LAKE OF THE WOODS – To catch a fleeting Wi-Fi signal at Rex Tolton’s island camp, guests stand on the deck just outside the tiny office where they pay the owners a very reasonable amount of money at the end of their stay.
As they check e-mails, they’ll reach down to pet Gibson, a pleasantly underactive labradoodle, or Trigger, an old redbone coonhound who naps a lot.
Thirteen miles from the nearest road and tucked up against a vast Ontario forest, there’s not much to do here but fish. That’s why we keep coming back.
Rex Tolton’s Miles Bay Camp is an old-fashioned sweet spot in a freshwater fishing paradise that is 85 miles long and 56 miles across, populated with 14,500 other islands. It belongs to a culture of Canadian “tourist camps” located in the island belt west of Nestor Falls and north of Morson. The camps first sprouted in the 1930s and grew again after World War II.
Historically and still today, Minnesotans have been flocking to the region as an alternative to fishing the more open expanses of the South Shore and Big Traverse Bay on the American side of the lake.
“If your kids do not like fishing, it’s probably not a place for you,” said Matt Tolton, the third-generation owner of Rex Tolton’s. “We are kind of off the beaten path.”
Tolton’s is a camp of eight cabins, 48 beds and a beautifully protected boat harbor. We stumbled onto it four years ago when our own boat was low on gas. We had been staying at Young’s Wilderness Camp more than 20 miles to the east and found ourselves taking daylong trips to Miles Bay for walleyes.
While Matt filled our tank and we stretched our legs on his dock, a light went on: more fishing and less boat riding if we stay in Miles Bay.
Location, location, location
Mike Ward, 26, of St. Paul was watching dark clouds build on the horizon as our group of eight anglers fished from two boats on the south end of the bay two weeks ago. It was a windy five-day trip with plenty of rain and a consistently heavy chop, so we were happy to be close to camp.
And if it weren’t for all the wind breaks provided by Miles Bay islands, we may not have lasted until late in the afternoon, when Mike landed a 28-inch walleye, the biggest of the trip.
We were all thinking about heading in when Mike felt heaviness on his perch-colored jig. We were in 26 feet of water, positioned over a hump. He lifted his rod tip and set the hook.
“It almost felt like a log,” he said later. Standing in the bow, Mike patiently reeled until the fish surfaced on the starboard side. When his younger brother, Kevin, netted it, there were high-fives all around. We caught more than 130 walleyes during our visit; most were 13 to 19 inches, and a few were over 20. Mike’s beefy lunker was tiring fast. He hurried the picture-taking and carefully returned it to the water.
The temptation to hook another big one overwhelmed our immediate urge to scurry back to camp, ahead of the storm. We paid for it when we finally put the rods away. By then, we were bracing for a blinding downpour that hit us about a mile from camp. There was no lightning, which was a blessing, but the wind was forceful enough for Matt to rope his main dock to an oak tree to keep it from moving.
Do it yourself
Matt and his partner, Jenn Miedema, are residents of Devlin, Ontario, but live on the island in fishing season with their children Sadie, 10, and Rex, 8. When Matt was Rex’s age, he did the same with his own parents.
“You’re married to this place, because you have to be here,” Matt said. “You miss out on special occasions on shore, but it’s a small price to pay to wake up here every morning.”
In the early 1950s, Rex and Agnes Tolton of Nestor Falls (Matt’s grandparents) laid claim to 2 acres on a 100-acre island at the top of Miles Bay. Rex spied the location as captain of a famous Lake of the Woods tourist boat known as the “Ark.” He built the camp’s first log cabin with hand tools, shuttling in supplies with an 18-foot wooden boat and 22-horsepower Johnson outboard.
Starting 13 years ago, Matt and Jenn took over and focused on modernizing the camp. They replaced a petroleum-powered generator with a government-subsidized solar system that requires only an occasional boost when clouds block out the sun for too long.
The docks have plug-ins for the boats and the cabins have lights and refrigerators, but guests aren’t allowed to bring in energy-sapping appliances like coffeepots, toasters, hair dryers or deep fryers.
It’s a, laid-back, do-it-yourself kind of place. Guests do their own cooking and housekeeping. Ice, minnows and boat gas can be purchased on site, and the clean, central showers are long on hot water.
Sixteen-foot aluminum boats and small outboards are available for rent, but most guests arrive in bigger, faster craft of their own. The camp doesn’t have a designated fishing guide, but arrangements can be made in advance with guides known by Matt and Jenn.
The no-frills tradition keeps lodging prices as low as $345 per person, per week — or a bit more if you opt to stay in a cabin refurbished with its own shower and composting toilet.
“We don’t have any schedules here,” Matt said. “We tell our guests to use your head and have a good time. This lake can be a dangerous playground.”
To chase walleyes on Miles Bay in midsummer, you don’t need a computerized lake map or global-positioning device. Paper maps and depth-finders have sufficed for us in the past. But this year we were fully loaded with silicon and we were more sure of our positioning at all times.
In our first half-day of fishing, the walleyes were elusive. We tried rocky shorelines, 16 to 22 feet deep. We marked a lot of bait fish and found several jumbo perch and a few small saugers and walleyes. But we went to bed a little worried about our game plan.
Early the next morning, the Ward family solved things in a hurry. Before 8 a.m. in 15 feet of water near a sunken island, Mike landed a nice dinner fish. His dad, Scott, marked the location and moved his boat directly over the rocky, underwater bar. In no time, Scott and his three boys were consistently catching keepers in 26 to 28 feet of water.
For the rest of that day and for the three days thereafter, we followed the same pattern — guided by electronics that displayed the underwater structure and pinpointed our position. If you were jigging over a reef when the bite turned on, walleyes were bending rods.
My 9-year-old son, Joe, took advantage by improving his technique — catching six keepers in the course of one day. His brother, Jack, 7, was happy just to be netting fish and fetching minnows.
Miles Bay is bigger than most Minnesota lakes, and the traffic included anglers casting for bass, northerns and muskies. Crappies, too, are sought after in the bay, which includes a diversity of marshy inlets, shallow coves, bulrushes and sandy beaches.
We also couldn’t help but notice that some of our fellow anglers were in boats from other resorts, including a few that came from 32 miles away.