The Woodtick Trail in the Chippewa National Forest near Longville, Minnesota is a cut or two above its namesake insect in beauty and has about the same ability to get under a fisherman's skin. Story has it the Trail was once a railroad grade for the many loggers of the area. From the looks of the white and red pines in the area, I'd say that was at least a century ago. Today it's a stretch of the imagination to envision what it must have looked like scalped to sand, lake and bog. Maybe the Earth can survive us.
None of the lakes on or off to the side of the Trail are much bigger than a hundred acres. Some have accesses. Some don't. Simple rule of fishing: Don't let size fool you. My biggest panfish, bass and Minnesota caught pike have come from one or another of the tiny lakes in the area.
Looking back, there's little doubt I had an ulterior motive the first time my wife and I drove that sand track. Quiet late summer evening after dining out, no hurry to get anywhere. Why not putz our way down fifteen miles of a semi-wilderness through the woods? Immense pines, pink lady slippers, lily-padded swamp and bog, it was a simple pleasure meandering in the heavily oxygenated air and maybe leaving a little carbon monoxide behind. Besides, at the end of the Trail in Longville there was an ice cream shop(pe) right next to the Turtle Races bullseye. Honestly, I was unaware of my devious scheme until I spotted the narrow cut of lake bending off into the forest to our left. Shore outlined with emergent vegetation, water nearly black with bog stain and out of sight in a second. My brain tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "Gotta be fish in yon lake." No public access sign. No need to make a note of what I'd seen. Won't, can't forget that. I knew I'd be back with Allan, gear and canoe.
A few weeks later we were back. I can't say what was going through Al's mind on that trip. He'd been on the road to fishing lakes with his questionably minded father many times before. Sometimes we caught 'em. Sometimes we didn't. Whatever his frame of mind at the time, I was simply happy having him go anywhere with me. I was pumped, on an adventure, John Prine on the tape deck and Allan to share it with.
It was immediately obvious we weren't the first to fish South Stocking Lake for there was a small clearing across the Trail from the lake big enough for a car and a half. The comma shaped lake sat down a steep embankment about twenty yards off the road. Whatever went down that hill either walked or was carried by someone walking. This was leave-the-bass-boat-home water. Ritual-like we wandered down to the shore to bask in the lake's beauty for a minute before hauling the gear down. Not a cabin to be seen; could of been in the Boundary Waters. At that moment we knew nothing about Stocking, absolutely nothing. It was all potential, all possibility. At times like that, "as good as it gets' is not a cliche.
Throughout the morning the Lake told us a lot about itself, a little at a time. Casting small #1 and #2 spinners with light weight rods, we didn't catch squat for the first half hour. Then a small crappie or two. A handful of pumpkinseeds, all between nine and eleven inches, slowly followed. Northwoods, tropical looking, bull-fish. Finally, Allan tied into a couple of thirty-inch pike. They even played the big pike game of putting a big bend in his rod and making a few canoe turning runs.
We didn't catch a lot of fish while working every foot of the lake's shoreline but it was one of the best days I've ever had on the water. Those forty acres were a eureka moment in my life and opened the door to a new world of fishing possibilities, even more so than the Boundary Waters. South Stocking Lake taught me there are little pockets of near wilderness fishing throughout the Northland. The joy and challenge is knowing them when you see them. Then treating them with the respect they deserve.