Ice Fisherman






Frozen Water Doesn't Deter Winter Anglers

Along the Minnesota Shore of Lake Superior


Dan Leeth


            Some days dawn colder than others, and this looks to be one of them.


            A faint band of frostbitten pink tints a cryoscopic blue horizon.  As the light slowly intensifies, the sky blushes, then fades from strawberry daiquiri to frozen Minutemaid orange.  Eventually, a glowing disk rises from beyond the ice-plastered bay.  


            The first frigid rays of sunshine hit a thermometer outside my window.  I check the temperature, but find the mercury has congealed into a lump that huddles at the base of the bulb.  Adding to the chill, a brisk northeasterly rips inward from across Lake Superior.  Clear, windy and brain-numbing cold -- it is, I'm told, a perfect day for fishing.


            Awaiting a cheaper flight home, I have taken advantage of low-season rates and booked an extra night at Superior Shores Resort in Two Harbors, Minnesota, 30 miles northeast of Duluth.  I have a full day to kill. 


            While summers offer plenty to see and do along Lake Superior's North Shore, most sensible people spend freezing winter days inside.  I, too, could have wiled away the hours, basking in sensuous warmth, playing with the room's remote-controlled fireplaces or soaking in its corner Jacuzzi tub.  Instead, I naively ask what outdoor activities might be available. 


            "We have downhill or cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snowmobiling or ice fishing," the desk clerk says.


            "Ice fishing?  You mean like in the movie Grumpy Old Men?"


            "Well, sort of." 


            I take the bait and sign up. 


            Sam Alvar, my guide, drives us to his favorite spot in the frozen harbor near Duluth.  We park by the shore, unload gear and, wind in our face, start walking across the ice.  A harbor-side panorama of grain elevators, ore docks, shipyards and the city's famous Aerial Lift Bridge, spreads behind. 


            "That northeast wind blowing right down the pipe jams all the float ice into this little box," Sam says.  "See how those flags are coming right at us?  We're safe.  This plate isn't going anywhere."


            That's good news, because I've been told that every year fishermen drift out to the open water when ice separates from shore.  Fortunately, most get rescued by the Coast Guard.  Seasoned veterans carry cell phones or drag small boats onto the ice, just in case.  I notice we have neither.


            Sam leads across the slippery surface, pulling a sled piled high with gear.  I scuffle behind, trying with the grace of an inebriated penguin to stay upright.  We head toward a group of anglers, clustered forlornly about a quarter-mile offshore.


Ice fishermen

            The fishermen in Grumpy Old Men were wimps compared to these guys on Lake Superior.  Because of the uncertain ice, there are no seasonal shelter houses out here.  A few have tents, but most sit in the open, their backs to the bracing breeze.  I look at them, wondering what their day jobs must be like if this is what they do for fun. 


            As we arrive, one of them lands a large herring.  Several others have their catch cooling on the surface. 


            "This is typical.  One guy gets something and they all flock to him," Sam observes.  "I like to be more by myself."


            We continue to a spot about fifty yards away.  Sam takes a huge auger and into the ice bores three, coffee-can-size holes about 18 inches apart.  Then he pulls out a black-fabric tent that, with a flick of its frame, pops into a two-person house.  We anchor it over the holes and enter.


            Sam lights a small catalytic heater that begins to warm the interior to a tolerable level.  He hands me a stubby pole and explains the day's plans.


            "We're in a transitional zone, about 60-70 feet deep.  We're going to have bait on the bottom for either lake char or chinooks.  We'll run another line at about 30 feet for schools of bluefin herring, which are quite a taste treat.  Finally, we'll have a shallow vis-line a few feet under the ice for herring and coho salmon."   


            Sam hands me a strainer and I scoop loose slush from the holes.  While I peer down past a foot of ice into the clear, greenish water, Sam pulls out a device with a metal probe and a color screen.


            "These are my electronics," he says.  "I will not go fishing blind.  With this unit, we see the bait and we see the fish.  When the batteries run down, we go home."


            He switches it on and makes a series of adjustments.


            "That's the bottom down there," he says, pointing to a splotch of color on the screen.  "The orange is my bait going down.  When the fish come they'll be red hits." 


            Sam prepares my hook.  I'll work the vis-line, which means that I get to gape into a cavity and watch for schools of hungry prey.


            "Now, if the fishing gods are good, you'll be invaded by a gang of cohos," he tells me.  "You'll love seeing those big suckers.  They're silver, fast and darting.  The gang will come in and they'll get hot.  Often, one or two will make multiple passes, not grabbing the bait right away. 


            "Then they come in and spank it.  After the first one hits and you set the hook, the whole school goes nuts.  They'll be on a feeding frenzy.  So boom, your other line can go.  It's a gas!"


            I try to get excited thinking about it as I gaze into the frigid orifice, bobbing my line up and down.  But time creeps by, nothing happens, and I become as bored as an English major in a math class.


            Sam eventually sees something interesting on the sonar screen. 


            "That could be fish or interference," he says.


            He adjusts the unit, staring at the display with the intensity of a pervert at a peep show. 


            "There are fish down there!  I've got bogies.  See that orange?  That's a fish." 


            His face beams like a kid's at Christmas.  Up and down, he jigs his line through the six-inch opening.             


            "Got one!" Sam shouts. 


            He reels it in.  The resistance is minimal and the fight nonexistent.  The end of the line breaks the surface and through the icy opening comes our first catch of the day. 


            "We just landed a whopper smelt," Sam announces with a touch of sarcasm. 


            He holds up the tiny, finger-sized fish that looks like a silvery sardine.  I've seen aquarium goldfish that were meatier. Sam holds up his smelt


            "I got two dozen of these once and fried them up," Sam says.  "They were actually pretty good."


            Sam removes the diminutive catch and slaps more bait on the line.

            "If there are smelt down there, there should be big, meaty, toothy guys, too.  We'll just sit here and call in a big one." 


            So we stay for the remainder of the day, occasionally changing location but never improving our luck.  At twilight, with the heatless sun dipping behind the hills, we call it quits.  Folding the tent and piling everything onto the sled, we lumber back across the ice to Sam's van.


            He drops me off at Superior Shores.  Before thawing in the sauna, I call down to the restaurant to make dinner reservations.  I am determined not to leave Minnesota without tasting some Lake Superior seafood.  A young woman answers the phone. 

            "Perhaps you can tell me," I ask.  "Do you offer filet of smelt?" 


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Contact Visit Duluth to learn more about this city on the shores of Lake Superior.



Article ran in 15 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada including the Chicago Tribune, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Dallas Morning News.