Mushing, Eelpout, and Butterballs

Ice fishing the Boundary Waters gives a new meaning to the word cold.

Field & Stream Online Editors

"Stand on the runner," said Peter the Musher. "Now, to turn the sled, you need to throw some body English. Ready?"

"All right!" I shot back enthusiastically, with which all eight dogs lunged forward, jerking the runner from beneath me. I held on, to be dragged on my belly through 100 yards of snow.

"One other little thing," said Peter, after the dogs had pulled up and I had struggled to my feet in the crotch-deep fluff. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, "'All right' is the command for go."

"Gee, I thought it would be 'mush.''

"No, 'gee' is the command to turn right." This was early March in Ely, Minnesota, and we were heading out to camp for a couple of days in the Boundary Waters and to fish for lake trout. Yes, March. Camp in the snow. Fish through the ice. Farcical, silly, asinine.

The dogs didn't notice, however, and Peter the Musher's only comment was that last week a 75-year-old covered twice that distance in the prone position.

Not that Peter the Musher was foolish in his preparations or execution. The first order of business on linking up at a wonderful B&B; outside of Ely called The Blue Heron was to check my clothing. Peter would supply the sleeping bags and the tents, the dogs, sleds, and camping gear, but I had brought my own duds: Two sets of liners for the pac boots. A wind shell with hood. Wind pants. Three sets of gloves and mittens. Plenty of polypro underwear. Okay to act foolish but don't be foolish, not when the temperature can drop below zero and the nearest road is 10 miles away.

Peter the Musher, a.k.a. Peter McClelland, operates White Wilderness, a sled dog adventure company that introduces people to the Frozen North and to the wonders of sled dogs. Ice fishing by sled dog is no novelty act. Many of Peter's clients like to sled in for a couple of day's fishing. Drop camps of up to a week are also popular, with fishermen going in on skis and a musher transporting camping gear by sled.

Joining us were Peter's pal Wade Herbranson and my Minnesota friend Dave Gaitley. And 16 sled dogs. Now a sled dog is 50 or 60 pounds of heart, lungs, legs, and guts that enjoys nothing more than pulling people through the snow. "A sled dog," said Peter, "is a dog that pulls a sled. A malamute curled up in front of the fire is just another couch potato." Performance, not pedigree, is the key. These were Alaskan sled dogs, which means they have a lot of what geneticists might call hybrid vigor. Several looked like huskies, a couple could have passed for Labradors, and at least six looked like wolves. But to a dog, they loved to pull.

We loaded the sleds at a landing on Snowbank Lake, 20 miles east of Ely. Between dog food, human food, pots and pans, clothing, tents, a collapsible wood stove, personal gear, a cell phone, jigging rods, tip-ups, and bait, we packed more than 100 pounds on each sled. With a man on each runner and the weight of the sled, each team of eight dogs would haul over 500 pounds. "We should average about seven miles per hour, said Peter. With an "All right," we were off and up to speed.

What makes the Boundary Waters so attractive to canoeists also appeals to mushers: lake after lake after lake, connected by streams or short portages, that form water highways in summer and snow-covered mushways in winter. Our route would take us northeast to a lake trout hideaway. "We set a track in here a week ago," explained Peter as we mushed along. "We've had some snow since then, but I don't believe anyone has fished the lake in some time. It's too far in for a day trip; you have to camp out. And since we're in a wilderness area, the lake is inaccessible to snowmobiles. That's the wonderful thing about winter in the Boundary Waters. In summer, a canoeist would be happy to share the lake with only five or six other campers, but we'll have it to ourselves, and we can camp anywhere weant. Come summertime, you have to camp at designated sites."

In a mile I recognized the first truth of mushing: This is not a passive sport. Balanced on one runner, frequently "pumping" or pushing with one leg to help the dogs through drifts and up the hills of portages, I worked up a hearty sweat, although the temperature never cracked 20 degrees. Other than a quick lunch break and several more belly flops, we never stopped, but the dogs did not mind. To the contrary, they reveled in the pull, and by midafternoon we had arrived at a sheltered bay, our home for the next two nights.

Peter and I tied up the dogs on a tautline, trampled down the snow for tent sites, cut wood, and unloaded the gear, while Wade and Dave trudged to a point of land off our camp and began drilling holes. This was hard handwork, cutting through a foot and a half of ice. A man with a power auger might prospect, moving his sets every few hours to search for cruising trout, but we would do no moving. With six tip-ups in the ice, baited with cisco suspended a foot from the bottom, and a couple of jigging holes punched in, we waited.

As the sun sank toward the treeline, we started to add layers of clothing; in 20 minutes we had put on most of our kits. We stood on the ice, stomping and blowing into our hands, praying that someone would soon throw in the towel so that we could head to the fire. Then a flag went up.

Wade pounced on the tip-up like a hawk on a grouse. In a wild windmill, he pulled up line hand over hand. The line pulled back. Wade's eyes widened, and he uttered some profound fish-speak, "Gottabeabigonecarefuldontstepontheline." Out of the hole came a 7-pound laker.

The trout's big mistake was scarfing down the cisco right before dinner-our dinner. We were so cold and hungry by then that 7 pounds of lake trout spelled one thing: hors d'oeuvre. Peter filleted and fried the fish over an open fire. Gulp, it was gone, followed by steaks and hash browns and assorted snacks that I cannot remember because they did not stop long enough on their way to my mouth for me to see what they were.

Preparing for the night was an ordeal. Laboriously, we pulled the liners from our now-frozen boots, stripped off outerwear, wriggled into a fresh layer of fleece, and huddled in our sleeping bags. These were expeditionary bags, rated to 65 below, according to Peter, but to warm them we had to generate heat, so zipped and snapped, we did sit-ups until we could sleep.

It was the fitful sleep of any first night out, compounded by ever-sinking temperatures. When Peter popped his head in the next morning to report that the temperature had dropped overnight to 28 below zero, neither Dave nor I were surprised. We now faced frozen boots, icy underwear, and pants and parkas stiff with cold. The only thing that got us out of our bags and into our clothes was Peter's call for coffee.

Our plan was to eat a light breakfast-maybe 2,000 calories-and head up the lake for a day of fishing. With the sleds unloaded, the dogs made good time, despite the unbroken snow. By midmorning we were in the lee of an island with our tip-ups lined out. We picked up a couple of walleyes and another trout, basked in the warmth of the midday sun, and ate a hearty lunch.

By two, the bite was off, so we packed up and headed back to camp with enough time to drill out our old holes and reset the tip-ups. Despite the nice lake trout of the first day and a respectable lot of walleyes and small lakers this afternoon, Wade was determined to catch an eelpout. The eelpout-burbot, lawyer, ling, or freshwater cod-is a voracious, deep-dwelling fish that looks like an eel on a serious course of steroids. Yet despite an abundance of handsome fish in their state, Minnesotans are obsessed with eelpout, particularly when taken through the ice.

So as the sun dropped and the temperature plummeted and the sensible people among us huddled around the fire eating frozen balls of butter and sugar (the musher's answer to energy bars), Wade trudged onto the ice with eelpout on his mind. He returned with a scary glint in his eyes and an icicle the length of a night crawler hanging from his nose.

The second night was, if anything, colder than the first. We ate so fast I have no recollection of what went in my mouth. I do remember asking for seconds on butterballs and checking out a couple of the dogs' dishes on the way to my tent.

We were awakened by Wade's screams. He had shuffled out to the tip-ups at sunup to check for his beloved eelpout. A flag was up and a great deal of line had been run out. He chipped the reel free of ice and hauled in line. No eelpout. But one probably had taken the bait.

Meanwhile, Gaitley and I were trying to get our partially frozen feet into our fully frozen boots, Peter was cooking pancakes, and the dogs were curled up again, their noses tucked under their tails. That they could endure these last two nights, with the temperatures flirting with -30, with no shelter other than a trench in the snow for a windbreak and no bedding but a few sprigs of spruce needles, was beyond me. But they appeared perfectly happy. When I passed around some good-morning head-pats, each of the dogs felt exquisitely warm.

We packed up after breakfast and headed home. The return trip was fast and faultless, except for a few belly flops. More winter weather was moving in. The sky was leaden, and by the time we reached Snowbank, fat flakes were falling. "Only six or eight more weeks of mushing," said Peter. I caught a hint of sadness in his voice. "Then the weather starts to get too hot for the dogs." Too hot was a notion that escaped me, for the moment, but I could understand Peter's melancholy. Sled dogs are a wonderful fit with the winter world-like mules in the mountains or a good canoe on a chain of backcountry lakes.

Eelpout, on the other hand, I'll never understand.ture plummeted and the sensible people among us huddled around the fire eating frozen balls of butter and sugar (the musher's answer to energy bars), Wade trudged onto the ice with eelpout on his mind. He returned with a scary glint in his eyes and an icicle the length of a night crawler hanging from his nose.

The second night was, if anything, colder than the first. We ate so fast I have no recollection of what went in my mouth. I do remember asking for seconds on butterballs and checking out a couple of the dogs' dishes on the way to my tent.

We were awakened by Wade's screams. He had shuffled out to the tip-ups at sunup to check for his beloved eelpout. A flag was up and a great deal of line had been run out. He chipped the reel free of ice and hauled in line. No eelpout. But one probably had taken the bait.

Meanwhile, Gaitley and I were trying to get our partially frozen feet into our fully frozen boots, Peter was cooking pancakes, and the dogs were curled up again, their noses tucked under their tails. That they could endure these last two nights, with the temperatures flirting with -30, with no shelter other than a trench in the snow for a windbreak and no bedding but a few sprigs of spruce needles, was beyond me. But they appeared perfectly happy. When I passed around some good-morning head-pats, each of the dogs felt exquisitely warm.

We packed up after breakfast and headed home. The return trip was fast and faultless, except for a few belly flops. More winter weather was moving in. The sky was leaden, and by the time we reached Snowbank, fat flakes were falling. "Only six or eight more weeks of mushing," said Peter. I caught a hint of sadness in his voice. "Then the weather starts to get too hot for the dogs." Too hot was a notion that escaped me, for the moment, but I could understand Peter's melancholy. Sled dogs are a wonderful fit with the winter world-like mules in the mountains or a good canoe on a chain of backcountry lakes.

Eelpout, on the other hand, I'll never understand.