Deep and hungry
ON LOWER MANITOU LAKE, ONTARIO -- The signs were obvious. We just didn't want to believe them.
First, the water temperature was nearly 60 degrees. Too warm.
Second, pine pollen already dusted the water. That doesn't usually happen until June.
And then Rick Morgan looked at his depth finder.
"We're marking fish at 44 feet," he said.
Lake trout usually are much closer to the surface in mid-May, when Morgan and his son, Matt, both of Duluth, come here to fish Lower Manitou Lake.
They were on Lower Manitou again last weekend, but it was no longer early spring on this big lake about 70 miles north of International Falls. It was early summer.
The Morgans make this trip every spring. They drive five hours north of Duluth. They boat 30 miles to Lower Manitou. And they fish lake trout on light tackle while the fish are in shallow water.
We tried fishing that way for a couple of hours and caught just one lake trout. But the Morgans had come prepared for all possibilities.
They rigged up two downriggers and put out the big rods with their 15-pound-test PowerPro line and 10-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders.
In 20 minutes, we had caught four trout and missed two more. Things were hopping.
"Life is just better when there's chaos and a lot of fish," said Matt, 24.
Over the rest of that first day, we figured out where the lake trout were. They were 40 to 50 feet down in about 70 feet of water. We also figured out what they wanted. A hammered copper spoon.
"I've been using it for years," Matt said. "It's been unstoppable here and on Lake Superior both."
That trend continued. In three days -- May 21-23 -- we caught 67 lake trout. The largest was about 7 pounds, and many were in the 3- to 4-pound range.
The fishing is better when the fish are up shallow, Rick said.
"You'll have 40- to 50-fish days," he said.
Rick Morgan, 55, has been fishing Lower Manitou since he was a kid growing up in Hibbing in the late 1960s. His dad brought him here for lake trout. The lake has no walleyes, but it does have northern pike, muskies and an all but undiscovered smallmouth bass fishery.
Matt has been nuts for fishing since he was 4 or 5 years old. His dad gave him an ice-fishing rod and put a lead weight on the end of the line. Matt would sit on the stairs and pretend he was ice-fishing.
Now the two are each other's best fishing friends. Spending time with them, it's easy to see they respect each other and value their time together.
Matt and his dad fish and hunt throughout the year. It's Lower Manitou in January, March and May. It's Basswood Lake near Ely for the fishing opener, Lac La Croix in July, Lake Michigan in August, North Dakota ducks in October, deer hunting in November.
The fishing on Lower Manitou is better now than it was 40 years ago, Rick said.
"You think the wilderness is shrinking, but in the '70s, there were planes and boats and people all over. Especially in the winter now, you may see one other party," he said.
We saw 10 or 12 other boats during our three-day stay at Barker Bay Resort and Outposts on Lower Manitou. The area is now closed to camping by non-residents.
"These trips are a poor-man's fly-in trip," Rick said. "You have pretty good fishing at a fraction of the cost."
Back to work
We caught 17 fish that first afternoon, once we solved the equation. Early Saturday, we picked up where we left off. Trolling a copper spoon and another that looked almost copper -- Matt called it the "copper wannabe" -- we hit fish right away.
In six minutes, we caught four lake trout.
"That's the kind of action you want, right there," Matt said.
We caught 31 fish that day. Matt and his dad are a fishing machine. Rick manned the wheel of his 19-foot Alumacraft. Matt ran the downriggers and rods. All three of us took turns reeling in fish.
At times, the scene bordered on the chaos Matt loves. Grab a bouncing rod. Play the fish. Net the fish. Remove the hook. Release the fish. Crank up the downrigger. Attach the line. Send the spoon down again.
The only time the routine varied was when Rick played a fish on his 1980s-vintage Eagle Claw rod, on which he ran copper line through pulley-wheel guides. He used a 1-pound lead ball weight on it because the rod wasn't on a downrigger.
We kept only three fish to bring home and a couple for shore lunch. The rest went back to the water happy and full of spunk.
After a lake trout shore lunch, we went prospecting for new lake trout territory. But our explorations didn't pan out, and we returned to our proven fishing grounds.
That reflected Rick's earlier experience on Lower Manitou. Lake trout aren't everywhere.
"You'd be surprised how much dead water there is," he said.
But once you find them, you're going to be busy for a while. We wondered aloud why we found it important to catch one trout after another. We figured two factors were at work.
One, that was what we had come for. We weren't going back to the resort to read books.
And second, we always held out hope that the next fish to trip the downrigger would be really big.
Quite frankly, it's immensely enjoyable hanging out in a boat for three days with good company, catching plenty of fish and gazing out at the empty Canadian Shield landscape.
During one particularly hot streak of fishing, Matt got to thinking.
"I wonder how many days in a row I could do this without getting tired of it," he said. "It's definitely measured in years."
Sam Cook is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.