Anglers, open water season is here!
LOCAL MAN Ron Catlett shows off a large lake trout he caught earlier this month while fishing on Flathead Lake with local guide Russ Hadley. The trout was 38 inches long and weighed 18 pounds. (Courtesy photo)
Well, spring has sprung. With day temperatures in the 40s to 60s, the ice caps on our lakes have melted or are mostly gone.
So, put your ice fishing gear into storage and break out your boat and open water fishing gear. There seems to be some sort of physiological change in the desires of some of our cold-water fish species such as rainbow trout and lake trout, that cause them to move from their normal deep cool water habitats into shallow water spring aquatic habitats.
This makes them more vulnerable to early spring anglers. Some of the best open water fishing of the year is right after ice-out.
These types of cool or cold-water fish like to eat insects and small fish which are attracted to the warmer lake water in the shallows. Growing up in Minnesota, lake trout were one of the most treasured fish species.
But catching lake trout was difficult because they usually lived in deep cold-water lakes.
But in the early spring, sometimes lake trout moved into shallow water. Let me recall one great spring fishing trip I had in Northern Minnesota and Canada, with my younger brother, John, and my high school buddy, Don. This occurred during early spring of 1960.
As teenagers, we made frequent summer trips into the canoe county of Northern Minnesota and Southern Ontario. During those summer trips we caught tons of shallow water fish such as walleyes and northern pike, but very few lake trout.
So, we decided to take an early spring fishing trip, right after ice out, to see if we could catch some lake trout. So, in early May we headed north for 8 days of fishing. We rented an 18-foot aluminum canoe and left our Moose Lake launch site early one spring morning.
It was a 7-mile paddle north to the Canadian border at Prairie Portage, the canoe entry point into Canada. Then we paddled across several lakes and hiked several portages to our destination lake, Kahshahpiwi Lake in the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario.
This is wilderness country with the only access being by canoe. After three leisurely days of paddling, hiking and fishing, we reached our campsite on Kahshahpiwi Lake.
Fishing was really slow. During our previous trips in the summer, the northern pike and walleyes were in shallow water, so we caught lots of fish with our shallow water fishing techniques.
Those same fishing techniques weren’t working in the cold water of spring. So, we decided to paddle five miles north to a known walleye hole at the north end of Kahshahpiwi Lake.
Upon arrival at that fishing spot, we found only two good fishing sites for casting our lures. So, big brother Warren and my buddy Don claimed those two premium spots and began casting for fish.
Little brother John had no good spot to fish, so he headed down the short portage trail to the next lake, Keefer Lake. Don and I had absolutely no luck fishing for walleyes.
After a few minutes, brother John came running back up the portage trail holding a still-flopping lake trout.
He had caught the fish on his first cast. Immediately, all three of us were headed down to Keefer Lake. There was a nice deep hole where a creek flowed down from Kahshahpiwi Lake into Keefer Lake.
We all cast our lures into that hole and immediately had three lake trout on our lines. Long story short, every cast produced another lake trout. Within an hour we had our limits of five lake trout each.
Then we fished catch and release. After a couple of hours, our arms were too tired to continue fishing.
We took our 15 lake trout back to our campsite and cleaned the fish. Behind our campsite were 80-foot high cliffs with deep fissures in the rock formations.
Snow melt had run into the rock fissures and re-froze. We climbed down into the fissures and found lots solid ice. We chipped out an ice shelf for our fish and covered the fish with ice chips.
A perfect natural ice box. The next day we emptied one of our packs and filled the pack with our fish and ice chips.
This kept our fish ice cold during our canoe trip back to our car and our car trip back to our homes in St. Paul. We figured that with an early start the next morning and a full day of paddling and portaging, we could get back to our car in one long day, instead of the three days it took us to get to our campsite. So, before daylight the next day, we took off. Our timing and plans were right on target until we got to North Bay, a large bay on Basswood Lake.
On North Bay, the wind was howling with three-foot high waves. With the early spring ice cold water, we dared not venture out on those waters. At dusk, the wind died a little, so we furiously paddled across North Bay.
It was dark when we arrived at the next portage trail across North Bay. We camped on the portage trail. The next day we portaged into Burke Lake, paddled across Burke Lake, then portaged across a ridge to another bay of Basswood Lake, Bayley Bay.
Again, there was a multi-mile stretch of open water, with the wind howling. So, again we sat for hours, waiting for the wind to die. Finally, in late afternoon, we were able to paddle across Bayley Bay and arrive at Prairie Portage. The final seven miles across the last three lakes was made in the dark, with heavy snow falling.
That was a cold miserable three-hour paddle. My little brother, with his teeth chattering, swore he was never going to go on another spring canoe trip with me!
Eventually we reached our car and the warmth of our car heater. Before we got 10 miles down the road, with our bones warmed by the car heater, we were already planning our next canoe trip.
So, get out there on one of our many Northwest Montana lakes and see if you can find some outstanding spring fishing.