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Corey reached out to me a while back asking if I'd like to join in on a Winter fishing trip up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of far Northern Minnesota. Having never done any true Winter camping, I jumped at the chance. The lake we chose held lake trout, burbot, ciscos and silver pike along with the usual suspects found in Northern Minnesota. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and stay inside during the coldest part of the year, but a trip like this was just the thing to spark some adventure and get out into Nature.
Five of us met at a diner in Ely, MN on a Saturday morning, fueling up on greasy food and coffee before embarking across the lake. Our party consisted of Corey, Eric Kol, Jason, Rick and myself. We rented a canvas wall tent and a wood stove from a local outfitter and drove onto the lake as far as the plowed road would allow. This particular lake is half in the BWCA and half outside. Once you cross that line into the Wilderness you can no longer use modern conveniences like trucks and gas augers and snowmobiles. Most anglers don't want to take the effort to cross the lake on foot, so we were sure to have the far end of the lake to ourselves.
We each loaded a sled full of gear and strapped on snowshoes - we had a 3.5 mile hike ahead of us through deep snow to reach our chosen spot on the lake. Our destination was a steep-dropping cliff face that falls quickly to 100 foot depths and we figured the lake trout would roam that ledge. After only a few hundred yards of travel, it was clear to me that this was going to be a challenge. Our group's two marathon runners took the lead and broke trail while I struggled behind. This was going to be a bit of a death march. My compadres kept getting further away on the horizon. For over 3 hours, step by step, I forced myself to move on and finally reached the others below a cliff face on the far shoreline.
We had misjudged our bearing and ended up half a mile from the spot we wanted to set up camp. However, at this point we were in no mood to travel further on our snowshoes. After hand-drilling a few holes to check the depth of the area, we were satisfied that this spot was a nice enough ledge and we began preparations to set up the tent before it got dark. We needed to scavenge a pair of long poles to support our stovepipe and a large quantity of dry wood to burn, and we also needed to shovel an area free of snow to place the tent. Everything went well, and we lit a fire in the stove inside the tent just before the sun went down.
I set a tipup near the tent, and just after dark the flag sprung. There was already a thick layer of ice in the hole, and I used my Buck knife to chip the tipup free before hauling in a small burbot. No more flags flew. Eventually we crawled into sleeping bags and stoked the fire for the night. It was going to be cold.
We woke to a temp hovering around -15 F. I drilled 3 holes, fished a tipup and jigged a large swedish pimple tipped with a smelt head. No fish showed, no strikes. Once others crawled out of the tent and drilled some more holes, we got a pretty good understanding of the shelf we were fishing. 20 yards from the tent was 80 feet deep, and there was a small spine running through the center of the ridge. We each covered different areas of the slope. Suddenly, late morning I had a couple of fish chase my lure as I watched my sonar. But the fish did not strike.
Everyone fished now in earnest, as marks showed down in the depths. Kol struck first and landed a 14" lake trout. He also struck second and third, bringing two more similarly-sized lakers to the ice. A very aggressive jigging presentation with large tube jigs and spoons was the ticket. Meanwhile I had 5 separate fish chase my jigging lures all over the water column, from the bottom 60 feet below to just under the ice. But the fish did not strike.
Eric and Jason each lost bigger lake trout right at the hole, but the action waned as afternoon grew long. No more trout were caught.
After feasting on chili, we set out a bunch of tipups baited with smelt and herring placed right on the bottom. Our hope was to catch a few more burbot, because the small one I caught the night before had very cool markings and we all wanted to see a bigger one. Eric was pounding a glow spoon on the craggy rock face below and connected with a beautiful burbot right away. My camera was frozen and didn't focus well, but this was a cool-looking pout. This was the only fish of the night. The holes were freezing up and shrinking quickly, making fishing tough and after a time we brought in the lines and retired to the tent. Eric was the only successful angler today.
The next day we got up and started packing up gear right away. Our sleds were packed with more care this time, spreading the heavier gear to the more appropriate sleds. We learned on the hike in that an Otter sled loaded with gear in heavy snow pulls like a car battery. The longer, sleeker sleds must carry the heaviest cargo. We made the trek back across the big lake with ease, our muscles broken in and the sleds working more efficiently. I really enjoyed snowshoeing back across the lake.
This trip was very humbling. It was a ton of work, and very cold. The fishing wasn't great. I'm sore as hell, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat.