ALONG MINNESOTA’S GUNFLINT TRAIL — Neal Peaslee of Normanna Township came walking across the ice of Clearwater Lake northwest of Grand Marais wearing most of a skunk atop his head. It was the furry part of the skunk, and it probably felt good. The temperature hovered around 7 degrees.
Peaslee and friend Larry Sandretsky of Two Harbors, along with their next-generation contingent of boys, were up for the annual trout opener Jan. 14 on lakes outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Already, they had taken a half-dozen lake trout, the largest about a 17-incher.
They weren’t alone on this opener. Perhaps a couple dozen anglers, some in pop-up fishing shelters and some fishing out in the open, had staked out territories across the frozen lake. About a mile of Clearwater is outside the Boundary Waters, and another four miles stretches eastward into the wilderness.
All of the anglers were fishing with the 360-foot palisades on the far side of the lake as a backdrop.
“It’s beautiful — the vistas,” Sandretsky said.
It would be hard to imagine a place more stunning to stand on the ice and jig a Swedish Pimple and a chunk of cisco in hopes that a hungry trout would come by. The sun was bathing the lake in warm light. The wind was negligible. Standing atop a foot of ice, lifting and dropping the tip of a lake-trout rod, was not a hardship.
From the public landing, it was about a two-minute snowmobile or four-wheeler ride to where Sandretsky and Peaslee and clan were fishing. They catch lake trout in a wide range of sizes on these trips.
“You get a lot of 2’s and 3’s (2- and 3-pounders), an occasional 5 to 8,” Peaslee said. “And there are some big ones in here if you put in your time.”
He knows. He just got one of those big ones back from the taxidermist. He caught the 40-incher last summer on a downrigger. It weighed 28 pounds.
Duluth’s Jesse Anderson and friend Todd Harrington of Eden Prairie, Minn., were fishing in a pop-up shelter down the lake a couple hundred yards. Anderson had already taken a couple of lakers between 14 and 18 inches long.
“We don’t keep anything over 18 inches,” Anderson said, “because we’re concerned about the fishery.”
He knows that in this deep, cold lake, fish grow slowly.
“We’ll have a good meal,” Anderson said.
They had left Duluth at 5:30 a.m. and were fishing shortly after 9 a.m., they said. They had come to Clearwater for the same reason many anglers do.
“We came because of the scenery and the good numbers of lake trout and the chance at a 30-incher,” Anderson said.
Tony Fillman and Steve Lindbeck of Duluth weren’t far away, fishing in the open air while others in their party fished inside a giant Clam pop-up shelter.
“This is our sixth year here,” Lindbeck said. “We used to bring the Boy Scouts up here.”
“Always on opener,” Fillman said. “We’ve never been skunked.”
They weren’t out to fill their freezers, just see some country and maybe catch dinner.
“If we get a couple of fish, we’re happy,” Lindbeck said.
They, too, have seen the big ones.
“Last year, Gary (Borchert of Duluth) brought a 20-pounder up to the surface,” Fillman said.
Alas, it had shaken off.
Anglers were using a variety of baits to entice these pink-fleshed denizens of the depths — flutter spoons, tube jigs, Swedish Pimples — most of them tipped with minnows or cut baits such as ciscoes. They fished from 30 feet to 70 feet down.
Not far from the Fillman/Lindbeck gang, Dan Edson fished alone, sitting in a plastic lawn chair atop the ice. He had come up from Grand Marais for the day to plow out a couple of driveways for friends with cabins on the Clearwater Road and to tidy up the public landing. Although he had caught no fish by midday, he seemed completely happy and at peace, sitting under dome of blue sky, looking off down the lake at the palisades.
At the base of the palisades, next to a snow-covered rockslide, one could just make out a pair of pop-up shelters, one red, one blue. They looked absurdly small against the towering cliffs left behind by the glaciers.
The palisades are within the Boundary Waters where snowmobile travel is not permitted, so these anglers had left their snow machines at the border line and lugged their gear on sleds another half-mile or so to the base of the cliffs. Sometimes, an angler just has to see what’s out there.
The winter trout season — both for lake trout and stream trout in lakes — had opened two weeks earlier on lakes inside the Boundary Waters. Seasons both inside and outside the Boundary Waters continue through March 31.
Up and down the 60-mile Gunflint Trail, perhaps the most scenic dead-end road in the state, anglers were chasing lake trout. For one group, it wasn’t enough just to visit these lakes for a day. A crew from Duluth was loading winter-camping sleds at the Mayhew Lake trailhead. They planned to make the mile-and-a-half trek to South Lake and spend a couple of nights.
The anglers were after lake trout and burbot, said Shannon Solberg, 46, of Duluth. Joining him were his son, Fisher Solberg, 17; David Franseen, 42; and Jeremiah Gallagher, 40. They had a canvas wall tent and a portable woodstove, along with a pop-up fishing shelter they would use as a kitchen tent. They’ve been making this trip for five years.
While catching a few lake trout is the big lure that draws all of these anglers to the Gunflint, it’s not the only one. Simply forging up this ribbon of snow-packed asphalt is like entering a different world. Up here, the snow is still white. It’s heaped on rows of mailboxes, and it clings to the downswept branches of spruce trees. Little tornadoes of pine grosbeaks flit up from the road at intervals. A set of moose tracks — yes, some of the critters remain — lead across a lake that snugs up to the highway. Sentinel white pines rise above the rest of the forest, awaiting the return of nesting bald eagles in April.
For miles and miles you drive through this white wilderness. Maybe you meet a half-dozen cars. Maybe not. And when you finally stop and get out, the silence is palpable. You are deep in the heart of a northern Minnesota winter.
A few lake trout? Just a bonus.