Window of opportunity
DULUTH — Chris Johnson had his hands full. Sitting alone in his fishing shelter Tuesday afternoon on Lake Superior, his fishing rod was bent in a serious arc. His rod tip was pointed straight at the bottom of Lake Superior 100 feet below.
“I’ve got a big one on,” said Johnson, of Milaca. “I’ve had him on for 10 minutes.”
Johnson was the latest among hundreds of anglers who have ventured out on a foot or so of Lake Superior ice to jig for lake trout in recent days. This is the first time in several years that anglers have found ice conditions they consider reasonably safe for foot travel.
Johnson’s shelter was among 52 on the ice Tuesday afternoon off Brighton Beach. Most were from 300 yards to a quarter-mile from shore, atop 70 to 120 feet of water.
As he played his lake trout, Johnson had another concern. He was using light monofilament line instead of the braided line many anglers use.
“It’s either 6-pound or 4-pound (test),” Johnson said. “I hope it’s six.”
He back-reeled quickly when the lake trout made its runs, then gained back line as the fish tired. Finally, after a 20-minute battle, Johnson could see the fish through his hole.
“Oh, that’s a nice one,” he said.
He eased the nose of the big laker into the hole.
“This is the dangerous part here,” he said.
A single hook from his Vibrato jigging spoon was impaled in the lake trout’s jaw. Johnson reached down, grabbed the fish by a gill cover and eased it out of the hole. It was a gorgeous Lake Superior specimen, silver-gray with characteristic creamy spots. It had to weigh close to 12 pounds.
“That’s why you come out here and sit all day,” Johnson said.
His dad and two friends were fishing nearby. Johnson had picked one of them up at 4:15 a.m. to be on the ice of Lake Superior by 8:30 a.m.
■ Three big fish —
Duluth’s Grant Sorensen, a pro staffer with Rapala, said he thinks he and two buddies, Kevin Brazerol and Rob Rice of Duluth, were the first ones to forge onto Lake Superior’s ice near the Lester River this year. They were out Feb. 27, when nobody else was around, Sorensen said. He caught a lake trout in the 20-pound range that day and took two more over 20 pounds the next day.
Their first day out, Sorensen and friends encountered an opening in the ice that they had to jump across so they could get to deeper water, he said.
“There was a big crack we had to jump,” Sorensen said. “If you were overweight or old, you couldn’t have made it.”
His crew, all in their 20s, made it and kept going. While that might sound sketchy to some, Sorensen says he pays close attention to ice and wind conditions on Lake Superior. The greatest risk to anglers on the ice of Lake Superior is that an entire sheet of ice could drift away. It has happened in past years, stranding anglers who had to be rescued.
“You just don’t go out there in a heavy northwest wind,” Sorensen said. “That ice has hundreds of miles to float.”
At midweek, Lake Superior was 95 percent ice-covered, according to the Great Lakes Research Lab of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that doesn’t guarantee the ice is safe.
Sorensen did most of his fishing in 90 to 120 feet of water, fishing homemade tube jigs in the bottom 10 to 30 feet of the water column, he said. The jigs were tipped with chunks of frozen cisco.
“Most of them will hit in that bottom 30 feet,” he said. “In low pressure, they’re more active.”
But bigger fish are often suspended at, say, 40 feet in 80 feet of water, Sorensen said. Those are the fish he targets.
“I’d rather catch one big fish than five small ones,” he said.
He released all of his big lakers, as he usually does with anything over 10 pounds. He didn’t weigh them.
“They were all approaching 40 inches,” he said. “Anything 38 to 40 (inches) is going to be 18 to 30 pounds.”
Don Schreiner, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, isn’t surprised anglers have found good fishing.
“That’s something we’ve seen over the years. It seems like when we get ice, the winter lake trout anglers are more successful than even in the summertime,” Schreiner said. “And it seems like the lake trout are more vulnerable, especially the larger lake trout.”
■ Easy living—
Anglers who were out on Tuesday enjoyed full sunshine, 15-degree temperatures and not a breath of wind. Some sat on chairs out in the open. It was the balmiest day Duluth had seen in some time.
Jon Redfield of Silver Bay had a 6-pound lake trout on the ice. He had taken the fish on a tube jig in 80 feet of water, he said. A friend, Tim Tierney of Duluth, had already left with a 5- and an 8-pound lake trout.
Like other anglers, Redfield welcomed this ready access to Lake Superior’s lake trout.
“You can’t beat this. You don’t need a 20-foot boat and downriggers,” Redfield said. “It’s really nice the few times you can get out here. The last time was in the mid-2000s, probably.”
Anglers kept coming and going, some moving to find water of different depths. The ice thickness ranged from 12 to 15 inches, according to anglers’ estimates. The going was easy on the big lake, with just an inch or two of snow atop the ice in most places.
Several anglers mentioned that they had seen large schools of coho salmon and schools of herring swimming in shallow water just beneath their fishing holes. Some had caught cohos.
“One school of cohos that came by, there must have been a thousand of them,” Redfield said.
Nick Rectenwald and Matt Bauer of Duluth sat in the open and jigged for trout on Tuesday.
“It’s so nice you don’t have to drive so far,” Rectenwald said.
They had caught three fish on Monday, they said.
All of the anglers seemed to know that ice conditions could change any day and that this angling village would be a thing of the past.
“It’s going to be gone in two weeks,” Sorensen said early this past week.
Roger Johnson, 72, of Scandia, knows firsthand how that can happen. Johnson, the father of Chris Johnson, stood on the ice Tuesday and talked about a day several years ago when he and another angler drifted away on a sheet of ice 4 inches thick.
When they had noticed that the floe they were on was moving, they had tried to get to shore but were prevented by open water. Fortunately, the floe drifted toward Canal Park, where the wind pushed the ice into a heap as it met shorefast ice. Johnson and the other angler managed to scramble over the windrow of ice and get to shore, exhausted but relieved.
“It’s great that fishing is good,” the DNR’s Schreiner said, “but they still have to be cautious with that ice.”