DULUTH – If there’s a memorial to Ramsay Crooks near the harbor here, the four of us didn’t see it in the early morning twilight as we passed under the lift bridge that separates Lake Superior from the more sheltered waters of this city.
Crooks was President of the American Fur Co. in 1834 when his company first began fishing Big Lake commercially.
Back then, lake trout and whitefish were common, and by establishing fishing stations on what is now Minnesota’s north shore and elsewhere around the lake, Crooks envisioned themselves making big bucks with the same resource that legend, lore, and fact says has been supported for centuries earned by the Chippewa, whose fishing nets were woven from the fibrous inner bark of willows.
In contrast to Crooks’ mercantile ambitions, our foray into Lake Superior was relaxing.
A few years ago, on a whim, my friend Terry Arnesen had bought a bigger boat than anyone in our bunch had owned. His intention, mischievous as it may sound to some, was to lower the ship and coast to Alaska.
Which he did four summers ago and did again this summer, transporting his 28-foot trailer to Washington state, where he dumped it in the Pacific Ocean.
Shortly after, he texted me from Petersburg, Alaska while grilling halibut on the back deck and living big.
Now, as a follow-up adventure, we headed out onto Lake Superior under a dismal penumbra cast by the rising sun, hoping to learn more about fishing on this clear, cold lake.
“Where do you think we should start?” Terry said.
His question was aimed at Mark Strelnieks of the Twin Cities and Pete Harris of the Grand Marais, the experienced Lake Superior anglers that Terry and I had crammed in for the trip.
Terry had met Mark by accident not too long ago and formed a friendship through their shared love of big water and big water fishing.
Pete, on the other hand, whose street credit rivals Paul Bunyan’s in Minnesota, is a fellow I wrote about last year.
At 87, he fishes through the ice in the winter, collects hundreds of gallons of maple sap to distil in the spring, and regularly leaves the Grand Marais harbor in his old 14-foot boat in the summer to cruise Lake Superior for lake trout fishing.
At the end of his year in November, Pete fills his freezer with venison as he watches ice forming along the shore of Lake Superior and stacks it one piece at a time, each neatly wrapped in white paper.
“My wife Carol and I have a big garden and the produce from it and the one deer will get us through the winter,” he said.
Terry steered his boat to within about a mile of and parallel to the Duluth shoreline, and soon joined the approximate bow of a handful of other fishing boats, some chartered, some private.
On each, sailors were busy sending planing boards to port and starboard, to which were attached long lines pulling paddles or crankbaits. Then they dropped lead downrigger balls to get even more bait closer to the bottom.
Their goal, like ours, was to catch lake trout, salmon, or both.
“What is our depth?” Mark asked.
Mark has been fishing in Superior for about six years as well as Lake Michigan, the ending points of a fishing career that has seen countless stops at Minnesota’s best walleye lakes.
“Fishing in these big lakes is a new challenge,” he said. “What I like about it is that you always meet people and form new relationships. My father and nephew fish with me a lot, and often when we dock our boat in Two Harbors or Silver Bay or in Duluth we meet people who are willing to help and share information.”
Terry’s pup, Fetch, was there for good luck and when we had eight leashes behind the boat the pup was begging a captive audience for pets.
Soon after, one of our flatter lines was taut and Pete was handed a rod whose throbbing tip was a telltale sign of a hookfish – a coho salmon, it turned out.
Although new to fishing on Lake Superior and its many mysterious gadgets – dipsy divers, spoons, underwater temperature and bait speed sensors – Terry was knowledgeable enough from his fishing adventures in Alaska to mark on his electronics where we hooked the salmon to have.
“We’ll go over it again after a while,” he said. “Maybe there is more there.”
When that came true – we were done with eight fish in about eight hours, all lake trout except the initial coho, all from the same general area and all but one on Pete’s magical (though now out of production) Sutton Spoons – we felt smart enough.
But the advent of so many fish-finding accessories and their widespread use is putting pressure on Lake Superior fisheries, Department of Natural Resources managers say, especially in waters that are dangerously cold and relatively barren.
In fact, Pete is among those who believe that Superior trout numbers, at least those near Grand Marais, have been declining in recent years, and the DNR management plan for Minnesota’s Lake Superior waters recognizes nearly myriad challenges for them and other fish of the lake.
A who’s who list of invasive plants and creatures in Lake Superior is a problem. Habitat changes in the lake and its tributaries are another. Climate change and limited management resources are two other issues. And sometimes the lake’s native and introduced fish species compete against each other.
But at the end of the day, as we pulled Terry’s boat onto its trailer and Fetch the Labrador quickly fell asleep after a long, hard day of snoozing, those problems seemed as far away as the sun, which was soon to hide behind Duluth’s hills.
For us, the legend actually lived on that day – as Gordon Lightfoot sings – by the Chippewa down by the great lake they call Gitche Gumee.