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Ham Lake fire hasn't discouraged anglers

ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- The Ham Lake fire may have blackened 36,000 acres along the Gunflint Trail. But it couldn't get the walleyes.

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters, Mike Berg's Seagull Creek Fishing Camp near the tip of the trail survived the fire. Now, Berg's guides and others along the upper Gunflint Trail are back on the water, putting their clients in touch with Saganaga Lake's trophy fish.

Any concerns about the state of the lake's walleyes were dispelled when Berg set the hook on his first walleye of the season last weekend. It was a 32-incher, probably weighing more than 10 pounds.

"First day, first fish, first bite," said Berg, 49, who has owned Seagull Creek Fishing Camp for 20 years.

Members of his family, fishing with him, boated all kinds of big walleyes. Son Curtis Blake landed a 31-incher. Daughter Jessica Berg-Collman got herself a 29 and a 27½. Mike also picked up a 28 and a 27.

"The resource is still there," Berg said.

Anglers who want to get at those big walleyes have not been dissuaded by the fire or the notion that some shorelines may be burned over. They're calling. They're booking trips.

"At least for the customers I have, none of them have canceled because of the fire," said Bob Baker, who owns Gunflint Pines Resort and Campgrounds just down the trail from Berg's place.

"We haven't had any cancellations on our guides," said Dave Schudy, a manager at Gunflint Lodge on Gunfint Lake. "There's been no ill effect on the fishing."

Berg said he lost about 10 days of bookings, but May never is a big month for Seagull Creek. June is the peak month, and July and August are always good. Some anglers who had to cancel in May will probably rebook later in the summer, Berg said.

Fishing wasn't foremost in the minds of anglers who called Seagull Creek in the days after the fire, Berg said.

"What do they want to know? First, 'Are you safe?' " Berg said. "And everyone is glad your place is still there."

Eventually, they want to know what Saganaga looks like.

"Sag has been burned," Berg said, "but it still has a lot of beautiful areas that haven't been touched by fire or the [1999] blowdown."

Berg's is the only fishing camp of its kind on the Gunflint Trail, but other resorts offer guided fishing for their guests who want it. Many anglers from the Northland fish without guides on Saganaga, Northern Light Lake in Ontario, Seagull Lake, Gunflint Lake, Little Gunflint Lake, Little North Lake and North Lake.

The Ham Lake fire shut down fishing on all of those lakes on Minnesota's fishing opener because a large portion of the Gunflint Trail was evacuated and closed to traffic. And few anglers made it up for the Ontario fishing opener May 19 because the fire was still burning in Ontario.

Following the fire, it took a few days for businesses to re-establish phone and computer service. Land phone lines still haven't been restored near the end of the trail, including at Seagull Creek. Most businesses have been issued cell phones, and a temporary cell tower allows them phone service.

Already, grass is coming back at the edges of the burned areas. Spring peepers and chorus frogs are calling from the wetlands. The blackflies are out. Slowly, a sense of normalcy is returning to the area. But talk of the fire still creeps into many conversations, and when the wind is right, it carries the scent of a charred forest. Psychologically, the Ham Lake fire will weigh on residents' minds for a long time, Berg said.

"You don't get over this one quickly," he said. "It affected too much property, too many people. It still wears on you. It came so close to me being one of them.

"I'll always be able to walk away and go fishing somewhere. But this is home."

Now, Berg and other guides must deal with the challenge of low water, a drought-caused condition that existed before the fire.

Saganaga Lake is down several feet, said Baker, of Gunflint Pines.

"The other day I was fishing next to a cliff, and standing in the boat, the high-water line was at eye-level," he said.

Low water presents problems for some Gunflint Lake anglers who traditionally have taken their boats up narrow currents into Little Gunflint Lake, Little North Lake and North Lake.

"They can't get into North Lake right now," said Gunflint Lodge's Schudy. "And on Sag, you just have to be more careful. I hit a reef the other day."

Anglers can get a 16-foot boat into Little Gunflint and Little North Lake, Baker said, but not into North Lake. Some anglers are remaining on Gunflint Lake, fishing lake trout and walleyes.

"Trout fishing has been really good," Baker said. "And they're still getting walleyes."

Walleye fishing continues to be productive on Saganaga. Seagull Creek clients have caught 26 walleyes longer than 28 inches already this spring in just seven days of fishing, compared to 24 in two weeks of May last year.

And Berg is getting his share. On Thursday, he caught three more of 28, 28½ and 29 inches.