LAKE OF THE WOODS, ONTARIO – Up early on this lake in late August, steam rising from the still-warm water into the chilled air. The dock creaks slightly and in the middle distance a loon wails.
Boaters and other recreationists in this situation might turn the key to their outboards wanting perhaps to travel to a friend’s cabin. But if you fish, you wipe your boat seats clean of dew, start the motor and cast free the dock lines wondering where to begin, walleyes or muskies. Then you throttle up and your boat leaves a neat wake on glassy water cast crimson by the rising sun.
This was the other day, and my two sons and I already had our walleyes filleted and frozen in the cabin freezer. We had taken these fish in a little over an hour during a previous outing on minnow-baited jigs in about 18 feet of water, plopping the gold-sided delicacies one by one into our live well.
Lake of the Woods is said to have more coastline than Lake Superior, and the area we fished, Big Narrows, about halfway between Kenora, Ontario, and Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, a distance of about 40 miles, contributes mightily to this designation.
The boys and I had arrived two days previous in Kenora after an eight-hour drive from the Twin Cities. Darkness gathered just then, as we launched our boat, with long pine shadows crisscrossing the lake’s surface. Navigating at this time requires extra vigilance on Lake of the Woods to avoid its exposed rocky reefs, as well as those barely hidden. Our foredeck was filled with duffels and coolers, and we popped the boat on plane, toggling our running lights to life.
The surprise when we arrived at Big Narrows Resort was that Charlie Ehlen wasn’t watching C-span, both eyes peeled for Washington, D.C.-based shenanigans. Instead he was taking in cable news reports about the Texas floods.
A retired Minnesota physician, Charlie owns the resort, a fishing fantasyland from which visiting anglers can check out but, like the Hotel California, can never leave. Laid back, Charlie each summer welcomes a cavalcade of friends to his wilderness lair to fish and, come evening, to lob potshots at political windbags, a win-win business plan.
“You came in the dark by the light of the moon?” Charlie said, smiling as usual.
“Yes, we did.”
“Have a seat,” Charlie said. “Tell me about it.”
• • •
Muskie fishing is its own kind of addiction, and most who are afflicted relapse happily, cast after cast.
The boys got the bug early. When they were kids, too young to drive, on summer mornings before dawn, I’d launch our boat in a lake, sometimes near home, sometimes not so near, and wait until I received a call to return for them and (theoretically) my intact boat.
Sometimes the call came at dark, sometimes long after dark, depending on the timing of the moon set or rise. When they weren’t muskie fishing they watched muskie TV shows and muskie videos, and with money they earned mowing lawns, they bought muskie baits.
Now they live in Montana, where the older boy, Trevor, manages an outfitting company and is a fly-fishing guide, and the younger boy, Cole, is a college student and summertime fly-fishing guide.
They love trout and rivers and mountains. But when I said I was going to Lake of the Woods, they booked a flight home.
Now it was an early morning last week and the dock creaked slightly at Big Narrows Resort while we walked to our boat, mist rising and a loon wailing in the middle distance.
Anglers fish in early morning and also in evening not only because success often occurs in these ethereal times between light and dark, but because all five of the primary senses are hyper-stimulated then, whether by the sight of an overflying eagle, the feel of a special rod in hand, the sound of a beaver’s tail slapping the lake surface, the taste of hot coffee or the smell of combusted gasoline exhausting from an outboard swinging from a boat’s transom.
Cast after cast after cast, morning morphed to midmorning, then to late morning.
The boys and I have made numerous trips to this part of Lake of the Woods, and we know by heart where we’ve caught muskies previously. On this morning, and generally on this trip, these spots produced no fish, nor did the new areas we tried, reefs and island points. Muskies followed our baits to the boat, some even striking the baits, though halfheartedly. But other than a 38-incher I had boated on a Musky Safari Frankenspitz, a creeper-style surface bait, our first evening in camp, we were coming up empty.
In these situations, lure switching occurs, and a lot of it.
Trevor and Cole especially put a lot of “blades” in the air, a catchall term that describes traditional bucktails such as Mepps Giant Killers, or more recent iterations such as those produced by Musky Mayhem or Joe Bucher, among many others. Blade sizes and styles of these lures vary wildly, as do the types of hair and “flashabou,” or metallic fibers, that undulate dreamlike when the baits are retrieved through water.
Other lures we cast included surface models such as Jackpots and Phantoms and Topraiders.
Trevor had tossed a Jackpot hundreds of times that morning before the water beneath the bait blew up about 20 feet from the boat.
Muskies can be difficult to hook on surface baits, depending on the fish’s angle of attack. This fish bit deeply onto the Jackpot’s treble hooks, and after a short struggle succumbed to Cole’s waiting net.
The boys will eat walleyes and bluegills until the cows come home, especially when prepared by their mother. But they’ve never killed a muskie, and they wouldn’t start with this one.
The fish remained in the water while the lure’s hooks were excised from its mouth. Then it was rested briefly before being hoisted carefully for a photograph and released.
We tied up at the Big Narrows dock well past dark that evening, walking first to our cabin to make dinner, then to the lodge, where Charlie was watching C-span, ever alert for political monkey business.
“How’d the day go?” Charlie said, smiling as usual.
Then he said, “Have a seat. Tell me about it.”
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org