From his dock in the northernmost township of the contiguous United States, fishing guide Andy Lundbohm has seen his share of whitecaps rolling across Lake of the Woods.
On most days, the lake lays down by evening. Other times, gusts blow around the clock. Unless you have islands to block the wind, it’s a challenge to fish and boat.
More than ever because of COVID-19, Minnesotans who work or vacation in the Northwest Angle are paying attention to waves and weather. That’s because the temporary closure of Canada’s border has cut off the only land route to Angle Inlet and its mainland docks.
For now, nearly all traffic to Northwest Angle resorts and family cabins is by boat. The routes vary from 30 to 50 miles long and can be dangerous for those who are ill-equipped or inexperienced. Round-trip water taxis are available for about $135 per person, but those boats won’t run unless they’re carrying four to six passengers. It’s an impediment that many people are avoiding.
“It’s been brutal,” Lundbohm said. “It’s pretty much the only way you can get here, and it’s become an absolute ghost town.”
For 20 years, Lundbohm has operated Angle Andy’s Guide Service with good success. This year, 80 % of his regular customers have chosen to stay home or fish elsewhere. Not only does boat travel from Warroad, Minn., add expense and uncertainty to his customers’ trips, but nearby Canadian waters dotted with fishing-friendly islands are temporarily off limits.
Lundbohm’s 21-foot fishing boat, powered by a 300-horsepower engine, is capable of shuttling clients to and from Warroad’s public docks. But when he encounters rough water, the ride gets bumpy and the pounding adds wear and tear to his boat.
He is hoping not to lose customers but realizes some might find other options this summer.
“I hope this doesn’t last because the long-term effects aren’t good,” he said.
Haley Olson of Flag Island Resort said a number of experienced anglers with well-equipped boats are taking on the 30- to 35-mile trip from Warroad or Rocky Point. Others put gear on the resort’s pontoon taxi and follow in the boat’s wake. A round-trip shuttle aboard the enclosed pontoon itself costs $130 per person.
Normally, 95% of the resort’s customers drive to Angle Inlet by crossing into Canada west of Lake of the Woods and taking a gravel road east, back into Minnesota. Once on Angle Inlet, they launch their fishing boats for a short ride to Flag Island. Oak Island is another common destination.
“Our season is almost nonexistent,” Olson said. “Many people are incredibly nervous to come across.”
She said residents of the Angle still are waiting for instructions about the coming school year. If the hour-and-20-minute school bus route to Warroad is closed, it’ll be distance learning.
Olson said the good news this year is that guests are discovering how good the walleye fishing can be on Minnesota waters inside the Angle. From Flag Island, you can throw a rock into Canada and fishing the Canadian side is a popular draw.
“Obviously it’s a very tough situation for the Angle right now,” said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.
Some resorts are nearly empty while others are doing a little better, he said. But overall, lodging is way down. Most of the boat travel happens early in the morning or in the evening when conditions are most calm.
“It’s not perfect but it’s what we have right now,” Henry said.
Business owner Gregg Hennum said outdoors tourism is booming on the south shore of Lake of the Woods. He attributes the upswing to the overall surge in fishing during the pandemic and Minnesotans’ inability to fish in Canada.
Hennum runs Sportsman’s Lodge north of Baudette and another resort on Oak Island. He also operates a transfer business that hauls passengers and goods to the Angle, sometimes leading private boats in a caravan. Passenger travel has more than doubled this year, but his daily deliveries of live bait to resorts are way down.
Jeff Anderson of Edina has fished on Lake of the Woods for decades. This year’s resurgence in boat travel reminds him of a historic passenger boat called the Resolute that operated daily between Warroad and Angle fishing camps from the mid-1920s until the late 1960s.
According to the Warroad Chamber of Commerce, the Resolute was 62 feet with a large enclosure and space to haul freight, people, and the mail. It cost a passenger $3 for a round trip. The ship was beached for good in 1973.
“There were just a couple of little resorts up there but you could carry a small outboard with you and rent a fishing boat,” Anderson said.
U.S. agreements with Canada and Mexico to block all nonessential border crossings were implemented March 21. The measures have been extended three times, until July 21. Hennum and others said they have a feeling the closure will remain throughout the summer.