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:
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?
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?