Over the Hump, 2/13/16

This week marks winter’s descent, despite it feeling like the season has finally begun. We have plenty of snow to accommodate skiers, hikers, and snowmobiles in Cook County, and the trails are looking great. It took a lot of labor and a little help from Mother Nature’s last warm-up to right the drooping trees and improve conditions for the last half of winter.

My son Bo and I fished Gunflint Lake Saturday for a few hours while the Cook County “Fun Run” riders buzzed by us en route to the lodges. The fish did not cooperate, but my 3-year-old son was entertained enough by the passing riders to not mind. Bo would rush to the zippered door of our ice tent waving frantically at every sled, but only a few riders waved back at him. I am sure the riders were too focused on navigating through the slushy pool off of Heston’s point that we were fishing near, to notice him.

I spoke with a few riders that day while sharing a cheeseburger at the bar with Bo, and they confirmed what I had suspected, every lake has slush. The soupy gauntlet called slush is well disguised by surface snow, and an unpleasant surprise for anyone using the lakes. If you are hiking, turn around. If you are snowmobiling, lean back and throttle.

We tried crossing Moss Lake by snowmobile to fish my favorite spots along the northern shoreline and quickly realized we were in a slush field. The snowmobiles acted more like jet skis as we made a lazy “U” turn back to the south shore. We found a patch of solid snow near a spot I had fished before and set up camp. Five keepers in a few hours is as good as I can ask for this winter, and it felt great to finally see some action on the ice.

Fishing has been consistently awful this year and I can only hope that it is going to improve with the ensuing warm-up. Midwinter has never been the most productive time to fish, but it tends to improve when the ice begins to melt. Small creeks and streams begin flowing to the lakes, flushing nutrients and oxygen back into the semi-stagnant waters, ultimately triggering fish to feed.

The bigger lakes have all been in a slump this season, so I have focused my efforts on some of the smaller lakes, which have not been much better. Moss Lake has been the most consistent lake for me this season, and most of the fish have been big enough to keep.

Lynx Kittens, 2/06/16

The Superior National Forest is home to many animals. Some are shy like the wolves, while others are playful like the chipmunks. Most visitors would love to see a moose, wolf, or bear in their natural habitat while vacationing, but a lynx is a much more coveted sighting for me.

While enroute to pick up my customers at Gunflint Lodge this morning, I was blessed with a rare glimpse of three lynx kittens that were playing in the Gunflint Trail. The playful trio quickly disappeared into the woods as I approached the South Gunflint Lake Road.

They are the correct size to be last year’s kittens and are likely to still be with their mother, who I did not see. Lynx mate in late winter and birth 70 days later, in early spring, with one to four kittens per litter. Mothers will protect them through their first year before leaving them to fend for themselves.

Adult lynx are cautious without acting nervous when spotted by humans, and sometimes appear to be watching us as closely as we watch them. A young female lynx was hanging around the Gunflint Pines resort area a couple of winters ago and became so conditioned to the occasional vehicle that she stopped hiding from me each day as I passed. I would stop with the window down a few feet away while admiring her stout body and thick winter hair from the safety of my vehicle.

After a few encounters with the lynx, I felt confident enough to get out of my truck to see how she would react. I calmly inched my way close enough to reach out to her with my hand turned to the ground, in attempt to show submission. It did not seem as foolish then as it sounds now, but luckily nothing bad happened. She gave me a short hiss and an annoyed look as she walked into the forest.

Lynx that are spotted along the Gunflint Trail are of the Canadian lynx species and are sometimes mistaken for bobcats, which are also seen in this territory. Canadian lynx prefer to hunt snowshoe hares in the winter months, although not exclusively, and have an advantage catching them in the snow with their large round paws. They are known for being versatile hunters during the warmer months and are able to catch fox, white tail deer, grouse, mice, and even fish.

If fishing doesn’t improve this winter, I might have to start blaming the lynx.

Seasons change, 11/21/15

Roadside swamps are starting to ice over on the Gunflint Trail as the ensuing winter season approaches. The latest storm left a two-inch blanket of wet snow that weighed heavy on the pine limbs, pulling their branches down with a lesson of resilience. It was a glimpse of winter’s whiteness that held on for a few days, before melting away in the rain.

Our children enjoyed the new snow while we finished preparing the yard for winter. Once they began making snow angels and wrestling around in the wet snow, it was not long before they were both wet and cold. It was fun playing in the snow, even for a short time, and it has been nice experiencing a gradual transformation of seasons this year. Parts of Wisconsin had over 12 inches of snowfall from the same storm that left us with two; that is a hard way to start the winter, especially when you are in the snow removal business like myself.

Weekend deer hunters have had great weather so far this season, since most of the foul weather has been happening midweek.

We are getting some hard rains today that are to be followed by a little snowfall later in the week.

More importantly, the overnight temperatures are not plummeting like we are used to seeing by this time and it is hard to make any type of safe ice predictions. I have my first day of guiding on December 11. I know a lot can happen in the next four weeks, but as it stands now, I would be surprised to find safe ice by then.

Ice fishing, for me, begins on January 1 when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area opens for trout. The ice is usually safe by then, and fishing for any other species in the winter is not very productive— at least on the Gunflint Trail.

Trout are very active in the cold water, especially in the early season. They have spent the last two months experiencing high winds and turbulent chilling waters and suddenly, often overnight, the lake becomes tempered and calm. They turn on the feed bag for a few weeks until the bitter cold month of February slows their metabolism again.

Good fishing can happen any time, but in general, the best fishing is early and late in the season while the slowest times are in the middle. The coldest days of winter are usually the hardest to catch fish however, “you never know unless you go!”

Hunting new ground, 11/14/15

The Buck Fever I was experiencing last week was short lived, like a 24-hour bug that ended with a rifle blast around 8 a.m. Saturday. A nice 10-point buck wandered into my sight on opening day of rifle season, and now I am not sure what to do for the rest of the week. Maybe I should have kept the boat ready a little longer?

The weekend hunt was windy, but pleasant enough to stay warm while hiking through the woods nearLake Superior’s shoreline. The high winds might even play an advantage by masking the noise and smell of an inexperienced hunter like myself. After two years of not seeing a deer on the Gunflint Trail, I will take any advantage Mother Nature is willing to offer.

I poised high on a cliff overlooking a thick stand of mature birch, waiting patiently for any movement as the sun began to unveil the shadowy spaces. After an hour of silence I decided to move around, pour a cup of coffee and pack my folding chair when I spotted a nice buck scouring the ground at a good pace. I dropped the coffee, grabbed my rifle, picked an opening between trees and waited for him to appear in my scope. Everything happened so fast, the buck paused for a second and I pulled the trigger.

Time stopped as the buck jumped into the woods, crashing through trees and out of sight as fast as it had appeared. I don’t remember the blast of the rifle, but I will never forget seeing that deer standing broad-sided through my rifle scope. I have seen a lot of targets through that scope, but until Saturday I had only imagined what a real live buck would look like.

After firing on the deer, I waited 20 minutes to begin pursuing it. I was fairly sure that I hit the deer, but never saw any proof until hiking down the cliff and finding a trail of blood. He ran about 30 yards before falling from the single shot to the vitals. It was comforting to see that the animal fell quickly, minimizing the suffering, and making it easy to find.

While hiking out of the woods to find some help, I jumped a six-pointer that was hiding behind some trees. I yelled, “Bang!” as it ran into the woods.

To shoot a 10-pointer, and see another sixpointer within two hours of opening day is pretty phenomenal compared to what I am used to on the Gunflint Trail. It will be hard to want to hunt anywhere else in the future. I was fortunate enough to have some help locating deer this year from a few friends in Grand Marais. I don’t want to give up their secret hunting grounds by mentioning their names, but they know who they are, so thanks!

Buck Fever, 11/07/15

We returned to the Gunflint Trail this week from vacationing in Iowa, and were greeted with a beautiful sunny day. The wonderfully warm trend this season has allowed me to accomplish a lot more than I am accustomed to—which means more time for hunting deer.

The last couple of deer seasons have been disappointing enough for me to focus on hunting closer to the shore. Anyone who travels Highway 61 at dusk can confirm an impressive population of deer, and if there is one thing fishing has taught me, it is that you have to be in the right place to be successful. The only deer I know of being shot on the Trail last season were in the Gunflint Lake area and there is a little too much pressure there for me.

I spent some time honing my skills while playing Buck Hunter in a bowling alley last week. I did not shatter any records but managed to drop a few big bucks, so I think I am ready. This week will consist of sighting my rifle and scouting the new grounds for any signs of life. It is exciting to think that I stand a chance at actually seeing a deer this season. Trophy hunting does not interest me, yet, I just want to put some venison in the freezer and experience some time in the woods before the frozen water season.

The longer I live in Minnesota the more recognizable subtle differences in my native land of Iowa become apparent. Besides the obvious contrast in landscaping and length of seasons, there are pros and cons (for me) to residing in either state. The frigid temperatures of northern Minnesota are hard to handle but the deep woods and numerous lakes teeming with fish make it hard to imagine living anywhere else.

I feel that if it were not for my friends and family I might not ever visit Iowa, but truthfully there are a lot of great things to do in the heartland. Iowa countryside is beautiful in the fall with golden cornfields being harvested and rolls of hay lining the fence lines to be stored for winter. Pheasants and turkeys feeding scour the harvested fields while deer bed in the tall grass. Mallard ducks gather and swim in farm ponds and marshes while geese migrate overhead in “V” formation. Despite the smell of a nearby hog farm, it is almost perfect.

Halloween in Iowa, 10/31/15

There have been a number of moose sightings this week on the Gunflint Trail. On my last day of guiding on Saganaga Lake, we saw two young bulls wandering through the marsh near Seagull Creek. They were quietly feeding on swamp grass until disturbed by the vehicles who stopped for a look. Bulls are more cautious around humans than the cows, I thought, as they slipped into the woods to hide.

There has also been a cow and calf duo spending some time grazing at the moose pond near County Road 81. The moose should be in rut now, which is why we might be seeing more of them each week, and soon they will begin to congregate like families in traditional areas along the Gunflint Trail.

Every winter we see different herds that establish territories near Swamper, Iron, and Seagull lakes. They must choose these areas for a reason, but I could not tell you what that reason would be. I just know they end up staking claim here for a large portion of the winter months.

Winter is the only time of year that the moose gather in small herds, I think for protection from predators, and an exciting time to witness them in the wild. Seeing a moose is always a gift but it is particularly special to see a herd of them together in their natural habitat.

Fox and ruffed grouse have also been common spectacles on the Gunflint, along with a variety of small migrating birds. The fox patrol the roadsides in search of road kill, which is plentiful this time of year with the migrating birds that feed on the highway and act as if they have never seen a vehicle before. These small birds, that I have affectionately named hood ornaments, scatter too late and often fly directly into the grill of a vehicle rather than simply move to the side. If natural selection is true, it would suggest that these birds are good breeders since they clearly are not good survivors.

Now that the boat is covered and we are ready for the snow to fly, it is time to do some traveling with my family. We set a course for Iowa this week to show our children Halloween in my home town of Waukee, and to enjoy the remaining days of autumn. Hay rack rides through farm country and petting zoos are top priority while enjoying an extended fall in the flatlands. The fall color season up north is great, albeit too short, but the variety of colors to the south of us is pretty spectacular as well, especially in 60-degree weather!

Final week on Saganaga, 10/24/15

The lingering fall has become so nice that I simply refuse to recognize how unusual it is to still be fishing comfortably from a boat. Alright, relatively comfortable, not every day has been a gem this week but you will not hear me complaining about a few cold days in October.

As nice as it has been, I am not foolish enough to not realize that our pleasant days of sunshine and warm breezes are numbered. The trees were unable to hang on to their leaves through the overnight frosts and high winds this week. With the exception of the gold tamarack trees our colorful woods are beginning to look bare. Once they lose their needles I am ready for snow.

Cold clear evenings in the fall are great for stargazing, especially when accompanied by a dazzling display of Northern Lights. Some nights are easy to recognize the ensuing display by seeing a bright horizon to the north immediately after the sun sets. Many times the “pre-show glow” is subtle and other times it will look as if you are seeing a stadium lit up from miles away.

Green is the most common color, and the Northern Lights may not be anything more than a green fog, but every once in awhile they explode in a ballet of red, yellow, green, even violet.

We are fortunate to see them often on the Gunflint Trail but the older we get the earlier we find ourselves in bed. When we were living without running water and using an outhouse, we would see the Northern Lights more often since they can happen fairly late in the evenings—that might be the only downside of indoor plumbing.

There is still one more week of fishing for me and it seems the weather is going to hold out a little longer, despite getting a little colder each day. The non-angling readers will have to hold out another week as I report the final days of walleye fishing on Saganaga Lake. After my last day of guiding it will be time to cover the boats and gear-up for the next adventure, which for me will be the deer hunting season. It has been two years since I have seen a deer during the season, which may not qualify me as a hunter as much as a guy hiking in the woods with a gun.

Hopefully this year will be better.

Another Season becomes History, 10/17/15

After soaking in the beautiful weather last week it is going to be difficult complaining about what comes next. Unusual weather is often followed by big winds that blow the abnormal system away, and those winds came today with tree-stripping force and rain. Judging by the creaking house with each gust of wind, our peak color change is going to be mostly on the ground by morning.

Autumn has been very enjoyable this year and it will be missed as the nights begin dropping into the 30s leaving a blanket of frost each chilly morning. I still have some guided fishing trips left this year and it would be nice to get through this season without having to shovel the boat out before departing, or having to wear my snowmobile helmet while navigating across the lake in the bone-chilling rain/snow mixed flurries that are forecasted at the end of this week.

The fourth Minnesota holiday of the season, MEA, is going to mark the end of open water fishing for me, and time to winterize the summer toys before tuning up the winter toys.

My son, Bo, cannot wait for the snow to fly so he can ride his snowmobile around the driveway. Last season he was still a little too small to control the machine but I think he will get the hang of it this winter. He loves anything with a motor but lately has been asking me, “When is it going to snow?”

“Soon enough,” I say, “soon enough.”

The moose have been making appearances in a few of the shallow swamps along the Gunflint Trail this week with sightings near Iron Lake and Loon. There was a cow and calf pair near Iron Lake this morning and a big bull spotted near the Loon Lake landing on Sunday. We have also been seeing a big cow loitering in the bay between the two narrows on Saganaga Lake that could be the same one feeding in the moose pond by Chik Wauk Museum. They are eating grass on the bottom of the swamps in an effort to fatten up in time for winter.

There are still a few remaining loons that have not made their migration south (the birds, not the cabin owners) and some eagles are also hanging around to enjoy the last of the nice weather. The entourage of birds that follow my boat to the fish gut island are now reduced to a few wellfed ravens and seagulls that seem to appreciate the lack of competition at the gut pile.

The end is approaching fast and another wonderful season will soon be history.

The Fall Descent, 10/03/15

The first real cold front of the season snuck through leaving a glistening sunrise of frost-covered ground in its wake. Chilly mornings are par for the fall and are usually accompanied by fog in the valleys until the sun makes an appearance and melts it all away.

Water temperatures on Saganaga dropped to the low 60s causing fish to descend into more traditional fall patterns. I have enjoyed the extended summer this year and being able to catch walleyes in shallow water has been an added bonus to the beautiful weather.

As the fish follow the bait into deeper water each day they will eventually find a depth around 50 feet to spend the winter months feasting on minnows until the water warms again next summer. Walleyes actually bite better in the deeper water but very few anglers target them past 30 feet for a number of reasons including: they are harder to find, harder to present a bait to, harder to “set the hook” properly, and even harder to release unharmed.

Finding deep fish is admittedly difficult but many of the better deep spots are simply extensions of a good shallow spot. Summer-time rock piles that are shallower usually have deep water surrounding them and can hold fish along their perimeters in the fall. Heavy jig heads from 1/4 – 3/8 oz. tipped with minnows are heavy enough to reach 40-50 feet of water and proper boat control is essential to staying on top of the fish, which takes practice.

Setting the hook is very difficult with traditional monofilament so I spool the reels with 12-pound test braided “no-stretch” line which increases the sensitivity and aids in hooking fish. I add a couple of feet of monofilament leader to make the braided line less visible, and allow break-offs when snagged without cutting your fingers off on the thin braid. This can be done with a barrel swivel, which is always a good way to eliminate line twist, or tie directly to the braid with a uni to uni knots that are shown on most packages of braided line.

Releasing fish that have been caught in deep water is possible and starts with the fight. Bring the fish up slowly to allow them to change pressure and ultimately aid in the healthy release. Rubbing their heads quickly with your finger before shooting them down into the water head first also seems to help them kick away strongly. They do not always make it, but these tricks will help.

Hawg Report – Released

September 23 – Cory Christianson 28-inch walleye Northern Light

Denny Renkiewicz 30-inch walleye Northern Light

September 24 – Eric Anderson 28 ½-inch walleye Northern Light

September 29 – Jack Carr 28 ½- inch walleye Northern Light

Fishing with Kids, 09/26/15

While reflecting over my busiest season of guiding anglers on Saganaga Lake it seems the summer has passed by too quickly. Our children are maturing even faster than the seasons and I realize how important it is to make time each week for my family whenever possible—despite a hectic schedule.

This week we were fortunate enough to visit our cabin on Saganaga Lake twice and took the kids out to catch a few walleyes while enjoying the beautiful sunny days that are surely numbered. I love to fish but have never forced my obsession onto my family. It pleases me that given the choice they enthusiastically ask to go fishing when there are so many other fun things to enjoy at the cabin, and they are all becoming such good anglers— especially my wife Rachelle.

Fishing with kids is a challenge I welcome even though they are only 3 and 4 years of age. Their short attention spans will not allow them to enjoy any activity for more than a few hours, so we design our time in the boat to be short and productive. Lucky for them I happen to know some good spots to get fast enough action to keep their restless minds busy enough to stay focused. As soon as they set down their poles and begin playing with the leeches, I know we are almost done and honor them by quitting before they get bored.

In my profession I take a lot of parent/sibling groups fishing and have noticed some important cues to keeping children excited about their time fishing. Walleye fishing requires patience and can quickly become boring, even for me, so it is imperative to remember that it needs to be fun for everyone involved to be successful.

Fast action certainly helps keep youngsters busy in the boat but sometimes is not enough to hold their interest. I keep a couple of toy fishing poles in the boat with hookless practice plugs tied on for them to cast and retrieve whenever they begin to lose interest. Making a contest out of casting seems to excite my competitive little anglers and gives the adults a little added time to produce some dinner fish.

If all else fails, Saganaga Lake hosts a number of cool campsites for them to run around and burn energy before spending a little more time in the boat. Some of my fondest childhood memories were spent on the water with my family and I hope the tradition will continue one day with their children as well.