Do Something New: Ice Fishing in the BWCA (Lessons Learned)

Last week at this time, my immediate environment was about as good as it gets. I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time in winter, trying to catch some bonus fish for the 2017-18 season. The MN DNR’s website pointed me to a lake within a moderate hike from an entry point, which has historically supported a bountiful tullibee fishery. I had wanted to fish it so badly in February or March, but gave up when I had a lot of work on my plate that prevented me from getting away. However, an extended period of abnormal cold preserved the ice perfectly for a good three weeks or more, prolonging the ice fishing season. I saw it as my chance. 

With preparations carefully made, I set out at 4:20 Tuesday morning, careening up Interstate 35. I got to the parking area just after 9:00, and was fishing through the first hole at 10:15. Over the course of the next 29 hours or so, I visited more than a dozen parts of the lake and drilled over 30 holes. I trekked. I experimented. I found where the fish were and where they were not. I trekked some more. My GPS was kept on in order to keep track of it all, and by the end, I had walked over 13 miles. The weather was beautiful and I felt like I accomplished much in the time I had. Except….no fish. 

When I found the fish, it was quite obvious where they were- the main basin, around 60 feet deep. There was activity at the lake floor, some fast-moving fish were suspended from 10 to 30 feet off the bottom, and near sunset the bottom 10 feet of the water column bloomed with invertebrates emerging from the mud. That was where the aquatic life was; everywhere else on the lake was as quiet as the surface of the moon. And I was as sure as I could be (without an underwater camera) that those suspended fish were the tullibees I was looking for. They were large, fast, and acted like I’d expect them to, with one notable exception: not one would bite. 

The nerve of those fish. Did they not know how far I’d come, how hard I was trying? I’d found where they were hiding, and thrown everything I had at them. A few even acted like they might give in, but not one proved gracious enough to accompany me home to my smoker. This was the core reason I had come, and I felt like a failure. Fortunately, there were other minor objectives for my outing, and as always, lessons to be learned.

The Importance of Being Mobile

At a little under 1,000 acres, this lake is not what I would call “small,” especially considering how long and narrow it is. Three section lines cross it, and I trudged across all three; as mentioned previously, I covered many miles in two days. As disappointing as it was every time I drilled a hole- by hand, through almost 3 feet of ice- and saw nothing, it was at least satisfying to know I was whittling down all the areas that weren’t holding fish. 

When the 60-foot basin revealed fish aplenty, it felt safe to sit still and start experimenting with presentation. I waited through different periods of the day in the hope that they would “turn on,” and I tried finding those fish in areas of adjacent structure, all in the hope that something would prove different enough to turn the tables in my favor. In the end, nothing did. In the presence of fish but the absence of “biters,” there is ultimately not much we can control. I’d used every tool I had, and in my opinion, there’s nothing more we can do. At the very least, covering as much ground as possible afforded me my best odds.

Warming temperatures (replenishing the oxygen content of the lake via meltwater) usually have the fish waking up and becoming more active in March. The calendar date alone made me believe any fish should be hot and feisty, but they just weren’t. The presence of that much hard ice- capped off with about 10 inches of very crusty snow- make me think that the fish could still (incredibly) be in mid-winter torpor. So in retrospect, I may have just shown up too early. In mid-April. What irony. But we can never really know, and that’s why we call it “fishing” and not “catching.”

Winter Camping, First Trial

This was my first time trying my hand at winter camping. There was a good deal of planning and forethought that had gone into this trip, and it all went fairly well. The main obstacle I faced was coming up with a water filtration method, because my usual apparatus was untenable under the conditions. I found something new and gave it a try; it worked well, and you can read about my experience with the Sawyer Mini here. 

The night temperatures were supposed to stay above 20, which I believe they ultimately did. But the sleeping bag I had bought before this excursion (rated for 6 degrees in the new system) did not keep me as warm as I expected. It was a combination synthetic and down bag, which should have done the trick combined with the sleeping pads used that night. Every bit of advice I got before and after the trip indicated that the bag should have been sufficient. But it wasn’t, so I grudgingly returned it to REI after I got home. I hate doing that, because I fear it will just get thrown in a landfill or something. But I hate even more the idea of keeping a product that doesn’t perform out of some self-imposed obligation. I hope to find something better and give it a try late this year. 

The Importance of Layering

Whenever I go ice fishing, I always try to layer my clothes intelligently. Not only is that the best way to stay warm, but it enables me to adapt as conditions change (usually it has more to do with not letting our clothes become soaked with sweat during and after physical activity). This is not revolutionary thinking. But this principle has never been quite as pronounced on any other outing. The reason? The sun. That first afternoon, the sky was full of puffy clouds that swept intermittent shadows over the lake. Every time they did, it felt colder (of course), but the wind would pick up dramatically. When the sun shone again, the air stilled and my jacket quickly became hot on my back. The difference between warm and cold was far greater than it usually is during the ice season because the sun’s radiation is now becoming quite strong. This caused me to alternate layers on my upper body, hands, and head, and far more often than usual. (Unfortunately, none of my hats featured a brim on the side. Not having brought sunscreen either, I received a memorable sunburn. Yet more evidence of how powerful the sun’s rays are becoming!) I now have an even greater appreciation for thoughtful use of my clothing, and will be looking in the coming months for items that will add to versatility in layering. 

It’s Never a Goose Chase    

In this modern world, we are never far from other people- even in a wilderness. My phone had lost reception miles and miles before reaching the end of the road, and yet when I turned it back on in the middle of the lake, I had a signal. It wasn’t strong enough to carry on a conversation, but enough to slip some text messages in and out. Since my wife would appreciate knowing I could reach out in case of an emergency, at day’s end I made contact and conveyed to her my frustration at not having caught anything. She reminded me that “it’s never a goose chase” and to have fun. At first, it was mildly perturbing to have my own words turned on me. But it was good to be given permission to fail and still have fun. 

By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, I’d calmed down a bit and looked forward to the next day’s gifts. I resolved to embrace whatever opportunities I had left and to make the most of my time. I’m glad I did, because otherwise my eyes would not have been free to see the sky with appreciation, or the tracks left in the night by the wolves, or the otter romping around the ice. My mind would have either been too focused on trying to force the fish to bite, or too lost in despair to enjoy anything. That’s no way to be. 

In the end, the fact that I hadn’t caught any fish was of little import. It was demoted from defining feature of the experience to mere detail. And while the sting of last week’s “failure” hasn’t worn off quite yet, it won’t keep me from going back.



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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018