ON LAKE SUPERIOR — We’d barely cleared the Duluth Ship Canal when Parker Bambenek put his charter boat, Invictus, on autopilot and started setting lures in the water.
“We got some coho right here the other morning, and a big brown trout, so let’s give it a shot,” said Bambenek.
That’s the kind of season it’s been on Lake Superior so far, with fishing starting off hot in April and trollers even now not having to venture very far out to catch fish.
On a recent June morning, with a stiff north wind blowing off shore, it took Bambenek a little longer than usual to find his customer’s fish for the day. But, as usual, he found them.
Bambenek runs the 31-foot Tiara boat as Superior Pursuits charters. He’s now joined with five other charter captains in Duluth to form the Lift Bridge Charter Association. Bambenek is the veteran of the group with seven seasons under his belt chartering on the big lake and more than 20 years fishing out here.
On this morning Bambenek was hosting Duluth-area residents Ken Fromberg and his son, Kjell Fromberg, both ironworkers taking a day off to fish. While many of Bambenek’s customers are from out of town, it’s not unusual for Northlanders to book a trip close to home.
“Not everyone in Duluth has a boat that will work out here,” Bambenek noted. “And not everyone wants to try it on their own.”
In the Frombergs' case, it was a chance to catch some fish for meals for Ken and a chance for Kjell to watch a pro at work. Kjell recently purchased a Lake Superior fishing boat of his own and was looking to pick up some pointers.
“I have a passion for this lake,” Kjell said.
Even when we gave up on the close-in coho and tried for lake trout, we were only a few miles out from the Aerial Lift Bridge. While the lake trout go deeper in summer as the surface water warms, they don’t necessarily spread out that far on the big lake like salmon do.
“There aren’t any secret spots out here because the fish keep moving,” Bambenek said. “The lake trout move up and down in the water column. The salmon scatter out across the lake.”
Bambenek had to figure out the stiff wind, underwater currents and his boat speed to keep the lures at the right speed and depth to catch fish. He had eight lines out, some on planer boards that pulled them way off to the side of the boat, others on downriggers that brought the lures down deep. He had lots of options covered, with different lures on each rod — both colorful spoons and some flasher-fly combinations — until one combination seemed to be doing better.
There are no reefs or islands out here, so water temperature becomes the "structure'' that successful anglers look for. The captain’s goal is to keep the boat moving between 1.9 to 3.1 mph and let the fish decide what they want. On this day those lake trout willing to bite were about 70 feet down where a special gauge on the downrigger showed Bambenek that the water temperature was 48.9 degrees and the lure was moving at 2.1 mph. On the surface, the water was 60 degrees and the boat was moving at 2.8 mph.
“It’s the game that makes it fun. The game is figuring it out so they bite,” Bambanek said. “It’s a love-hate relationship.”
Mostly love, though, especially when he figures it out.
The first laker was small, just a couple pounds at best, but was welcomed into the boat with a bop on its head and a flop into the cooler. Then another laker came and then two more at the same time for a true double. For about an hour or so the Frombergs were pretty busy reeling in fish.
Eventually a hefty, photo-worthy lake trout came into the boat. And then, after the boat turned back toward the Lift Bridge, and just before it was time to pull the lines in and call it a morning, Bambenek got really excited.
“Fish on the left! That’s a king!” Bambenek yelled.
A veteran fisherman, Ken Fromberg grabbed the rod and played the big fish perfectly, letting the salmon scream line off the reel when it wanted but always keeping tension on the line and the rod tip up, reeling when the fish slowed.
Meanwhile Bambenek was clearing other lines to avoid tangles and eventually netted the 30-inch salmon on the first pass by the stern.
“Good job,” Bambenek said to Fromberg. “He knows what he’s doing. … He wasn’t going to lose that fish. A lot of people just stand there and have no idea … so we end up losing a few. That’s just how it goes in this business.”
Bambenek secured all his rods and then hit the throttles on Invictus’ two, big-block V-8 engines. By that time we were only as far out as Glensheen so the ride back into the marina was quick.
Bambenek was quick to clean the five lake trout and king salmon for the Frombergs, shake hands and then get back to tidying up the boat. It was already approaching noon and he had an afternoon charter booked, even on a Monday. That's the kind of busy summer it’s been.
“Back out there again,” Bambenek said as he moved quickly on the dock. “I love this lake.”