Tullibees on Big Sandy Lake

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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. 

Wandering on Webster Bay  

Due to an unfortunate overnight snowstorm, I delayed departure from home a few hours and arrived on Big Sandy midday. The game plan was to spend the first day mining the basins in Webster Bay (~35-40ft). Tullibees, I thought, should be roaming there—possibly suspended—depending on their menu du jour

It didn’t take long to suspect something was amiss. The only good evidence of fishing activity was a small cluster of fish houses at one end of the bay. Other than that, there were no other anglers or old holes to be found anywhere. It seemed strange. 

When I’d been out there an hour or so, a couple guys on snowmobiles glided over to see what I was up to. The talkative one told me most folks go elsewhere in the lake for tullibees (something I’d wondered about, but couldn’t track down any evidence before leaving home). He said they’d caught some in the aforementioned shacks recently, which he said was unusual. He encouraged me to try the main lake: “There’s a lot of tullibees. They’re everywhere.”

There were about two hours of daylight left when I’d tried all the spots on the itinerary, with not a single fish marked on sonar. Considering the evidence, staying on that part of the lake seemed like a possible waste of time. I made a break for it. 

As the sun neared the horizon, I hustled out of the access in the northeast corner of the lake. I didn’t have much more time (or energy) than to get to the nearest depression, about 25 feet deep. 

Tullibee (cisco) ice fishing on Big Sandy Lake, Minnesota

Still nothing appeared at or near the bottom. A pack of fish came through at around eight feet under the ice, which was exciting. Though they responded well to my lure, nary a one would nibble. It was discouraging. 

But a deliciously warm orange sunset left me feeling optimistic that I had finally made contact with tullibees and that I’d get fish slime on my fingers the next day, one way or another. 

Wolfy Lullabies

After slipping off the lake for a well-earned burrito platter and a beer, I returned to that same access to settle in for the night. Away went sonar, rods, and other gear. Out came cot, sleeping bag, and the big shelter. I couldn’t wait to crawl into my cocoon for a long winter’s nap. Since I wouldn’t fish anywhere nearby the next morning, I unceremoniously tucked my hub house near shore. 

Things had been shockingly quiet all day. This was just as true that night, despite an abundance of snowmobile tracks on and off the lake. It was a comfort because having those things zipping around is not conducive to good rest. 

I awoke at one point to the howling of wolves. Their hollow, low moaning—especially as a group—is unmistakable once you’ve heard it. These sounded as though they were a couple miles to the north, in Savanna State Forest. They really got wound up before I drifted off again, with some making a high-pitched squeal I’m not sure I’ve heard before. They were very vocal that night; this scenario played out at least once more before morning. 

Warming Up   

Though temperatures in the area were predicted to stay near 20 degrees overnight, a nip on the breeze suggested single digits when I woke up. That is not uncommon; as cold air sinks in off the hills all night, the lake surface drops to many degrees colder than surrounding areas. It would be an understatement to say it was tough to unzip the sleeping bag and get out. 

Tullibee (cisco) ice fishing on Big Sandy Lake, Minnesota. Northern pike with neascus, “black spot” parasite

Again I hoofed it away from the car after exchanging sleeping gear for fishing tackle. The nearest shoreline point seemed a reasonable haunt for walleyes in the early morning light. All I managed, however, was a scrawny northern, which was notably infested with neascus (a parasite harmless to humans). With the sun high enough again to warm the world, I hopped a short distance to the first basin area to check for tullibees. 

It was apparent after the better part of an hour that, apart from a couple quick blips near the surface, there was nothing there worth staying for. And despite reeling up as fast as I could, those high cruisers were either gone by the time I got there, or not interested enough to bite. Thus, I couldn’t determine whether they were or were not tullibees. For all I knew, they were shiners or something. And it struck me as strange that there were literally no fish in the bottom 75% of the water column. 

Nothing changed at spot after spot, as I worked toward progressively deeper water. When I arrived at a 40-foot hole, it seemed as good a place as any to wait it out. It was near lunch time besides, and I had no better ideas. 

In case those fast-moving visitors were tullibees, I set a crappie minnow about five feet under the ice on my tip-up. It seemed reasonable that they might stick around a little longer with a “decoy.” They’re curious, after all. I kept my tiny tungsten jig between eight and ten feet down. 

Tullibee (cisco) ice fishing on Big Sandy Lake, Minnesota

It worked. They would often appear right at the minnow’s level, then respond to my active jigging. The first to succumb was only 12 and a half inches. Not big, but I was not disappointed to finally shrug off the skunk. 

The next biter was a substantially larger fish. Its powerful head shakes set it apart from the wild thrashing of the first one. Quite predictably, however, it came off at the bottom of the hole. I got over it…eventually.

Packs of fast-moving tullibees came and went occasionally throughout the afternoon. It was a slow day overall, but I did pick off two more for the smoker. 

Walkaway Thoughts     

Three fish wasn’t a large haul, but it wasn’t nothing. Equal or greater than the harvest was everything learned over the course of two days. Big Sandy served up some hard lessons, though I might not get back anytime soon to make use of them. It was at least satisfying to go through the process of cracking its code, slow as I was.

More universal lessons involved the fish themselves, which could easily translate to other lakes. If nothing else, their habit of cruising just under the ice won’t soon fade from memory. I had a strong feeling they were probably doing that over the lake, and 10 feet of water would have been as productive as 40. But it would have been hard to test that theory without another day. I might never know. The best I can do is stay open to that possibility.

On future outings I’ll likely use a decoy minnow anywhere I fish for tullibees, if only to make the most of those brief encounters. It could prove helpful on days when they’re feeling tight-lipped. And having a few extra moments could make a big difference, especially because suspended fish are more active feeders than those close to the bottom—at least in my experience. 

Having more tools in the toolbox can pay dividends. It’s in the angler’s best interest to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to dynamic sparring partners like tullibees. 


Yellow Bass of the Fairmont Chain

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I was on the phone last night with an old Minnesota fisherman. He asked if I’d done anything interesting lately. I said, “See if you can guess. What are yellow with black markings, plentiful, and taste good when they’re battered and fried?”


“Yeah, well, okay….here’s another hint: they wiggle and flop when you throw them on the ice next to your sled.”


“What? No! I’m talking about yellow bass.”

“Huh. Never heard of ‘em.”

No kidding. 

Continue reading “Yellow Bass of the Fairmont Chain”

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. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing”

Stay Well, Stay Sane

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It’s been about three days since all the closures started, and one day since Minnesota declared a state of emergency. Everyone in my household is already feeling cooped up and anxious about how we will spend the next days and weeks. And we’ve already told the kids they’re going to have limited time with friends for a while. So, if we’re going to spend less time in public, avoid movie theaters and restaurants, and otherwise practice hermit life, what can we do? Continue reading “Stay Well, Stay Sane”

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”

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”

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 blanketed 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”