The Season for Outdoor Savings

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It seems every year I tell myself I’m going to get new hiking boots. And ice fishing boots. And snow bibs. And winter clothing layers. And a new backpacking stove. I’m sure I’ll get around to all those, but most of my procrastination has to do with finding the right items at the right prices. Well, now is the time of year when prices get slashed and I need to be on top of my shopping game. You should too, especially if you need any type of outdoor clothing. 

The average retail shopper is usually thinking in terms of the upcoming season; at least that’s the way retailers act when it comes to their merchandising. But if you’re willing to think about the things you’ll need next year rather than the next season, you can often get clothing and gear for half or less of what you would otherwise pay. 

The Lowdown

Almost 20 years ago I learned that the end of the winter is prime time for snatching up clothing and gear for good (sometimes crazy-good) prices. I was working in fishing retail, watching the clothing and camping employees marking things down, trying to clear the shelves for all the merchandise that was to flood the store in the lead-up to Spring. You see, they do not want to store any more than they have to for the next six to nine months.    

What’s more, things like tents, sleeping bags, outerwear, and all manner of casual clothing are subject to major styling changes- every single year. It stands to reason, then, that the old stuff has to make room for the new stuff. And this is the golden time every year when ice fishing gear is also leaving the showroom floor, which means the fishing department can have steep discounts too. 

The Internet is No Different

Now, the the savings don’t just apply to retail stores; companies with an online presence are doing a lot of the same things. Here are some of my favorites, my go-to sites when I need a deal on new goods. 

REI

Let me say at the outset that if you’re not a member, you should probably consider it. A permanent membership is still only $20 (To me, that is incredible). What does that get you? For starters, you get a percentage of your purchases back every year as a store credit. My dividend- as they call it- has more than paid me back over the years, and my main purchases there are dehydrated food and fuel for my backpacking stove. 

The even-better reason to become a member is that you will be alerted to their big sales and issued coupons several times over the year. Those coupons are usually 20% off a regular price item and 20% off an REI outlet item. One of those big sales is coming up in June- I hope to find my new hiking boots then. 

Regardless of one’s membership status, the REI Outlet is always there. That part of the site features their clearance goods, and is largely clothing. It seems the longer an item waits there, the steeper the discount. And those who shop on the extreme end of the size spectrums will do well. 

Backcountry.com

This website ranks up near REI for my first and favorite place to look for low prices on things I need. If I had to classify it, I’d say it’s “An online store with clothing and gear in current styles, with sometimes extensive selection of sale and clearance merchandise.” Backcountry offers goods from top-shelf companies like The North Face and Patagonia, but also has exclusive brands like Montane and Stoic. I’ve picked up some clothing there as well as my warmest sleeping bag. The Stoic fleece jacket I bought from them last year has become one of my go-to layers (seen in this photo from the About Roy and NAGC page).

EverestGear

Like Backcountry, Everest Gear seems to be a dumping ground for old styles. Sure, they have some regular-priced stuff, but their regular prices are nothing special. I first stumbled on Everest Gear when I was looking for sleeping bags. They have lots of clothing and other gear, but it remains one of the best places I’ve found for discounts on sleeping bags. 

If I had a complaint, it would be that I haven’t found a way to refine/sort the merchandise listings (by brand, price, size, etc.). So if you’re looking at tents, for instance, you have no choice but to scan through all the tents. If you’d like to keep your purchase under a certain price, they don’t make it easy. It can make shopping there a bit more time consuming, but it’s still worth a look. 

Midway USA

The people at Midway USA are pretty much no-nonsense. They offer whatever they offer, and it won’t be everything on the market. But when they want to get rid of something, they’ll put a good price on it until it’s gone. I finally found the price I wanted on a hunting backpack there a couple years ago, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Again, they don’t try to offer everything that’s out there, but it’s one of the best places online to find good discounts on hunting gear. 

Overton’s

When it comes to your ice fishing needs, it can be hard to sniff out the best destinations for deals. Generally speaking, retail stores are trying hard to get rid of everything ice fishing- especially by the middle of March. It seems like you just have to hit the stores you know and hope to get lucky; I have yet to find an online source for ice fishing gear that tries as hard as the aforementioned websites do to get rid of their wares. 

Still, the Overton’s website currently has some good prices on some gear. The selection is by no means comprehensive, but some good deals can be had. I wish now I’d held off on some of my recent lure purchases…

REI Patagonia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.  

Little perch ice fishingIf you’re like me, you could use a few ways to extend your ice fishing season. Perch and panfish always come to mind here in Minnesota, and there are two good reasons for that. First, the season doesn’t end. Second, they’ll start cooperating again with oxygen levels rising and spawning season approaching. But the number of places to find truly large perch is small these days, and panfish are showing signs of overharvest. Fortunately, there are many more opportunities if a person is willing to branch out and do something new. 

Tullibees and Lake Whitefish

These members of the salmonid family are quite active in the winter months. They are fun to catch and top-notch eating, too. I like to hit Mille Lacs once or twice a year just for the tullibee action, and I’m hoping the “Tullibee Hole” in the south end of the lake will heat up while I can still drive out there this year.

Tullibee ice fishingTullibees and whitefish generally inhabit the colder, deeper lakes in the northern half of Minnesota. Other notable destinations include Leech Lake and sometimes Winnibigoshish for tullibees and Lake of the Woods for lake whitefish. 

These silvery torpedoes cruise the muddy bottoms, sucking up invertebrates. Successful anglers will be found offering smaller baits that cater to that kind of appetite. Catch a few and treat them to a day in your smoker– I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 

Trout

The winter seasons for lake trout and stream trout alike extend until the end of March, which will basically cover the rest of the ice season. The lakes where stream trout are stocked are basically put-and-take fisheries since they don’t reproduce in lakes. For that reason, I’m not bashful about keeping some to eat. When it comes to lake trout, I’m a bit more selective, but still love to take one or two home as allowed by the regulations. The BWCA has many trout lakes a person could walk to and from in a day, and will easily still have ice until the end of March even in warm years. Try your hand at winter camping to make it a real adventure. 

Eelpout

I have yet to catch an eelpout. That’s mostly because I don’t live anywhere near good places to catch eelpout (or burbot, ling, freshwater cod, etc.). When I was young, people used to catch them famously in Mille Lacs and toss them out in the snow like garbage. They’ve all but disappeared from there now, due to a warming lake and probably a host of contributing factors. But the ‘pout are still found in abundance other places; the closer you get to Canada, the more likely you are to find them. 

There has actually been a surge of interest in eelpout the last few years, and that’s kinda cool. This is probably due to their catchability in the late season as they prepare to spawn. The problem is, an increase of interest could put a strain on the population. So it would be wise for anybody seeking them to take smaller specimens for the table and release the larger ones for spawning- as we do with other fish at the top of the food chain. 

Border Waters

Yesterday’s tip-up fishing extravaganza ended in a whimper and I was left with a lot more sucker minnows than I care to admit. Fortunately, the walleye/sauger/pike season is still open until March 1st on the St. Croix border with Wisconsin. I might head there later this week. On the Mississippi, that season doesn’t actually end! Not bad. Plus, the St. Croix is host to an ever-increasing population of large lake sturgeon, which have been getting a fair amount of attention in recent years. 

South Dakota border waters also offer walleye/northern fishing until March 1st, and Iowa border waters boast a non-closing season just like the Mississippi. I’m actually contemplating a run for the Iowa border this year because I’d like to catch my first yellow bass. That would be a fun way to spend a warm afternoon…

Rules for our border waters with Canada are also generous, albeit somewhat complicated. Check the regulations before you go. 

 

 

 

 

Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake

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I don’t keep a bucket list. If I did, one of the items on it going into 2020 would have been ice fishing Devils Lake. When that opportunity recently landed in my lap, I couldn’t resist. It was a “Communicator Camp,” arranged by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), where Devils Lake Tourism and Clam Outdoors hosted several media professionals like myself. 

We assembled the first night, and were given a warm welcome (and the game plan) by Devils Lake Tourism’s Suzie Kenner and Tanner Cherney. Two members of the Clam Outdoors Ice Team– Thayne Jensen and Tony Mariotti- also gave us an overview of all the equipment we’d be using. Everything sounded so good until the conversation turned to the weather.  Continue reading “Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake”

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs Lake

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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, out onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, but we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Temps 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 a lot worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs Lake”

NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019

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Even when you’re on the road, everybody’s gotta eat. There are the hidden gems, and there are the inevitable sore disappointments. On my adventures, I’ve found my share of each. In the interest of rewarding the proprietors of first-rate eateries, I would like to share some of my favorites with you. Hopefully this will also serve to help you avoid some of the duds lurking out there. The map below is interactive, so click on the icons to obtain addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Have at it, and let me know what you think!

Continue reading “NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019”

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”

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”

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”

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”

Silver Island Lake Rustic Campground

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Silver Island Lake is a beautiful sprawling 1,200 acre lake close to the BWCA, known locally as a good fishing lake. Black crappies and northern pike are present in average numbers, and walleyes are historically abundant; sizes for game fish tend to be small to average in this fairly bog-stained lake. The boat ramp is a nicely protected concrete ramp of moderate steepness, however, boaters should use extreme caution in this lake due to the many rock hazards scattered throughout the lake. In other words, you could get a heavy fishing boat into Silver Island, but it would be unwise to cruise around with abandon. 

The boat ramp is in the middle of this no-fee campground, which features three (out of eight) lakeside campsites. Two of those (#3 and #5) feature lake accesses with short docks, which could offer boat mooring possibilities. There is no swimming beach, but one could take a quick swim in the vicinity of the boat ramp if desired.

Most campsites here will be best for a tent or small-to-medium size campers like a pop-up or shorter travel trailer. Longer trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes will be hard pressed to find enough level ground to set up on, with the exception of perhaps site #5, and even then it may be difficult to impossible. The Forest Service indicates on its website that all eight sites have “a parking spur of more than 21 ft. suitable for RV or trailer.” I would disagree, but my recommendations are based on the amount of level ground available, and not based on what’s within the realm of possible.

Amenities

The restroom is a two-hole (men/women) vault toilet building which is modern and clean, and each site has a fire ring and picnic table. The bad news is there is neither electricity nor a potable water source in this campground. Therefore, one must bring water and/or a generator if desired. The good news is it’s probably less busy than other campgrounds that offer such amenities (and remember- it’s FREE!).

Site 1 

There is little privacy available in this fairly wide-open campsite without much overhead tree cover, but is high and dry compared to most of the rest. It is probably one of the easier sites to back a trailer into, but is probably best for tents or a smaller pull-behind trailer. Users will probably incur headlights as cars enter and exit the campground, unless protected by artful tent placement and car parking. 

Site 2

Site number 2 is an attractive site with a bit of an uphill approach, allowing for good drainage. It is a bit more private than Site 1, with the fire ring tucked into the back. There is room for a small to medium trailer, or a tent or maybe even two. This site is probably the one whose entrance is closest to the restroom. 

Site 3

This campsite is probably the premier campsite in this campground, with nice tree cover, one of two fishing docks, and lots of level ground. The majority of this level ground is not available for parking a trailer, as it is apart from the driving/parking surfaces, and would be suitable for a small to medium trailer. The good news is, it could accommodate two or more tents as well as a dining canopy. 

Site 4

Site number 4 offers the least privacy of all the campsites in this campground, and is situated right next to the boat landing. That could be good news for anyone who would be utilizing the boat landing, as it would only be about a 50-foot distance to carry any gear. This site offers room for a tent or small pull-behind trailer. Since it is a lakeside campsite, it may receive a fair amount of wind from the lake when the wind is right; the fire ring is nicely sheltered from such a wind by a well-placed boulder. 

Site 5

Along with Site 3, this campsite may share the title for the most desirable spot in this campground. With a longer driveway and a significant portion screened by trees, it is probably the most private site available. The fact that it features the second short dock and good overhead tree cover only adds to its appeal. Two tents could easily be placed at the back of this site, and it could also accommodate many sizes of camper trailers. Its only drawback- if it has one- is its proximity to site #6. 

Site 6/Site 7

Sites 6 and 7 are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Silver Island Lake campground, nearly identical in specifications, and without much separation. If camping in a party that required two sites, these two would offer the best inter-site connection. They are probably good for a tent apiece, or a small to medium trailer. 

Site 8

This campsite is more secluded, but also seems to get much less traffic than the others with its downhill approach, small tent area, limited level ground, and proximity to the swamp. It is probably not suitable for anything but a tent. But in the event that one would desire to use a trailer, it would probably have to be a small one and it would probably need to be parked up near the road instead of at the rear of the site. 

 

Click on site pictures below to see larger versions, and toggle between photo and site description (please note there are 2 photos for site 3). 

 

 

 

 

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”

Expedition 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 “Expedition Food: Forager’s Fish Soup”