Anglers fish the old, simple way for trout on Saganaga LakeON SAGANAGA LAKE, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS — As we shuffled across the frozen surface of Saganaga Lake, Mike Prom could see the spot where he wanted to fish.
By: Sam Cook, Forum News Service
ON SAGANAGA LAKE, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS — As we shuffled across the frozen surface of Saganaga Lake, Mike Prom could see the spot where he wanted to fish.
“It’s between that rock outcrop and that downed tree,” Prom said. “Then we’ll just work offshore until we find water from 30 to 50 feet deep.”
You could call it navigating by GPS, but only if those initials stood for Granite and Pine on Shore. It still works up here in the wilderness.
Prom, who operates Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the tip of the Gunflint Trail about 60 miles northwest of Grand Marais, was leading three of us to one of his more productive lake trout fishing holes. We were seven miles by snowmobile and foot travel from the public landing on Saganaga, a big lake that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border.
Sag, as many call it, is known first for its trophy walleyes, where in ice-free months anglers have a legitimate shot at a fish 30 inches or longer. But guides and locals know the lake also is rich in lake trout, the native species that loves deep, cold water.
Along on this lake trout exploration Tuesday were Mark Ceminsky, 37, and Chad Goodale, 31, both of whom work for Prom and his wife, Sue, at the outfitting business. Theoretically, canoe outfitters have more time for fishing this time of year than in the summer, when they’re packing food and gear for canoeists and routing them on wilderness trips.
We drilled a hole some distance off shore, and Prom used a hand-held depth-finder to sound the bottom. From the same hole, he got readings of 73 feet, 29 feet and 34 feet. Something was fishy. So, we tried Goodale’s hand-held depth-finder and got 30 feet. We figured that was close.
We augured several holes farther from shore and found water up to 60 feet deep. Because we were in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where power augers are not permitted, we drilled all our holes in traditional fashion —two people on the auger, crank a while, stop for half-time, then take it on down. The ice must have been at least 2 feet thick. There was little of the auger handle showing when we would break through to water.
Action on a tube jig
Lake trout fishing is rarely fast. If a few anglers can pick up a half-dozen trout or so, they feel as if they’ve had a good day. Usually, the fish run decent size, from 3 pounds and up.
It wasn’t long before Ceminsky had pulled up about a 2½-pounder, fooling it with a white tube jig and a salted minnow.
“Right now, the lake trout on Sag are awesome,” Prom said, jigging a pink Swedish Pimple tipped with a preserved minnow. “They’re healthy. We get fish like that all the way up to 10 pounds.”
When he and Sue first came to the Gunflint 20 years ago, it was unusual to catch lake trout smaller than 5 or 6 pounds, he said. But over the years, that has changed, he said, and lake trout of all sizes are represented in the population, indicating a robust fishery.
Lake trout fishing is something of a nod to earlier, more primitive times. You can use electronics if you wish, and it probably would help. Ceminsky had brought a small sonar unit along but pulled it out of his hole after catching his first fish. The rest of us didn’t bring one. That was partly a concession to weight. But honestly, we thought we could do just fine without them.
Prom finds the challenge of lake trout fishing satisfying. He makes a few trips each winter, sometimes overnight in canvas tents with wood stoves. Every time he goes, he says, he has to figure out what the trout want.
Do they want Buckshot jigs or Swedish Pimples? Do they want shiners or fatheads? Are they cruising in 30 feet of water or 60 feet? Do they want the bait near bottom or halfway up the water column? Do they want it moving, on a jig? Or do they want it stationary, suspended on a tip-up line?
We gave them all of those options on Tuesday, and each produced to some degree. We caught fish near the bottom. We caught them suspended. We caught most of them jigging but also had bites on tip-ups.
Unlike walleyes, which seem to bite best early and late, lake trout might go all day — one here, one there, a little flurry now and then. We didn’t get that first fish, Ceminsky’s, until about 10 a.m. By 11:45, we had taken four, the largest between 5 and 6 pounds on a white bucktail jig from 50 feet of water.
When that bigger one came thrashing up through the ice, Prom got excited.
“That’s why a guy does this,” he said.
The trout were lean and buff and powerful. Try holding even a 5- or 6-pounder, and it’s all you can do to subdue it for the obligatory photo. Like the country where they live, lake trout aren’t flashy. Their bodies are the color of granite, splashed with milky spots. Colors vary from lake to lake, with some lakes producing almost charcoal lakers with buttery spots.
“The meat varies, too,” Prom said. “Some of it is bright orange, some pink, some white.”
There’s probably a chemical or biological explanation for all of that, but none of us knows it or, frankly, cares too much. It was enough to be standing on a snowy lake in January with wilderness stretching in every direction, catching organic food that tugged really hard. There wasn’t another angler, or probably another human, within four miles of us.
Echoes of the past
In the lulls between bites, Prom talked about those who had come before us to this country. Art Madsen, the former Quetico Provincial Park ranger who settled with his wife, Dinna, on Saganaga. Benny Ambrose, the curmudgeonly trapper who came north from Iowa and homesteaded on Ottertrack Lake, just west of us on the border.
And some, like Dickie and Shari Powell, who still live just down the lake on the Canadian side. Dickie is still trapping the big, empty country north of there. And there’s Janice Matichuk, the dedicated Quetico Provincial Park ranger who has worked the station at Cache Bay on Sag for so many years.
Today’s anglers are, in many ways, beneficiaries of those who have come before, who protected this country, who guided early visitors and whose stories add color to the landscape. People like the Proms probably could have been successful in business wherever they went, but they, too, were drawn by the canoe country. Now, their stories are becoming part of the saga of Saganaga.
We finished with seven trout and put five of them in our packs to take home. On our way, we had to skirt the edge of a formidable pressure ridge that snaked across the ice to the horizon, reminding us that there are forces on a grand scale still at work this country.