Published January 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

Wilderness lakers

ON KNIFE LAKE, NEAR ELY — The raven called gloop, gloop. He came flying over the island on Knife Lake and looked down upon the three of us. Nobody knows for sure what a particular raven call means, but this raven had to be optimistic. Already, a couple of lake trout were lying on the ice near our fishing holes.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

ON KNIFE LAKE, NEAR ELY — The raven called gloop, gloop. He came flying over the island on Knife Lake and looked down upon the three of us.

Nobody knows for sure what a particular raven call means, but this raven had to be optimistic. Already, a couple of lake trout were lying on the ice near our fishing holes. Each of them was in the 3-pound range, one by the hole of Al Schroeter , the other alongside Kelly Murphy’s. Both anglers are from Ely, and they had driven two teams of Murphy’s Alaskan huskies 12 miles on this January morning to get here.

They were fishing one of their favorite spots on Knife. The dogs were staked out on the ice along shore, resting in the balmy 30-degree air, sleeping until it was time for the late-afternoon run home.

We were giving the trout plenty of options, all of which involved dead ciscoes. Murphy, 54, jigged a Smoothie jigging spoon, silver and blue, and Schroeter, 48, was using a Trout Teaser Jr., an airplane jig that resembled a silver Stealth bomber. Schroeter tipped his with a small piece of cisco, and Murphy was using all but the head of a cisco on his Smoothie. Murphy had harvested a winter’s supply of ciscoes from Basswood Lake last November.

Our second lines were all tip-ups, each dangling a whole cisco somewhere near the bottom in about 40 feet of water.

We were a day ahead of a forecast snowstorm, and the barometer was dropping.

“I think fish are like people,” Murphy said as we jigged. “Before a storm, they all go to the grocery store and stock up. I’m hoping they come to my grocery store and eat my Basswood ciscoes.”

In a few minutes, he was cackling a fiendish cackle, and his stiff ice-fishing rod was wearing a nice bend. Schroeter and I went running to his hole, as ice anglers always do, just to watch Murphy’s fish come up. This was another laker from the 3-pound mold.

Murphy leaned back and hauled it flipping and twisting into daylight it had never seen before. It was darker than Murphy’s first lake trout, almost black between its creamy spots, and this one had a blush of orange on its fins. Handsome.

Another raven flew over, gargling a guttural bra-awk, bra-awk. None of us knew what that meant, either.

What we knew was that it was excellent to be the only ones in sight on Knife Lake, which stretches for seven miles along the Minnesota-Ontario border. No motors are permitted on the Minnesota side of the lake, which is in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The north side is in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, also a non-motorized area.

You can find lake trout in some drive-to lakes in the Ely area, but the fishing is especially dependable on wilderness lakes, where fishing pressure is light. It’s well worth the two-hour dogsled ride to Knife, where we hand-augered holes through 18 inches of ice and fished without shelters.

LOTS OF HISTORY

Even when the lake trout are biting, the fishing is just one more pleasant aspect of being on Knife Lake. It is good to study the Norway pines on the island where the late Dorothy Molter once sold her root beer. It is good to think about what it must have been like to live here year-around, with prospector Benny Ambrose your nearest neighbor up on Ottertrack.

It is good to put your trust in Murphy’s huskies — Juanita and Boro and Bone and all the rest — whose entire souls are bound up in pulling sleds. It is good listening to the stories that Schroeter and Murphy tell about other days, other lake trout and other sled dogs.

One senses that Murphy and Schroeter live a very good life here, close to the land. They know how to read overflow on the ice and when to harvest ciscoes in the fall. They know that it’s best to replace the treble hooks that come on trout lures with single hooks. They know silence.

A raven called gloop, gloop. The call sounded like the resonant dripping of water.

“One time, I had a raven follow me all the way across Ensign Lake,” Murphy said. “Right at eye-level. He was flying into a strong wind.”

Nobody knew what that meant, either. But it’s been reported that ravens will follow a pack of wolves, knowing that if a kill is made, they will eat when the wolves are finished. It is not far-fetched to think that Knife Lake’s ravens have come to associate dogsleds with lake trout carcasses.

TROUT KEEP COMING

We hauled up another lake trout from a wildly spinning tip-up line. Gleaming. Powerful. Lovely. Then Schroeter hooked one on his Trout Teaser, and Murphy simultaneously coaxed another from a tip-up line. That made six, a three-person limit, all of them on one side of 3 pounds or the other. Enough.

At 3 p.m., Murphy and Schroeter hitched dogs. The huskies raised a din along the shoreline, mad to run. The mushers pulled their snow hooks from the ice, freeing the teams. All barking ceased, replaced by soft panting.

“Haw, haw,” Murphy growled.

Boro and Juanita understood the universal North American dogsled command. They veered left, hauling the other eight dogs with them. They intersected the well-packed trail on which we had come in.

“Trail!” Murphy shouted.

The dogs were happy to oblige. They knew the trail would take them home to a hot meal, a straw-filled bunk and rest.

Somewhere behind us, we knew, ravens fussed over lake trout carcasses.

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