Snowmobiles, walleyes and fish of a lifetime on Lake of the Woods
OAK ISLAND, Minn. — Something was different about this fish, judging by the red blob that now bubbled on the screen of my Vexilar FL-18 depthfinder.
It looked thicker than the walleye blips that had shown up and cooperated with pleasing regularity throughout the morning, seeming almost to pulsate as I bounced a gold-and-glow-red "Stop Sign" jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head above it in hopes of enticing a strike.
Whatever was down there, I wanted to catch it — or at least hook it.
Moments later, I got my chance as the red blob came unglued and slammed my jigging spoon. I set the hook into dead weight, and line screamed from my reel.
Whatever was down there having its way with my spinning reel and 2-foot walleye rod was big.
Really big. ...
North to the Angle
It was the first full day of a five-day snowmobiling and ice fishing adventure from Warroad, Minn., to our destination, Walsh's Bay Store Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods. Situated at the tip of the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point of the Lower 48, the camp and Oak Island overlook the Ontario border.
Owned by Frank and Laura Walsh, transplanted Chicagoans who decided to shift lifestyles and become resort owners in August 1994, Walsh's Bay Store Camp has been part of my winter fishing agenda nearly every year since 1995.
A lot of memories have been made here, and this year would be no exception.
Compared with the vast expanse of Big Traverse Bay, which makes up the majority of Lake of the Woods' U.S. portion, the Northwest Angle ushers in the myriad of channels and tree-studded islands that mark the Ontario side of the lake.
Anglers here can expect a different fishing experience than they get on the South Shore. There's more underwater structure, for one thing, less fishing pressure and fewer ice houses. We'd be fishing Minnesota waters, but many anglers cross into Ontario in the winter in pursuit of crappies and lake trout.
Part of the adventure
We could have made the trip by road and trailered our snowmobiles and gear, crossing through two border checkpoints in the process, but snowmobiling to Oak had been part of the motivation for embarking on this adventure.
The previous afternoon, Jason Laumb, Jerry Stanislowski and Bob Jensen, all of Grand Forks, and I had steered our snowmobiles out the mouth of the Warroad River, across Muskeg Bay and north and east on a 45-mile trek that would take us on a groomed, marked trail past Lake of the Woods landmarks such as Buffalo Point, Stony Point and Driftwood Point.
For Jensen and Stanislowski, this was their first trip to Oak Island, though they've been fishing the south end of the lake for years; Laumb had been to Oak Island several times but never by snowmobile.
The ride across the lake went smoothly, and we were unloading gear and settling into our cabin amid snow-laden cedar and birch trees barely an hour and a half after leaving Warroad. With temperatures in the 20s, trail and weather conditions were ideal for a ride across the big lake.
The forecast for the next five days called for more of the same. Much nicer than a January 2005 fishing trip the four of us — and two or three others — made to the south end of the lake on a weekend when the mercury dipped to 40 below zero.
"Fishing with idiots," Stanislowski had dubbed that trip, but there'd be nothing idiotic about fishing in the conditions we enjoyed this year.
The first full day of fishing was memorable right from the get-go, as Laumb and I set up his portable at the edge of a reef in about 23 feet of water.
Nearly 4 feet thick, the ice was every bit as formidable as reported, and we hoped we wouldn't have to move in search of more productive waters.
Fortunately, that wouldn't be an issue. My first walleye of the morning bit the jig on my bobber line as soon as the minnow hit the bottom.
The action — for Laumb and I, at least — never really slowed down throughout the day. In fishing parlance, we'd landed on the classic "spot on the spot."
By day's end, Laumb and I estimated we'd caught 50 walleyes. Several walleyes were in the 17- to 18-inch range, but we kept a limit of 14- to 15-inch fish for the bucket.
Our contribution to the evening fish fry was covered when Laumb grilled up some venison brats and reeled up his lines to deliver lunch to Stanislowski and Jensen, who were fishing a different part of the reef nearby.
Which brings us to the heavy fish now peeling line from my reel.
The blur of battle
Time becomes a blur when you're hooked into a big fish, but I'd been playing the fish maybe 10 minutes, give or take, when Laumb returned from his lunch delivery.
"I don't know what I've got here, but I'm into something big," I hollered to Laumb as he shut off his snowmobile and ran up for a closer look.
The tip of my fishing rod, bent in an upside-down "U" pointed toward the bottom of the lake, confirmed my assessment. I was grateful for the braided line spooled on my reel.
Laumb quickly reeled up my bobber line, and as I played the fish, I thought back to a similar encounter several years earlier when I lost a big fish I never got to see less than a mile from the battle I now waged.
"Please, oh please," I thought to myself. "Don't let me lose this fish."
The prospect of disappointment increased about 15 minutes into the battle when the fish somehow became lodged at the bottom of the 8-inch hole and wouldn't move.
We couldn't see anything through the 4-foot tube of darkness that surrounded my line, but I could feel the fish was still there.
Laumb, who's every bit of 6 feet, 5 inches tall in his Size 12 Muck Boots — his nickname is "Sasquatch" for a reason — took off his sweatshirt and soon was armpit deep in the frigid water trying to reach the fish at the bottom of the hole.
Even with his ample wingspan, Laumb could barely touch the fish, much less steer it up the hole, but it was enough to jolt it back to action.
Line again peeled from my reel.
"If it gets off at this point, it gets off," I said. "Whatever's down there, it's given me a heck of a battle."
That's how it went for the next few minutes until, by some miracle I'll never comprehend but which forever will be burned into my fishing memory, the fish began coming up the hole.
I was gaining line.
Laumb kept the momentum going, slowly pulling up the line hand-over-hand and keeping it centered in the hole as I reeled up the slack.
What was it, we wondered. Pike? Wayward lake trout? Massive eelpout?
We were about to find out.
We saw the snout first, followed by the massive head of a northern pike that filled the entire width of the hole. The jigging spoon barely was hooked on the edge of its toothy maw.
As Laumb kept the line tight, I managed to reach down and grab the pike under the gill plate to lift it from the hole.
The fish kept coming. And coming. And coming.
In the frenzy of the moment, we never thought to get a girth measurement, but the pike measured 42 inches. I've caught longer pike in northern Manitoba but nothing close to the heft of the fish I barely could lift for photos before squeezing it back down the hole to freedom.
If the pike didn't weigh 25 pounds, it certainly was close.
"You've got to put that fish in the paper," Jensen said that night back at camp as we prepped for a walleye feast.
So there you have it, my story of luck and the fish of a lifetime.
Anyway you measure it, that's a good way to remember the first full day of what turned out to be a fine ice fishing and snowmobiling adventure to the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods.
We're already making plans for next year.