VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK – The rutted dirt road leading to Crane Lake was flush with rainwater as we launched our fishing boat beneath swirling, dark clouds.
Up to 4 inches of rain had fallen in a downpour that we were led to believe might actually help the walleye bite. The consensus among local anglers, bait shop operators and resort hands was that it couldn't hurt.
"It's been tough,'' said Jerry Pohlman, owner of Nelson's Resort on Crane Lake, about the fishing. "With this rain, look for spots with running water.''
As we motored 16 miles north toward our reserved, backcountry campsite near the top of Sand Point Lake, which adjoins Crane Lake, that's about all the local counsel we possessed to aid our mission of hooking enough walleyes to enjoy a few fish dinners during the next four days.
Our annual fall fishing and camping trip is normally spent in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But this year's expedition among eight friends and family members was dedicated to motorboats, camping comforts and new scenery on a different set of Canadian border lakes.
Extended camping and fishing outings after Labor Day aren't overly popular in northern Minnesota, and Voyageurs National Park was no exception. We cruised past an abundance of empty campsites along the park's rocky shores, only to learn later that Voyageurs' three visitor centers experience a 65 percent drop in tourist traffic in September. For us, of course, the scarcity of campers was part of the attraction, paired with hopes of crisp weather, fall colors, clear night skies and few flying insects.
Long before we arrived, Scott Ward and Tim McBride had packed gear into every available square foot of Ward's 18.5-foot-long aluminum boat that spearheaded our group. The three of us were the advance team. The others would arrive the next morning to a deluxe setup of propane burners, individual sleeping tents, a community screen tent and coolers of food and beverage. The expansive site included two sturdy docks, picnic tables and a trio of bear-proof food lockers — infrastructure unheard of in the more primitive BWCA.
Walleyes tapped our lines the next day in 28 feet of water on the leeward side of a small rock island. It was a spot near our campsite where a lone fisherman had parked the previous evening while we were unloading.
The next morning's sun was brilliant, shimmering over a light chop in the water. Using bright-colored jigs tipped with rainbow chubs, we all caught walleyes that were too small to keep. Trolling and drifting over various depths of the incline, McBride and Ward landed our first two keepers, both comfortably under the 17-inch limit. All walleye and sauger in these waters must be released if they measure between 17 and 28 inches long.
As I fumbled with the trolling motor's foot controls, I also tripped into an offering for the live well. My light-action rod arched and the line wiggled. Up came a plump slab — a 12-inch black crappie that made us think we might get into a bunch of them. But no rally materialized, and after patrolling the immediate area for another 15 minutes, we moved on.
A lake divided
If you plan to fish the entirety of Sand Point and Namakan lakes, do your homework regarding the Ontario side. The international border runs through both lakes, and you need to stop at the Canada Customs dock on Sand Point Lake to show your passport.
Ontario fishing licenses are best purchased online, in advance of your trip. And be aware that you can't take Minnesota minnows, leeches or most other live bait into Canada (an exception is worms that have been expressly packed for Canadian entry), even if you are just checking in at customs. Agents have been known to fine violators or kill the minnows by pouring Coke or other soda over them.
The only practical place to purchase live bait for fishing on the Ontario side of Sand Point and Namakan lakes is Sand Point Lodge on the eastern shore of Sand Point Lake. In September, it's best to call ahead to the lodge (email@example.com) to check availability.
Walleye activity slowed in our first afternoon, and we tucked in early on Friday night with our work cut out for us. We needed another five or six keepers by midday Saturday to have a proper fish fry. The idea was to eat during daylight and return to the water for a relaxing evening session covering the spots where we had some bites. Those were mostly on steep inclines near rocky points in 22 to 35 feet of water.
With the number of man-hours we were devoting to the task, it was quite acceptable that my nephew Cal Kennedy, 12, spent a couple of hours Saturday napping in the bow of one boat. It was great weather to catch a snooze — rocking in the breezy sunshine wearing a light sweater. We trolled slowly around a rock island with sliding-sinker rigs and 6-foot-long snells.
My brother, Patrick, caught a keeper, and I landed an 18-incher — the only walleye of the trip that was too big to keep.
Into the memory bank
Scott Gillespie and his high school-age sons, Dylan and Wilson, were in another rented boat, struggling somewhat with an inoperable depth finder and a trolling motor that wouldn't start. Nevertheless, the too-small walleyes and saugers kept coming, along with enough keepers for one dinner and an encore the following day.
By far the fanciest catch of the trip was a jumbo, 15-inch crappie that snapped at McBride's baited jig at the north end of Namakan Narrows. As he lifted it over the boat's gunnel, a 9-inch lamprey flopped wildly from the crappie's side. Everyone wanted to see it.
Moments like that are entombed in the collective memory bank of these fall trips. This first outing to the east side of Voyageurs also featured the unexpected sighting of a virtual parade of houseboats en route to Crane Lake. The boats lumbered through the water from north to south for much of Saturday. A large hot tub adorned one occupied by middle-aged partyers.
With all the lake traffic, you would never mistake Sand Point and Namakan lakes for the relative quiet offered by the BWCA. Still, Voyageurs in September offered plenty of solitude. A couple of loon pairs were still hanging around, and eagles were plentiful, including a broad-winged juvenile that kept tabs on our fishing exploits.
As a bonus, if you were out of your tent at 4 a.m., you caught a vivid display of northern lights. And in the predawn eastern sky, Venus, ever bright, dazzled.
On one evening we fished sort of aimlessly into the darkness. We were below a crescent moon, and you could see deep into the Milky Way. We had caught all the walleye we needed.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213