LAKE OF THE WOODS, ONTARIO – We backed the boat into the water about 10:30 on a recent night. The moon had risen as a slim crescent. But Lake of the Woods itself, all 1,700 square miles of it, was black, save for its nether reaches just offshore, which bore the muted reflections of Kenora, Ontario.
We were running late, and quickly loaded the boat with two coolers, our duffels and our muskie and walleye gear. Jan, my wife, was along, and also our son Cole, and while the outboard idled astern, Cole overlaid our position on a digital lake map, fine-tuning the GPS on the boat’s console.
Then he laid down a route, and we shoved off.
Destination: Big Narrows, 26 miles distant.
“We’ll have to take it slow,’’ I said.
“We’ll be all right,’’ Cole said.
Soon on plane, the boat banked between buoys and islands, a neat wake trailing behind, as Cole felt his way through the darkened maze by watching our changing position on the map; this while Jan and I peered ahead, looking for other boats and also deadfalls.
Lake of the Woods was flooded, and debris was scattered randomly on its surface.
“I wonder if Charlie will be up?’’ Jan said.
“He might be,’’ I said.
Charlie Ehlen is a retired physician who owns Big Narrows Resort.
In July and August, the part of Lake of the Woods near Big Narrows gives up a muskie or two, and on many past summer evenings, Cole and I, and his older brother, Trevor, while headquartered at Charlie’s place, have cast until night enveloped us, or until the mosquitoes ate us up.
Sometimes we’d fool a muskie. Sometimes not. Either way, we’d be up again at dawn, and cast some more.
Most of our Lake of the Woods memories are bathed in their soft glows.
But Trevor hasn’t been muskie fishing since he left for college in Montana three years ago. A fly fishing guide in summer, he’s busy in July and August.
Now Cole would soon leave for his freshman year of college, and I worried that in years to come, muskie fishing, or any kind of fishing, might not be the same.
Ten miles of the trip were behind us when Cole throttled up, and the outboard aspirated fuel hand over fist.
The night was clear and warm, and the lake mirror-flat.
When we arrived, we found Charlie in the lodge, asleep in a chair, C-Span on the TV.
Suspecting that scoundrels inhabit Washington disproportionately, Charlie wants to keep track of them.
This was well after midnight, and we had snugged the boat to the dock as a storm gathered in the west.
Muffled in the distance, a diesel generator powered the resort’s lights.
Charlie extended a hand. “You made it,’’ he said.
• • •
Heavy rain fell intermittently the next day, and for the most part we were confined to the cabin. Also Cole wasn’t feeling well, and when I finally went fishing, after supper, I was alone.
I knew a spot where walleyes hung out, and had time to kill before I would cast for muskies. So I settled the boat alongside a pair of small islands and soon was dragging a sliding-sinker rig and a minnow in 18 feet of water.
Only a few minutes passed before I had a dandy walleye in hand, 18 inches. A few minutes more, and I had a second keeper, my daily limit.
I wasn’t far from Big Narrows. So I motored back for Jan, and soon she also had her walleye limit in the live well, along with a 12-inch crappie and a jumbo perch.
This was about 9 o’clock, and the setting sun bled the western horizon orange.
“I should check on Cole,’’ Jan said.
“Ten casts for muskies and we’ll go in,’’ I said.
We moved the boat a short distance. Then I clipped on a Muskie Safari creeper bait and tossed the hulking lure to an island point where the boys and I had caught muskies previously.
A big fish followed, hot. But I couldn’t hook him.
The same fish followed a second time.
On my third cast, boatside, he bit.
Jan was reading a book.
“I might need some help,’’ I said.
Very little of the evening’s half-light remained when we pulled up to the dock.
Cole was waiting.
“Caught one,’’ I said. “45 inches.’’
“Let’s go back out,’’ Cole said.
Slapping mosquitoes, Jan said, “Not me.’’
Through narrow passageways toward a broad reef that last year produced a good muskie for us, Cole and I ran for perhaps 15 minutes. Then we flipped down the bow trolling motor and peppered the darkened shore; Cole with a Dreammaker, and I with the creeper.
My second muskie of the night gobbled my bait perhaps 30 yards from the boat. This fish was shorter, 41 inches, but thick and powerful, and when Cole netted it, and released it, the pines on the distant shore were backlit by an ever-so-faint luminescence.
This wasn’t many hours before sunrise, that other best time of the day on Lake of the Woods, when we would be back on the water, casting.