Donkey, lumberjack win big in fishing tournament

Read More Bemidji walleye, AGLOW tournament

“I got no luck. They just weren’t bitin’. We couldn’t find ‘em. There are no fish in dat lake. The weather was total crap.”

This is a partial list of excuses I had ready in case of not catching anything in the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers inaugural fishing tournament on Tuesday, on Lake Bemidji. A guy has to be ready to defend his honor, after all. 

Turns out, there was no need—even for me. 

Strong Start

As the eastern sky began to brighten, I climbed aboard Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member Steve Pennaz’s boat. Also fishing on his Skeeter that day were Kent Weil, writer from Illinois, and Mike Schoonveld, Lake Michigan charter captain. There was an air of optimism as we pulled away from the dock, even though Pennaz said he’d never fished that lake before. I knew we were in good hands. 

Sure enough, as he demonstrated the morning’s technique, Pennaz hooked into the first walleye of the day. It literally took four seconds. 

The rest of us followed his lead and began pulling up walleyes, perch, and rock bass. It almost seemed too easy. Of course, that’s what you get when a pro calls the shots.

Steve kept us on fish for about the next 45 minutes, by which time they had turned off in that spot. We proceeded to cut loose from there, wandering like Moses and the Israelites. I was afraid the walleye bite was already over for the day. It was only 8:00. 

Would it be too much to expect a little manna from heaven? Time would tell. 

The Wisdom of a Donkey 

Only one hour into the morning, our boat had logged several fish into the digital fishing tournament phone app FishDonkey. This was a new one to me, mostly because I don’t fish in tournaments. But that’s not because it’s not getting a lot of attention—and use—in the fishing world. Quite the opposite, in fact. 

FishDonkey is a way for tournament participants to enter fish into a contest without inserting them into a livewell. Instead, they open the app, get images of the fish, enter a minimal amount of data, and hit the ‘submit’ button. 

Within moments of being caught, that fish is released back to the same part of the lake. This stands in stark contrast to traditional contests where fish ride around in livewells for hours on end, only to be weighed and released in another part of the waterway. This often results in an unfortunate degree of post-handling mortality, which, thanks to FishDonkey, could be a thing of the past. 

Company founders and husband-and-wife team Darren and Bonnie Amundson were in attendance at the annual AGLOW conference, and have been extremely helpful for luddites like me who can (and will) screw up anything related to their phones. 

Darren told me that, not only does FishDonkey make tournaments easier on the fish, it makes life easier on tournament organizers. Verification of results takes minimal effort because of angler-recorded images. In addition, the app is designed with several safeguards to prevent cheating. 

“Running the tournament is pretty easy. In fact, I fished in the tournament. You really only need to check the number one and number two because everybody’s self reporting their score already. In a weigh-in tournament, you weigh every single fish,” he said. 

Fish-Photo Finish 

When school after school of fish refused our offerings as staunchly as toddlers turning up their noses at broccoli purée, Steve decided we needed to make a change. He began to rig up paddletail swimbaits to cast toward a nearby weedline. Pennaz thought we might find some active northern pike waiting in ambush there.

He was right, of course, and immediately hooked into his third entry in that category. Something bit my lure off within the first couple casts. By the time I could tie another one on, the other three guys had situated themselves on the shallow side of the boat. 

Walleye fishing, Lake Bemidji, AGLOW, FishDonkey

Enormous schools of baitfish clouded the sonar screen. Steve repeatedly announced there were “tons of fish” on the bottom. I thought I’d try sending my swimbait 26 feet down and try to keep it in their faces. For once, my instinct was actually good. 

The first taker was a 16.75 inch walleye, the longest our boat would claim all day. We managed to log several others, but our efforts were ultimately not enough to land us in the prizes. 

In all, there were 166 fish registered by 39 anglers in the contest in four hours (many more unceremoniously tossed overboard). The largest of over 80 panfish entered was a 12.5-inch rock bass landed by Ken Perrotte. About 30 northern pike were registered, the longest being Kevin Paulson’s 27.23-incher. Almost 50 walleye were registered, with the 24.5-incher caught by Brady Laudon topping the list. 

“First City” Fame

Laudon, fishing guide and Assistant Director of Visit Bemidji, went to a lot of work to get over 50 anglers out on the water. He counts the tournament a success in showcasing the quality fisheries around Bemidji, a city well known for its proximity to the Mississippi headwaters, and for being the home of Paul Bunyan.

“It’s huge. Seeing all the social media posts, and that everybody has been doing well [fishing] in Bemidji. And having the FishDonkey owners here in Bemidji is really cool. We use that app a lot, so having them in our backyard and having them as a part of the tournament is so cool,” he told me.

He also credited locals and visitors alike for collaborating to show there’s much more to Bemidji than an oversized, flanneled lumberjack. 

Said Laudon: “Having all the different guides come together and help put on this tournament, and the AGLOW members who brought their own boats…for Bemidji, we’re lucky to have all these individuals in town. It’s going to give us great exposure for years to come.”

Tullibees on Big Sandy Lake

Read More Big Sandy Access

To me, there might not be a more compelling fish to pursue through the ice than the tullibee (Coregonus artedi). That’s why I recently took two days to go to Big Sandy Lake, in Aitkin County. Word on the street was that things are good there lately. So, I expected a quick vacation of ice fishing for tullibees. What I got was more like work, with a little schooling thrown in. 

Continue reading “Tullibees on Big Sandy Lake”

To Take a Sucker

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In the year two thousand and twenty two, an eclectic band of writers, hunters, and other celebrities descended on southern Missouri for their annual gathering.

For months they looked forward to their usual camaraderie and rabble rousing. However, it was unseasonably hot, and downright miserable in the autumn sun. 

Someone proposed “gigging”—an ancient pursuit steeped in mystery—which apparently consists of stabbing at sucker fish in the dark with shamefully narrow forks mounted on unwieldy poles. Nobody knew much about it, on account that it isn’t much practiced anymore.

Continue reading “To Take a Sucker”

Do Something New: River Smallmouth Float Trip

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I recently took a day trip on the Mississippi to do some fishing. It’s something I hadn’t done before, but had considered trying on the many fishable rivers in the area. It’s good I did, because it will probably stand as one of the highlights of the entire summer. To tell the truth, the plan was so simple it couldn’t fail: just me, the river, and any smallmouth bass that were in the mood for a tussle. 

Continue reading “Do Something New: River Smallmouth Float Trip”

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

Read More BWCA Gillis Lake

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”

Ways to Extend Your Ice Fishing Season

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Well, the walleye and northern pike seasons ended yesterday here in Minnesota. This always leaves me feeling a little adrift with respect to the remainder of my ice fishing season. Most of my energy is spent chasing those toothy predators; nothing else quite measures up.

But I love ice fishing. I’d rather make use of the time left than hang my head and stuff my gear back up in the top of the garage again.   Continue reading “Ways to Extend Your Ice Fishing Season”

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”

Video Log


Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Most campgrounds way up in Minnesota’s northwoods offer a forest camping experience; it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be plenty of trees, shade, and mosquitoes. Conversely, there are few opportunities to camp in places that offer meadow views or plants and birds that flourish in forest openings. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any mosquitoes, but I will tell you that if sunny open spaces are your cup of tea, Harriet Lake Rustic Campground (R.C.) should be on your list of destinations. What’s more, it’s one of several campgrounds in the Superior National Forest that are free of charge. 

Harriet Lake R.C. is on the site of a former farm. Some remnants of its farming era can still be seen, including what looks like the foundation for a barn. While many such farms in the area have long since grown over and been absorbed by the boreal forest, this one has been maintained as a forest opening for decades now, for the benefit of campers and wildlife alike. When I visited in the spring of 2019, it had recently been blessed by a controlled burn.

Somewhat anecdotally, I was told at the boat landing by someone who identified himself as a Lake County employee that the campground is a well-known place to pick blueberries. I also noticed there were plenty of raspberry and blackberry canes growing on the fringes of the campground. 

The Campsites

To the uninitiated, it might be hard to find where to camp at Harriet Lake R.C. There are, according to my count, only about 11 campsites (The official Superior N.F. brochure says 6), identifiable by fire ring and picnic table, and only 2 have typical parking spurs off the road. They are mostly approached via a dusty 2-track trail off the main campground drive; exercise caution, as they may be muddy or otherwise hazardous to ordinary passenger cars. Aside from the few near the toilet facility (in the boat ramp area), they are fairly spread out and inconspicuous if unoccupied. 

You may spot the first couple on your left as you drive in off County Road 7. The next cluster will be at the northern end of the opening, on your left as the road curves to the right. One- which has a spectacular view of the lake- is more easily found, but is completely exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. Beyond it to the north are 2 more sites, 1 of which offers much privacy and shade in the small group of trees. You will soon pass another campsite on the left, which, I’m told, has its own carry-in access down to Harriet Lake (it was occupied during my visit). 

The last 5 campsites are in the southeastern end of the campground, closest to the vault toilet. The 2 nearest the boat ramp area have the parking spurs, and may receive some shade early and late in the day. My wife and I set up camp not far away, in what is probably the most shaded and spacious of all the sites in the campground. A short distance across the field from us was another site with some late-day tree cover. The last site I found was to the southwest, tucked back in the woods; it was private and well-shaded, and would probably be the recipient of the least wind and most mosquitoes of all the campsites. 

What You Need to Know

The campground at Harriet Lake is designated as a “rustic” campground because it does not offer electricity or water. This means you need to bring your own water or be prepared to collect and filter it from the lake. On the upside, there is still a toilet facility (not too shabby), and camping is free of charge. It was moderately busy in the middle of the week in May; I believe that was due in part to being a free campground. As a result, I imagine it would fill up on the weekends throughout the summer. Since it is a developed area, dispersed camping is not allowed, so you must camp where there is a site with fire ring. 

There are several good fishing lakes in the area, especially for walleyes. Some of them have great boat ramps, including the one at Harriet Lake, which is right in the campground. Another good lake just up the road is Silver Island Lake, where another rustic campground with 8 sites might offer a place to stay if Harriet Lake R.C. is full. 

This part of Minnesota can be a foraging paradise throughout the season. The entire region is productive for berries, mushrooms, and more, and most land is either owned by the state or the feds, so access is easy. With millions of acres in Superior N.F. alone, nobody can say there isn’t enough room to roam. All you need to do is drive another half an hour to leave the crowds behind you. 


To read more firsthand descriptions of other state and national forest campgrounds in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Public Land Camping page.