LOWER MANITOU LAKE, ONTARIO – “Fish on!” hollered Dave Swenson as his partner’s rod bent in half and line peeled off his reel. ¶ “Oh, this is a nice one,” said Tom Szukis, playing the big lake trout tugging on his line 60 feet below the ice. After three days of fishing on this remote Canadian wilderness lake, Szukis, 62, of Duluth, had hooked his biggest fish. And he was savoring the fight. ¶ “There it is, careful,” said Swenson, peering down the 10-inch ice hole in their two-person portable fish shelter. Moments later, the pair guided the 29-inch glimmering green trout through the hole and onto the ice. ¶ “My reel just screamed when he first hit,” Szukis said, grinning. “That’s what you come here for.” ¶ And that’s what we discovered about a week ago when five of us made the long trek north for an end-of-winter ice-fishing adventure via snowmobile into Ontario’s wilderness. Besides feisty lake trout, we encountered a vast scenic waterway with a rugged rocky shoreline and towering red pines, woods and waters blanketed with more than 2 feet of snow and firmly gripped by winter.
We also found gin-clear water beneath 2 feet of ice. A cozy wood-heated cabin. A lakeside wood-fired sauna to bake in after a long day on the ice.
And solitude. We fished alone in frozen bays and channels, rarely seeing other humans.
But the scenery, good fishing and seclusion comes with a price: It’s not easy getting there. Our destination was Barker Bay Resort on Lower Manitou Lake, about two hours northeast of International Falls. No road leads to the remote resort; in the summer, boaters must travel 20 miles by water to get there. In winter, it’s a 45-minute snowmobile ride through the woods.
And that was after driving our trucks and trailers six hours on a highway and another hour on a gravel logging road. From the Twin Cities, it took us a day to get there and a day to get home, leaving three full days to fish.
“It’s an adventure,” said Swenson, 52, of Cotton, Minn., an avid angler who has fished muskies on the sprawling 50-square-mile Upper and Lower Manitou Lake during the open-water season but had never journeyed there in winter. The waterway is a maze of islands, bays and channels.
A winter adventure
The temperature was 1 below zero when we snowmobiled in, making for a double-digit windchill. The winding trail was punctured with moose tracks. Our three snowmobiles towed five sleds ladened with food, water and gear, including three portable fish houses and propane heaters.
Once we arrived, we made ourselves at home in our three-bedroom cabin. In summer, the resort’s four cabins have running lake water and indoor plumbing. But in winter, the water system doesn’t function and owner Wayne Soderlund — also from Cotton — filled a large plastic can in our cabin with lake water for cooking and washing.
That meant we had to use an old-fashioned outhouse. With the temperature dipping to 20 below zero our first night, there was no dallying during latrine visits.
But the sauna, replete with shower, erased any chill. After basking in the heat, we stepped outside in subzero cold and watched steam roll off our perspiring flesh.
Each day, we snowmobiled 5 to 10 miles up the lake, then used a topographic map to locate underwater reefs that we hoped would hold lake trout. To find the proper depths — roughly 40 to 70 feet of water — we shoveled sugary snow off the lake, splashed a bit of water on the ice and checked depths with our sonar fish finders.
Once we found likely spots, we drilled holes with power augers, erected portable shelters and fired up propane heaters. Our favorite lures were Rapala’s Rippin’ Raps or white tube jigs.
If we had no bites after a couple hours, we moved to a different spot. The power augers, snowmobiles and portable shelters offer great mobility. And comfort. The shelters were toasty warm, even when biting winds whipped across the lake.
We fished all day until sunset, taking a break midday to boil brats on a propane stove for lunch. We caught trout in spurts, sometimes fishing for hours without a bite, and other times landing several in less than an hour. After three days, we caught 18 fish, releasing the smaller ones. We lost two fish to broken lines, and another when a rod snapped, and had many simply spit out the lures after brief tussles.
Pete Dzubay, 60, of Perham, was the only member of our group who didn’t land a trout.
“I can’t complain; I had fish on every day,” he said.
Though we spent considerable time and effort to journey so far north, our goal wasn’t to haul fish home. In fact, our nonresident seasonal Ontario fishing licenses allowed just one trout daily, with two in possession. That modest bag limit didn’t deter our group.
“It’s not about keeping anything,’’ Swenson said. “It’s more the adventure of it. I like exploring and going to different spots.’’
Said Tom Kalahar, 61, of Olivia, Minn.: “I’m not up here to bring food home. I could care less if we keep anything.”
And at the end of the trip, all were satisfied.
“It was great fun,” Kalahar said. “We caught fish and had a lot of laughs. I’d do it again in a minute.”