How many people have ever been whitefish netting? According to a Minnesota DNR press release, only 700 people a year participate in this tradition in Minnesota. Dying traditions have always grabbed my attention, and fishing traditions all the more so. Most importantly for me, I have a friend, John, who was willing to be my guide and show me the very exotic (and freezing-cold) world of netting whitefish through the ice in person. And so it happened that the day after Thanksgiving I picked John up in Duluth at 7:30 a.m., and drove the two of us up Highway 61 and the Gunflint Trail in my old Camry on a quest for one of those eternal adventures that come when fish, and your life, are at stake. We stopped to pick up our netting licenses on the way.
John has probably been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness hundreds of times (he worked as a guide for Camp Widjiwagan for dozens of years), and I have been adding my own BWCA experiences regularly over the last three years, but never had I been there on a camping trip in November. And for John, this was his first trip ever netting whitefish through the ice. Before that, he had netted many times in open water, from a canoe. This year has been cold enough to make early ice.
We started planning the trip about eight days before leaving, and it soon became clear this expedition would be an insane test of our will-power, problem-solving skills, and adaptability (as winter camping trips always are). When I made some reconnaissance calls two days before departure to various lodges located near our entry point, they reported that our entry point lake had frozen over just the day before. And nobody had been out to the lake we were targeting since ice-in. Basically, everything was unpredictable. Except for one thing: we knew we wouldn’t find any other people. Sure enough, we didn’t see another soul all three days we were out camping.
One cool thing about this trip was that we had to combine all our winter camping equipment (wool and down clothing, shovels, augers, skis, and my new woodstove), with the most quintessential of summer gear – the canoe (but not my canoe – we knew we were going to abuse the boat something wicked, and John borrowed a canoe from a friend). We took the canoe as our lifeline. In case the 2 inches of ice holding us up on the first lake were to give gave way below us, we would quickly jump into the canoe. At least that was the plan…
As we left shore for our first lake crossing, the ice started cracking immediately. It was tantalizingly thin. There was also standing water in many spots on the ice. The fresh ice cover was extremely transparent, and you could see the cracks so near, it felt there was nothing holding us up. But there was no other way to get to our fishing grounds than by water. And there was no way to paddle the canoe on this ice shelf. So we went for it on foot, pulling and pushing the canoe.
Miraculously, we crossed the first, big, lake, and we knew that everything would get easier from there (well, besides hauling the canoe and gear over a 200 rod portage full of snow, rocks, roots, downed trees, etc.). We double-portaged through the beautiful snow-covered woods to our second lake, where we found thicker ice. This was our final destination: a smaller lake, but with deep, cold water, nestled in the “mountains” (by Minnesota standards) within miles of Canada.
We loaded the canoe with firewood (downed trees) that we gathered right on the side of the lake as we approached the site where we would make our base camp.
The first thing I did upon arrival at camp was set up the tarp. And sure enough, within about 10 minutes of our arrival at our destination, it started to rain (temperature of about 34 degrees).
After getting just a little settled in at camp, we headed out to set our nets. The process was long, and wet, under a persistent rain. I drilled about 20 holes with my auger about 5 feet apart, and then John used his ice saw to cut a trench connecting all the holes. I helped him cut a parallel line all the way back down the line, thereby widening the trench to several inches. John made some ice cairns to celebrate finishing the trench, and we found some rocks and put them in the bags tied to the net to keep it anchored in place when a big fish gets in it (ideally).
Speaking of John’s nets, they are gill nets made by Christiansen Net Company out of Duluth, and here are the specifications:
- 100′ Long x 3′ Deep
- Top: 3/8″ Foamcore rope
- Bottom: 30 lb Leadcore rope
- Nets hung on 1/2 basis (200′ stretch netting to a 100′ net)
- Tie intervals less than 12″
- 1/8″ Solid braid nylon breastline on both ends
We each had a whitefish netting permit, and could have used two nets total, but the rain was coming down harder and harder, and we still hadn’t had supper, so we decided to head back to camp (a 25 minute walk though the pitch dark, on wet ice). But despite the tough conditions, we knew were already fishing, even while walking to our campsite. Never before had I experienced this kind of feeling on a fishing trip. Once the nets are set, all the work is done for you. Go home and relax!
When we got back, John fired up the new woodstove, and I made us hot soup for supper. It was warm enough out that I could even take off my boots and steamy socks, and just relax on the ground under the tarp with my bare feet by the fire.
After sleeping VERY well on Friday night (listening to the pitter patter of the freezing rain on the tarp and tent fly put me right to sleep), I woke up at 9:30 a.m. to silence. This meant the rain had turned to snow. Sure enough, I emerged from my tent to a snowy white world. I made us coffee and oatmeal under the tarp, and then we set out to check our net.
We found a lot more standing water on the ice from all the rain overnight, but the ice pack still felt safe. I knew my feet were going to get soaked that day. I had my excellent waterproof backcountry ski boots with me on this trip, but nothing but rubber fishing boots could put up with sloshing through 3-inches of standing water all day long.
The scene as we approached our net was kind of dismal, and I have to admit I didn’t have my hopes up too high. I didn’t have any premonitions about what we would find. Perhaps this was one of the best parts of the trip – I didn’t have a plan, or strategy, in my mind of how to catch the fish, and there would be no disappointment if we didn’t get any.
I let John tend the net while I did some chores at our fishing grounds. Suddenly he called out in a soft, but direct voice – “we’ve got one.” I couldn’t believe it. I ran over and was astounded to see a fish in the net.
I was even more shocked when I saw the size of the fish. It was huge! I thought whitefish were 12-14 inches in length. This one ran over 20, and was fat and hefty.
John worked his way a little bit down the net, and we had another one. And then another one. Three fish on our first morning. I was dumbfounded. These fish were some of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen come out of water.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the lake and another portage trail. We thought about cutting a second net trench again, but the snow just kept coming down, and the temp was falling, and we knew it would be a lot of work to get two nets out of the water on our final morning, so we decided again not to put the second one in. We were excited to catch more fish on our second night, and we still had our first net in, and that would have to suffice. Interestingly, we checked the net again before we went back to camp on Saturday afternoon, but we hadn’t got any new fish during the course of the day. The fish come in at night to spawn, and that’s when you get them.
The trip back to camp felt like a death march. I was exhausted from skiing through slush all day. One of my ski bindings malfunctioned at the end of the day, and my heavy load seemed impossible to carry any further in my soaking wet feet. I was literally drenched from the ankles down. I made it back to camp after dark, and thank God John had a pair of fabulous, dry, moosehide mukluks that I would wear the rest of the trip.
Saturday evening was another good time, cooking under the tarp, with snow falling down all around us. This time I fried sausages and pork chops, and they came out incredibly well on the woodstove. It was another great night for sleeping outside too, at about 25 degrees out at bedtime.
The temperature continued to fall through the night, and when I woke up at 7:15 on Sunday morning, I was relieved to feel the colder air. Getting out of the BWCA depended on the slush freezing up on our lake, and for our second, larger lake crossing to have thicker ice on it.
Our dreams were answered – when we walked out onto our lake, all the slush had turned to ice overnight, and we had fast travels down the lake back to our net. It took us a while to chip away all the ice that had formed overnight in our trench, but when we did, we had another beautiful whitefish!
It was a sensational feeling to tend our net and get another one. We had done it. We had overcome all the conditions: the thin ice, the snowy portage, the rain, the cold, and the wind. We had caught fish in a way I had never seen done before, in a way I couldn’t even have imagined. It was out of this world fishing.
It took a long time to chop as much ice off the net as we could, then roll it up and get it back in its bag. The whole process of netting fish was incredibly hard work, and incredibly rewarding as well.
We got the fish back to camp, took down the tent and other gear, and then rejoiced as our heavy load (200 lbs. at least) glided over the new ice like a feather.
We made extremely good time going back, making the trek from our base camp across the first lake to the portage in 20 minutes.
Moving the canoe uphill on the snowy portage was a challenge, but fun as well on the fresh snow.
Crossing the second, bigger lake was a cinch on Sunday compared to the first experience we had going in on thin ice on Friday. Now the ice was thicker, more solid, and no longer transparent. We made it back to the entry point, and the car started right up, and away we went.
It was possibly the greatest fishing trip of my life.