Thick ice = Late spring? April 4, 2015

Everyone has been patiently anticipating the spring meltdown that does not appear to be happening. Two weeks ago, driveways that had been plowed were showing gravel and the ground became muddy where melting snow had saturated the low spots. It has been a typical spring until the winter storm threw us right back into winter again this week.

I fished a number of different Gunflint Trail lakes before the end of trout season and was amazed at how thick the ice still is. My ice auger bottomed-out on Poplar Lake in some areas (which equates to three feet of ice) and Gunflint has 24-30 inches of solid black ice that has shown no sign of melting yet. Saganaga and Northern Light lakes have a little less ice with 24 inches, which is plenty thick enough to fish walleyes until the 14th of April on border lakes.

The big snow drifts melted on top of the lakes a few weeks ago during a brief warm spell and then re-froze to the surface of the lake adding to the overall ice depth. If it was not for the recent three inches of fresh snowfall we received this week the lakes would have been shear ice and difficult to travel on. So far, none of the lakes have “popped-up” and they look the same as they did in January. It is becoming harder and harder each day to believe there will be open water to fish in six week’s time—but I have been fooled before.

The lack of precipitation in March will be a concern for fire danger this spring. It is easy to become complacent with wild fire prevention when the danger is low like it has been. This would be a good year to make sure your sprinkler system is functioning properly and there is plenty of propane in the tanks. If the original 20- or 50-pound cylinder assigned to your sprinkler system pump became the back-up barbecue tank or is being used to heat your ice house… make sure it gets back to the pump and is topped off with gas before the lakes thaw.

I burned a couple of brush piles in our yard recently and was surprised at how fast they took off considering how green the pile was last fall. It usually takes an hour with the propane torch to start a burn pile, but this year they flashed immediately and burned to the ground by the following morning. If it stays dry you can expect to see fire restrictions across the state until conditions become safer.

Spring is in the Air, March 28, 2015

When the sun decides to make an appearance, so do the ruffed grouse who come wandering out to the roadside to graze in the recently exposed grass along the Gunflint Trail. Spring is in the air and forest critters are coming out of winter hiding to scavenge for food.

During the winter months we mostly see snowshoe hare and wolves running around in the woods, so it is a wonderful reminder each spring how many animals actually reside in the forest. Most of them hibernate (at least partially) through the toughest months of winter and are rarely spotted again until mid to late March when they can begin foraging.

I am impressed at how smart these animals are at adapting to the seasons and surviving the harsh winter. It must take the entire spring, summer and fall to store enough food for everyone.

Our resident red squirrels have commandeered the bird feeders and suet blocks hanging from the trees ever since Maggie, our wiener dog, has dropped her guard. The squirrels are bolder now that Maggie no longer savagely hunts them like she used to. Maggie has lost interest in her older age and must realize that the squirrels are simply too fast and agile for her to stand a chance at catching them. She has since focused her energy on mice that live under the screen porch. I highly doubt she can catch them either but they don’t run so far away.

There is still some snow on the trails and in the woods but most of the lakes have melted down to solid ice. I guided on Gunflint Lake last weekend and we simply drove our vehicle from spot to spot. We were able to cover a lot of ground but it didn’t make a difference— fishing was tough.

Bright sunny days are just as hard to fish in the winter as they are in the summer. We managed to catch a few trout each day but it was slow.

The ice has not melted yet and most of the lakes I have been fishing are still showing solid ice from 18- to 30-inches depending on the lake. Trout season will close at the end of the month but walleyes will stay open on border lakes until April 14.

Some years we lose the ice before the end of the season but I don’t think this will be one of those years unless we start seeing the temperature rise dramatically. It can happen fast but it doesn’t look that way this year.

Hanging on to Winter, March 21, 2015

I left Grand Marais this morning with a feeling that spring was already here. Lake Superior’s bright blue waters were rough from the big wind, and the streets were dry without a trace of snow in sight. As I drove a short trip over the hill, I was quickly reminded that winter is holding on for at least another weekend.

Losing all of the snow on the Gunflint Trail is a bittersweet experience. I am ready for it to melt away, but for a different reason than most people. The last couple of weeks can be the most exciting fishing of the season as the snow melts and gravity does the rest. Water returns to the lake and the ice can no longer take the pressure building from below causing the lake to “pop-up.” Typically the ice will remain safe to fish for a couple of weeks after popping-up, which is great because game fish come out to feed in the new current.

The timing of the snow melting is crucial for end of the year success on the ice. Many years the season closes before the snow melts, or the ice melts too fast creating a short window of opportunity.

Smelt begin to find the current and big predators like walleyes, lake trout, and whitefish are not far behind. If I could pick only one week to fish the bigger lakes all winter it would be during the thaw near an incoming river soaking a jig and minnow combination near the bottom.

Current and warming temperatures are not a good combination so be sure to trust the lake you are on and avoid any crunchy ice. If the auger is not fighting to get through the hole then the ice is getting too soft to be on. Ice should always be hard, not porous, and the auger should have to shave its way through the ice. We have seen conditions go from safe to dangerous in a few hours with a bright sun. It always feels great to be fishing in a T-shirt even though it is a reminder that the end of the ice fishing season is very near.

Trail Center will be hosting the annual fishing event on Poplar Lake March 28 and 29 and with a little luck it will be dry. I am not sure of the details, but I am sure Sarah will make it fun. Overnight temperatures have been cold enough to keep some of the snow from melting, but the snowmobile trails are getting too rough for me. Grooming might be over for the year, but I would still expect to see some diehard sled heads and skiers since most other places have already lost their snow.

Spring Meltdown, March 14, 2015

There was a good turnout for the Trout Derby on Gunflint Lake last weekend and there were about a dozen fish turned in. The temperature was warmer than we have had but the wind was annoyingly chilly and kept a lot of folks tight to their shelters whether that was a tent, icehouse, or truck.

The Cook County Ridge Riders Snowmobile Club did a great job plowing some roads for people to fish from and a majority of the fish were caught on or near those roads.

I did not get a chance at a fish that day but Rudy Wimmer caught a 2 pounder out of my ice house while I was home helping the kids get ready. The early bird usually does get the worm when it comes to fishing. The trout was not big enough to pay but it was one more fish than I managed to catch, and despite my morning delay I had a hook in the water long enough that I should have at least had a bite or two, but no such luck.

The water is cold enough in the winter that lake trout can be in shallow water, deep water, or anywhere in-between. Jordan Ekroot took first place with a nice fish that was just under 9 pounds. And I heard that he caught it in 8 feet of water, which is much shallower than I ever think of trying. One of the great things about fishing is that you never stop learning: if you do it is because you have stopped paying attention.

Most of what I know about fishing in this county I have learned from the anglers in this county.

This week started out very warm and we are seeing the “Spring Meltdown” a little earlier than expected. As I am writing this column I can actually watch the driveway exposing more gravel by the minute which means that it is warm outside— and that I am easily distracted.

We fished Mayhew today and the lake was nice and firm in the morning hours, then sloppy by noon. There was a little slush to contend with near the portage on the southeast side of the lake and I would expect it to progressively get worse each day this week. The action was good but most of the lakes are going to be sloppy until they melt down to ice.

Lake trout fishing is open until March 31, which is also the ice house removal date for Minnesota/Canada border lakes, but if it gets any warmer my ice house will be off of Gunflint next week. The areas that were fished for the tournament flooded the next day and my house is currently sitting in six inches of standing water. No big deal, the water will all make its way back into the lake soon enough. I am just relieved to be able to drive to the house again and hopefully the nights are cold enough to keep some ice for a while. We have all seen the lakes melt down fast and it is looking like it could be one of those years.

Hot & Buggy, July 20, 2013

The hot and humid weather has done wonders for our towering tomato plants in the garden, but it is no fun to be sweating off the winter weight while doing outdoor chores this week. My family loves the summer heat, even though it feels like a sticky May in Key West to me, so it is hard not to wear a smile while playing with our kids in the back yard.

A heat wave on the Gunflint Trail is fairly short lived but we decided to install a window air conditioner to help cut the humidity in our house anyway. It feels great! The kids have a small swimming pool to enjoy in the back yard with plenty of water toys to play with in the heat, but it was getting too hard for us to sleep at night without the AC. If the kids get to sleep through the night—then so do we.

Summer is such a great time to enjoy the outdoors in northern Minnesota despite the hot and buggy conditions. We have long been famous for harboring the world’s largest population of mosquitoes but they are a welcome sight in comparison to the biting flies. I am not sure if these horrific creatures are getting stronger each year or if my tolerance is becoming weaker—either way they are maddening.

This “super breed” of biting house fly will relentlessly attack its prey until it either completes the mission of devouring a chunk of flesh or occasionally falling victim to a successful swat of the hand—but you have to be very quick. They are brilliant at avoiding the fatal swat by jumping into flight at the very last second. I think they are the Ninjas of the fly world that can slip out of harm’s way in the blink of an eye.

Let’s not forget the little black flies that are also an incredible nuisance and can leave a painful welt on some people. Our little guy, Bo, fell victim to a bite on his eyelid that swelled up and looked to be very irritating for a couple of days.

I used to laugh at people who chose to wear bug nets of any kind but it is the best defense from these little flying mouths, especially for children.

Bugs are part of the adventure in northern Minnesota and they usually are starting to disappear by the end of July. The late spring and swampy conditions have been favorable for bug production and the comforting trade-off is that we have a blooming healthy forest that is noticeably coming to life this year. I am still amazed at how well the forest can recover from such a disastrous fire. It will take a lifetime to see the big white pines rebounding but it is comforting to see the void filling in around the otherwise sterile landscape. Green is good, even if it is only the beginning stages of a recovering forest.

Gunflint Canoe Races, July 13, 2013

Rain is always a welcome sight on the Gunflint Trail, but it came down so hard this week that it damaged some driveways. We need a slow soaker without any lightning. The storms this week were packing some voltage but so far there have not been any reports of spot fires happening in our area. The fire danger has been hovering around “moderate” but it can change in a New York second with a little wind.

I did a walleye shore lunch on Northern Light Lake last week with a traditional campfire, but if everything keeps drying out I will not be doing any more campfires for a while. It took about six buckets of water to start cooling off the rocks that made up the fire ring. The chunks of granite get so hot that they evaporate the water immediately and sometimes even crack the rocks in half. It is easy to see how a campfire can dry out and re-ignite after being drowned with water. It makes me wonder how many people have burned down an island campsite without ever knowing they did it.

This summer is passing by faster than I would like but it is hard to complain since the fish have been cooperating and we survived another 4th of July without any fires or catastrophic wind storms.

Even my garden is growing fast. Things are looking pretty good this summer on the Gunflint Trail. Only three more months before the snow starts flying, so enjoy it while you can.

Wednesday, July 17 is the annual Gunflint Canoe Races hosted by Gunflint Lodge. The canoe races raise a lot of money each year for the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and it is a great event for the entire family. There are many different ways to show your support at this event with the gift auction and raffle prizes, as well as food and T-shirts for sale. The goal is to raise $20,000 this year and that cannot happen without people opening up their wallets.

The expansion project for Hall 3 on Seagull Lake is currently under way and every penny helps to pay the bills. There will be another community center built by Hall 3 that is comparable to the Schaap Community Center located next to Hall 1 in the mid-Trail area. Both community centers will be equipped to act as communications buildings during any major incidents. They should prove to be an asset for the community and a great place to hold events.

See you at the races!

Hawgs On The Rocks, July 6, 2013

Walleyes go through an annual migration around the lake after spawning in the shallow water each spring along with the baitfish in search of the ideal water temperature. The old saying that hawg walleyes leave the shallow bays and migrate out to the main lake rock piles when the daisies have grown to knee-high length seems to reign true each year. This year would be no exception.

Rock piles are basically sunken islands and reefs that have very shallow water and are surrounded by deeper water. These fish havens can be hot when the hawgs first make an appearance. They will literally hit anything that moves when they are hunting on the rocks. The preferred method of fishing these snaggy spots is to use a slip-bobber and a leech from an anchored boat.

Slip-bobbers are a very stealthy and effective method since they are easy to adjust the depth that the bait is presented. It also helps that the boat is anchored and quiet. It is easy to spook fish that are in shallow water, so anytime you can fish without the motor running is good.

These old girls (since male walleye rarely reach 25 inches) are quite wily when it comes to being caught by anglers. A 28-inch walleye (minimum length to be considered a hawg) could be a teenager in years, so they have been around the block a few times. I hesitate to call any fish wise, but the older females are certainly more leery than the smaller ones are.

I have written many times in the past about the drastic differences between Northern Light Lake and Saganaga Lake. It is actually more common to catch a hawg walleye on Sag than it is to catch a limit of walleyes. I have caught or guided anglers to 12 hawg walleyes on Sag this year but only cleaned a handful of eater-sized fish for the customers to take home.

On Northern Light Lake I have caught or guided anglers to 22 hawg walleyes and more eaters than I can calculate with a fishing guide’s brain.

I should also note that I have only guided 10 days on Northern Light and 22 days on Sag this year. That equates to 32 days of guiding and 33 hawgs total. These impressive statistics are fairly common for Gunflint Trail guides that are fishing these two lakes.

If this seems hard to believe just pay attention to the catch and release reports from Buck’s Hardware in the paper. I have not been turning in my catch reports because I feel like my name is in the print enough as it is, but the Seagull Creek guides are making the paper each week as well as many of their customers.

If catching a trophy walleye is on your “bucket list” then take advantage of this world-class fishery that is easily accessible from the Gunflint Trail. Hope to see you up here and have fun celebrating our nation’s independence this week.

Allergies Are In Bloom, June 1st, 2013

It was not very long ago that I cherished the green-up every spring. I would anxiously await the bright sunny days and fresh smell of blooming trees fueled by the cool May showers. Spring is an exciting transition from winter, marking the return of the summer residents and the start of another fishing season on the Gunflint Trail. It is also when allergy sufferers, such as myself, are downright miserable.

I have seasonal allergies that are progressively worsening each year. I know that it is not the end of the world, but they make it very difficult to enjoy what used to be my favorite season. It might seem crazy to wish for the black flies to appear, but that is usually about the time my allergy symptoms subside. Bring on the bugs!

Most of my friends spent the entire Memorial weekend fishing while I finished readying my guide boat for the busy season ahead. Saganaga has been producing some eater-size walleyes on the deep Fall Reefs in 65 feet of water. This has been a new trend on the bigger lakes since many of the juvenile walleyes will stay down in these depths all year round and they are usually hungry. It is imperative to have a good depth-finder that you understand how to read. If the fish are below your boat, the depth-finder should be seeing them.

Northern Light Lake in Ontario has been giving up some nice walleyes so far this year. The water is still cold and the fish are not very active, but the walleyes that are willing to bite have been the big ones. It is not uncommon to catch 10 walleye in a day with three of them being over 28 inches. Scratching out a dinner can be tough to accomplish when all of the fish are too big to keep.

Minnows have been the hot bait to use for walleyes even though a few were caught this weekend using jigs tipped with night crawlers. Northern Light Lake has darker water than Saganaga so brighter colored jigs are more effective. The fish are not afraid to be very shallow in darker water lakes. It is common to cast close to shore and expect a bite in the first couple of rod pumps. Saganaga has clearer water and the fish are usually out from shore a little further to get away from the light penetration.

Saganaga has not been an easy lake to catch a walleye on these past few years and so far there has not been any evidence indicating a difference this year. It will be interesting to see if the stocking efforts in the past few years are going to improve the walleye population. I hope that it works but I also have my doubts. I fear that whatever factors have caused the walleye populations to decrease on Saganaga are still present. Only time will tell.

Big Winds & Cold Water, May 25th, 2013

Week two of the Minnesota fishing season and the bigger lakes are finally open. Saganaga was reported to have a big chunk of ice plugging up Cache Bay to the west of American Point, but it should all be gone this week.

I have yet to wet a line so the fishing report is going to be brief.

A majority of the Saganaga Lake walleyes are still spawning in the rivers which are protected from fishing until the end of the month. The females, which usually run bigger in size, are the first to migrate back to the main lake after laying their eggs in search of warmer water to feed in. It can actually be easier to catch a big walleye in the first weeks of the season since the smaller males are still in the river fertilizing eggs, but do not expect a lot of bites.

The lake water temperature is a bone chilling 38-40 degrees, so the fish are still not going to be very active. The action is rarely fast and furious until the water warms up another 10 degrees into the 50s. It could be June before we see 50-degree water temperatures this year.

Cold water is no joke. We assembled a dock on Gunflint Lake and my non-insulated hip waders were not enough to keep my legs from going numb. In just a few short minutes my leg muscles were tightening up. I could not even imagine capsizing a canoe and having to swim to shore. This is a dangerous time of year to be on big water lakes. High winds and cold water can be a disastrous recipe so be prepared for the worst.

On a brighter note: the much-needed precipitation has reduced the danger of wildfires while also injecting some life into the forest. The trees are beginning to sprout new leaves and the grass is turning green again. It is a very welcome sight for us after such a long winter. Every year I am amazed at how fast the vegetation erupts after a good spring rain. I guess our local plant life knows how to capitalize on a short growing season.

Spring is in the air and all of the forest critters have come out from hiding. It is finally time for our wiener dog, Maggie, to start chasing the resident squirrels and shedding some of that winter weight. It wouldn’t hurt me to lose a couple of pounds as well but I will not be chasing any squirrels. I prefer chipmunks.

Hard Water Fishing Opener, May 18th, 2013

Opening week of fishing in Minnesota and I could not be less excited to catch a fish. I don’t even have a motor on my boat. Like many other folks I am already behind schedule and the worst part is that I still cannot even get started.

The lakes are still too frozen to start up sprinkler systems and the temperatures are dangerously close to freezing at night, making it too early to prime any waterlines for the summer folks. Usually there is plenty of time to get everything done before the guiding season takes off but this year is going to be a challenge.

Saturday produced some very strong winds that were capable of destroying every dock on a lake. Fortunately, the ice had a hard time moving around since it is still so close to the shore. I have not heard of any damage up here yet, but some Mille Lacs Lake homeowners took a beating on Saturday with the ice taking out shrubs and breaking through sliding glass doors.

It would be nice to have a calm meltdown this week since docks and waterlines that are left in the lake are vulnerable when there is a giant iceberg sailing around at the mercy of the wind. The video being shown on Mille Lacs showed the ice crawling up the shore like lava. It moves slow yet is powerful enough to take out everything in its path. Let’s not forget that the glaciers once cut a path through the North Shore leaving us the Sawtooth Mountains.

The ambitious anglers might have had a hard time finding any quality bait this week since the leeches are very small and the rainbow chubs are hard to find. Nightcrawlers are available but the walleyes seem to favor eating leeches and minnows early in the season. The late ice is going to have a “trickle down” effect on a lot of Minnesota’s different industries, especially tourism and bait. The bait dealers are saying that it is only a temporary setback but it could also be an excuse to raise prices in an effort to recoup some early season losses.

May 18 marks the Canadian fishing opener and with a little luck the big lakes on the Gunflint Trail will be blue. The dreaded I-68 is again required by the United States to re-enter the country, and I have been told by a Customs and Border Patrol officer that they will indeed be enforcing them. The Grand Marais Customs offices will be closed this summer and all Customs business will be handled from Pigeon River, however the Grand Marais office will be issuing I-68 documents on May 23 and 30 only.