OAK LAKE, ONTARIO — Maybe walleyes are our best shot at world peace.
Or at least as a way to bring people together.
Such was my thinking last week after fishing with three American friends at an Ontario resort owned by an Iranian refugee turned Canadian citizen who employs guides from the far northern reaches of Quebec.
“In winter I trap and play hockey,” guide Isador “Izzy” Belvin of St. Augustine, Quebec, said as my boat mate, Bill Young of Wayzata, and I hooked one walleye after another on this lake located a couple hundred miles north of International Falls, Minn.
“Our hockey games might be 90 miles away. There are no roads. We get there by snowmobile.”
A week ago, Bill, along with his brother, Brian Young of Lake Elmo, Mike Murphy of Woodbury and me, arrived at Oak Lake aboard a De Havilland Otter, the North Woods’ workhorse floatplane, following a half-hour hop from Vermilion Bay, Ontario.
Awaiting us when we touched down was Oak Lake Lodge (oaklakelodge.com), the only outpost on this 20-mile-long lake, private or commercial. The resort is owned by John Naimian, who fled his native Iran about the time his father was executed by the Ayatollah Khomeini regime.
His father’s “crime” was adherence to the Bahai Faith, whose peaceful and unifying beliefs — equality of men and women are among its core principles — even today result in persecution of its followers in various parts of the world.
Brian, Bill and Mike were on their first trip to Oak Lake. But this was a return outing for me.
Some years ago, I had a floatplane-pilot friend who enjoyed few things more than touching down on Canadian lakes that were flush with fish. On a couple of occasions, we landed on Oak Lake, finding it rich with walleyes that bit baits indiscriminately, whether those of good anglers or bad, experienced or novice.
As a bonus, Oak Lake, a part of Ontario’s famed English River system, was, and remains, the essence of scenic North Woods tranquillity.
So much so that at day’s end on our recent trip — during which Brian, Mike, Bill and I caught and released hundreds of walleyes — teasing up just a few more fish from the lodge’s dock amid such serenity seemed almost the reason for coming, as did sipping coffee in the morning in a cabin that overlooked a veritable masterpiece of green trees and blue water.
But not quite.
Walleyes were the reason we came, and lots of them.
“This lake has always been a good walleye producer,” said John, who was 18 years old when he escaped from Iran. Eventually he landed in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Superior, and in time bought Oak Lake Lodge.
All of which has improved his life abundantly — thanks in no small part to the lake’s plentiful walleyes.
“Let’s try it here,” Izzy said shortly after our floatplane landed on Oak Lake.
Bill was in a boat with Izzy and me, and Izzy had placed us in about 10 feet of water next to a small island not far from the lodge.
Impaling minnows on jigs, Bill and I danced the rigs on the bottom slowly, hoping for a good start to our trip.
This was a nice walleye that took hold of my jig, pushing some 20 inches; a plump, green-gold specimen whose good health was obvious.
“Too big,” Izzy said. “We want them smaller than that for shore lunch.”
Releasing the fish, I rebaited my jig and again dropped it to the lake bottom.
Soon, Bill also was on the board, fooling a feisty walleye that pulled his rod into a deep bend.
Before long, he’d say, “This is the most walleyes I’ve caught in my life.”
• • •
Mike, Bill, Brian and I, along with Izzy and another guide, Zoel Lavelle, would split up each day in two boats, before meeting at noon for shore lunch, the preparation of which is an art.
Izzy tips the odds in his favor by heating his cooking oil over an LP-gas-fueled flame, on which fresh walleyes are fried, as are potatoes and onions. Baked beans and dessert, usually cookies, round out the menu.
Over lunch, Izzy told us one day that residents of his tiny hometown in Quebec historically supported themselves by cod fishing. As a boy, he said, he traveled with his family to coastal fishing grounds not far from his home, and stayed there with his parents and siblings for the summer, fishing cod, then drying or salting their catch for sale.
“Then the big ships started coming in from other countries, and from Newfoundland [Canada],” Izzy said. “Now, the fish are gone.”
Today, about half the townspeople travel to Canada’s interior in summer to cook at resorts or, like Izzy, to guide.
“Kids don’t stay around anymore,” Izzy said. “There’s no work.”
After lunch on our second day, we cast for northern pike in quiet bays where the otherwise deep lake was bracketed by weedy shallows, the types of haunts northerns prefer.
Later, I suggested we troll for these fish, in part because we might hook a trophy.
“OK,” Izzy said.
Tying on a leader, and snapping on a deep-running, chartreuse Shad Rap, I threw the bait to the stern while Izzy put his boat in gear.
“Crank it up to about 6 miles an hour,” I said. “Until you see a wake.”
He did, and only about 30 seconds passed before a violent strike nearly tore my rod from my hands, a fish whose power belied its fairly modest size, about 32 inches.
That fish was released, and again Izzy throttled up his outboard. Again only a short time passed before another northern hit my bait, this one larger.
“Want one of these?” I said, and handed Mike a similar lure. Soon he, too, had a fish on, and another, and I also.
That evening, after we’d eaten supper, and amid the incandescent twilight common to northern climes in summer at dusk, Mike, Brian and Bill cast from the lodge’s dock, hoping for just one more walleye, their fish of choice.
Walleyes had brought them to Oak Lake, after all, as they have other anglers this summer, and workers also — binding one to another, however different they might otherwise be.