Category: Winter

Recap: 2018 Winter Lake Trout Season on the Gunflint Trail

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It feels a little strange to write a recap on the winter lake trout fishing season when Gunflint Trail lakes are still covered with more than two feet of ice and the entire Great Lakes region is seized in Snowpocalypse 2018. During this very long winter, lake trout season proved a very welcome diversion. Usually lake trout season’s start at the end of December correlates with when winter is really starting to sink its teeth into the Northland and by the time the season closes at the end of March, the lakes’ snow cover has often completely melted off. But this year, the season started in what felt like deep winter and ended in what still felt like deep winter, so the fact that we couldn’t ice fish for lake trout either now or in early December feels especially arbitrary. 

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If you follow any of our social media (Facebook or Instagram) this winter, you know we take ice fishing pretty seriously. We don’t have much time in the summer to get out fishing, so we like to make the most of it during the hard water season. Primarily, we target lake trout for no real reason other than that’s what we’ve always done. 
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Andy does his best to get out fishing at least once a week in the winter and usually gets out more often than that. So when a quick gander at our Facebook and Instagram feeds might make it look like we enjoy endless ice fishing success, the reality’s more like that quip about Carnegie Hall.

New York City pedestrian: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: Practice, practice, practice.

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Behind each smiling photo of someone holding out a beautiful lake trout, there are literally hours of waiting by the hole, debates on whether to move or switch baits, eating snacks, and jigging off minnows. 

 
Ada Sag Lake trout

Some of us are more patient than others. I collected a grand total of one fish photo this winter. Andy on the other hand . . . 

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Of course, sometimes the fish at the end of the line isn’t what you expect. Usually you can tell if you’ve hooked a northern pike, but some surprises this season included a burbot aka eelpout aka lawyer fish (pictured above) and even a smallmouth bass! 

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Getting out in the early part of the winter lake trout season can be tough. The temps are usually pretty cold and it’s often windy. This year proved no exception to that rule with long stretches of days where the highs were below zero. However, the low snow totals this winter made it easy to get out on area lakes once the temps warmed up a bit and from late January through the end of March, ice fishing was an at least weekly occurrence.  

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We don’t have any real tips for winter lake trout fishing success other than to be patient, take note of what seems to work for your group, and be willing to try new lakes and fishing spots from year to year. Andy invested in a couple new Haat Rods for this season and those paired with white tube jigs (the hot bait for this year)  and his trusty MarCum landed countless trout. 

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Check out our winter report page for a full recap of Winter 2017/18. 

Did you get out fishing this winter? 

Slush Myths

Winter and worry. 

In northern Minnesota, we know how well these two concepts pair. No one ever sang, “Wintertime and the living is easy.” All winter long, we worry about influenza B, icy roads, heating costs, and so much more. But if you’re new to winter recreation in the Boundary Waters, lake slush might be pretty low on your list of winter worries. Conversely, if you’re a winter camping or ice fishing enthusiast, you might be all too familiar with “slush anxiety.” 

Slush on a Boundary Waters lake in northern Minnesota

So, what is this slush stuff? Slush occurs when the weight of snow on top of the ice presses the ice down. Lake ice continuously expands and contracts as temperatures fluctuate, creating cracks and fissures across a lake’s ice cover. As the snow presses the ice into the lake, lake water starts seeping through the ice’s cracks. (Think about what would happen if you decided press your hand into the top of a fruit pie. The pastry wouldn’t totally disintegrate, but pie filling would start to ooze through any breaks in the pastry onto your palm.) This water then mixes with the snow on top of the ice creating soupy, snowy slop that hides beneath what looks like pristine snow cover. When this hidden layer of slush is covered by several inches of snow, the slush can persist in even the coldest weather because the layer of snow on top of it insulates the slush from the elements. While slush is more prevalent on small lakes or in bays, you can run into slush on any size lake.  

Winter hiking on Mavis Lake in the BWCA through slush

Over the last two winters, we’ve put together a weekly winter weather update video for our winter report page and in the process, we’ve realized there are quite a few misconceptions about slush. 

Myth #1: Slush means the ice is weak

Slush is often mistaken for thin ice. It’s certainly disconcerting to be walking on a perfectly frozen surface and then plunge your boot into a foot of watery goop with your next step. But if you know the lake ice is measuring a safe thickness (the MN DNR recommends an ice thickness of at least 4″ before walking on frozen bodies of water), you’re not going to fall through a slush pocket into the lake below. That said, slush pockets can be deep and hard to walk in, so your gut instinct to “get the heck out of here” should be followed.  

Myth #2: Slush is most prevalent during warm weather, aka the end of winter

Slush is often unfairly linked with warm weather, but the real slush culprit is snow. The snowier the early winter is, the more likely you are to run into slush in the Boundary Waters. Although slush can form on sunny days when the snow melts on top of the ice, this “top down” slush is much less troublesome than the more common “bottom up” slush. “Top down” slush is often very short lived because it tends to form when we’re in a freeze/thaw cycle (aka”maple sugar days“) in late winter.  In fact, March tends to be the best month for winter travel in the Boundary Waters because on sunny days the increased intensity from the sun melts any snow on top of lake ice down to a crust that freezes overnight to create a concrete, sidewalk-like (and slush-free) surface to walk on.  

Myth #3: Slush is dangerous/not dangerous 

Many people’s instinct when they run into slush is to cut to the shoreline and start bushwhacking through the woods to their destination. Although slush isn’t much fun, sometimes “the only way out is through.” Although you might not notice it until you’re in slush, the snow covering a slush pocket often has a steely gray tinge that sets it apart from the snow on “unslushy” portions of the lake. If you can see the end of the grayer snow, your best bet to get your destination fastest is to just sprint through the slush pocket to firmer footing.  

Conversely, while no one is probably ever going to seek out slush, it really should be avoided, especially if you don’t have waterproof footwear on. You don’t want to open yourself up to hypothermia by getting drenched from the knee down. In very cold temperatures, slush can freeze to your footwear in a solid, heavy layer that makes it impossible to continue moving until you’ve thawed out your footwear, particularly if you’re wearing snowshoes. 

Moral of the story: if you find yourself in slush, don’t freak out, but work to extricate yourself as quickly as possible. 

Slush Trails from winter campers and snowmobiles on Round Lake on the Gunflint Trail in MN

As with most things in life, it’s better to prepare for the unpleasant reality of slush on your next winter Boundary Waters trip than just hoping you won’t run into it. 

  • Know the current conditions and be on the look out for slush as you travel, so you don’t end up in the middle of slush pocket simply because you weren’t paying attention to where you were walking. 
  • Wide back country skis or snowshoes will often keep you “floating” through the slush.
  • Have good waterproof winter boots for times when you must wade through the slush on foot. 
  • Pack ice scrappers so you can quickly remove slush from your feets and sleds. 
  • If you are going for day trip and know conditions are slushy, consider hauling your gear in a portage pack rather than a sled to mitigate the amount of slush removal you have to do. 

No matter how hard we try to avoid it, slush is a reality of Northwoods winters. Slush conditions vary wildly from year to year and day to day, so don’t let one bad slush experience put you off winter travel in the Boundary Waters forever. And remember: don’t worry, be happy. 

 

The Best Ice Fishing Lakes for Kids on the Gunflint Trail

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Ice fishing can be a hard sell for even the most devoted warm weather anglers. But here on the Gunflint Trail, ice fishing is a way of life and we can’t imagine not spending some (okay, a lot of) time each winter staring down a hole in the ice, hoping a fish will bite. 

Although you can ice fish many different species, we primarily target lake trout and each winter, we field questions about where people should take themselves and/or their kids on their first Gunflint Trail lake trout ice fishing day trip. 

Over time, we’ve developed three criteria we feel lakes should meet to be considered for a first-timer lake trout ice fishing expedition, especially when kids are coming along: 

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1) Easy to get to

We think the focus on anyone’s first ice fishing adventure should be on fishing, not on a three-mile slog across windblown lakes to reach the “best” fishing spot, or picking your way down a steep portage trying not to slip or spill the minnow bucket (and you know, if you go down the steep portage, you’re going to have to go back up it at the end of the day . . .). The sooner you can get lines in the water and a rod in your kid’s hand, the more likely they’ll maintain the enthusiasm they had for this ice fishing expedition when you headed out the door in the morning. 
2) Close to the car

This goes hand and hand in with point #1, but it’s an important enough point to deserve its own bullet point. If things go south and someone stages a mutiny at some point in the day, it’s nice to have a fairly short trip back to your vehicle. On the other hand, if the fishing is really fabulous and everyone’s having the time of their lives, not having a long haul back to the car means you can stay out on the lake a little longer at the end of the day. And in the advent that something got forgotten in the car or even back in the cabin, it’s nice to have that not automatically mean the end of the entire trip. 

3) High rate of success 

You know the quip, “the fishing was good, but the catching wasn’t.” While we’ve all been skunked, a day spent ice fishing with nothing to show for your labors is not what you want on someone’s first trip. When it comes to ice fishing with kids, we think quantity is better than quality. For that reason, we usually recommend lakes with young (and aggressive) lake trout populations, rather than lakes known for large, but consequently more finicky, trout. We think for kids catching something, anything, is better than fishing for hours in hopes of catching “the big one.” Regardless of the fish’s size, it’s just plain exciting to catch fish and let us not forget that the whole point is to have fun. 

So . . . you might be wondering, what lakes on the Gunflint Trail actually meet this criteria? 

Daniels Lake in Winter in the Boundary Waters We call it the “Moss-Duncan-Daniels” trifecta. All three lakes are accessed off the Hungry Jack Lake Road, in the mid-trail area of the Gunflint Trail. We usually recommend that people start out on Moss, since there’s a parking area right off the Hungry Jack Rd and it’s only a 1/3 mile hike on a packed trail to reach the lake. It’s known for its large population of small lake trout (average weight is 1.1 lbs) and tends to have a high rate of angler success.

Even better, if fishing is slow, it’s easy to pack up and portage into Duncan Lake. The fishing will probably be slower on Duncan, but the portage from Moss to Duncan is scenic and a fun adventure to break up the fishing, if need be. Alternatively, you can shake things up by driving the mile down the Hungry Jack Lake Rd road to the West Bearskin public access. From there, hike across West Bearskin and portage in Daniels Lake, which is also known for a large population of smaller trout. 

Other tips for successful ice fishing with kids: 

Keep everybody warm. Make sure everyone’s bundled up as warmly as possible and be sure to throw in extra socks and mittens in case anyone’s hands or feet get wet. (Here are our tips for what to wear in the winter in the Boundary Waters.) Remember that ice fishing is sedentary by nature; if your kid protests the extra sweater, remind them that they’re not going to sledding; they’re literally going to be standing outside for hours on end. Even the warmest day of ice fishing can turn chilly if the wind picks up. If you don’t own one, figure out a way to borrow or rent a shelter and space heater so people can escape from the elements and thaw out fingers and toes. 

Give everyone a job. There are a lot of things kids can’t do when it comes to ice fishing, especially when you’re setting up. They probably can’t drill holes or bait their own lines. Avoid apathetic young ice anglers,by teaching them how to use the fish finder to check lake depth. Or have them scoop the ice out of the holes or let them scoop up the minnows when you bait their hooks. 

Throw in the UNO cards. If you’re planning an all-day ice fishing adventure, you can bank on having some slow time. When the bite cools down, but no one’s ready to throw in the towel just yet, it’s nice to have something non-fishing related to keep people distracted until a tip-up goes up. The more fun you can make that first ice fishing trip, the more likely you’ll have kids asking about “next time.” 

Try the strategy of pairing. No one can guarantee a successful day of ice fishing, but you can pair your trip with a predictably enjoyable event. I’m not saying you have to go to Trail Center at the end of your ice fishing adventure, but it is right there when you’re turning onto the Gunflint Trail from the Hungry Jack Road . . .

Have you gone ice fishing with kids? What are your tips for first-timers? 

 

The Northwoods Tenets of Hygge

How’s your winter going so far? Super full of hygge yet? No? Don’t worry, we can help. 

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If you’re not sure what hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) is, I think Deb Perelman said it best, when she called hygge, “Danish coziness that’s having a moment.”  (For the record, we wrote about hygge here first in early 2016 in a curiously “on point” blog post.)

These days, it seems you can’t log into social media without running into a hygge reference or article. Entire books are being published on the concept of celebrating the coziness that can only be found in the dark winter months and here in northeastern Minnesota, we’ve taken hygge to such extremes that we even have a festival centered around hygge next month. 

With all the hygge buzz, I’ve been hesitant to revisit the subject – I mean, what could I possibly add to the now near feverish hype? But when I read the New York Times‘ list of “5 Cheap(ish) Things to Help You Have a Very Hygge Winter” last month, I realized I might have a slight corner of hygge as a born and bred northern Minnesotan.  Not to pick bones with the New York Times but the list left me . .  . cold, and not just because the article promised a list of five things yet only managed to deliver four. Tsk-tsk. (Case in point about my disconnect with the article: believe it or not, this spring will mark the completion of my 33rd winter spent in what can only be described as hygge bliss despite the fact that I do not – and perhaps never will – own a dog bed.) 

So I got thinking . . . If I were to recommend five cheap(ish) things for “a very hygge winter” what would they be?

1. Outdoor Adventure

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The purpose of hygge is to embrace winter and you can’t very well do that if you’re just gazing at it through a picture window with your fingers wrapped around a hot mug of cocoa. No, to truly hygge, you’ve got to get out in the swirling snow and subzero temperatures for a brisk hike, snowshoe, or ski, or maybe even some ice fishing on the next lake over. You could make a snowman, go sledding, or make snow angels. It really doesn’t matter what you do outside as long as it gets the heart rate up and brings out the color in your cheeks. For me, the most hygge moments are when the sun’s setting on a winter’s day when you’re settling back into the house after several hours outside. Inside is especially cozy when you know just how biting the wind is.

Also, on the cheap(ish) scale, it doesn’t get much cheaper than free fresh air. 

2. Crockpot 

I’m not saying the NYT article was a complete hot mess. I do agree with author Michelle Dozois’s recommendation of a dutch oven for your hygge-y purposes, but like the true Midwesterner I am, I take that dutch oven and I raise you a crockpot. After you’ve completed step one of my hygge recommendations, you’re probably famished and the thought of someone asking “what’s for supper” is just plain exhausting (and annoying). That’s why it’s best to have dinner already bubbling away in the crockpot when you return home. Whatever you make in the crockpot, it get extra hygge points if it pairs well with noodles or mashed potatoes. (And I bet it will.) 

3. Fake pants 

One of the great joys of returning home from winter adventure and stripping off your multiple layers of outerwear is the excuse to spend the rest of your waking hours wearing leggings, pajama pants, or otherwise “fake” pants. 

Not sure if you’re wearing fake pants? Look at your waist. If your pants are held up by anything other than elastic or a drawstring, you’re not wearing fake pants. Head back to your closet and try again. Now, doesn’t that feel better? 

4. A really good book 

If you get home from your outdoor adventure right around sunset, you’ll probably have a little time before supper’s ready. (For me, hygge primetime is approximately 4:30 – 5:15 p.m.) That’s when it’s time to settle in with a blanket, beverage of choice, and a book. If you want some wilderness-inspired reads, you can check our “Best of Camp Reads,” but I should say that for ideal hygge conditions, the book should be one that compels you to read more, more, more. Let go of those notions about what you “ought” to be reading (that list of 101 must-read classics can wait) and focus on finding a real page-turner. 

5. A nice smelling home 

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If you’re successful with step two of these hygge tips, your crockpot might already be filling your home with a delicious aroma. (Huzzah!) With the world frozen solid, we can forget how unstimulated our sense of smell is during winter. For that reason, a nice smelling house in wintertime seems especially cozy. It not hard to achieve: mull some wine, burn a scented candle, diffuse some essential oils, bake bread or cookies, or just simmer a pot of water on the stove with a sprig of rosemary and a couple slices of lemon in it for a 1/2 hour or so. (This last suggest also pumps some often much needed humidity in your home.)  

What are your tenets of hygge? 

A Few Winter Updates

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, winter came very early to the Gunflint Trail this year. Our last canoe group got off the water less than a week before our first snowstorm of the year and that first snowfall didn’t go anywhere; we’ve had continuous snow cover on the Gunflint Trail since October 26. That means we’re already in our second month of producing weekly winter weather updates.

Here’s this week’s edition:

You can view the rest of our winter report for the season on the winter report page or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Now that it’s officially December, we figured you might be joining us in our winter-y, holiday-focused state of mind. In that vein, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the Gift Shop Mini-Mart is open for business, offering a variety of Tuscarora/Boundary Waters themed stocking stuffers and apparel.

If you or a loved one has some camping equipment on your Christmas lists, we also have a handful of #3 Quetico Superior portage packs left (these sold really quickly, so buy now if you want to snag a couple) and are also selling off our older ALPS Mountaineering 20 degree sleeping bags on the bottom of our used canoes page

Here’s to a month of days that are merry and bright!