Lake Nipigon, Ontario -- We had already seen our daily moose on the Onaman River. The cow had been browsing aquatic vegetation when Chuck Erickson's 26-foot Grady-White glided past.
Now, where the river opened onto the expanse of Lake Nipigon, Erickson scanned the rugged shoreline and the islands scattered in the distance. Somewhere in the depths of this vast lake, Erickson knew that lake trout of improbable dimensions swam.
"This is hands-down the favorite thing I do every year," said Erickson, 48, of Larsmont.
Erickson has been coming to Lake Nipigon for 16 years. He comes every summer to spend a week for a chance at lake trout of 30, 40, 50 pounds. Or more.
Robert Lindsey, who owns Onaman River Resort where Erickson stays, has a photo of a 59-pounder that one of his guests caught.
Pete Ullrich of Duluth came upon the resort in its more primitive era 19 years ago. He told Lindsey that if he improved his boat launch on the Onaman River, Ullrich could deliver him at least 15 more Duluth anglers. Lindsey fixed the launch.
"I brought him 28," said Ullrich, a Duluth barber whose Lakeside Barber Shop is festooned with fish mounts.
Ullrich virtually filled the resort with Duluth anglers eager for a shot at these leviathan trout. His wife, Michelle, caught one of those huge trout last summer.
Once it was in the boat, they were astounded at its size. Ullrich told the story in his barber shop, stepping away from the chair to describe the monster.
"I could hardly lift it," Ullrich said. "It was --"
He gave up on words and spread his arms wide to show the length of the fish, then raised one hand above the other to show its ample girth.
Michelle wouldn't let him measure it or weigh it.
"Get it back in the lake!" she had yelled.
Ullrich released it, and it remains a family legend.
Erickson's dad has caught a 48-pounder on Nipigon. Duluth's Chris Chapman, also fishing with Erickson, took a 50-pounder.
Ullrich tells the story of a friend on his boat who hooked a lake trout and never gained line on it. The fish kept swimming until all the line had left the man's reel, when it snapped.
"What must that fish have been?" Ullrich wondered.
Back on Nipigon, Erickson dropped three spoons on downriggers and another on a Dipsy Diver. He uses spoons of all colors, but the blue/silver combination always outproduces the rest. We trolled at depths from 44 to 54 feet, over depths from 100 to 400 feet of water.
For two days, the Grady-White rocked and rolled on seas that kept smaller boats close to the river mouth. Erickson likes to share the Nipigon experience with anglers who have never been on the lake. On board were Tim Sonday, 54, of Two Harbors; Brian Zadnikar, 38, of Eveleth; and I. It was the first Nipigon trip for Sonday and Zadnikar.
Catching lakers on Nipigon is not a numbers thing.
"We've had a 13- or 14-fish day, but that's unusual," Erickson said. "If you get seven fish, that's a good day."
Sonday took the first fish, playing it while the boat bobbed on the waves. Zadnikar netted it deftly. It was a little one -- 12 or 15 pounds.
"That's an eater," Erickson proclaimed from the helm.
He wasn't kidding. Into the live well it went.
That was the only lake trout we caught that first half-day on the lake, and the next day, again bucking rough seas and unstable weather, we picked up just one lake trout. It was a handsome 37-incher that nearly ripped the rod from my hand when I plucked it from the rod holder. The immediate sensation was that of being snagged. But we were trolling at 45 feet over 290 feet of water. It was all fish.
"This is why we come to Lake Nipigon," Erickson shouted.
That one was too small for an official weighing, but length-weight ratios would put the fish in the low- to mid-20-pound range.
The typical game plan among many Nipigon anglers is to fish for the lake's trophy brook trout until mid-morning or so, trolling or casting spinners tight to shore along an island. The lake holds spectacular brook trout.
In northern Minnesota, most of us are familiar with the 7- and 8-inch brookies common in the upper reaches of North Shore streams. Elsewhere on Lake Nipigon that July morning, Pete Ullrich would catch a 23-incher.
We caught two brookies during our trip, a 20-incher when we were trolling and a 21-incher that Sonday caught one morning while casting an orange and gold Little Cleo spoon.
In the clear waters near shore, it's often possible to see a brook trout hit your lure. The one that Sonday caught, on a walleye rod, made several powerful runs.
Only when fishing in close to the islands do you appreciate the true scale of the landscape on Lake Nipigon. Shorelines stacked with spruce and fir rise nearly vertically from the water's edge for 60, 80, 100 feet. In places, rock slides of huge boulders interrupt the boreal forest. Brilliant orange lichen paint sheer rock faces where the islands plunge into the lake.
"Did we die and go to heaven?" Sonday asked. "Because it feels like it."
By midday on our third day on the lake, Nipigon finally lay flat. The sun bore down. We trolled along at 2 mph, looking for lake trout among landmarks given names by Erickson, the Ullriches and others. The Bus Stop. The Creamery. Barber Shop. Park Point.
Finally, Erickson began seeing lake trout showing up on his graph.
"They're coming up from the depths. They're feeding," Erickson announced.
We lolled on the aft deck, watching lines. James Taylor and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead kept us company via satellite.
We saw two other boats all day, and we knew who was in them -- Pete and Michelle Ullrich, their son Nick and his friend Ally Austin of Duluth. We could see Pete and Michelle tucked against an island they called Double-D. Ullrich's Lund Tyee looked absurdly small against the green hulk of the island.
A downrigger tripped, and the afternoon's serenity was shattered. Erickson bolted for the rod. Zadnikar grabbed the net. I took the wheel.
Erickson played the fish, a 10-pound eater. The blue/silver spoon, of course.
Not much later, we repeated the fire drill. Sonday tied into a 36-inch laker at 50 feet.
Watching a fish of that size come up in calm water alongside the boat was thrilling. It is something to see a fish of such unexpected proportions swimming at the end of a fishing line. It is easy, then, to imagine the same fish swimming at 100 feet, biding its time, waiting for a smelt or cisco to cruise overhead. The trout would accelerate, snatch its hapless prey and glide back down to its holding depth.
Sonday's fish would have that chance again. He slipped it gently over the gunwale and back into Lake Nipigon.
Later in the week, Dan McKee of Duluth would join Erickson and Zadnikar after Sonday and I had returned home. The weather would stabilize. The lake would remain calm. The fishing would pick up.
That last day, Erickson said he and McKee fished alongside Nick Ullrich and Ally in water just 50 to 70 feet deep. The lake trout turned on. Three times, anglers in the two boats had lake trout on simultaneously. Together, they caught 23 fish. Erickson got a 40-incher. McKee caught the fish of the trip, a 43-incher, likely a fish in the 36-pound range.
"It got pretty crazy trying to net those fish for ourselves," Erickson said.
We knew that day would make the trip for Erickson and the whole crew. The last day Sonday and I were along, just after Sonday had done battle with another big Nipigon laker, Erickson had quietly surveyed the scene on the stern deck. The sun rode low over an island to the west. The light was rich. Sonday was still pumped about the fish he had caught. Zadnikar was putting the net away.
"You know what, boys?" Erickson said. "All winter long, I think about right here, right now."
He was quiet for a few moments, as if he were trying to memorize all of the details of the moment.
Then he fired up his twin 150 Yamahas. We were late for a fish fry with the Ullrich crew.
For more information on Onaman River Resort and Lake Nipigon, go to the resort website at onamanriverresort.com or call (807) 879-2508. The owners are Robert Lindsey and his dad, Wilf.
Onaman River Resort is about a six-hour drive from Duluth, the last 27 miles on a rough gravel road. Accommodations are basic but comfortable and include running water and electricity.
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