Rainbow Trout Made a Gunflint Trail Adventure Worth It

The bracing cold is no joke, but taking my friend up on his favorite trip north really paid off
James Hall of Duluth displays his catch
James Hall of Duluth displays his catch

Photo by Mike Mosedale

For many years, my friend and fishing companion PK pestered me to join him on what he always insisted was his favorite trip: a winter ice fishing excursion to the remote trout lakes sprinkled along the Gunflint Trail. The Gunflint, a 57-mile dead-end road that bisects the eastern portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), is widely regarded as one of Minnesota’s most splendid, auto-accessible spots. So why did I resist PK’s entreaties for so many years?

Usually, I was a willing accomplice to his idea of a good time. Together, we trolled for salmon on Lake Superior in his woefully undersized 16-foot Lund. We waded the frothy, rock-filled rapids of the St. Louis River for smallmouth bass. On one memorable December day, we fished for walleyes in the effluent channel of the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, ignoring the whiff of sewage amid surprisingly steady action. And together, we enjoyed a couple of memorable, five-day camping trips to the BWCA.

But both those BWCA forays were in September, which is, we can all agree, Minnesota’s most glorious month. When PK shared details of his winter trout fishing escapades, my thought was, “Yeah, thanks … that sounds too cold.” Besides, I was really never a serious ice fisherman. I had the basic gear, which I hauled out onto some Twin Cities lake a couple times a year to drown fathead minnows. To be frank, these mostly fruitless outings were little more than an excuse to get out of the house.

And then there was the elephant in the room: The winter trout season commences in the most frigid part of winter, with the opener arriving on January 1 for lakes within the BWCA and two weeks later for lakes outside it.

PK’s reports did not allay my trepidation. One January—after the state was walloped by a particularly horrendous polar vortex—PK related that he had just spent three days on the Gunflint with hardly a bite. Though he insisted the skunking was an anomaly, I was happy that I had opted to binge-watch NFL playoffs from my soft, warm couch.

But three years ago—afflicted with a touch of Melville’s “damp, drizzly November in my soul”—I finally decided why not?

In the days leading up to our departure, there was much strategizing about the necessary provisions, including sufficient food and beverages for our party of 10 dudes. Ice fishing gear was also top concern. This meant, in addition to tackle and rods: a portable tent, a propane heater, an auger to drill holes, and, of course, the warmest clothes in the closet.

PK’s winter trout crew has evolved over the decades—he’s been doing the trip since the 1980s—and I was one of the newbies. So, I was crammed in the backseat of a small SUV, with coolers and snow shoes and everything else that didn’t fit in our trailer, for the long ride north. After a pit stop in Duluth at Marine General, where we shopped for “Looper Bugs,” a famously effective trout jig that bears no resemblance to any living thing, we drove up the North Shore to Grand Marais and hit the Gunflint Trail.

As expected, it was cold and snowy as we made our way to the two A-frame cabins we rented at Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground, a family-run operation located 47 miles up the trail on the south shore of Gunflint Lake. With the afternoon sun fast fading, I glimpsed out the front window across the lake. On the other side lay Canada, a vast expanse of wilderness still scarred from a forest fire a decade earlier.

Skiiers on the Gunflint Ski Trail System
Skiiers on the Gunflint Ski Trail System

Photo by Mark Tessier

After the group settled down for dinner, an annual ritual commenced: the debate over what lake we would target in the morning. Everyone—except me—had opinions. That was no surprise. Cook County, with its myriad cool, relatively infertile lakes, is the troutiest county in Minnesota. Despite the wilderness feel of the Gunflint, these lakes are extensively stocked, largely with non-native rainbow trout. In the deeper colder lakes, lake trout (generally referred to as “lakers”) are native but the Department of Natural Resources still supplements their population with hatchery-raised fish.

It was during this discussion that I gleaned an important fact about ice fishing for trout: You want to get on the ice, and wet your line, before sunrise. Many trout, especially rainbows, are most active at dusk and dawn. Fortune favors those anglers who set the alarm clock.

It was still pitch black when I heard PK rattling around the kitchen, putting in the premade egg bake and brewing up the first pot of coffee. A pink glow on the horizon was beginning to show by the time we loaded the vehicles and set out for Leo Lake. We had selected Leo for a couple of reasons. For one, it was 20 below—cold even for the Gunflint in January—and there was a breeze. Nobody wanted a long portage in such conditions, which made Leo’s roadside location perfect.

Another factor: The lake had been stocked extensively with rainbows. Over the past decade, according to the DNR website, Leo has been the recipient of some 50,000 hatchery-raised rainbows—a hefty number for a 102-acre lake.

Lugging our gear on sleds, we trudged across the deep snow and set up our little village of five nearly identical tents on the far side of the lake. We drilled our holes with a hand auger, which is basically a giant metal corkscrew. As expected, the ice was a good 24 inches thick. The exertion of drilling holes was warming.

That diminished after I set up my tent. I struggled to ignite Mr. Heater, the portable propane heater I needed to keep from freezing. Flustered, I wondered whether I made a mistake in coming. But Mr. Heater eventually flickered into life, and I settled in pursuit of trout.

I tipped my Looper Bug with a juicy little maggot known as a butter worm, perched on the edge of a flimsy seat, and commenced jigging. Peering down the hole, I could see my Looper Bug as it bounced on the silty bottom 12 feet below. This aquarium-like effect was due to the clarity of the water and the shading created by my tent.

A tiny village of portable tents on Leo Lake
A tiny village of portable tents on Leo Lake

Photo by Mark Tessier

After a spell, I heard exclamations from my companions as the first pods of rainbows cruised in the shallows. Soon, rainbows appeared on the ice outside their tents. Dinner would be fish.

When my first rainbow hit, I was surprised by its vigor. These fish were not large—mainly in the 12- to 15-inch range—but rainbows are lovers of cold water and, unlike warm-water fishes, put up just as good a fight in winter as summer.

Hoisting a fish out of a hole in the ice is a weird experience, an incongruity a bit like pulling a rabbit from a hat. But it is satisfying, especially when considering the epicurean delight. On top of that, the rainbow trout is an exceedingly beautiful fish, shimmering with the range of colors its name implies.

As our crew fished on, the bites slowed down. The only real action for a few hours was the arrival of several DNR conservation officers and sheriff’s deputies in a fleet of roaring snowmobiles. In my experience, the winter trout opener on the Gunflint has always been accompanied by a visit from an officer, so you will want to have a valid fishing license in order (with a trout stamp) and familiarize yourself with the regulations. Possession limits for stream trout—rainbows, brook, splake—are more generous than those for lake trout, for instance, but if a lake is a “designated trout lake,” you can use only one line at a time and live minnows are prohibited.

By mid-day, the crew was ready to try a new lake. We packed up our tents, loaded the sleds, and trudged back to the vehicles. While we caught more fish over the weekend—and enjoyed splendid meals at the end of some exhausting days—it was the rainbows of Leo that made me wonder why it took me so long to accept PK’s invitation.

For ideas on where to eat, play, and stay near the Gunflint Trail, click here.

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