DULUTH — Silas Berry had his back to a persistent north wind, staring down at a hole in Lake Superior ice and watching his fish locator. Icicles were forming on his ample mustache and beard.
“Nothing yet. A few have come in, but nothing has hit yet,” Berry said as he jigged a lure on a midweek morning on the freshly frozen surface of Lake Superior, 100 yards or so off the Duluth shoreline.
But Berry, of Brainerd, remained optimistic based on what happened last Sunday. That’s when a fat, 16 pound lake trout bit his spoon. That fish is awaiting a visit to the taxidermist. And it encouraged Berry to head back to Duluth for more fishing at midweek. He was one of more than two-dozen groups of anglers on the ice just offshore.
“It was my first time ever fishing here. Blind luck. Beginner’s luck,” Berry said of the big trout. “I was staring off in the distance, watching the crowd of people fishing, when my rod went ‘thump.’ It took 20 minutes to get it up to the hole. It kept going back to the bottom.”
This all started last weekend after the polar vortex brought the first solid ice on western Lake Superior and a few calm nights allowed that ice to lock up to shore. That’s when the first few anglers walked onto the lake in Duluth and started fishing.
Safe fishing ice doesn’t happen every winter off Duluth, and within days word spread: the ice appeared walkable and the fish were biting.
“We’ve been getting a ton of calls. The word got out fast," said Eric Holl, an employee at Marine General sporting goods store in Duluth, an avid angler and part-time guide.
As of midweek, there were 5-9 inches of clear, solid ice on the lake for the first 100-200 yards. It appeared locked tight to shore at the time.
Farther from shore, however, jagged, broken shards of ice shot up from the surface, indicating some recent upheaval, probably crunched by the force of wind. That jumbled mess of ice will keep any deeper water off-limits to any anglers for the near future.
Holl and fellow angler Jarrid Houston keep reminding anglers that fishing on Lake Superior isn't like fishing on Pike Lake. It can be downright dangerous.
“There's a lot of current out there that can separate ice. And there’s wind… If you get a west wind the ice can blow out away from shore. A northeast wind can push waves under the ice and break it up. It can happen fast,” Holl said. “The saying ‘no ice is safe ice’ is really true with Lake Superior because it can go at any time.”
Cohos and herring have been biting closer to shore, in about 30 to 50 feet of water. Lake trout have been in deeper water, 60 to 70 feet.
Anglers also have been hitting the small harbor at the McQuade Safe Harbor boat landing and Burlington Bay in Two Harbors, as well as other spots close to the North Shore.
The best lures for lake trout have been jigging spoons. Smaller jigs and jigging spoons also have been working for coho and herring. Some anglers are tipping their lures with minnow heads or frozen smelt.
Chris Gruska of Duluth landed a silvery, 17-inch coho salmon on his first trip onto the new ice.
“The guys next to me were catching some herring. You never know what you might get out there,” said Gruska, who lives only a few blocks from the lake. “It’s nice to have it this close.”
Dan Juntti, of Duluth, left the ice at about 10:30 a.m. after taking the morning off work. He was fishless but still smiling.
“I like it when it’s halfway safe to get out there to fish," he said. “I’ll be back again in a few days.”
Houston has a safety list whenever he ventures onto new, untested Lake Superior ice:
Only walk/fish where you see other people.
Bring a buddy.
Wear a personal flotation device.
Have ice spikes, also called hand picks, that allow you to grab the ice and pull yourself back up should you fall in.
Bring rope to throw for a water rescue.
Check the ice with a heavy spud/chisel every few feet.
Even beyond that, last week Holl and Houston brought along a small emergency, self-inflating raft — called a Nebulus — just in case. In past years, ice anglers have been seen kick-sledding small rowboats out to their fishing spot, just in case.