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”
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 provided an irresistible window of opportunity.
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.
On about the third 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. The cold of night was at hand, which brought 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 crawled warm, dry, and calm into my sleeping bag and listened to sled dogs barking in the distance.
30-Minute Gold Strike
Overnight 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.
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.
That 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. Found Lake was first, 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’d already considered 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, 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.
I awoke to drops of condensation splashing my face.
The hood of my sleeping bag had gathered my breath and returned it in a most inconvenient way. 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. 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.
Trout 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. He reinstalled it, and 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 I soaked up sun and angled for willing tullibees and/or whitefish (unsuccessfully, again), After a while, I found 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 sent updates on an impending snowstorm via text message (marginal reception there).
That storm had been only a wrinkle in the forecast when I left home. 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.
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 wilderness winter solo camping trip.
It was 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 just way too much wilderness out there to ignore, and never enough summer.