LAKE OF THE WOODS, ONTARIO - Hero stories in which a tale's main guy conquers all and returns home to flowers strewn at his feet date to Odysseus. More recently, we have Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The point is, I would have taken all bets that I could have caught a muskie on this lake in two days of fishing last week. Then upon my return in casual conversation and especially at the bait shop, I could have dropped nonchalantly a reference to my accomplishment, receiving in return the look known universally among anglers that says, "Yeah, baby."

A year ago at this time on this same lake it was Katie bar the door, muskie-wise. It wasn't that we couldn't keep them off our Jakes and Suicks and Cowgirls. Muskie fishing is never that good. Instead the tally was one or two whenever we left the dock, with twice or even three times that number of follows.

Dumb as it is to fish such memories year after year, everyone dating to Izaak Walton has done it. Santiago in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" went fishless for 84 days -- a dry spell rarely equaled, except by outdoors writers. On the 85th day, had he thumbed the short distance to Havana for some big-time R&R featuring rum and ill-gotten women he could have been forgiven. Instead, he pointed his double-ender still farther out to sea, promising his one-time sidekick Manolin he would hook the timelessly referenced "big one," and impress the other dudes at the bait shop (OK, not exactly). The upshot is, in fishing, as in most endeavors, determination is everything, win or lose.

I didn't fish alone. My wife, Jan, and younger son, Cole, were along, and we stayed in our pickup camper, parked hard by the shores of the lake. Our plan was to fish with friends who squirrel away their summers on an island in what some might consider a trapper's shack. Beavers rampage here against boathouses and escape too often the iron sites of an old Winchester. Also wild dogs roam the grounds. And the best "fisherman" on the place is a Vietnamese-come-American woman named Jeannine, who among other feats for five years has been able to "call" the same pet bass to her side by merely sing-songing its name. "Susie," she yodels from the dock, and the bass appears, soon to be given a minnow as reward.

A ragtag bunch, then, and we set out Thursday morning in two boats amid rain showers that alternated to downpours. The cold front that swept over Minnesota late Wednesday by Thursday morning had also gathered Lake of the Woods in its counter-clockwise winds. We wore fleeces and over them rain jackets. The breeze was stiff and as we cast our big plugs and bucktails along the edges of points and submerged islands our boats keeled up unevenly. Here if we caught a muskie we would earn it.

"What are you going with?"

Cole inquires this way about my lure choice, not asking a question so much as attempting to gauge just how daft his old man might be about these things.

Jackpot, I thought? Jake? Bucktail? Cowgirl?

Finally I tossed out, "Believer," and in return was awarded a nod of approval.

We cast and cast, five baits flying beneath a low gray sky as the bays and bigger water filled up with whitecaps. We caught no fish.

Toward midafternoon, we gathered at the shack around a table of romaine lettuce, spinach, cilantro, walleye fingers, rice noodles and rice paper.

As a cook Jeannine is the real deal and what she can't catch or grow around the shack she finds in a Vietnamese grocery store in Winnipeg. While we made spring rolls, rain collected on the shack's windows. For dessert, Lois the Wonderful Cook who lives not far away had baked banana cream and lemon meringue pies, and we ate these with enthusiasm.

Returning to the choppy lake, we cast until we couldn't take it anymore. For Cole and me, this meant tying up the boat a final time at 10:30 that night. By then Jan was long in the camper, reading. Cole would have kept casting, but I was rolling the dice the next day would be better.

The sun did indeed shine Friday morning. But the cold front's evil grip seemed yet too tight, and the fish stayed shut down. Except for the odd follow here and there when a muskie tracked our baits to the boat, we found no joy.

For Cole and me, Friday night was passed similarly to the night before. By 11, the mosquitoes were eating us up. Cole and his buddies have put four muskies in the boat in the past week or so, and he wasn't taking this well. In the dark on Lake of the Woods you really have to keep an eye out for the navigation buoys. I pulled up the trolling motor while Cole fired up the engine and ran us the 10 miles or so to the camper.

A few hours later, at sunup, we were on the water again, casting. We caught pretty-good-sized northerns but no muskies. Had we had another day and another still, we would have fished more. You really have to stay after these things. Cast away whenever possible. From a dock, a boat. Something will happen.

Dennis Anderson •