ON TROUT LAKE, BWCAW — We couldn’t decide if this was the last, best day of summer or maybe the first great day of autumn.

Either way, at 80 degrees and sunny in mid-September, with a stiff southerly breeze and no bugs, it was the kind of day you dream about come January.

We were trolling for lake trout in Lonnie Johnson’s 16-foot Alumacraft boat, the 25-horsepower Evinrude putting away on one of the few Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lakes where outboard motors are still allowed.

This is Johnson’s lake to be sure. Not only is he one of the few fishing guides who focuses on lake trout on Trout Lake, but he also operates the motorized portage, the access in and out of here from nearby Lake Vermilion.

“Most everybody up here (around Lake Vermilion) specializes in walleyes, or musky … but I kinda like the trout,” Johnson said as he rigged another spoon on a downrigger. “I’d be coming back across the portage, and people would see me with lake trout, and they’d say, ‘where did you get those? Where can we get a lake trout guide?’ There really wasn't one. So I gave it a try.”

Boaters who want to move between Lake Vermilion and Trout Lake can get hauled across the half-mile portage by an ATV and trailer  operated by Lonnie Johnson. The fee is $35 for a round-trip. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
Boaters who want to move between Lake Vermilion and Trout Lake can get hauled across the half-mile portage by an ATV and trailer operated by Lonnie Johnson. The fee is $35 for a round-trip. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Johnson describes himself as a small-town farm boy. He grew up near Pine City, Minn., and moved into a career as a milking equipment machinery dealer.

But Johnson, 66, always had a passion for fishing. As a kid, he was a self-described river rat on the St. Croix and Snake rivers, and he and his brother fished for salmon often on Lake Michigan as they got older. In 1999 Lonnie and his wife, Kim, built a cabin on Pine Island on Lake Vermilion on a lot they purchased from her uncle. In 2006 they made the cabin their permanent home.

“We have everything but a road,’’ Johnson said, noting there is electricity and telephone service (via underwater cables) but you have to get there by boat or, in winter, across the ice via truck or snowmobile.

There’s even U.S. mail service by boat in summer months right to a mailbox at the end of their dock.

“Every day my wife has to take a boat or a snowmobile to work, and she hasn’t complained once,’’ Johnson said. “We drive the snowmobile right in the house to keep it warm. And she can start her car with her phone so it’s warm when she gets there.”

After Thanksgiving the Johnson’s leave their island by boat one last time, then head to Florida for a month. They come back after Christmas, when Lake Vermilion ice is safe to traverse out to their home. There’s also a week or more in spring when they have to stay on the mainland.

“It’s been a fun lifestyle,’’ Johnson said.

Lonnie Johnson rigs his line onto a battery-operated downrigger on his boat while fishing on Trout Lake last week.  (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnewscom)
Lonnie Johnson rigs his line onto a battery-operated downrigger on his boat while fishing on Trout Lake last week. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnewscom)

Kim Johnson works as an accountant for the St. Louis County School District. Lonnie’s job is much closer to home. He’s just a couple miles from the Moccasin Point boat landing where he picks up his fishing clients. And their home is just a couple miles from the Trout Lake Portage.

Every day all summer, the portage is open for eight hours, with someone on duty to take boats across either way.

Johnson started working at the portage part time in 2006. Five years ago he took over as the official contractor for the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s actually fun if you like people. I have met a lot of really interesting people on the portage,’’ he noted.

And while it may be just a narrow, winding gravel trail between lakes “the portage is the information superhighway on what the fish are doing,” Johnson said.

Fishing guide Lonnie Johnson holds up two lake trout caught on Trout Lake on a warm, sunny day last week. Johnson is one of the few guides who specializes in lake trout on the BWCAW lake. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
Fishing guide Lonnie Johnson holds up two lake trout caught on Trout Lake on a warm, sunny day last week. Johnson is one of the few guides who specializes in lake trout on the BWCAW lake. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Wonder Bread and greasy chicken

After Labor Day and though about mid-October, the portage is less busy and available by phone reservation only. That’s also when Johnson gets more time to fish. And it’s when the lake trout fishing can get good on Trout Lake as the fish stage for spawning in October.

“We’ve been averaging about six trout per day. So that’s some three-days and some nine-days, but six is about average,’’ he said.

Johnson's boat is rigged for deep lake trout, with two Cannon electric downriggers and a tackle box full of colorful spoons.

Our first trout hit on a thin Doctor spoon, not 30 minutes into our fishing day.

“There’s another one in the strike zone, about 10 feet off the bottom,’’ Johnson said, pointing to the depth finder and quickly adjusting his downrigger so the lure would be just above the fish when it crossed over. “I pretty much ignore the fish right on the bottom. They’re just sitting there. But when you see them 10 or 15 feet off the bottom, that's when they're cruising around hunting, looking for food.”

Or so the plan goes. On this day, the lakers were stubbornly lock-jawed. And despite graphing dozens and dozens of them on Johnson’s depth finder, we would land only two in five hours of fishing — a 19-incher and 21-incher, perfect eating size.

Tori Johnson drives an ATV pulling a small boat across the Trout Lake Portage between Lake Vermilion and Trout Lake in the BWCAW. The Johnson family runs the portage under contract with the U.S. Forest Service.  (John Myers/ jmyers@duluthnews.com)
Tori Johnson drives an ATV pulling a small boat across the Trout Lake Portage between Lake Vermilion and Trout Lake in the BWCAW. The Johnson family runs the portage under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. (John Myers/ jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Johnson switched lure colors, as trollers are wont to do when the fishing slows. In addition to the silvery Doctor spoon, he tried one called “Wonder Bread” with the same brightly-colored polka dots as the famous brand of white bread.

“You have to do a lot of tweaking for trout,’’ Johnson noted, meaning changing up colors, size and patterns of lures, changing depths of the downriggers and changing boat speeds ever-so-slightly.

Our next laker hit on one called “Greasy Chicken,” a gold, orange and black combo that Johnson thinks looks like a perch to the trout.

“We've found out that a lot of our lake trout aren’t just eating ciscoes, which are the big baitfish in here, but they are keying-in on perch. There are perch in a lot of the lake trout we clean,’’ he said.

The average trout Johnson and his clients catch run from 18 to 24 inches, he noted. But he’s caught them as big as 35 inches himself, and a client caught a 36-incher.

“We try to keep them between 20 and 24 inches; those are the good eating sizes. We let the smaller ones and bigger ones go back,” Johnson said.

We didn’t have to make those decisions on our day of fall fishing. But in shirt-sleeve weather, with eagles soaring and a few maples starting their turn to crimson and gold, there couldn’t have been a much better place to take in summer’s last big stand.

“I didn't get to do this as a kid growing up in farm country,’’ Johnson said as he motored back to the portage. By “this’’ he meant not just fishing but living the north woods lifestyle. “Now, I just can’t get enough of it.”

Lonnie Johnson lands an eating-size lake trout, nearly 20 inches long, on Trout Lake last week. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
Lonnie Johnson lands an eating-size lake trout, nearly 20 inches long, on Trout Lake last week. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

About Trout Lake

Located on the western edge of the BWCAW, Trout Lake is one of the few lakes within the wilderness system where limited (up to 25 horsepower) motor use is allowed. It is big at 7,600 acres and holds decent numbers of smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, lake trout, crappie and bluegill. But it’s a clear water lake — up to 99 feet deep in some areas — and walleye fishing can be tough. The lake sees most attention for lake trout, but they run deep much of the year (50 to 70 feet down) and require specialized tackle such as deep water jigs or downriggers. Lake trout fishing closes in Minnesota on Sep. 30 to protect spawning fish. It will reopen in January for ice fishing.

Trout Lake sees a mix of canoe trippers heading into 15 nearby portage-to BWCAW lakes; day use motorboat anglers; and overnight camping motorboaters. Permits are required for all three, but — unlike other motor-use BWCAW lakes — are generally available. Access is from Lake Vermilion, either over a walking canoe portage (free) or over a half-mile road portage where boats and canoes are hauled across on a trailer for a $35 round-trip fee. There are 30 campsites on the lake.

For BWCAW permits and information go to recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.

For more information on the Trout Lake Portage or Lonnie Johnson’s Trout Lake Guide Service, email mahjopineis@frontier.com or call 218-780-3610.

Grilled lake trout, a la Johnson

If you are lucky enough to have a couple of nice fillets of redfin lake trout like the kind we caught in Trout Lake last week, Lonnie and Kim Johnson have a great way to prepare them:

Fillet the skin from both sides. (Some salmon and trout recipes call for grilling the fillet with one skin on, but not this one.) Season the trout liberally with olive oil, dill, Old Bay seasoning (from McCormick & Co.) and a little Cajun seasoning for a little kick. Place in an aluminum foil bed and grill on your closed BBQ for about 15 minutes (depending on how hot your grill is) until it gets a little crispy around the edges. Do not try to flip. The Johnsons suggest a good Chardonnay to accompany. Enjoy!