lake with chartreuse Shad Rap in tow. 

Just yards from the portage, I set my paddle down to reel the line in. At that moment my rod began to bounce, and I thought, “A moment too late; it’s already hitting the rocks.” I was proved wrong by an 18-inch lake trout. By the time I had let it go, I was about 1 canoe length from my point of departure and well within sight of those other guys on the island campsite. They were completely oblivious to my catch. It was a good way to end things there, and I may just go back before too long. 

Ram Lake

I spent the afternoon trolling, casting, jigging, and otherwise probing all points of Ram Lake. The wind and waves were the most acute up to that point of the trip, and it was exhausting work. The antidote turned out to be the campsite I chose that was on the east side of the lake and mostly sheltered from the north wind. It is perched up on a rock face that plunges into the lake, maybe 15 feet above the water, with a great view of the lake and the sunset. I thought there was a good chance of finding a trout patrolling in front of that mini palisade, so I casted different lures time and again while I set up camp and ate supper. Sure enough, a lake trout attacked my small crawdad-colored Husky Jerk, and I attached it to my chain stringer. The plan was to collect some snow from the woods in a plastic shopping bag, tuck the gutted fish into that icy bed, and hoist it in the air with my food bag for the night. It happened just that way, but was delayed by an even more spectacular sunset than the night before. I didn’t mind much. 

The next morning started early once again, but I was not in much of a hurry; the wind was still howling, if not worse than the day before. It seemed I better not end up on the other end of the lake, lest I should become stranded downwind. I sipped at my coffee while I did what casting could done from shore, but that wasn’t working. 

I snuck my canoe around the point and fought my way to the extreme northeast corner of the lake. After some time, I had covered the less-windy portions of the shoreline and was resigned to heading back to the campsite. On my way past the point, I made a cast across it, more or less in desperation. Something hit my floating Rapala, jumped twice, and threw the hook. I ducked back into the refuge behind the point and wedged the canoe against a log so I could keep casting. It dawned on me that a jumping trout would probably be a rainbow trout, which caused me to want it more than anything in that moment. Cast after cast produced nothing. Then another strike, jump, and spit. My blood was on fire with frustration and rage. I could not stand the thought of giving up; clearly that fish was active and there to feed, and it seemed only a matter of time until I would prevail. I grabbed my other rod, adjusted the bobber stop, and sacrificed another leech in my quest to take that trout. All told, the better part of an hour was spent working all the parts of that point with no more action. And despite my sheltered location, the wind and cold were slowly having their way with me and my body began to shiver uncontrollably. I dislodged the canoe and set it slowly into motion. 

In one more desperation cast, I tossed my Rapala far over the point. Something hit it with gusto and fought me every inch of the way. When I could see it was another lake trout, I could have been disappointed, but knew that second laker would fill out my limit and make a good consolation prize. I was more than happy to call it a trip and lay that fish alongside the other one in the bag of snow. 

My steps were light as I carried the canoe up and over the last portage to the car. 

 

 

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

Do Something New: Build a Quinzee

Read More quinzee, quinzhee, snow shelter

When I came across the word “quinzee” repeatedly within a short span of time this winter, it got my attention. I first had to do an internet search to determine exactly what it was, but knew right away I not only wanted to learn how to build a quinzee, I also needed to try sleeping in it. This seemed fun, but carried out in my own yard at home, it was an easy way to try something I might like to use in lieu of a tent on a future wilderness trip. 
Continue reading “Do Something New: Build a Quinzee”

What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes

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Believe me, I’ve been there too. You find yourself in the presence of an abundance of some kind of foraged treasure- perhaps for the first time– and you collect more than you know what to do with. Most of the time these things can be preserved, and we can decide to do with it all later. For some reason I always seem to envision this taking place on a January day that’s so nasty I can’t even go ice fishing. 

Anyway, the time to decide what to do with all those chokecherries has come. If you’re like me, you’ve made a couple batches of pancake syrup and/or jelly, but there are still several bags of berries waiting down in the basement freezer. The good news is, chokecherry syrup and jelly are unique and tireless, at least in our house (I believe every forager owes it to themselves to at least try the pancake syrup). The better news is, you don’t have to restrict yourself to syrup and jelly; if you use your imagination a bit and have the patience to endure a little trial and error, there are lots of uses for your purple tree caviar.  Continue reading “What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019

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Easy victories, camaraderie in the outdoors, a warm place to lay my head at night. These are all things I like as much as the next guy. When I pried myself out of bed last Thursday morning, however, I knew none of these things awaited me on Lake Mille Lacs. The lack of all three things, however, pointed toward a high probability of good fishing, which was more than I could resist. 

The latest buzz hinted that the west side of the main lake was just becoming accessible, and some folks had gotten out to the mud flats on ATVs and snowmobiles and found great fishing. The ice wasn’t reliably thick yet, it was said to be wet around cracks, and roads and bridges had not yet been extended past the bays. I don’t have a snowmobile or ATV, and I have no interest in being that guy who ends up needing a towing hookup at the bottom of the lake. My plan, if you could call it that, was to drive to the lake and see if it looked reasonable to walk out to the nearest mud flat. If it seemed foolhardy, I knew there was some fishing activity happening near some resorts, which I could fall back on. What I found when I arrived exceeded expectations; there was a well-worn road coming off the public access already, which immediately split off in three directions. I quickly packed up and started hightailing it for my destination, some 2 miles distant.  Continue reading “Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga

Read More Drying chaga

If there was a beauty contest for fungus, I know one that would probably come in last: chaga. Resembling a black scaly scab on the wound of a birch tree, there is really nothing attractive about it. But for every point it loses for its ugliness, it makes up for in medicinal qualities. Well, that’s the reputation it has, anyway. It has quite a following among select foragers. However, that could possibly be chalked up to a lack of other things available to gather through the cold months. 

Inonotus obliquus

Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga”

Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage

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“It’s a work truck. You’re a smaht guy.” Those were the last words spoken to me by salesman Sean, through the truck window, as I drove my F-150 Heritage off the lot in April of 2004. After I rolled the window up, my wife and I looked at each other and wondered aloud what that was supposed to mean. It seemed nonsensical. We laughed and shrugged it off, but never forgot that moment. I’m not sure what made those words so immortal, whether it be their cryptic nature or because it was fun to say “smaht” in our best manufactured Massachusetts accents. Either way, they stuck with us. After fourteen and a half years, however, Sean’s absurd adieu now seems strangely prophetic.  Continue reading “Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage”

Compliance

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The Deer Hunt

It was the third day of deer season. My dad, my brother, and I were done hunting and were standing around by the new blind I’d been sitting in. I glanced westward and noticed somebody in blaze orange walking straight toward us across a neighboring soybean field. Having no idea who it was and what they might want, we went to meet him at the property line. When we got close enough to each other, I could see he was wearing a badge that identified him as a state conservation officer. He introduced himself as Jeremy, we shook hands, and I invited him across the fence so we could talk properly. He asked us about the hunt and checked our licenses.  Continue reading “Compliance”

Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting

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As many times as I’ve suffered from bitingly cold hands and fingers, there is only one time in my entire life that could possibly eclipse the way my fingers felt recently. When I was pretty young, my dad took my brother and me out in the boat to do some last-minute fishing before heading home from the cabin. All I remember was learning how to set the hook, the big juicy bluegills we boated, and my hands being so cold that I probably cried. Late last month, as I gripped my canoe paddle without actually feeling it, my old record for cold hands seemed almost certainly broken. Unlike that memorable day from my childhood, however, I definitely did not shed any tears. This was the last morning of my inaugural whitefish netting trip to northern Minnesota. The air that day was stuck in the low 30s, pushed around by a light wind, and punctuated by intermittent drizzle. The previous four days, unfortunately, were pretty much the same.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries

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The fourth Thursday of November is still more than a month away, but now is the right time to go out and find that Thanksgiving staple: the cranberry. Didn’t know cranberries are growing wild in Minnesota? You’re definitely not alone. Yes, wild cranberries are fairly widespread in our great state, and with a little patience, a person can harvest enough to get a good taste.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries”

Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting

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It all started on an October morning, almost a year ago: I was cruising up highway 65 with my dog Johann for an overnight grouse hunting outing in the McGregor/McGrath area. I’d had too much coffee and, well, had to go. How bad? Well, I knew I wouldn’t make it to my destination, only about 5 miles distant. So I stopped at the first opportunity, a small area to pull off the highway next to a drainage ditch. As I hurried down the berm next to the ditch, a pair of wood ducks made my heart stop when they flushed from under the bank next to me. This of course hastened the inevitable; luckily, I didn’t end up needing a change of clothes. But the combination of surprise, discovery, and frantic zipper work cemented that moment in my memory and sparked an idea.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting”