At home on water since birth

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2012 - 1:33 AM

With sled dogs in tow, Rob Horley's grandparents first paddled onto Lake of the Woods back in 1929.

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Rob Horley

LAKE OF THE WOODS - Not far from the island in this big border lake where he grew up, Rob Horley dropped a jig over the boat's side the other evening. We were fishing for lake trout in 70 feet of water, and Rob's jig drifted through those depths a few long seconds before settling onto the bottom, his excess line gathering limply in loose circles on the surface.

I also had a jig resting on the rocky bottom, but only momentarily before reeling it quickly back toward me, mixing into this motion hurried upward sweeps of my rod, trying to trigger a strike.

"A trout will also hit a jig if you stop reeling on the way up and let it sit a second or two,'' Rob said.

We were on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, and the evening was warm but not hot. A soft breeze rose and fell as it made its way across the water and wound among the red and white pines on an island not far away. We saw no other boats.

Winding my jig to the surface, I flipped open my reel bale and again sent the lure to the bottom. Trout we were seeking could weigh up to 20 pounds, maybe more, their strikes vicious.

"This is a good spot,'' Rob said. "They're in here.''

Rob's grandparents first came to Lake of the Woods in the summer of 1929, arriving in the Sioux Narrows area from the south end of the lake. They paddled multiple canoes and towed others, with a team of sled dogs in one. Erecting a tent on an island, they fished and gardened and picked berries and sometimes a moose fell to the pot. Fights between the dogs, so important in winter, and the island's bears caused no end of racket. Come late autumn, before freeze-up, they paddled south again, to Rainy River, Ontario, where they passed the winter.

Rob's grandparents eventually established a permanent home on the island to raise a family and build a fishing camp, the Sanctuary, which still exists.

In the years that followed, huge log booms, 10,000 cords and more, were floated down the lake, and with them came opportunity, particularly for Rob's dad, Robert, who guided fishermen in the summer and felled trees in the winter.

Rob recounted all of this the other night while we fished and while shadows lengthened across the lake, fashioning a painter's milieu of azures, indigoes and emeralds.

Already Rob had two bulbous trout to his credit, both released, and now I had a strike.

"That's a pretty good fish,'' I said.

My rod was nearly doubled over, its tip pulsing toward the lake bottom as Rob and I peered into the clear water waiting for a telltale flash of silver-blue.

Finally there it was, a hulk of a trout weighing 15 pounds or more that was released as quickly as it was netted.

Known for its walleyes, smallmouth bass and muskies, Lake of the Woods is also first-rate lake trout water. But years ago the species was whacked so hard by fisherman its numbers diminished.

"Since they outlawed dead-bait fishing for trout in spring 20 years ago or so, the trout have really come back,'' Rob said. "People would come to the lake and camp on islands and toss out ciscoes or other bait. Every fish they hooked died -- and there were a lot of them. Not everyone quit at a limit. Now camping on the islands is mostly prohibited, and so is that kind of spring fishing.''

When Rob was born in 1963, his parents and grandparents still lived year-round on the island. He was only days old when his mother wrapped him in a sleeping bag for the ride home in an open boat from a Kenora, Ontario, hospital.

He fell easily into fishing and guiding.

"I was 10 or 11 when I caught my first 50-inch muskie,'' he said.

When we quit fishing, we had a dozen or more trout or trout strikes to our credit.

We wouldn't be paddling heavy canoes to shore or sleeping in tents or be kept awake that night by dogs fighting bears.

But not everything was different from the Lake of the Woods we know and the Lake of the Woods Rob's grandparents first knew in 1929 -- the thrill of fish and fishing especially.

The thrill.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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