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. 

 
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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? 

Visiting the Boundary Waters’ Birthplace

Last month, Andy and I had a chance to visit the birthplace of the Boundary Waters. It’s the birthplace of a lot of other things too. 

If you’re imagining something like the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park with its official sign when you think of the birthplace of the Boundary Waters, think again. Chances are, even if you’ve never visited this birthplace in person, you’ve seen it countless times in the media. It might seem a little strange that the Boundary Waters – America’s most popular wilderness area – traces its beginnings to a completely manmade structure of stone, columns, and steps in a very urban setting. 
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Nevertheless, the place that birthed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.

Sure, the lakes and rocks of northeastern Minnesota have existed for millennia, but the fact that today we go on canoe or hiking trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the direct result of U.S. legislators’ work in the 20th century. Without the federal legislative action taken in the 1960s and 70s, today when you checked in for a cabin at Tuscarora, you might be checking in for a cabin actually located on Tuscarora Lake and we’d work with you to motor and portage your party and your gear over the two portages between our parking lodge on Round Lake and your cabin on Tuscarora Lake. When you parked here for your winter camping trip, you might be planning to snowmobile all the way into Gillis Lake. 

Of course, the cabins that Tuscarora Lodge used to own on Tuscarora Lake are long gone, but at the end of the day, the only thing preventing you from using motors within the designated wilderness area is a federal law. (And we should all strive to be law-abiding citizens at every level of government.) At the risk of sounding too esoteric, the Boundary Waters is just an idea. A very good idea, but an abstract concept nonetheless. 

So while the trees, waters, and rocks on either side of the Boundary Waters border might look basically identical when you’re in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we know it today is the result of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act that President Carter signed into law in 1978. In order to achieve the protections that U.S. citizens wanted for the Minnesota/Canada boundary lake country, the BWCAW act officially defined 1.1 million acres contained within the Superior National Forest as “Boundary Waters.” The 1978 act came after decades of state and federal legislative action that slowly worked to define the Boundary Waters as one of the United States’ most special and beloved natural areas. 

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Northeastern Minnesota was certainly a contentious place in the late 1970s when the Boundary Waters were being debated at the federal level. But it’s nice to think that the resulting wilderness area came about from concerned citizens and area business owners working together with their legislators and compromising. Today we’re still afforded the opportunity to voice any concerns we might have about the Boundary Waters with our elected officials. (If you’re curious to learn more about the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, you can check out this podcast from WTIP which specifically discusses how Gunflint Trail residents were involved with the bill’s passage.)  

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We were only in Washington D.C. for three nights and we weren’t organized enough to  make arrangements to watch Congress or the Senate in session. But we did tour the Capitol building and I donned my brightest plaid shirt for the occasion – a subtle nod to the 1970s Gunflint Trail business owners who wore buffalo plaid shirts whenever they visited to the Capitol to lobby about the BWCAW bill. 

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We were on a purely sightseeing visit to Washington D.C., but despite this, I was surprised at how effective the city was – with its grand buildings and innumerable monuments – at creating “that America feeling”  and making me really think (maybe overthink?!) about the impact certain acts of U.S. legislation have had on my own personal life. 

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We never got much beyond the National Mall during our visit (our lodging was just two blocks from the White House), but we managed to squeeze a lot of monuments, museums, and miles into our short visit. 

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Highlights included: 

  • Observing a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery 
  • Watching the helicopters fly back and forth over the Tidal Basin as we toured monuments 
  • Taking a break from wordy Smithsonian exhibits in the flower-filled lobby of the National Gallery 
  • Enjoying a plethora of dining options 

 

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Although we were a little early for cherry blossoms, the green grass covering the National Mall, as well as the beautiful green oasis of the United States Botanic Garden, were truly sights for sore, winter-worn eyes. During our brief trip, it snowed another foot back home on the Gunflint . . . . 

We certainly left a lot unseen in Washington D.C., but we hope to return sometime soon; plaid shirts optional.   

Have you been to Washington D.C.? What was your favorite sight? 

Is a Boundary Waters Trip Right For You?

If our Pinterest account can be believed, a handful of the people who end up on our website each day are driven by this question: “Is a Boundary Waters trip right for you?” Granted, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably already know a Boundary Waters/Quetico trip works well for you, but we figured we’d take this information that’s been buried on our trip planning page so it’s easy to find and share with people you know who can’t quite decide how they feel about canoe tripping. 

Obviously, we’re biased: we think everyone should experience the Boundary Waters and Quetico. (Check out our 10 reasons why every 20-something should canoe trip.) If you’re on the fence about taking a trip to America’s most popular wilderness area, here’s some real talk about what a canoe trip is all about to help you determine if a BWCA trip is right for you.

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Do you like being outdoors?

Kind of a no-brainer, but the people who get the most out of their Boundary Waters experience are folks who gravitate towards spending time outdoors no matter what corner of the world they’re in. Previous camping experience definitely isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoying a BWCA canoe trip, but it is helpful if you feel at ease being outside for extended periods of time.

Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?

Tuscarora does not offer guided canoe trips in the BWCA and Quetico. 100% of our outfitting guests successfully navigate canoe country independently. We’ll set you up with the maps you need for your trip and go over your route carefully to mark any confusing spots before you leave our office, but you’ll need to actively navigate during your entire trip.

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Do you like the idea of going off the grid?

Your cell phone won’t work in the Boundary Waters and Quetico and even if you bring an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or texting device, it can be hours before emergency responders reach your group. Boundary Waters campers are responsible for their own safety. You can help yourself avoid medical emergencies by moving carefully on portage trails and practicing extreme caution when using axes, saws, and fires.

Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?

Almost all canoe trips require portaging, meaning you pick up all your gear, canoe, and paddles and carry them from one lake to the next. While the majority of portages are less than a ½ mile long, even the shortest portage can be strenuous. You can avoid a lot of the physical demands of a Boundary Waters trip by opting for a base camp canoe route. Part of going on a canoe trip means you will have wet feet from time to time and that you’ll be sleeping on the ground. A canoe trip is a far cry from the all-inclusive vacation, but we think you’ll find it an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.

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Are you a-okay with things not going exactly according to plan?

Although people often refer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a “park,” the BWCA is very different from what you’ve experienced in a U.S. National Park. The BWCA is maintained to be, well, wild. There aren’t signs marking portages or lakes and you’ll probably run across at least one spot where the portage trail is obscured by fallen trees or flooding. The weather in northern Minnesota is highly variable year-round so make sure you pack good raingear and plenty of warm clothing, no matter what time of year you visit.

If you answered “YES!” to those five questions, congratulations, a Boundary Waters adventure sounds like a great fit for your personality. By setting realistic expectations for your canoe trip, you can have the trip of a lifetime and you might even like it so much that you come back year after year to explore different routes and seasons. 

Favorite BWCA Gadgets: The Silky Folding Hand Saw

Despite recommending that you read Hatchet, we don’t actually recommend that you bring a hatchet (or an ax, for that matter) on your next Boundary Waters or Quetico trip. Although packing an ax might seem like a no-brainer, we feel strongly that much better tools for easy firewood production.

Unless you’re cooking all your meals over a campfire, you probably won’t need enough firewood during your trip to justify the risk that comes with operating an ax in a wilderness area. In 2016, two different groups that outfitted through Tuscarora had to ended their trips early due to injury. Both of those injuries were caused by an ax. Axes don’t only cause bodily harm, when strapped to the outside of portage packs which are then dropped into floating Kevlar canoes, an edge of the ax head often damages the canoe’s foam core.

If you’re gathering firewood that’s dead, down, and wrist-size or smaller as per the Boundary Waters rules and regulations, you won’t even need to split your firewood while you’re in the woods. For the most efficient and safe firewood gathering in the BWCA, your best friend is the folding hand saw. 

Three Sizes of Silky Saws

In recent years, we’ve come to depend on a cadre of Silky brand folding saws for our firewood and brushing needs. As you can see above, we’ve accumulated quite a collection. A Japanese company, Silky is known for producing high quality, efficient, and smooth cutting handsaws.   

For Boundary Waters trips, the Big Boy Silky Saw pictured in the middle of the above photo with the orange handle is your most practical option. (In fact, it’s the saw that Amy and Dave Freeman used during their “Year in the Wilderness” back in 2015/16.)  The Big Boy weighs less than a pound and folds down to 15 inches. We find the extra large teeth blades work best for slicing through Northwoods brush, but you can choose from extra fine, medium, and large teeth blades as well. 

Before this post just turns into an infomercial, let’s bullet point what we appreciate about Silky saws: 

  • Good ergonomics – the saw is designed to do its cutting when you pull the blade back towards your body which lessens body strain and allows you to make quick work of your firewood gathering. 
  • Easy open, easy close – While it can feel like you need an engineering degree to assemble some of the lightweight folding saws on the market, the Silky saws simply pull open and shut like a pocket knife.
  • Replacement options – You can buy replacement blades for about half the price of the actual saw. You just need a flat head screwdriver to switch out blades. 
  • Safety first – These saws won’t fly out of your hands and land into your foot. And because the blade is securely tucked into its handle when not in use, you don’t have to worry about anyone accidentally cutting them when it’s not in use. 
  • Economical –  The Big Boy retails at about $70.00. And because they’re easy to safely operate, you might even avoid a few insurance co-pays too!  

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Here’s a short video of the Silky saw in action:

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.