Duane and Ginger led the 10-dog team across a point of land and down onto the surface of Fall Lake east of Ely. We could see tea-colored slush in the snow ahead of us, but this team had seen worse. In moments, 40 paws were splashing through the amber slop.
It’s been a crazy warm winter in the North. The ice was slow to come, and it’s still just 10 or 15 inches thick in places, far less than the customary 2 feet or more. And lately, lots of slush has come up — a layer of water lying atop the the ice, hidden by a foot or so of snow above it.
It’s a mess.
But four of us, behind two dog teams, were headed several miles into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last Sunday to see if we could find some lake trout. Just a day trip, made possible by these trail-toughened dogs ahead of us.
They hauled us through the frigid soup and onto snow again, but we would continue to encounter patches of slush throughout the day.
Slush can form in any year, of course. It’s the result of snow weight atop the ice, which causes small cracks that allow lake water from below to seep through. Once there, slush is tough to get rid of because the snow on top insulates it so well, even in subzero weather.
Lure of lake trout
After an hour and a half of snaking over portages and across lakes, we staked out the dogs and drilled a few holes. Day-trippers regularly make such jaunts with Ely’s dogsled outfitters. Some groups fish for — or spear — northern pike. Some jig for crappies. We prefer lake trout, the sleek gray dirigibles of the depths. Native fish. The old-timers called them “landlocked salmon,” a misnomer that always sounds romantic to me, probably because I loved to hear the old-timers talk about them.
For many of that generation, lake trout were a revered species, prized for their fight as well as their flavor. You often had to get deep in the canoe country to find the big ones, and if you ever caught a really big one — 15 or 20 pounds — you never forgot it.
I used to ride the bus in Duluth with such an older gentleman, and we happened to start discussing lake trout fishing one afternoon on the ride home. He told about being up in the border country on his honeymoon 30 or 40 years before, he and his wife trolling across a wilderness lake with a handline draped over the gunwale of the canoe. He hooked a monster lake trout, and the battle ensued. Finally, he managed to land the whopper.
“I’ve got it on my wall,” he said. “You want to come see it?”
I walked up the hill with him at his bus stop, into his house and up the stairs to where the fish swam in perpetuity above a landing. It was big, all right.
I could appreciate the fish, but not in the way that he could, I’m sure. Imagine, every morning, walking past that fish on the wall, thinking of that day with his new bride, playing the fish hand-over-hand, finally lifting the massive creature into the canoe. How he preserved it to get it home and mounted, I have no idea.
I was thinking about that the other day when a decent lake trout smacked my white tube jig at 24 feet and took off on a spirited run. My buddies gathered around to watch me play the fish, and in time we had it lying atop the snow. Maybe 6 pounds, cold and firm, adapted beautifully to that 33-degree water.
And later, Tony would play one for five or 10 minutes on a tip-up line baited with a chunk of cisco. He fed the fish line until it stopped to sulk, then he began stripping in what he had lost. After three or four rounds of give-and-take, he coaxed its big head into the fishing hole and someone lifted it out with a gaff.
What a splendid specimen. Tony hoisted it with two hands and posed for the obligatory photos. The laker went more than 33 inches on the tape. Probably 12 or 13 pounds. A lot of lake trout.
Those were the only two lake trout we caught that day. That was enough.
The day was warm — above freezing — and confetti flakes of wet snow fell as we hitched up the teams for the ride home. While he waited for the rest of the dogs to get snapped to their tug lines, Duane licked melting snowflakes from Ginger’s back.
I couldn’t decide if he was being kind or if he was just thirsty.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/Sam Cook Outdoors or read his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.