Outdoors: Lake trout addiction

Ely, Minn. What we are looking for, says Steve Foss, is a window. We are sitting in our solo ice-fishing shelters on Burntside Lake near Ely, jigging for lake trout. We have been jigging for several hours now with not so much as a hit, a bump or ...

Steve Foss checks a tip-up line
Steve Foss of Ely, Minn., checks a tip-up line during a day of lake trout fishing on Burntside Lake located near Ely. Sam Cook / Forum Communications Co.

Ely, Minn.

What we are looking for, says Steve Foss, is a window. We are sitting in our solo ice-fishing shelters on Burntside Lake near Ely, jigging for lake trout. We have been jigging for several hours now with not so much as a hit, a bump or a nibble.

Foss, an Ely resident and part-time lake trout fishing guide, understands these slow spells.

"That's the thing about lake trout," Foss says from his shelter about 10 yards away. "They're nomads. But some days, they just don't move. You have to hope that window opens."

It is mid-January, just four days after the opening of lake trout season on lakes outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Foss knows perhaps 25 spots that usually hold lake trout on Burntside, just north of Ely.


But with pockets of slush covering much of the lake, his mobility has been limited. He can get to spots where someone has kept a road plowed open to a cluster of permanent fishing shacks. Or, he can go light on a snowmobile and forge to more distant spots, hoping not to get bogged down in slush.

Fishing on a Tuesday and Wednesday, we drive to two well-known spots where Foss has caught lake trout before. One is a reef, the other a shoreline break. Both times, we jig and place tip-up lines in 40 to 50 feet of water. We find 15 inches of ice in both places, but we hear stories of much less ice in places, so check with local bait shops before venturing out.

Foss, 49, admits he's addicted to lake trout fishing. He will fish big northern pike in shallow water after first ice. He has fished for stocked stream trout on designated trout lakes near Ely, of which there are dozens. But he lives for lake trout.

"I've had a lot of fun catching stream trout," he says, "but then I got addicted to lake trout. They're more aggressive. They're bigger. They're brawlers. I just lost interest in 13-inch rainbow trout."

While some anglers forge into the canoe country on skis or behind dog teams for lake trout, Foss concentrates on more accessible lakes, and Burntside is a favorite.

If Burntside has become more popular with lake trout anglers in recent years, Foss may be partly to blame. He's a pro-staffer on and regularly posts about lake trout fishing in the Ely area. He has caught some nice fish here, but he says anglers shouldn't expect to catch a lot of lake trout.

"Lake trout fishing isn't a numbers game," Foss says.

The limit is just two. An average day on Burntside means catching one or two lake trout, he says. A tough day, zero to one. A good day, three or more. And some big trout live here. A typical size range is 1 to 8 pounds, Foss says. On this year's opener, he caught a 7-pounder and two 3-pounders.


"But you always have a legitimate shot at a 12- to 14-pounder," Foss says. "I've caught a number of 13s."

In the summer, he trolls for lake trout using downriggers. A couple of years ago, he caught a 21-pounder. His summer trolling also helps him pinpoint the structure he wants to fish in the winter.

During our two days on the ice, we use dead saltwater herring on our tip-up lines one day, live shiner minnows another day. Foss sets those lines about halfway down the water column, about 25 feet deep over 50 feet of water.

In his shelter, Foss jigs a variety of lures, none tipped with a minnow or herring.

"The bait ruins the action of the lure," Foss says. "Lake trout are hard-wired to pursue. Any time you tip the lure (with bait), you compromise your lure action.

"A lot of the lake trout I catch, you have to play cat-and-mouse with them. Lure action has a lot to do with that."

But, he admits, there are two schools of thought. Some lake trout anglers always tip their jigs or spoons with a chunk of bait. Scent is important to attracting trout, he says. But he says by having bait nearby on his tip-up lines, he has the scent aspect covered.

We end up fishless after our first day, and action is slow the second day. Nobody in shelters nearby is catching anything. Foss marks the occasional lake trout on his Vexilar fish finder, but most seem lethargic.


Then, at midday, the window opens.

"There's one," Foss hollers from his shelter. "Got him!"

Silence ensues for a couple of seconds, and I imagine Foss furiously cranking the fish up toward the surface.

"He's off!" Foss shouts.

But Foss drops his jig tipped with a Gulp soft-plastic smelt imitation. Bingo. As lake trout will often do, this one came around for another go at the lure.

"He's back. Got him!" Foss shouts.

The trout makes a good run, peeling line off Foss' reel.

But this time, Foss hauls the trout to daylight. It's a good one, 24 inches long by the tape. It comes writhing out of the hole, sleek and strong. Foss slips one hand under a gill cover and steps outside his shelter for a photo.


The fish glistens in the sunshine, its creamy spots a subtle contrast to the slate gray body.

"I'm going to keep this one," Foss says. "We're having company for dinner tonight."

He admires the fish in the 10-degree air. Then he tucks it under the snow so it won't freeze before we leave.

We trudge back to our shelters, hoping the window will remain open a bit longer.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the

Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune,

a Forum Communications Co. newspaper


What To Read Next
Get Local