Day of fishing begins with northwoods portage

Odd as it might sound, Jim Zak runs a portage for a living. Portage operator. That's what he is. One of only a handful, perhaps, in the world.

That Zak also teaches fourth grade is interesting. But not as interesting as his summer work on the small spit of land that separates giant Lake Vermilion from not-quite-giant-but-still-big Trout Lake.

Lake Vermilion is not in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and therefore no permit is required to travel on it. But Trout Lake is in the wilderness, and a Forest Service permit is very much needed to be on it.

The other day, I had such a permit in hand, and had in hand as well the tiller of a 25-horsepower outboard, the maximum allowed on Trout Lake. I had rented the motor and a companion craft from Moccasin Point Resort on Lake Vermilion.

The last time I fished Trout Lake, the portage was operated by a young couple who - difficult as it might be to fathom - hauled boats, motors, gear and anglers across the portage using a dog team. Zak has done the canine workhorses one better, improving transportation on the portage by employing a four-wheeler.

"In the old days, the portage was a true truck portage, and a flatbed truck was used to haul boats," Zak said. "The truck would back into the water until a boat could be pulled onto it."

The "old days" of the Trout Lake Portage cover a lot of ground. Anglers and campers have been portaging into the lake from Vermilion for a century or more. And not without controversy. Since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, formalizing the BWCAW, boundary waters advocates who oppose motorboats in the region have struggled mightily to see them removed.

"When I was a kid," Zak said, "my mom and dad had their place on Vermilion, and there would be summer mornings when we would go across the portage into Trout Lake at 7 a.m., and be back at noon with limits of walleyes and baskets full of blueberries."

I had my boys with me, Trevor, 14, and Cole, 11. Based on my earlier briefing - to the degree they paid attention - the boys knew we could catch smallmouth bass in Trout. But we also wanted walleyes.

"It's in July and August that walleye fishing picks up in Trout Lake," Zak had told me. "It's really not that good earlier, at least not in the south end, which is very deep and cold."

Zak and his four-wheeler made quick work of the half-mile that separates the two lakes, hauling our rig (and us) across in just a few minutes. He was helpful also with ideas about where to fish, marking a map of ours with suggestions.

Then we were off, the lake becoming familiar to me again as we motored up Portage Bay before angling north. The scenery was wilderness-like, with red and white pines rising from cabin-free shorelines. Above, lifted by temperate winds, an eagle soared effortlessly.

During our daylong adventure, we saw but one canoe party, a young man and woman with a tent pitched. Otherwise it was boats and motors, five in all that we came across, in addition to ours. Midday, when a stiff breeze roiled the lake surface, we seemed almost to have the lake to ourselves. But as evening approached, the other craft appeared, their operators piloting them toward waters 20 to 30 feet deep.

In no time, we were awash in bass. Jigging near the bottom with leeches, we caught what seemed for a while to be one after another. The kids and I like nothing more than to fish smallies, particularly on the surface. They're as feisty as any fish. But hauling them to the boat from 20 feet down only whetted our appetites for walleyes.

"The walleyes you catch in Trout in mid- to late summer can be big," Zak had said. "This is the time to get a trophy. There are so many ciscoes in the lake, walleyes grow big feeding on them."

Trevor caught the first walleye we kept, a fish of less than 2 pounds that succumbed to a leech while I back-trolled in 20 feet of water on the windward side of an island.

The breeze was stiff, and waves that folded against the transom cascaded into the boat. Characteristic of a productive walleye chop, the wind, I thought, would lead us to more fish than it did.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, I said, "Let's take a break." And I motored to a long rocky point that many who had come before us to Trout Lake used as a campsite.

The temperature was in the mid- to high 80s, and the time seemed less opportune for fishing than swimming. Soon we were jumping from rock ledges into the deep cool water, a worthy respite from the rigors of sport angling.

Later, I sprawled atop life jackets strewn over a rock whose large moon shape seemed to levitate me ever nearer to the sun. It was Christopher Morley, I think, who said, "Loafing needs no explanation and is its own excuse."

If he didn't say it, he should have.

Closing my eyes, I offered some fatherly advice. "Boys, don't drown."

I like a story in which I catch the biggest fish, and this is one.

Still compounding itself as it pushed waves up the lake, the wind bobbed us around another hour or so before lying down in late afternoon.

We considered briefly keeping some of the bass that bothered our baits. But we had promised Mom, minding the home front, we would return with dinner worthy of the effort. In our family, walleye qualifies.

The fish I caught next, a walleye, weighed 4.5 pounds. The angle of the sun was lower now and still the wind blew. Everything had a fisherman's feel to it.

Continuing our quest, we backed into waves, jigging, and backed into them again. Our one regret was that we hadn't brought a tent, and that we couldn't fish until dark and beyond.

Later, Zak was at the portage, waiting. He hauled us across. Nearly as quickly, we covered the 5 miles on Lake Vermilion back to Moccasin Point, where, at the resort's bar and on its deck, summer revelry was ever present.