Timberjay Newspapers - June 6, 2014
RB's Guide Service
P.O. Box 303, Cook MN 55723
Cell: 218-780-7939

North of the portage
Fishing guide finds lake trout, tranquility on the big lake Just north of Vermilion
By Marshall Helmberger, Managing Editor

TROUT LAKE — What a difference a portage can make. Just after 7 a.m. this past Memorial Day, it was nearly summer on Lake Vermilion, with sunshine, mild temperatures, and the surface water temperature pushing into the low 60s after several days of exceptionally warm weather.

Barely a third of a mile to the north, however, as fishing guide Rob Bryers and I backed away from the trailer at the Trout Lake side of the motorized portage, it was a different season entirely. The cold deep water of Trout Lake, just ten days post ice-out, was generating low hanging clouds and we both immediately reached for our jackets as we headed north from Portage Bay.

The other differences were just as readily apparent. As we headed past Trout Rock and into the main body of the lake, the landscape opens across miles of open water, with no boats and no cabins in sight. Only pine-studded shoreline and cold, clear water that we both hoped held some hungry lake trout.

It's such distinctions that keep Bryers coming back year after year. "What attracts most people to Trout Lake is the tranquility," said Bryers, who retired a few years ago from a career in timber and fire management on the Superior National Forest. He's spent summers on Vermilion since he was a kid, and fished all over the area ever since. He's been guiding for about three years now, and Trout Lake is his favorite destination — and not just for the fond memories of his youth, when he worked for Jim Nelson as a driver on the truck portage.

Back in those days, the Trout Lake Portage was a busier place, but traffic starting falling off in the 1980s when the lake trout population hit the skids.

The trout have since rebounded in a big way, notes Bryers, and they're attracting more anglers back to the lake's big, clear waters.

Still, we had the lake virtually to ourselves on a Monday holiday during the prime of the early season. We were there to fish for lake trout, which are typically up in shallower water this time of year. We also checked a few spots for walleye, without success, but Bryers said the walleye action doesn't typically pick up on Trout Lake until mid-June, when the water starts to warm.

That's usually the time that the lakers head for the deeper water, so Bryers normally shifts from trout to walleye anyway. While some anglers use heavier tackle or downriggers to target the trout in the depths all summer, Bryers prefers to fish them with lighter ware, which limits him to the early season, or fall. He says he likes the feel when he hooks a big laker on light tackle - and it didn't take long before I knew exactly what he was talking about.

My first strike came on a plain spoon, in about 25 feet of water, as we trolled along the north shore, not far from the lake's famous sand beach. I suspected a trout, but after working it in for a few minutes, it finally surfaced. Moments later, we had the two and a half-pound smallie in the boat and in the cooler. "People often don't realize how good eating smallmouth can be from these cold waters," said Bryers.

Actually, some folks do, he notes on second thought. In fact, some of his clients ask to fish Trout Lake exclusively for bass, and he's always happy to oblige. I'd eaten fresh bass from local lakes plenty of times, so I wasn't too disappointed in either case.

We hadn't completed a second pass along a half-mile stretch of shoreline before the rod bent once again. This time, I could tell there was something that meant business on the other end. With the light tackle, I had the drag set pretty loose and I had to tighten it a bit just to make progress against what we had both concluded pretty quickly was a hefty laker. I had let a lot of line out to get the spoon down towards bottom and it took what seemed an eternity to work it back in against the steady pull, and occasional runs, of the fish.

Bryers says I had a huge grin on my face the whole time, but all I remember was staring down into the water, hoping against hope the fish didn't get off, at least until I had a look at it.

Eventually, we got the fish up towards the surface, and we worked what looked to be an eight-pound trout into the net. I'd caught bigger ones in northern Canada, but that was years ago and using downriggers, which detracts from the experience. This was the most fun I'd ever had catching a trout, which probably accounts for the grin. By this time, Bryers was two fish down, and he was feeling the pressure. It looked like he was going to get on the scoreboard a bit later in the day, after hooking what was likely another trout along the eastern shore of Sioux Pine Island. But after working it three-quarters of the way in, it slipped the hook and we never did get a look at the fish.

While fishing was our focus, we did have to take a break to check out the pine regeneration in the wake of a prescribed fire that the Forest Service had done along the north arm of the lake following the 1999 blowdown. Bryers was heavily involved in developing the burn plan, and he wanted to show off the results. The burn was supposed to eliminate the most dangerous of the fuels, particularly all the pine branches that were laid down by the big wind, and it had done its job well. Tree trunks still littered the ground, but they make tough fuel to ignite and are more likely to smolder than spread in either case.

From all indications, there may be a heck of a blueberry crop coming in through the burn later this year. All we need is regular rain in June to make that happen.

And that's just one more reason, says Bryers, that folks regularly venture into Trout Lake come mid-summer— the blueberries are often exceptional if you know where to look.

While Bryers still does most of his guiding on Vermilion, where the walleye action is typically brisker, he said plenty of clients seek out the Trout Lake experience. He said the contrast with Vermilion can be striking, particularly later in the summer, when the boat traffic on Vermilion tends to peak. On this Memorial Day, we saw a half dozen boats on Trout all day. For Bryers, crossing the portage makes all the difference in the world. He may be a fishing guide, but he appreciates that there's a lot more to the experience than just filling the cooler. He said that's where a place like Trout Lake is worth the extra effort.

"You've just got to come up and enjoy the solitude," he said.

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RB's Guide Service P.O. Box 303, Cook MN 55723 -- Cell: 218-780-7939