Father’s Day storm, 06/25/16

A wild storm packed with lightning, rain, and high winds tore through the Gunflint Trail on Father’s Day. The wind brought down some trees while our power flickered on and off as the storm passed through the night. These intense storms are more common in the early weeks of summer, but this one erupted on the last day of spring. It should be interesting to see what the weather will be like in July.

There have been some historical changes on the Gunflint Trail this season, including a new restaurant at Black Bear Lodge, as well as a few resorts changing ownership.

The biggest sale would be the Gunflint Lodge, which I am told changed hands this week after being owned by the Kerfoot family since 1927. Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters, Loon Lake Lodge, and Rockwood Lodge and Outfitters have all changed hands in the past year, and are currently being operated by the new owners.

Historically, lodges on the Gunflint Trail do not sell very often. It is common for these places to be passed on to the next generation and are kept in the family. My wife and I have long considered being resort owners in this area, and it is exciting for us to see new faces, not that there was anything wrong with the old faces, taking on such ventures.

I wish them all luck and hope that lodge ownership is everything they hoped it would be as they continue the tradition of hosting Gunflint Trail visitors, while upholding the values of this unique area.

Big Bear Lodge on Poplar Lake was purchased a few years ago, and is now offering an additional dining choice on the Trail. We have eaten at the “Dancing Bear” restaurant and both the service and food were excellent. They offer a variety of dishes that are sure to please anyone, in a beautiful lodge setting. The Dancing Bear will be serving lunch and dinner, Thursday through Sunday for the rest of the summer, give them a try and help support the Trail’s newest place to dine.

Wildlife sightings, 06/18/16

It seems to rain about every other day on the Gunflint Trail this spring, creating high water situations on many lakes and streams. Saganaga Lake is slightly higher than normal and the rivers that feed it are running hard.

The adventurous anglers who have been braving the rapids into North Lake from Little North are fighting high, fast-moving water that makes dragging a boat up the rapids very difficult. The Seagull River feeding Saganaga Lake is also keeping a fast pace, and just high enough to hide the deep channel that boats must follow. One false move and you risk dinging a prop or worse, wedging the boat between rocks.

The rain has also encouraged numerous bug hatches that love to swarm and bite in the balmy weather between storms. The black flies have taken a seat to the pesky mosquitoes lately, while the ants and spiders have been erupting from my neglected firewood pile that should have been cut and split already.

These same bugs find their way into lakes and streams during high water seasons providing a ready-made meal that takes little effort to find and capture. This can make the bite a little tough at times especially once the hatches begin erupting from below the surface. Oh well, if fishing was easy I would not have a job.

There have been a number of wildlife sightings this week as the forest becomes thicker by the day. Jon Schei, Gunflint Lodge fishing guide, spotted a sow bear with four cubs following her across the road one morning while driving to the lodge. The Loon Lake area seems to always have a few black bears loitering for the summer, and they target garbage from cabins and resorts until the berries begin growing.

A giant bull moose has been seen near Iron Lake, I have been told by a couple of people, and a cow and calf pair are usually near the Sag Lake Trail in the morning and evening. They would normally be feeding in the moose pond located on County Road 81, but I think the high water is keeping them from wading the deep swamp. Summer is blooming and the bugs are a nuisance, but hardly a reason to stay out of the woods.

Rain, lightning and hail, 06/11/16

Heavy rainstorms this week could not have been more welcome. The forest turned green which reduced the fire danger, and the walleyes were biting. Heavy soakers without lightning are great for early season green-up, and the cold temperatures that came with the storms zapped those pesky black flies. Spring is in bloom, and it is a great time to be on the Gunflint Trail.

The water is still too cold to swim in, for most people, but that did not stop the paddlers from exploring the BWCA this week, while braving the cold temperatures, high winds, and occasional thunderstorm. It is cool to see the campfires light up on Saganaga lake after the storms pass. The smell of wet wood fighting to take flame drifts through the air as little plumes of grey smoke rise from the many campsites on Saganaga Lake. We watch the campers hanging their clothes over lines to dry while sitting below their protective tarps as we pass in our boat.

A small hail storm was reported on Saganagons Lake in Quetico park on Sunday, but we did not see any hail on Saganaga. I was hiding out the same storm on a campsite in Devils Walk Bay, about three miles south of Saganagons Lake where the hail was reported. We could see a dark wall of clouds moving fast to the south east that carried some high winds, lightning, and rain. Weather can get wild fast in the Boundary Waters, especially while traveling by canoe. Big lakes are prone to having worse conditions, but Saganaga has many campsites and islands to find refuge from ensuing storms.

We are also fortunate that the Saganaga public landing is located on the southeast corner of the lake, since many of the violent storms come from the northwest. I have been chased home by storms many times on Saganaga, and usually make it back in time. Racing to beat a storm front with a 25 hp motor can sometimes be a knuckle-biting experience, especially if the boat is wet from the rain and moving slow from the saturated carpet flooring.

The Day Use Motor Permits for Saganaga Lake have been going fast this summer, and the availability can be checked at www.recreation.gov. The calendar shows how many permits are available for each week of the summer and can be reserved for $6 per day.

Opener for the tough, 5/21/16

If you caught fish on opening weekend, then you earned them! Saturday morning I woke to snow falling with a temperature of 26 degrees and thought, “These guys are going to cancel.”

But I was wrong. We pushed the snow-covered boats off of the trailers and ran north into the wind that was already blowing 15-20 mph, in search of the walleye.

The sun made a few appearances that day, but so did an occasional squall fueled by gusts of 25-30 mph, as we pounded into the waves on our way to James Bay, on the Minnesota side of Saganaga Lake. I was surprised to see there were a few other boats already fishing the bay, and they seemed equally surprised to see us as well. We caught a nice 21-inch walleye and a few small-mouth bass while drifting the shorelines with minnows, but it was not very fast action.

Eventually we found our way to Red Rock Bay, home of the hawgs, and spent the next three days working the shorelines and pockets with hardly a boat in sight. Ten years ago I would have had to stake my claim each day while battling over spots with 20 other boats, but not this weekend. We had it all to ourselves. I guess that is one good thing about horrible weather.

Most of the walleyes we caught were over 21 inches, and the only two 16-inch walleyes we caught were both milking, so we quickly released them to finish their duties. I think they are done spawning by now, even though the males are still releasing milk. Regardless, the new regulations would not allow a 16-inch fish to be kept since they have to be in between 17 and 19 inches, with the exception of one fish being over 19 inches.

The water temperatures were between 44 and 48 degrees, cold enough that a few lake trout were caught in the shallow bays alongside the walleyes, pike, and small-mouth bass. They are all chasing the same baitfish, and the water is cold enough for the trout to feel safe in these shallow waters. Soon they will return to the big lake portion of Saganaga, and descend to below 45 feet of water for the rest of the summer.

Good to be home, 4/16/16

It was hard not to be disappointed while driving through snow in Duluth on our journey home from Florida this week. Sunshine and 80-degree weather was just what the family needed to forget about winter for a couple of weeks.

We spent the majority of our time either pool-side or ocean-side, while the kids practiced snorkeling, and playing in the sand. I did not get an opportunity to fish for tarpon, or even get out on the water while visiting the Keys, but it was still a great time. Our kids are still a little young for a charter boat, and it just isn’t as fun without them.

The drive home from Minneapolis was long and the snowfall increased after turning up the Gunflint Trail. It began blowing sideways as it accumulated on the road. It was the kind of snow that demands slow speeds and low beams, since the high beam reflection was too intense. Eventually, we made our way home to a warm and welcoming house with enough time to unload the car, before collapsing into a familiar bed.

It feels good to be home, although I am surprised at the amount of snow that is still on the Gunflint Trail. The lakes and woods look exactly as they did in March when we left. So much for planning to skip the muddy season while soaking up the Florida sunshine this year. It is difficult to predict the weather up here, especially this year.

I would think this week’s sunshine will melt away most of the snow and hopefully start showing some open water on the lakes soon. The 2016 fishing opener is May 14 this year, which is just around the corner. It is hard to believe that we were facing conditions in March that suggested an almost certain early melt-down this spring, and now we are concerned about open water in time for the fishing season in May.

White hares = more snow, 4/2/16

While many people are returning north, we are heading south. April might seem a little late in the season for a Florida vacation, but it is hard to leave the Gunflint Trail while there is still snow on the ground, especially when plowing snow is one of my numerous jobs. We are ready for a break from winter and April is peak fishing in the Florida Keys for tarpon and sailfish.

Sunshine and snow have been a rare combination this season, but this past week on the Gunflint Trail has shown us plenty of both. The ice has not been melting as quickly as the snow, and it looks like we might have frozen lakes for a few more weeks yet.

I hoped we would return from vacation to open water and green grass, but that is not going to happen in the next week. There is still 10 inches of snow on the ground and lake ice has been varying in thickness between 12 and 36 inches, depending on the lake. I have been anticipating an early break-up, but it is not melting as fast as I thought it would.

Last week’s early taste of spring was appreciated by all, even the forest critters who are appearing from their winter haunts to play in the sun. The woods that surround our house are alive with bird chatter that is so loud, we can hear them singing from inside our dining room table each morning as the sun rises. Quite a difference from the eerily silent mornings of winter, and a nice reminder that we are not entirely alone up here.

A bone-white snowshoe hare ran across our driveway recently signifying that we are not beyond winter’s grasp yet. The hares will start showing some brown in their coats as soon as the snow melts, which helps to camouflage them from hungry predators. Snowshoe hares will be nesting soon, and our wiener dog, Maggie, has already begun sniffing for their secret lairs within the forest on our property. The newly uncovered smells are driving her crazy after a scentless winter of lying on the couch.

The older Maggie gets, the less interested she seems to be with hares and squirrels. Lately she opts to simply bark and growl at them, which is better than the full out high speed chases we used to see in her younger days. Wiener dogs were bred to hunt, and the only animals she can catch are young hares, or an occasional chipmunk. Red squirrels are way too fast and agile for Maggie, and they know it. It is more like a game for the squirrels, and we often see them taunting her from a tree limb before playfully trotting across the driveway like children at a playground. Little do they know that Maggie is not playing.

Spring Breakup, 3/26/16

Seeing dry pavement on the Gunflint Trail is such a treat that I think it should be an annual event worthy of live music and fireworks. I am sure that many of the early returning snowbirds are excited to taste a little winter, but I cannot help getting anxious about the warmer days ahead, and the sight of open water.

My kids were lucky enough to go bike riding with mom at the end of the trail, on mostly dry pavement, while listening to the newly charged waterfall flowing through campgrounds. Every spring the rapids carve their way into the pool at their base leading into Gull Lake. As Gull loosens up, the Seagull River will begin slicing intoSaganaga Lake, where it will merge with the already open water of the Saganaga narrows.

Winter breakup is an exciting time, each lake and river has its own unique routine during the transformation of ice to water that can be seen from some of the overlooks and side roads.

I like exploring through the campgrounds and trails while scouring the ground that has been covered for months. A lot has happened since then, and you could find anything from moose sheds to ratchet straps that have been lost since the ground was exposed. It is like a giant treasure hunt.

We are still a ways away from open water, but the first signs are showing, and the ice is not very thick this year. Gunflint Lake already has “thin ice” warning signs posted and anglers are telling me that the ice feels crunchy when they auger holes, which is usually a sign of weakening ice. We had a lot of powerful sunshine last week that was able to melt many of the lakes down to bare ice. Gunflint turned dark gray overnight, before getting 10 inches of snow dumped on top of it causing the lake ice to become pressured and unstable, which are adjectives normally assigned to things like atomic bombs, or Trump rallies.

The storm might have been the last significant blow of the season, since it is already beginning to recede each day, even though overnight temperatures are still subzero. The ground is too warm for the ice and snow to hang on for long, and soon enough it will be spring outside instead of just on the calendar.

Meanwhile, we are vacationing to the Florida Keys in search of sunshine, sand beaches, fruity cocktails with umbrellas in them, and with a little luck, I might even catch a tarpon or two.

The melt-down, 3/12/16

Unseasonably warm weather, mixed with rain and high winds this week, will be detrimental to many winter activities as the snow begins to disappear. Roads and driveways are going to be a sloppy mess as the snow base dissolves, and lakes will become even slushier than before.

The spring melt-down is a volatile event that can be a nightmare if it happens too rapidly. Road culverts become plugged with flowing ice, causing floods, and steep driveways erode as the water cuts a path to the lakes below. There is still a fair amount of snow in the woods for now, but we are supposed to have warm temperatures all week with scattered precipitation that will transform our winter wonderland to a dull brown mess.

The silver lining of this scenario, for anglers, is that streams will start running and fish will get hungry. Border lakes allow walleye anglers to fish until the end of the month and many of the traditional late ice hot spots will turn on earlier than normal. Running water brings with it nutrients and oxygen needed to trigger spring feeds for pre-spawn walleyes and whitefish.

If you can find schooled whitefish, than you should also be finding some walleyes nearby.

I was unable to fish the Cook County Ridge Riders Trout Derby this year, but I have been guiding on Gunflint Lake, and the few trout we have been keeping are all packed full of two-inch smelt. Smelt migrate to the river mouths in the spring to spawn, and the predators are not far behind them.

It is hard to predict the weather for the rest of this season, but it would be nice if the temperatures held out long enough to capitalize on this short window of angling opportunity. Bare ice creates some problems with snow machines overheating, but there is enough winter left to expect a few more snowfalls, which will help traveling conditions on the lake.

Take extra caution while fishing river mouths this season since we did not receive the ice thicknesses that we would normally see. Dark honeycomb looking ice is not very strong, even if it is thick, and running water melts fast, causing conditions to change daily, so pay very close attention to the ice conditions and be safe.

Lady Luck, 3/05/16

HeatherAs the sun dips below the trees casting a frigid shadow over our fishing spot, I decided it was time to muster enough strength to break down the camp and begin our journey home. The worst part of ice fishing on cold and windy days is setting up and tearing down the massive amount of equipment required to comfortably fish.

Some days the sun shines and the wind subsides enough to enjoy the elements and all of the beauty a white winter on the Gunflint Trail has to offer. Take away the subzero temperatures, 20 mph winds, and slushy lakes… and this is an amazingly pristine place that inspires awe.

I pulled over to gaze at Wampus Lake along theClearwater Road a few nights ago, amazed by the breathtaking reflection across the frozen lake. The ripples of drifted snow covering the lake glistened like waves lapping in the silvery reflection of the giant moon, reminiscent of a warm summer night.

Full moon phases are certainly beautiful to see, but they are also considered by many anglers to be the best days for targeting big fish and this week I would have to agree with that theory. While guiding a couple of honeymooners staying at Gunflint Lodge we managed to land a 34-inch laker that went 18 pounds. It was the first fish of the day caught by the bride, Heather, and gave an epic battle before her husband Craig pulled its enormous head through the hole.

I thought the fish would have gone 20 pounds when I first held it up for some photos, but the scale proved me wrong. Regardless, it was a beautiful fish that will be a lasting memory for the young couple. It was the biggest fish I have seen come through the ice on an inland lake, and now I can tell my customers with a little more conviction that a pig lake trout is swimming around these waters.

The big trout ate a chartreuse colored “chubby darter” in 55 feet of water while lady luck was reeling in her bait. She thinks it hit her bait midway-up, and she never saw it on the depth-finder. The difference between a good fishing guide and a good angler is that a guide would rather see someone else catch a trophy. My job is to make great memories.

Avoiding the Slush, 2/20/16

Winter fishing on the trail has not been very popular this year, and I understand why. Wet lakes are tough to navigate by foot or machine, and the fish have not been very active.

When the going gets tough, I typically resort to smaller lakes and keep the fishing trips as simple as possible, by electing to hike instead of snowmobile, and by minimizing the amount of gear to carry. Mother Nature does not always give us the best conditions to work with around these parts, so you learn to adapt.

Despite my initial notion to avoid big water, Saganaga Lake is fairly easy to access and fish most winters. Saganaga is intimidating to most people because of the size and numerous regulations, but it might be one of the safest and most productive lakes to fish this winter. Enough people navigate Saganaga’s corridor, which is the only legal area to snowmobile along the Minnesotaside, maintaining a hard-packed trail that is easy to follow and navigate. While traveling north along the corridor there are a number of openings between islands to the west that are all potential lake trout spots.

There have been good fishing reports this week from the Minnesota side of Saganaga Lake, and the ice is still barely a foot deep, which makes using a hand auger a little less taxing than it would normally be in the middle of February. Lake trout are found in a variety of depths ranging anywhere from 8-80 feet of water, so almost anywhere could work. I like to find 50 feet, then look for an edge that falls to 65 plus and fish somewhere along it.

Many anglers choose to fish shallower and often do well, especially along island shorelines that are adjacent deep water. Lake trout on bigger lakes like Saganaga, Sea Gull, or Gunflint will not be found in 8 feet of water unless it is very close to much deeper water.

The smaller lakes that I enjoy fishing in the winter have also been giving up some fish, but not many people are fishing this year which makes it harder to walk the portages, and the slushy lakes are a bear to cross. It is certainly tougher with wet conditions, but it has not all been bad this season, and there are still plenty of places to catch fish without getting into too much trouble. It just takes a little more planning and a lot more patience.