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.”
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.
I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is.
An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Now, I’ve known Scott for about a year. He’s a keen outdoorsman and biologist who naturally knows plenty about whatever fish he sets his sights on. He also shares many of my interests, including doing new things and helping other people enjoy outdoor experiences.
So, last night I happily accepted the role of protégé. It would have been foolish to decline his offer. This was the best lead I’d ever had on a lake sturgeon fishing experience, after all. I grabbed three dozen nightcrawlers as directed and met him at the boat ramp at the appointed time.
Not far on our way up the river, Scott took a sudden turn to greet the anglers in a boat he recognized. I understood immediately why he spotted it so quickly from afar- it’s bright yellow. As we pulled up alongside, a fellow named John reported some success at netting shad. Scott was eager to try and collect some for our purposes, so we took a short detour.
On the far side of a large 12-foot flat we found good numbers of shad. Well, we found them on the sonar screen, anyway. Scott tossed his net while I tried to keep the boat over the school. He threw it 8 or 10 times without success. Those shad seemed wise to the game. I, for one, was having a great time watching the process, never having witnessed it in person before. Scott was definitely more disappointed than I was at not having picked up any free bait.
With a few minutes of daylight left, we came within view of the first spot Scott had in mind. John’s banana barge was already parked there, so we anchored about 150 yards away and tossed our lines in.
Before long we were catching up on jobs, family life, and the outdoor industry under constellations, airplanes, and meteors. The wind all but faded away. The scent of driftwood campfires along the riverbanks filled our nostrils. Though the temperature was dropping quickly, my body was relaxing noticeably and shedding the stresses of the week. I didn’t care at all what would happen or not happen; I was already getting what I needed.
After about an hour and a half, John’s boat fired up the motor and headed downstream. There had been no signs of action from them, so it seemed they were doing as well as us. It wasn’t much consolation, of course, but the change prodded us to move on as well.
John’s instincts were apparently similar to Scott’s, and we again played second fiddle at the next spot. Scott positioned the boat at the upstream edge of a dropoff. Hooks and high hopes were cast toward the deep and the waiting resumed. We switched off our headlamps and picked up where we left off- about halfway between our kids and the new world we find ourselves navigating.
A familiar numbness began to grow on my toes, so I poured a mug of coffee. Once or twice Scott shook off the cold and let out an audible shudder. Between the chill and the lack of action, I think we both wondered how long we might be able to keep at it. All that was forgotten when a bell rang out in the dark and John’s boat lit up.
A rod could be made out in a beam of light, bent over like a seven-foot question mark. There was splashing, talking, and the flash from a cell phone camera. Once or twice more in the next hour or so, they confirmed in the same way that there were indeed fish in the area…just not our area. We took it as a good sign and renewed our commitment to the mission. I did what I could to reinvigorate my enthusiasm by imagining lumbering behemoths slurping up our nightcrawlers.
Lake sturgeon persist in Minnesota mostly in the bigger rivers, like the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Rainy. They cruise the depths, locating food with keen, albeit ancient senses. It is well known that they are an old fish species, dating back literally hundreds of millions of years. Their shark-like caudal fins and armored appearance harken back to a darker, more brutal age. They are survivors. As with crocodiles, their longevity on this earth testifies to the fact that good engineering isn’t necessarily pretty.
As the hands of the clock swept past midnight, I began to make peace with a fishless outing. All at once Scott detected a bite. Then he second-guessed himself.
“No, it’s there. Here, take it.”
It didn’t put up too much of a fight, but then again, my first lake sturgeon was not a giant. After the release, Scott estimated its length at around 30 inches. We both forgot to take a measurement- something that would have been unforgivable with a 60+ inch specimen. But it did happen; I have pictures and a little video footage to prove it.
Knowing its exact size seems hardly important, compared to having the chance to reach out and touch the Triassic.
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.
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”
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”
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 smelting 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”
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”