ELY, Minn.—It took all of about 15 seconds for things to get exciting Tuesday morning.
“Someone want to get that?” Steve Foss asked as the fishing rod bounced to the beat of a lake trout twisting and turning—in the way lake trout always do—just a few feet behind the boat.
He’d been trying to set the first of three lines on a Burntside Lake trolling run when the lake trout hit a flashy spoon fluttering about 2 feet below the surface.
Things got even more exciting moments later, when a twisty mishap somewhere in the bowels of Foss’ line-counter reel forced him to abandon technology and pull the lake trout in by hand.
The technique might not have been pretty, but the 3-pound fish was beautiful, and just like that, the first lake trout of the day swam in Foss’ livewell.
And so it began. …
An Ely fishing guide and 1980 graduate of Central High School in Grand Forks, Foss, 54, is a longtime friend and former co-worker who hosted a two-day fishing excursion with two other longtime friends and former co-workers, Jim Durkin of Oakdale, Minn., and Kevin Grinde of East Grand Forks.
Months in the making, this “lake trout man date”—as Foss had dubbed it—was a chance for the four of us to catch up and reminisce while Foss showed off his adopted home water.
Burntside Lake, at 7,313.9 acres, is a “gemstone among lakes,” Foss says, a watery jewel of islands, shoals and trees on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A classic Canadian Shield lake, Burntside also is one of the few road-accessible lake trout lakes in Minnesota. Denizens of the deep, lake trout require cold, clear water to thrive, and Burntside offers an abundance of both.
A better setting for a reunion of friends would have been hard to envision.
Targeting the trout
Surface temperatures on Burntside were in the 50s early this past week. The plan, Foss said, was to troll flutter spoons about 50 feet behind lead downrigger balls set to run 30 feet below the boat.
“Most of the time the lakers out here seem to be scattered, so you’re better off trolling than jigging,” he said.
That’s where downriggers come into play.
Precision trolling devices, downriggers keep the lures running at a set depth. The line clips to a lead ball lowered by a cable, and when a fish hits, it releases the line from the ball, allowing the angler to play the fish unencumbered.
Tuesday morning, though, Foss didn’t even get a chance to set the first downrigger line before the trout hit, and the mayhem ensued.
“That is a record,” he said. “That’s never happened before. Now we can settle down to boredom and telling stories.”
Anyone who thought the fast start would be an omen of things to come would have been mistaken. Always the realist, Foss tempered expectations by saying an average day of fishing on Burntside Lake produces about three lake trout.
Six to eight lakers would be a very good day, he said. The fish average 2 to 10 pounds, but he’s caught them up to 21 pounds.
Burntside also has walleyes, northern pike and smallmouth bass.
On a typical Canadian Shield lake, anglers early in the year fish lake trout in shallow water. North of the border, the technique can be very effective.
Burntside is different, Foss says. Even early in the year, Foss doesn’t target lake trout in shallow water, instead running his lures closer to the surface above deeper water, a technique he’s found to be more productive.
“I don’t bother wasting my time in shallow water for lakers out here,” Foss said. “It’s a unique fishery. To be honest, I’ve fished a dozen lake trout lakes up here in northeast Minnesota, and I’ve never seen mass shallow migrations of lake trout like they have up in Canada. They’re scattered.”
And so we trolled. And trolled. And trolled.
Stories and barbs
The wait between bites was perfect for the four of us to sling barbs and tell stories, including our shared memories of the Flood of 1997, a disaster of epic proportions that resulted in the Herald winning a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the event and the recovery process that followed.
All of us, along with Foss’ wife, Lisa, were part of the staff that kept the paper afloat during that tumultuous time.
Trolling among the islands of Burntside Lake, we agreed, was a much more enjoyable way to encounter water.
Foss, who left Grand Forks in 2001, says his affliction for lake trout fishing was one of his reasons for pulling up stakes and heading east. He’d first fished lakers a few years earlier on Crow Lake in northwestern Ontario, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Ely area was a perfect fit.
“I knew it was Brandenburg country, and that’s all I knew about Ely,” Foss said, referring to Jim Brandenburg, the renowned environmentalist, nature photographer and filmmaker who lives in Ely.
After a stint in Duluth, Foss spent four years working at a small newspaper in Ely before making the switch to self-employment. These days, Foss makes his living as a fishing guide, photographer and handyman, guiding anglers to lake trout and leading aspiring nature photographers on tours of Burntside and the surrounding area.
Wife Lisa is a partner in “Handy Fosses,” their handyman business that includes everything from real estate and rental cleanout to lawn maintenance and tree removal.
If it needs to be done, they can do it.
“I never quite know where my next paycheck is coming from, but so what?” Foss said. “With our handyman cabin maintenance business, too, when the phone rings, I never know what the people at the other end are going to want, and I kind of like that.”
Foss admits photography is his passion. Every Monday throughout the summer season, he leads photo tours for visitors to Burntside Lodge.
“If I could do only one thing, I would do guided photo excursions, teaching other people how to be nature photographers,” Foss said. “There’s just a spirituality about that you can’t get” any other way.
“I love guiding. I really enjoy it, but it would be the photography if that’s all I could do.”
Making a living as a nature photographer, though, is easier said and done.
By covering water, Foss’ trolling technique produced one more lake trout for the box and four strikes that resulted in what we’ll call “wasted opportunities.”
The day would have been better than average if we’d made those opportunities count.
“We ended up losing more than we caught, which is unusual,” Foss said. “Action-wise, It was average or maybe a little bit above average.”
That night, we dined on fresh lake trout Lisa cooked to perfection, along with baby new potatoes and rice pilaf, in the garage that also serves as Foss’ man cave.
The stories and memories flowed like water deep into the evening.
The next day ended the way the first day had started—with a lake trout in the box—and the four of us reluctantly headed back to the landing to resume our lives and the responsibilities and challenges that waited somewhere beyond Burntside’s tree-lined shores.
“Sometimes, you pay the lake trout gods; sometimes, you make a withdrawal,” Foss said. “Sometimes, you troll for eight hours and catch three in the last hour.”
Such philosophical musings led us to dub Foss “The Oracle of Burntside Lake,” a nickname that likely will be as lasting as the friendships that brought us back together for two short days.
Next time, the wait between “lake trout man dates” won’t be nearly as long.