ELY, MINN. – I stepped cautiously onto the newly frozen lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Devoid of snow, the water’s gray, shimmering ice was nearly as smooth as a mirror.
Every few steps the ice emitted an ominous, eerie sound like a “Star Wars” blaster being fired underwater: Ka-TOONG!
Hearing ice crack underfoot is disconcerting.
“It looks good,” said a longtime friend Steve Piragis of Ely, who hiked into this wilderness lake with me late last November for some early season ice fishing.
Frozen air bubbles were suspended in the ice, and cracks and fissures spread like spider webs. But we could see through the clear ice to know it was several inches thick, and our drill holes confirmed we had a solid 4 to 5 inches.
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources recommends ice at least 4 inches thick for foot travel.
“We should have brought our ice skates,” Piragis said.
While ice safety is always a concern, even in the dead of winter, early season outings require extra precautions. I carried ice picks to help pull myself out of a hole in case I fell through.
For years, we’ve snowshoed or cross-country skied into the BWCA lakes to fish, but the lack of snow this time meant we simply walked the short portage for our day trip to the lake. We carried a hand-operated ice auger — no motors are allowed in the wilderness — and packs with food, fishing gear and minnows.
With the bare ice creating treacherous footing, we wore traction devices that slipped onto our boots, keeping us from flailing and falling.
It was a classic November day: breezy, overcast, with temperatures in the mid-30s — brisk but quite tolerable.
We drilled several holes, hooked crappie minnows to small jigs, set up our portable camping chairs, and enjoyed the silence and solitude of the frozen wilderness.
Filling the day
An early season outing has a special appeal.
“It’s kind of nice to be the first ones out there after the lakes freeze,” Piragis said. “Fishing usually can be really good early. It’s easier to drill holes because the ice isn’t so thick and it’s usually not as cold as later in winter.
“It’s just a nice time to be out in the wilderness.”
In the summer, this lake normally would be busy with canoe campers, waves lapping the rocky shoreline. But this day, we had it to ourselves. The lake was silent, except for the “Star Wars” acoustics.
Fishing with two lines is allowed while ice fishing, so we also set out two tip-ups nearby, hoping to boost our chances of catching fish. We jigged for a while, then moved and drilled more holes, hoping to find a hot spot.
“Whoa, got one!” Piragis soon hollered. With his ultralight fishing rod bent nearly in half, he reeled up a small northern through his hole. “We’re on the board,” he said.
Soon I felt a tug on my jig and reeled up a hand-sized crappie, a species we consider one of the best-eating fish.
“This is what we were hoping for,” I said. “We need a few more of these.”
But by lunch time, we had drilled lots of holes, tried several different areas and different depths, changed jigs, but had caught only those two fish.
No matter. We were there for the experience, not necessarily to see how many fish we could catch.
“Let’s make lunch,” Piragis said.
So we hiked to shore, built a small fire, filled a pot with lake water from one of our ice-fishing holes and heated some Polish sausages.
We chatted about life, past trips, and how good it was to be in such a special place as this.
After lunch, we fished for a few more hours, catching a couple of small walleyes. As dusk approached and the temperature dropped, we packed up our gear and trudged across the lake to the portage, then hiked to our truck.
“That was fun,” Piragis said.
Yes, it was.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. Reach him at email@example.com.