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Program to stock trout in mine pit lakes is as popular as ever

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Program to stock trout in mine pit lakes is as popular as ever
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

ELY, Minn. -- Doug Ellis and I are trying to have a conversation, but we keep getting rudely interrupted by rainbow trout.

"There's one," says Ellis.


He springs from the driver's seat of his Crestliner and snatches a fishing rod from its rod holder. He pops the line free of his downrigger weight and reels in another rainbow. It fights with frenzy until Ellis, of Forbes, swings it up and into the boat.

It isn't a large fish by any means, just a foot long. But it's gorgeous on a small scale with its iridescent flanks, flecks of black and a wash of soft pink down the length of its body. Someone named these fish right.

In a few hours of fishing, we'll catch 20 of these frisky rainbows and put all but six of them back. We're fishing Miner's Lake, within the city limits of Ely, the town's water tower visible above the tree line at the west end of the lake.

Miner's Lake is one of some 20 "pit" lakes across northern Minnesota's Iron Range. All of them once were iron mines, most of them open-pit mines. Now filled with water, they've been stocked with trout.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the program, now a cooperative effort of Iron Range Resources and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. IRR stocks six of the lakes each year, and the DNR stocks the remainder.

'Tremendous resource'

The program started in 1983 as part of the IRR's (then the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board) mineland reclamation effort.

"It was at the time when a lot of these pits had just filled with water. It seemed like a tremendous resource for someone to use," said Ray Svatos of Iron, who retired in 2006 as mineland reclamation director for the IRR.

Initially, the IRRRB stocked all the pit lakes. But the agency was stocking large fish, and it proved too costly, Svatos said. Now the agency and the DNR both stock fish at about one-third pound each.

The DNR also stocks many non-pit lakes with rainbows, brook trout and brown trout, but Ellis prefers fishing the pit lakes.

"The scenery is way better," Ellis said. "It's like fishing in a canyon. And there's more structure, more [submerged] trees. I think it's a little more challenging."

And the lakes are close to home.

"With fuel prices on the rise, it provides trout anglers with a local, easily accessible resource," said Brian Hiti, IRR deputy commissioner.

Pit lakes, because they're deep and bordered by almost solid rock, don't offer as much forage for trout as other trout lakes, said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids.

"They tend to be very sterile," he said. "Typically, our stocking is with catchable size yearlings."

The lack of forage makes the lake more popular with anglers, he said.

"The fish are hungry ... so they're easy to catch," Kavanaugh said.

Downriggers produce

The rainbows are hungry for Ellis' Sutton spoons, trolled about 20 feet down. Because it's still early in the year and the water is cool, we find most of them over the tops of long-submerged trees. Later in the season, Ellis says, the trout disperse throughout the lake. But nearly always he finds them from about 18 to 25 feet deep. That applies on other pit lakes, too, he says.

Ellis uses downriggers with 3-pound weights in his trolling. Larger weights tend to scare the fish, he says. He uses light rods with level-wind reels, trolling the Sutton spoons in the "61" size. His reels are filled with Berkley Fireline Crystal, with a 6-foot leader of 6-pound-test monofilament line. But there are other ways to catch these pit trout.

"You can long-line them with Rapalas, smaller ones, that dive 15 to 10 feet," he says. "Troll them from 2½ to 3 miles per hour."

He likes Rapalas in a No. 7 size. Good color patterns are rainbow, chartreuse, fire tiger and blue, he says.

Or, work along the edges of the trees with a trolling motor and cast Dardevles or other spoons. And, yes, he says, you'll lose some spoons to the trees.

Just right for kids

Ellis often brings along something else when he fishes the pits -- kids.

"They're awesome lakes to take kids into," he says. "They're so much fun. Trout are really cool to look at. They jump. They wiggle. They do everything a fish is supposed to do. And they aren't prickly."

These lakes are also, as Ellis says, "gentleman's lakes." Fishing is good all day, not just in morning or evening.

A kid would be giddy over the fishing Ellis and I are having. We tell stories until another rod starts shaking, then grab and reel. In addition to the 20 fish we land, several more get away. Miner's Lake also has brook trout in addition to rainbows, and Ellis usually gets about half and half. This time, it's all rainbows.

Most of the fish stocked at these lakes are caught the same year they're stocked, Kavanaugh said. But some must live longer. Ellis catches the occasional 18-inch brook trout or rainbow trout. Hooking those larger fish and landing them are two different things, he says.

"When you get an 18-incher, they fight," he says.

We decide to begin keeping a few trout late in our outing. We do this in the spirit of the late Bob Cary, longtime Ely outdoorsman and Ely Echo columnist.

"Bob used to say to the fish, 'Be good, and I'll take you someplace nice and warm -- the frying pan,' " Ellis says.

So we do.