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Cook: Late-ice lake trout prove cooperative

SAGANAGA LAKE, GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. - When you lean back in your chair and tilt your face to the sun, you can almost believe you're in Mazatlan. The sun's warmth seeps deep into your cheeks, and all you can smell is the sunscreen you smeared on ...

t03.19.2017 -- Sam Cook -- 032617.C.DNT.SamC1 -- A chunky lake trout from the end of the Gunflint Trail this past week. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com
t03.19.2017 -- Sam Cook -- 032617.C.DNT.SamC1 -- A chunky lake trout from the end of the Gunflint Trail this past week. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com
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SAGANAGA LAKE, GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. - When you lean back in your chair and tilt your face to the sun, you can almost believe you're in Mazatlan. The sun's warmth seeps deep into your cheeks, and all you can smell is the sunscreen you smeared on earlier. You half-expect to look up and see a pelican gliding by.

But, no.

It's a raven sawing the air with its shiny wings, and your chair is sitting atop 25 inches of solid ice. You're fishing for lake trout on Saganaga Lake in March at the end of the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais.

Five of us have made this mid-March trout fling to the edge of the deserted canoe country. We're based at Mike Berg's Seagull Creek Fishing Camp near the end of the Gunflint Trail, roughly 2,300 miles north of Mazatlan.

I'm slowly lifting and dropping a white tube jig tipped with a chunk of cisco 63 feet below the ice, hoping that a silver-dappled laker will notice. Now comes a cry from 30 yards across the lake.

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"Doc's got one on," one of my partners shouts.

Lake trout fishing is something of a communal affair the way we do it. When any one of us hooks a fish, the others typically come a-runnin' to spectate, yank the fish-finder's transducer from the hole or to scoop the fish out of the water.

Doc cranks. The fish yields. Now its head is in the hole. When it gets close to the surface, someone reaches bare hands into ice-water and ushers the fish flopping into brilliant daylight. It's a beauty, somewhere over 20 inches, maybe 22 inches long. A good 3 pounds. It's a native, as all of these lake trout are, swimming deep in lakes still cold and pure enough to support the species.

Maybe a big one

In one full day and a couple half-days, we'll land about 15 lake trout. Decent, although certainly not fast fishing. But then, lake trout fishing through the ice is rarely fast. It is not a numbers game.

The fish we catch are from about 15 or 16 inches up to 25 inches. Part of the appeal of lake trout fishing, though, is that the next fish might be a 10- or 15-pounder, a true giant for inland waters in our neck of the woods.

And all lake trout fight as if their lives depend on it, which, of course, is the case. We release some smaller fish, but we prefer to drop some of these bright orange fillets onto a grill or into a skillet, dolloped with butter and lemon slices.

The fish are just part of the allure of this venture. The country itself is worth the effort. Each day, we travel as far as we can by snow machine, towing big sleds loaded with smaller sleds and all our fishing gear. When we shut off the machines, the silence of the backcountry wraps around us. We hitch ourselves to the small sleds and march down the lake, snaking between islands and portaging a small riffle of open water in a narrows.

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Ice cleats help. The lakes are now almost snow-free, a result of the spring meltdown. The ice below, though, remains solid. No power augers are permitted where we go - into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - and we often two-man the augers for efficiency.

Quiet country

We disperse, always within sight of one another, and retreat into our largely solitary worlds. We always fish in the open. Nobody uses a shelter. We wait for the lake trout and stare at distant ridges where jack pines are making a comeback after the 2007 Ham Lake fire swept through.

What we do not observe is just as meaningful. No cabins. No lake homes. No docks. No cell towers. No evidence of anything at all except the slow hand of nature.

One day, temperatures spike in the mid-40s. Another, the high is in the mid-teens, and the wind is so fierce that if you stand up, your little folding chair might go clattering down the ice.

It is difficult to exaggerate the beauty of this wild country, and thank goodness some folks were wise enough long ago to set it aside in perpetuity. Once, jigging away, two of us watch an otter hop-hop-and-belly-glide across a narrows. Another day, coming out, we all see a pair of eagles rise from the ice and fly together to a bulky nest in a dead pine. Even with two feet of ice on the lakes, they're thinking about starting a family.

Fish on!

Oh, look. Someone's fishing rod is bowing to the fish gods again. Somewhere 50 or 60 feet down, a lake trout has latched onto a Slender spoon or a tube jig or a soft-plastic Fluke and is not happy about it. The committee convenes.

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"Feel like a good one?"
"Are you gaining on him?"

"Here he comes!"

And he's out - 5 or 6 pounds of lake trout writhing and gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. High fives all around.

The hole attendants trundle back to their own lines, confidence renewed by their partner's success. Silence returns. The jigging resumes.

The rocks and the pines and the distant ridges act as if they have seen it all before.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com . Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

Related Topics: FISHING
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. 
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