BIG NARROWS, LAKE OF THE WOODS, ONTARIO - Places are important, and people who share a common place, whether coming or going briefly, or living and dying there, are bound by memory.
So it is with Big Narrows, a place on Lake of the Woods where, amid hundreds of islands, the lake's otherwise minor northward flowage tightens, creating currents, which attract fish, walleyes and muskies in particular.
"This is the place I always wanted to be,'' said Charlie Ehlen.
Charlie spoke the other evening, as a warm day dissolved into long shadows. On a distant island, tall pines reflected themselves onto this huge flat lake. Similarly, the shimmering water's surface duplicated nearby wood-framed cabins, the long plank dock, and my boat.
Summer how it should be, I thought, and I cast off on this, my last night of fishing.
I had come for muskies, and we had five in the boat, spread over three days, each released. The biggest we had battled to the net was a 46-incher. The rest ranged from that size to, working backward, 40 inches. All were torpedo-like in appearance and depth-charge-like in personality, and violent when hooked.
"This is the place I always wanted to be.''
To Charlie, "Big Narrows'' is not only the name of a place but the name of his camp, or resort. A retired physician from Sartell, Minn., near St. Cloud, he bought the business in 2001 from one of his sons and a group of other owners, including Kevin McHale. It was through that bunch I initially learned about the resort and first visited it some years ago.
Now I was back, toting heavy lines and stiff rods, and a storehouse full of baits.
• • •
My son, Trevor, 18, put the boat up on plane and the evening air rushed over his brother Cole, 15, and me. The sky was clear save for a few gauzy, billowy, remnant clouds that earlier that afternoon had hung over Lake of the Woods like extruded cotton. The shoreline really should have had a bear on it, or a moose or a doe and her fawn sipping from the lake. The picturesque trees and rocks invited those imaginings. Instead, overhead, an eagle on its evening flight gathered on its white head the sweltering oranges and reds cast by the lower angle of sun. Soon the big bird lighted in a distant lob pine. Otherwise there were no bears, moose or deer, only, to the stern, our wake undulating in diminishing gradations the farther from the boat it rose and fell.
"What are you going to throw?'' I asked when the outboard was cut and the boat relaxed along a reef that protruded slightly from the lake.
"Dreamcatcher,'' came one response. "Whopper Plopper,'' came the other.
The three of us rifled baits toward the reef, while our bow-mounted electric trolling motor, like Muzak, hummed its plaintive song.
The attraction here is beyond easy explanation. Unlike stream trout fishing, which always occurs in cold, moving water, and therefore beautiful places, fishing for muskies might happen here, in the stunning north country, or, possibly as productively, on heavily developed Lake Minnetonka.
Similarly, unlike walleye fishing, in which anglers seek fillets for the frying pan, muskie "hunting'' (as it's often called) has a grocery quotient of zero -- because most everything is released.
What's more, the cast-to-hookup ratio in muskie fishing is so bizarrely tilted toward the heavy-lifting portion of that equation that no reasonable person would sling the sport's behemoth baits a few thousand times on the fat chance alone that a toothy muskie might strike.
Yet there we were, grinding our way through those very casts, and enthusiastically so. Lake of the Woods might be the continent's best muskie water, which was encouraging. And Big Narrows, a region encompassing perhaps a hundred or so square miles, might be the best part of Lake of the Woods for muskies. We had that going for us, as well.
But more than that, at its core, muskie fishing is about big fish and the many mysteries they engender. Hemingway felt the allure. Zane Grey did, too. Among legions of others. Even Jesus' Disciples fished, and doubtless they harbored the same grandiose ambitions that transfix anglers today. The upshot is, "The bigger, the better.''
A muskie had followed Trevor's bait. Now the silvery fish was in a cat-and-mouse game as Trevor drew the lure first in a large circle alongside the boat, then in a "figure-8.''
The intent was to trigger a strike. Nose to the bait, the muskie trailed it as if mesmerized, its powerful tail propelling it gracefully, while its dorsal and pelvic fins waved like flags in a gentle breeze.
The largest member of the pike family, the muskie, or muskellunge, takes its name, at least in part, from the Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning "ugly fish.''
But this circling fish wasn't ugly. It was beautiful.
Then it was gone.
• • •
Our boat's GPS had been on the fritz from the get-go, and we had been navigating by hard-copy maps. Our travels atop this rock-strewn lake, as a result, had been deliberate, For that reason, the day before, I had contacted Ed Spoerl, a guide from the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods, and he had boated north about 20 miles to meet us at Big Narrows for that day's fishing.
A first-rate muskie guide and a good guy, Ed, of Stevens Point, Wis., like Charlie, has been "of this place,'' Big Narrows, for a number of years. His memories here include the hooking of many of the more than 400 muskies he has boated.
"Lake of the Woods is probably the best muskie lake there is,'' Ed said. "But it's been a funny year up here. With the late spring, everything has been behind. A lot of muskies are following baits this summer. But not as many are eating.''
The pattern the boys and I had found was that some muskies would open their toothy jaws in morning and evening. But during daytime it was lockjaw city.
Now the shank of the trip was upon us, and the fiery glow of the setting sun painted the western sky.
Along the water's edge, just beneath the surface, a rocky shelf provided the kind of shelter muskies covet. And intermittently, small bays thick with vegetation indented the boulder-strewn shoreline.
We could feel it.
A thick-girthed muskie had smashed Cole's bait on the retrieve, bending his stiff rod. This was a good fish, 40 inches or better, and it slashed deeply beneath the boat, circling and tossing its head.
Then, as quickly, the maashkinoozhe was in the net, our sixth and final fish of the trip, soon released.
Near dark, the evening morphed into nighttime.
This is the place I always wanted to be.''
Cranking the outboard to life, we lifted the boat again onto plane, our running lights beacons against the blackness, winding through Big Narrows.