BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout

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Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, 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 the area received several late and heavy snowfalls, the most recent coming not much more than a week before my own arrival. A few aged footprints indicated others had gotten there first. BWCA Moment of ReflectionBetween 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. 

 

 

To see a video compilation of highlights from this trip, see the video “Sights & Sounds: BWCA in Spring” on the NAGC YouTube channel

 

 

 

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”

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”

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”

Bring a Kid: Backpacking

Read More Kids Hike Through Tettegouche

After a hot and sweaty couple of miles on the trail, it didn’t matter how cold the water might be or that there wasn’t really a beach. Once we’d found our campsite, taken off our packs, and changed, my kids and I took to the lake for our hard-earned reward. We spent about an hour playing in the water before going ashore for a break. I was made to promise we weren’t done swimming. After sitting in the shade and eating raspberries a while, my son said wistfully, “I wish we could stay here a week, just to swim and eat berries.” He was in paradise. We all were.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Backpacking”

Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)

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There is a pathetic time of year that comes after the ice melts and before spring really gets going. Fishing is slow, and turkey hunting hasn’t yet started. It seems every year during this time I find myself itching to get outside and just do something, if only because the weather can be so seductive. This year, I came across a couple mentions of spring sucker fishing that really piqued my interest, especially when I read that suckers are supposed to be tasty when smoked. I thought about when and where I might be able to try this, but didn’t come up with much; I spent a couple hours probing a creek by my house with no results. Then it dawned on me that I’d have the opportunity to try some cold northern rivers on my way to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance (another story, another time). Perfect. Once I’d identified my chance, I couldn’t not try my hand at sucker fishing.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)”

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

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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.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Ice Fishing in the BWCA (Lessons Learned)”

Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees

Mille Lacs ice walleye, tullibee

As I coasted down the hill into Garrison, the eastern sky glowed with the clean blue light of impending sunrise.  A few minutes later, a lone cloud streak in the East lit up like a hot poker.  I always enjoy a good sunrise and this one made me feel I was in the right place at the right time.  After waiting out what seemed like weeks of below-zero punishment, I was looking forward to spending the entire day on Lake Mille Lacs, in the sun and near-thawing temps.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees”