by Gustave Axelson
The elements all seemed to be there for knockout fishing. The calendar read May 16. Just five days before, the ice had gone out on mighty Lake Saganaga in the Boundary Waters. This is the time when legend has it voracious lake trout charge out of the depths and strike at anglers' lures like blitzing linebackers.
Except something was off. Weird. The forecast was for 80 degrees and bluebird skies. I was already in a T-shirt at 10 a.m. As Mark Ceminsky pulled up the 25-horsepower outboard on the aluminum boat to nudge through the rocky channel of the Seagull River to Big Sag, he looked down into the water and scratched his Mr. Clean-shaven head.
"Why are there no walleyes in here?" he asked aloud. The walleyes had emptied out of this spawning spot weeks ago—uncharacteristi-cally early. Somebody—Mother Nature? God? King Carbon of the Atmosphere?—had hit the accelerator on spring.
"In 2006 the ice was still on Sag when we arrived. We had to wait a few days before we could get on the lake," Ceminsky shouted as he gunned the outboard in open water. "But once we got on, we couldn't keep the fish off the line."
In most lake-trout lakes, aquatic invertebrates are lakers' primary forage when water temperatures rise and lake trout move to deep water. "When you slit their bellies open in summer, they're often full of a gray mush of small invertebrates," says Steve Persons, DNR Grand Marais area fisheries supervisor. But in spring, just as the ice recedes from shorelines, lakers migrate into the shallows where water temps are temporarily in the 40s. There they feast on fish including yellow perch and sunfish—a high-nutrition boost.
Because lake trout are a slow-growing species, they're vulnerable to overharvest. And because they're typically found 40 feet deep or more, lakers experience a shocking change in pressure when pulled up from the water. That could be one reason the DNR found that lake trout had a high hooking-mortality rate in a study of winter catch-and-release fishing. "If you want a laker or two to eat, that's fine. But don't catch lots of lake trout and then release them," says Steve Persons of the DNR. "If you're fishing for catch-and-release, bass are a better, more durable species."
For 28 years in a row, going back to when he was a boy fishing Sag with his dad, Ceminsky has been chasing the ice off Lake Saganaga in May. The weather is typically nasty—bone-chillingly cold and wet—and the lake trout are eager to bite. "I see all these folks coming up here to fish walleye at opener, and it don't make no sense to me. May fishing is for lakers," he says. While the walleye bite is slow when the season opens, the cold water just after ice-out attracts hungry lake trout into waters as shallow as 5 to 10 feet. The window of the hot laker bite can last a few weeks to a month, depending on how quickly the water warms. Then the lakers retreat to the deeper, colder parts of the lake where they live for the rest of the summer.
As beads of sweat formed on Ceminsky's brow and the sun grew hotter, it seemed maybe that window had already closed.
Mark Ceminsky is an anachronism, a throwback to a time in America when blue-collar guys could get a good-paying, steady job and a piece of the good life. For 17 years he worked for Ford Motor Co. in Duluth, with 34 days off each year. He built his own cabin on the Seagull River, had a boat, and became one of the best fishermen on the upper Gunflint Trail.
After making a career change, Ceminsky sold his cabin and boat. On this day he manned the outboard on a boat borrowed from a buddy. The constant in his life has been early-spring fishing for ice-out lakers. And come what may, summery weather be damned, he meant to get his fish.
"This one's a sure bet for getting a laker," Ceminsky said as he tied on a slender, silver trolling spoon 3 feet behind an in-line sinker and handed the fishing pole to me. A silver spoon triggers a hardwired reaction in a lake trout: The flashing of reflected light catches the fish's eye, and the wobbling action of the lure stimulates its lateral line—a sense organ that enables it to detect movement in the water via subtle changes in pressure. The laker's brain calculates the lure's light and movement to be the flailing of an injured prey fish, which in Sag could be cisco, smelt, or whitefish.
For an hour we trolled the lures in grand circles off American Point at Sag's western end. But it didn't seem like an hour. Time passes fast as clouds march across the big sky over this 14,000-acre border water. The diversity of scenery is striking: Some shores are barren with charred tree skeletons from the 2007 Ham Lake Fire, while others are the classic boreal Christmas tree forests of the Boundary Waters and Quetico. In his 1956 book The Singing Wilderness, conservationist and author Sigurd Olson declares victory at Sag in his quest for the perfect wilderness lake: "Then one golden day I came to Saganaga. My first glimpse from the western narrows was enough, and as I stood there and looked out across the broad blue reaches to the east with their fleets of rocky islands, the hazy blue hills toward the hinterlands of the Northern Light Country, I knew I had reached my goal."
"Time to switch it up," Ceminsky announced. I shook out of a trance induced by loon watching—the tuxedoed bird disappearing with a plip and ripples on the water, then resurfacing with a wriggling baitfish in its beak. Ceminsky handed me a wide-wobbling crankbait to tie on, told me to let out 50 feet of line, and set to trolling at 2.5 mph. Fifteen minutes later, my pole bent. I reeled and retrieved our first laker of the day, wrapping one hand around the forked tail and my other hand under the pectoral fins. Its lithe, missile-shaped body flexed within my grip. It was a beautiful fish, speckled olive and deep dark evergreen—like the pines on shore—along its back.
"Probably about 2 pounds," Ceminsky estimated, based on its length of 18 inches. "Not a big fish, but a good eater for sure."
Lake trout are actually char, not trout, more closely related to arctic char than to rainbow trout. True boreal fish, they dwell in the cold, clear rocky lakes of the Canadian Shield. In fact, lake trout by birthright should be the king fish of the Boundary Waters. Lakers, not walleyes, lured anglers up the Gunflint Trail in the early 20th century and made the region famous for fishing. Walleyes hadn't been stocked yet. Not one lake in Cook County has native walleyes in it.
But lakers are a slow-growing species. At 4 years old, a laker in Lake Saganaga measures about 11 inches, whereas walleyes are 14 inches long and pike are 24 inches. Lakers are sensitive to harvest. Overfishing nearly cleared out the lake trout in Sea Gull and Clearwater lakes by the 1930s. The Department of Conservation (now Department of Natural Resources) responded with regulations and stocking. And by midcentury, laker stocks seemed to have rebounded. In the 1980s, DNR fisheries biologists began tagging stocked fish to evaluate survival, but they couldn't find many tagged lakers in subsequent surveys. Despite the stocking, natural reproduction was responsible for the rebound.
These days "the DNR is pretty much out of the stocking business [for lake trout] along the Gunflint Trail," says Grand Marais area fisheries supervisor Steve Persons. Regulations, including a modest limit of two, have done a good job of keeping harvest in balance with natural reproduction, Persons says. But he also says that a warmer climate poses a threat that neither natural reproduction, nor tighter regulations, nor more stocking could surmount.
Lakers depend on the twice-yearly lake turnover to replenish the oxygen supply in deeper waters (surface water brings oxygen as it cools and sinks). A laker's oxygen supply is limited in the 40- to 70-foot depth where it lives most of the year. The earlier that warm summer temperatures arrive and the longer they last, the greater the risk that lakers will run out of oxygen in cold, deep water before the fall turnover.
Birch Lake along the Gunflint Trail once had a thriving lake trout population, but nowadays lakers are hard to find there. Persons says his crew measured oxygen levels in the lake and found they were way down. "That case may have been more due to development," Persons says. "But given climate change projections, a large number of lake trout lakes are at risk of similar declines in oxygen levels."
"It's time for Mean Green," said Ceminsky, smiling as he reached deep into his tackle box. Three hours had passed since I caught my fish, and not a bite since. We'd tried a few other spots on Sag; now we'd returned to trolling the loop off American Point. And Ceminsky had turned to his old reliable, a treasured neon-green jerk bait that boated many a laker over the past decade.
Minutes passed. Our chatter dwindled. We both got lulled into watching the twittering tips of our rods as we trolled. Then Ceminsky sat up straight. "That could've been a bump," he said, noting an irregularity in his rod's twittering. Could be a sign of a hungry fish, he explained. Lake trout are known to slap a baitfish with their tail, injure it, then come back for the attack. Sure enough, not a minute later, Ceminsky quietly declared, "Fish on."
"Could be your fish's twin brother," he said as he extracted another 18-inch laker from the net. It took him a few minutes to untangle the fish, which was wrapped up in his fishing line. "Lakers execute a death roll underwater, rolling and twisting, that's why they're so good at shaking hooks," he said. Into the livewell went the fish, and Ceminsky set course for a nearby island with a campsite.
We landed on a jumble of rocks and clambered onto a gray granite terrace with a view north into the unbroken northern lights country. Beneath a towering red pine—its upper boughs whispering in the late-afternoon breeze—I found the fire grate and set my campstove atop it. Ceminsky cleaned the fish, laid the fillets in melted butter in a cast-iron pan, and seasoned them with garlic and a drizzle of maple syrup. Potatoes with onions and garlic sizzled in a neighboring pan. He didn't say much while he prepared dinner. I asked him what he was thinking, and he said he was remembering a time way back when he was 4 years old, and his dad made him a shore lunch like this on an island not far away from this one. I asked him how he felt about finally putting fish in the frying pan after seven hours on the water today, and he replied simply: "It feels good. Rewarding."
Even on a day when the fish weren't biting, when the ravenous ice-out lakers were nowhere to be found, he put 28 years of fishing Saganaga into two trout and a fine meal. The tradition lived on for another year.