BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing

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For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately had me itching to get at it. 

Entry Point 25, with walleyes in Newfound Lake and brook trout in Found Lake, was the perfect setting for my introduction into winter adventuring. Little did I know, however, that introduction would come with a sobering peek into my own psyche. 

First Day Surprises

The hike across Moose Lake was relatively easy, thanks to a well-trampled dogsled track. It provided a low-friction surface for my sled full of food, clothing, and equipment. The lonely expanse of Newfound Lake greeted me in no time, it seemed. I set up camp at the first campsite that suited my needs. It was nicely sheltered and situated at the center of all the areas I intended to fish. 

That first sundown was spent at the most promising structure depicted on the crude old lake map. Walleyes were the target. With about 10 holes drilled, I had a pretty good handle on the lay of the lake. The mood of the fish, however, was beyond my control. 

Red and orange bars would appear slowly on my Vexilar and disappear after a few moments of apparent disinterest. My tip-up flag went up often, but attempted hand-to-fin combat always ended with an empty hook. These scenarios repeated themselves several times. I downsized my jigging spoon and kept skewering minnows, hoping for better results. 

Well after dark, a large red mark approached my lure. It followed as I pulled up slowly. One fish appeared to separate into two, with a rippling green signal immediately below. I could not imagine what my sonar was trying to show me. Not until I detected a small bite and set the hook, that is.

My rod doubled over and the line barely budged. 

I managed to work that fish nearly up to the top before it began fighting back. Then progress was slow. Time and again, powerful runs erased gains made. There was no doubt the fish was large. Since it was already nighttime, I assumed it to be either a burly eelpout or the heftiest walleye I’d ever fooled into biting. When the massive face of a northern pike passed through the beam of my headlamp, I let out an astonished gasp. 

Ice fishing BWCA Newfound LakeOn about the fourth attempt to maneuver that fish’s head into the hole, I finally succeeded. Foot after foot of fish flesh emerged from the 6-inch hole as I lifted. It was miraculously docile once topside. Even more miraculously, the tiny, mangled treble hook was barely lodged in its lip. I took a couple photos and a quick measurement— 38 inches, my biggest ever— before sending it back through the ice. It was a thrill, to be sure. 

As stillness closed in again, however, that thrill faded and was soon overbalanced by foreboding as black as the night itself. One of winter’s greatest dangers— the cold of night— was at hand, and I couldn’t escape a piercing sense of isolation and helplessness. In that moment I wanted to be anywhere but there. Consciously, I knew temperatures would stay reasonable and that I was well prepared. But anxiety of that kind isn’t necessarily logical. I soon headed for the safety of camp. 

Once fed and seated by a crackling fire, my rational self again wrested control of my mind. I truly had not anticipated the kind of anxiety that swept over me on the lake, and spent some time sitting and examining it like a raging beast returned to its cage. It was unlike anything that has ever happened to me on my adventures. I was glad to have overcome it. 

The remainder of the night was spent ordering my gear and mentally rehearsing my steps for the next morning. I crawled warm, dry, and calm into my sleeping bag and listened to sled dogs barking in the distance. 

30-Minute Gold Strike

Ice fishing BWCA Newfound Lake walleyeOvernight temperatures seemed to hold around 20 degrees, as expected. Unzipping the bag and getting dressed at 6 a.m. was surprisingly easy. I was eager to get back to my fishing spot, which I believed to be good despite a somewhat disappointing show the night before. 

To no surprise, the walleyes were in much the same mood. Unenthusiastic visitors to my lures continued to frustrate. Still, I kept at it. 

My tip-up had five hits without a hookup, so it seemed I needed to change….something. I gave it a different hook type, re-baited, and re-set. In the same spirit, I also swapped my lure for an Al’s Goldfish Living Lure in perch color. That’s when the magic happened. 

The next fish to approach my jig came fast and gulped it without hesitation. It was a 16-inch walleye that I happily tossed on the ice next to my sled. Minutes later, the tip-up flag went up again as another red mark approached my lure. The attempted thief turned out to be an 18-inch walleye which apparently had no qualms about swallowing a whole minnow. A little while later, a 10-incher showed similar enthusiasm while other fish made moves on my jigging spoon. 

Ice fishing walleye BWCA Newfound LakeThat change in activity was clear and concise, lasting just half an hour or so. Of course, I’d hoped that kind of action would have been the norm rather than the exception. All the same, I felt my goal of finding good walleye fishing in the BWCA had been met. 

After a late breakfast feast, I loaded the sled in order to spend the rest of the day out and about. I began by exploring Found Lake, which turned up nothing. I then returned to Newfound in order to circle through the main basin, attempting to entice tullibees and/or lake whitefish, then hopefully to locate and fish an underwater point in the last couple hours of the day. 

I found the tullibees immediately in 36 feet of water. Let’s just say they weren’t hungry. 

The next hole, which should have been deeper, was actually 32 feet deep. Intrigued, I drilled six holes in a circle surrounding that one. It was clear I’d found a hump that was unmarked on the map. About an hour and a dozen holes later, the hump was explored and the decision was made to concentrate the rest of the day’s efforts there. 

At one point a young fellow on skis came off the trail to Found Lake and glided over to chat me up. He urged me to try Found for the morning brook trout bite. I was already considering it, but the picture he showed me of a recent catch there sealed the deal. He stayed just long enough to witness me catch my only fish on that spot: a “hammer handle” pike on the tip-up. 

He was unimpressed, of course, and casually mentioned how that hump was a “big pike” spot before leaving. I wished he had witnessed something closer to the previous night’s catch instead. That nearly came true, as a little while later another fat red mark with rippling green tail approached my little spoon. It bit, I set the hook, it made a couple massive head shakes, then the line went slack. 

Yep, I lost my Goldfish. You can’t win them all. 

The clouds cleared out and let the warmth of the day escape. Frost grew quickly on every surface. I made soup (without tullibee to add, sadly), chawed on some jerky, and stared into the fire a while before calling it a night. It was clearly going to be colder, but I was unconcerned. Perhaps I should have been. 

Trouty Triumph

I awoke to drops of condensation splashing my face. 

The hood of my sleeping bag was gathering my breath and returning it in a most inconvenient way. Crawling out, I couldn’t help but notice the outside of the bag was damp to the touch. This was concerning because a buildup of moisture could really compromise the insulation. I hoped it would dissipate and continued getting ready. 

The pre-dawn air stung my face on the short trip to Found Lake. I estimated the temperature to be somewhere below 10 degrees. My toes had trouble warming my boots, which were also experiencing accumulated moisture. Sunrise couldn’t come fast enough. 

I drilled exactly one hole through the ice. It was five feet deep there— right in the bullseye, as far as I was concerned. Waxworm was given last rites and impaled on a nickel-colored Al’s Goldfish.

Rod on chair. Wipe hands on pants. Dip hole one last time. 

Before I could even get my gloves on, my rod began dancing around. I lunged for it.

Swing and a miss.

I prayed that would not be the only chance of the morning. 

It wasn’t. I dangled my lure halfway to the bottom and kept it moving. Fish would come and go quickly, some chancing a nibble. Soon I iced the first brook trout of my life— 12 inches— simply by standing and lifting. 

Brook trout ice fishing Found Lake BWCATrout were hot for the shiny Goldfish that day. Three more succumbed to its wiles, all between 11 and 12 inches long. A gentleman from the Duluth area arrived on skis just in time to witness the last one. He set up a short distance away. Just as I decided to call it a morning, he called for my help in getting a fish through the ice. I dashed over and knelt at the hole. 

It was giving him a real run for his money. He scrambled to find the right balance for his drag adjustment and at one point the knob fell to the ice in front of me. I handed it back, he reinstalled it. Somehow the fish finally came into position. I plunged my hands into the water and birthed a 17.5-inch trout into the dry world. Dan was grateful and exhilarated. I was pleased to have seen such a fish— and a little jealous, truth be told. 

That afternoon was spent soaking up sun, angling for willing tullibees and/or whitefish (unsuccessfully, again), and finally exploring that underwater point. It was smaller than expected, and fairly devoid of life. About the time I decided to abandon ship and head for my best spot, my wife was sending updates on an impending snowstorm via text message (yes, marginal reception there). 

Two days prior, that storm had been only a wrinkle in the forecast. But it developed into much more in the meantime and threatened my ability to get home safely the next day. I weighed my options as the sun set, and wondered if my sleeping bag could possibly be dry. Plummeting temperatures and visions of freezing rain revived anxieties that had been laid to rest two nights prior.

After nabbing one more walleye on my tip-up, I made a dash for it. It seemed prudent to forego a morning of trout fishing in the interest of traveling 250 miles on dry roads. I packed up camp in the dark (tent and mummy bag fully frosted) and began the 3-mile walk in the dark. 

Aftermath

The sky was excellent for stargazing, and the hour-and-a-half journey was the perfect opportunity to reflect on my trip. My time— though cut a little short— had been fruitful. Much had been learned about winter camping, clothing and gear both old and new, cold weather diet, and fishing. My efforts had yielded a new personal best pike, my first brook trout, and walleyes to bring home for the family. Perhaps best of all, I’d finally managed to do a winter wilderness solo camping trip. 

It had been a clear success. 

The flip side to that success, of course, was the specter of anxiety that seemed to find a foothold in the dark and cold. Somewhat ironically, I normally embrace that dark and cold. I guess that’s what made it so unexpected and foundation-shaking, even if only for short bouts. 

The good news is that I managed to work past those bouts efficiently, rather than folding under them. The next logical step will be to address any gear-related issues, not only to boost confidence, but also because wilderness requires best preparations. I may not always venture as far from home and civilization, but I can’t rule it out. 

There’s way too much wilderness out there to ignore, and never enough summer. 

 

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”

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.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”

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”

Wilderness Food: Forager’s Fish Soup

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My wife and I had a great trip to the BWCA last week. My main goal was to catch and eat fish, and the first one (my wife’s first lake trout) fit the bill perfectly. I had tentatively planned stops at other lakes to fish for brook trout and splake, but the weather forced us to make choices that prevented it. Total time spent fishing was not what I’d hoped, but that’s why we don’t count our successes until afterwards. Persisting through the rain was a triumph in its own right, and fish soup was our reward. Therefore, I considered our time on Crystal Lake a resounding success with a lunch of lake trout soup and supper of fried walleye. Continue reading “Wilderness Food: Forager’s Fish Soup”

BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake

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End of May, 2018

For my fortieth birthday, I told my wife I’d like to take the river fishing float trip I’d been thinking about for over 5 years. As spring approached, I started to think critically about this plan, and realized that bad weather could turn a good river trip really bad in a hurry. On a river, we’d have a starting point, a destination, and a finite time to reach that destination. Rain- especially of the relentless kind- would not only make that time miserable, but potentially dangerous. Shifting the trip to the Boundary Waters would not only give us flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but also a chance to get into the lake trout that had successfully eluded me over the winter. Game on.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake”

The Sun Is Going To Win

The sun is going to win. I keep telling myself that lately. Our source for heat and light has never failed us, and deep down we all know it. Actual spring will come, followed by hot sweaty summer. We know this. But right now, smack in the middle of April, as most of Minnesota is in the grip of a full-blown blizzard and I’ve already cleared 7 inches of snow from the driveway, it’s almost impossible to believe. 

The last few days I spent outside, I couldn’t help but notice how powerfully the sun warmed my skin and clothing compared to the way it didn’t a few weeks ago. Earlier this week, as I sat atop the ten inches of crusted snow that sat atop almost three feet of solid lake ice, the sun played peek-a-boo with the help of passing clouds. When the shadows came over me, the wind picked up and I put another layer on. When the sun came back out, my black jacket became unbearably warm and it came off again. That never happens in January. I reflected on how much more intense the sun’s rays have become, and how the ice I was fishing through will ultimately have to yield. Cognitively, I knew spring will eventually win out despite this seemingly endless winter we are having. What I did not know was that the sun’s ever-stronger rays were bouncing off the snow and giving me an atomic-grade sunburn. It’s the worst one I’ve had in almost twenty years, maybe longer. The only consolation has been the moment of levity I seem to bring to everyone I’ve seen in the last 3 days. 

Now, I have never been a lover of the sun. I have never in my life sought to be in the sun just for the sake of it. My pasty skin needs extra protection, not extra exposure. In the summer (and from now on, in April too) I try to have a hat with a lot of brim available for sunny days, and I try never to go anywhere without sunscreen. I try really hard not to let the sun come near enough to hurt me. I mostly hope for cloudy days and shade trees everywhere I go. But I have never wanted so badly as I do now for the sun to give us some quality time. And I will be ready for it… as soon as I’m done clearing the next 7 inches of snow off the driveway in the morning. 

 

 

Product Review: Sawyer Mini Water Filter

When I decided to take a short ice fishing trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I had a problem where water filtration was concerned. I have historically used a pump-type filter, but I didn’t consider this an option for this outing; even though the temperature was forecast to be above freezing during the days, the night temperatures would certainly imperil anything that would be damaged by freezing. Likewise, I couldn’t expect to keep containers of water on hand, so whatever amount of water I treated would have to be used in a short time. I decided that I would be able to keep something- if small enough- warm in interior pockets by day, and in my sleeping bag with me by night. What I didn’t know was how many different options there are now for water filtration/purification. Continue reading “Product Review: Sawyer Mini Water Filter”