OFF THE GUNFLINT TRAIL — We bushwhacked through a phalanx of balsam and black spruce, thick alder, ankle-wrenching hummocks and tussocks, black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies.
It was only a quarter-mile or so. But it seemed, well, longer.
“Misery is not always measured in distance,’’ said a smiling Shawn Perich after we stumbled out of the bush just as the sun set.
He wasn’t just smiling because of the bleeding black fly welts on his guests, or the sweat pouring out of their pores. Perich was smiling because he had just caught a dozen or so brook trout in about an hour of throwing his own hand-tied flies on a remote stretch of Gunflint-country stream.
These weren’t the palm-sized trout many of us are used to. These were trophy Northeastern Minnesota brookies — several in the 12-inch category and one that might have gone 16 inches long.
“This is one of the best spots for brook trout that I’ve found up here,’’ Perich said.
And that’s saying something. Perich has lived in the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead since 1987 and has been exploring up here most of his 61 years. There isn’t a walleye lake or lake trout hotspot that he doesn’t know about. He’s also a big time Lake Superior troller — the big lake is just minutes out the door from his Hovland home — and he’s among the hardest of hard-core North Shore steelhead rainbow trout anglers come every spring. He’s also an expert still-hunter for deer and an avid upland bird hunter.
But brook trout hold a very special place in Perich’s heart.
“They were the fish first I ever caught, or at least the first ones I remember,’’ said Perich, who grew up in Duluth’s Piedmont neighborhood. “I have an affinity for brook trout.”
Perich looks for the most remote, hard-to-get-to stretches of stream he can find. There he looks for stretches where these usually shallow, narrow, fast-running streams get a little slower, wider and deep enough for trout to hang out.
“Wherever you can find slow water… in a place most people won’t ever get to, you can find some big fish,’’ he said.
And that’s where we were.
Growing up in Duluth
Perich has been hooked on fishing since he was knee-high to his dad, Dan Perich, his outdoor mentor. He used to steal away to Duluth’s many urban trout streams to fish whenever he could. One of his regular spots was the stocked trout pond out back at the Engwall Florists greenhouse.
“Engwall’s pond is the first place we met. He was nine and I was eight, catching stocked trout,’’ said Al Lutkevich of Duluth, a longtime friend of Perich’s. “All summer long as kids we’d be at Miller’s Creek or Keene Creek or maybe bike out to the Midway (River). We used to hunt rabbits with a bow and arrow out in the woods in town, too.”
Perich said he was absolutely focused on fishing and hunting as a kid. His father, a school district custodian who died in 2004, was an avid angler who liked making trips to the Gunflint Trail for lake trout. Shawn often got to tag along.
“That’s why I wasn’t in sports, I was too busy fishing,’’ Perich noted.
Perich and Lutkevich have been outdoor companions ever since that trout pond meeting, especially spring fishing for steelhead trout but also deer hunting near Perich’s home, and pheasant hunting in South Dakota each fall.
“We were catch-and-release fishing as 12-year-old kids way before it got popular,’’ said Lutkevich, now the News Tribune’s computer guru when he isn’t fishing. “Shawn is a really good fisherman and hunter. He’s very patient and very smart ... He has an innate sense of what's going on around him in the woods."
Perich graduated from Denfeld High School in 1977 and went on to earn an English degree at UMD in 1981 “because they didn’t have a fishing degree." He left the Northland to take his first outdoor publication gig as an editor at the now defunct Fins & Feathers magazine in the Twin Cities.
“I pretty much decided to do what I’m doing now at a very young age... Write about the outdoors in some form,’’ Perich said.
If you follow Minnesota’s outdoor scene you've probably read something Perich has written, including dozens of freelance stories for magazines like the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Fly Rod and Reel, National Wildlife Federation and more. Perich even re-wrote several of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regulation booklets to help translate arcane state statutes into rules that common outdoors people could relate to.
He was a longtime field editor and columnist for Minnesota Outdoor News, a weekly newspaper aimed at hunting and fishing enthusiasts, where his weekly Points North column ran for 25 years. And he’s written eight books, some on fishing and hunting and others on scenic drives and North Shore attractions.
After he left Fins & Feathers in 1986 he took a quick detour to Georgia to work for Game & Fish Publications.
“We got out of the South after about five months,’’ Perich said, referring to he and his life partner, Vikki Elberling, who died of cancer in 2014. The two had been together for more than 32 years.
It was while stuck in Georgia “when I realized that if I stayed in the magazine business I’d end up in New York or Los Angeles because that’s where the jobs were. You end up assigning the fun stuff to other writers instead of doing the fun stuff,’’ Perich said. “So I decided to go to where the fish were and work from there.”
Perich took a job as editor of the Cook County Herald weekly newspaper from 1987 to 1991.
“I knew that to do this right (outdoor writing) I needed to be in the right place to get the good stories,’’ Perich said as he released yet another brook trout. “And this was the right place for me.”
Perich’s stories very often have a conservation angle to them — a little lesson mixed in with an interesting story or news report. That effort garnered him a longtime position on the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (he was first appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura), which helps mold state forestry and logging policy. Perich won the Ed Franey award from the Izaak Walton League of America for his service to conservation causes like preserving wild lands and clean water.
Be your own boss
It was the Cook County newspaper gig that brought Perich to the North Shore to stay. But since then, after being unceremoniously let go from the editor’s job by the paper’s owner, he’s developed a way to become his own boss and still live in God’s Country.
Since 2004 Perich has been co-publisher of a North Shore-focused magazine called Northern Wilds. His business partner and co-publisher is Grand Marais native Amber Pratt. The tabloid-sized, free distribution shopper was at first quarterly but since 2014 has come out monthly.
Perich handles the copy and makes sure each edition is full of timely and interesting stories, many focused on outdoor activities along Lake Superior from Duluth to Nipigon, Ontario. Perich is in charge of finding and editing the stable of freelance writers that contribute to the publication. Pratt is the artistic half of the duo, handling layout, graphic design and ad sales when necessary.
“We make a perfect partnership because she likes dealing with people,’’ Perich said with a wry smile.
The publication is a potpourri of content — part tourism promoter, part real estate listings and part eclectic stories about life in the Northland, indoors and out.
“It doesn’t really fit any mold,’’ Pratt noted, saying the heavy Canadian influence — about one third of their business and circulation is on the Ontario side of the border, and several of their writers are Ontario residents — has made it a unique publication.
“Amber said this first, but at Northern Wilds we like to say we blur the border. It’s one continuous (North Shore) that happens to be separated by the border. A lot of people move back and forth for work and for fun,’’ Perich said.
Eric Chandler, a Duluth-based airline pilot and freelance writer, said Perich is a great editor to work for.
"He’s a generous curmudgeon. Like most curmudgeons, he’s just a man with high expectations for the world and that passion might be misunderstood by some,'' Chandler said of Perich. "He’s a pro. I can set a timer for when his team sends me a check after I write a piece. That makes him a unicorn in the publishing world."
When he’s not writing, editing or fishing, Perich keeps busy training his yellow Lab, Rainy, and gardening.
“I would like to do another book, but I just don’t have time right now… It would probably be Lake Superior-focused,’’ he said.
Perich seems to be enjoying his independence at work and in the field, like leaving the office early on a Thursday afternoon in late June to escort a couple of newspaper people to a trout stream.
“This actually happens a lot this time of year,’’ Pratt said of her partner’s early exit from work, only half-sarcastically.
Perich says much of his fishing the last few years has been focused on small-stream brookies.
“There is a mind-boggling number of good trout streams within a half-hour of our office’’ in Grand Marais, Perich noted. “And, really, nobody is fishing them. And by nobody I mean very few people. Most of the old-timers I learned from are gone now. It’s a dying art.”
Lutkevich says he’s not surprised Perich settled in one of the wildest areas of the Northland to live, play and work. His fishing buddy might have ended up in Montana or Idaho or maybe Oregon “but it would have to be some place that had trout.”
Perich said he has fished across parts of the west but isn’t sure he likes it any better than home.
“Maybe some of the west coast. Montana is great ... But when I’ve been out there, I haven’t been able to find this out there,’’ Perich said from the bank of the river.
By “this’’ he meant a remote, virtually unfished section of stream loaded with brook trout.
“There are so many people trout fishing out west, there’s so much guide pressure... But here I have so many streams I can choose from and probably not run into anybody else,’’ Perich said. “That’s why I’m here.”