On the trail of 'hawgs'

ON SAGANAGA LAKE -- I couldn't tell whether the soft resistance on the end of my line was a walleye or the bottom of Saganaga Lake. But Cory Christianson knew.

ON SAGANAGA LAKE -- I couldn't tell whether the soft resistance on the end of my line was a walleye or the bottom of Saganaga Lake. But Cory Christianson knew.

"You've got him," said Christianson, a veteran guide for Mike Berg's Seagull Creek Fishing Camp north of Grand Marais.

I set the hook, and in a couple of minutes, Christianson was swinging a 27-inch walleye aboard in his landing net, a fish that weighed perhaps 7 or 8 pounds.

It was the smallest walleye we would catch for several hours.

I had come north to Saganaga, at the tip of the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais, to see how Mike Berg and his guides at the Seagull Creek Fishing Camp were rebounding from the Ham Lake fire. That forest fire started May 5 and burned 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, destroying several homes, cabins and some businesses near the end of the Gunflint Trail.


Berg's fishing camp on Sea-gull Creek, just a few miles from the end of the trail, is ringed by blackened trees and a charred forest floor. Amazingly, his camp was spared, probably by firefighters who dumped retardant nearby and who reportedly sprayed foam on some of his buildings. Berg had been forced to evacuate. The fire swept just 15 feet from one of his guest cabins and destroyed an old bunkhouse.

But the camp is up and running again, and Christianson, 31, had recently returned for his eighth year of guiding. He spends winters in Key West, Fla., guiding saltwater anglers for sailfish, tarpon and other species.

Christianson and the other Seagull Creek guides know Saganaga's walleyes as well as any angler could. Their clients catch and release more than 200 walleyes that are 28 inches or longer each summer. Walleyes that large are known in the camp as "hawgs," using the traditional Southern spelling. The "Hawg Board," a marker board that hangs in the camp's bait den, duly records the name of every angler who lands a 28-inch-plus walleye all summer. The year's largest is typically 32 or 33 inches long, and several of those might make the board in a given summer.

Berg, 49, has always tallied the most hawgs for the summer, Christianson said.

"I was leading him in August last year," Christianson said. "But he caught me. I think he may be the best walleye fisherman in Minnesota."

Berg's fellow guides -- Christianson, Stephen Foster and Mike's son Curtis Blake -- learn quickly. They learn the spots that produce at different times of the summer. They learn the presentations that work. They learn the preferences of the camp's largely repeat clientele.

Their best spots bear names known only to the camp: The Weed Bed, Slingshot, The Rock Pocket, Gordy's Hawg Hole, Burnt Point.

"We may have to rename Burnt Point," Christianson said. "There are a lot of those now."



On Tuesday, we were fishing a shallow corner of Red Rock Bay at the western end of the lake. Big female walleyes that have finished spawning come here in late May to the muddy bottoms that warm up fast. Berg was fishing nearby with his clients, Terry and Gail Englund of Grand Marais.

I felt another tick at the end of my 6-pound-test line. This time I didn't have to wait for Christianson's OK. I set the hook into something solid. For a few seconds, the line didn't move.

"You see enough, you can tell when it's a hawg," Christianson would say later. "The rod tip doesn't move, and then" -- he made plunging motions with one hand.

The fish finally began swimming, but mostly on her own terms. Walleyes are not known for their fight, but when they get to this size, they give you all you want. I held on, gaining line at times, giving it back when the big mama wanted to go. She made several dogged runs, peeling line as she headed for the bottom, yanking my rod tip well under water.

"Hawg on," Christianson called to Berg.

Don't let anyone tell you this isn't a thrill.

There are two beautiful moments when you're catching a truly large walleye. One is the first time you catch a glimpse of the behemoth, six or eight feet down in the water. You see the golden-green dirigible shape, something much larger than you've come to expect. You see the large creamy patch on her tail, a patch much larger than you've come to expect.


Finally, she was in Christianson's net, and he lifted her huge curled form over the boat. The second cool moment occurred when he lifted her carefully from the net and she caught the morning light. Her scales glittered gold, and we gawked.

Christianson has seen dozens of these fish, and even he is still moved by their remarkable features. Their wet, black eyes are the size of milk jug lids. Their lips are thick and round. Their tails look as large as mud flaps. They're walleyes, all right, but they're beyond what we've come to think of as walleyes.


Christianson held the fish along his tape measure. Thirty inches on the nose. We captured a quick photo, and I held the fish in the water until she was ready. With one flick of her massive tail, she was gone.

The next one was 31 inches long. A little later, Christianson added a 30-incher. These are walleyes of a lifetime for almost any angler.

"That's pretty wild: Four fish -- a 27, two 30s and a 31," Christianson said. "It doesn't surprise me, but compared to other lakes, it's pretty wild."

In Berg's boat, Gail Englund of Grand Marais nailed a 29-incher, and her husband, Terry, got a 27 among a catch of 15 walleyes.

Christianson and I got all of our fish trolling Lindy rigs with 1/8th-ounce barrel sinkers and blue hooks. Berg and his guides swear by blue hooks in the spring. We used exclusively rainbow dace minnows 3 and 4 inches long that Christianson had trapped for the fishing camp. We drifted shorelines in 13 to 14 feet of water, Christianson controlling the drift with his trolling motor.


Although muddy bays are the key in spring, he said, he usually finds the fish where rocks protrude from the mud. And the wind must be blowing into the bays.

"This time of year, it's all about the wind," Christianson said.

The fire had not touched Red Rock Bay, and we fished shorelines where jack pines, spruce and birch reached green to the sky. Grassy campsites awaited summer campers. But at James Bay, where we fished later, the fire had consumed the shorelines, leaving ranks of blackened spikes that once were living trees. The wind carried the strong scent of rain-dampened ash and torched tree trunks.

New green will come on soon enough, but some of Sag's shoreline will bear the scars of the Ham Lake fire for years.

The walleyes are still there, though. And as long as they are, the Seagull Creek guides will find them.

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