Leech Lake, Minnesota: Finding My Inner Fisherwoman
By Kelly Westhoff
“You might have to pop a squat.”
“Pop a squat?” I stared at my husband. I prayed he was kidding, but deep down inside I knew that he wasn’t.
He’d been looking forward to our guided fishing trip on northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake for two months now and I knew, I just knew, that once we were finally in the boat and far out over the waves, once we had baited our hooks and cast our lines, there was no way, absolutely no way, that he was going to turn around and head back to shore just so I could pee.
“You want me to pull down my pants and squat, right there on the boat, in front of the guide, and pee?” I asked.
“If it comes to that.”
“On the floor of the boat?”
“We’d give you a cup.”
“You think I’m a dude?”
“Well, you did agree to go fishing. If you’re gonna hang with the boys you gotta hang like the boys,” he said with exaggerated machismo and a crude hand gesture.
The conversation had quickly gone (as if it hadn’t already) downhill from there. But it did make me wonder about the girl I had been and the woman I had become.
Swimming in Lakes
I was born and raised — and continue to live — in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes (or 11,842 lakes if you listen to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, the largest city in the state.
I was not to be pitied. I had no fear of water. Like a lot of Minnesota families, mine owned a summer cabin on a lake. It was my mother’s mission in life to make sure I did not grow up girly. She never once signed me up for ballet but pushed me into the water at every chance.But even so, I was never far from water. Besides all the lakes, Minnesota is also swimming in wetlands, ponds, rivers and streams. Pity the Minnesota kid with a fear of water.
And I mean that quite literally. It is useless to even try and count the number of times my mom dumped me into the lake. But it worked. I swam, I water-skied and I could turn 360s on a knee board.
Betting on Egg Sacks
And I fished. Oh yeah, I fished. I helped my dad dig up worms in the back woods. I grabbed minnows from the bait bucket and stuck them through with a hook. I could cast and reel. I knew how to take a fish off the hook and slip it onto a stringer.
And at the end of fruitful fishing day, I used to help my dad clean fish. I used to hover, as he slit bellies and pulled out their guts, waiting to see if an orange egg sack would spill forth or not. Had that fish been a boy or girl? Oh, the suspense!
Map of Leech Lake
I’d stopped betting on egg sacks by the time I reached high school, but I continued to be comfortable around a fishing pole. So much so that during the summer months, when I worked at a day care center, the manager scheduled me to spend each Friday chaperoning a “van trip.”
On a van trip, a senior staff member and I would load up a 15-passenger van with a bunch of six year-olds and a mess of fishing poles. We’d drive them to an area lake and spend the next few hours casting for perch. I was the only junior staff member who’d been willing to handle all those kids, all those poles and all those fish.
Global to Local
But that was then. Somewhere between high school and my thirties I traded my fishing license for a passport, becoming intent on collecting stamps from places like Cambodia, France and Peru.
Even though fishing was not a part of my global quests, my mother’s sporty tom-boyish lessons severed me well in my travels. I could shoulder my own pack, hike for days through the mountains and use a squat toilet.
But now I was married with dogs and a house in the suburbs. Now I was feeling the tightening screws of a sagging economy. Unfortunately, a far-flung foreign vacation wasn’t on the table.
But that didn’t have to mean that I couldn’t get away. I just had to look closer to home. A three-hour road trip to northern Minnesota and the town of Walker on the shores of Leech Lake fit the bill.
Leech Lake is the third largest lake in Minnesota, covering nearly 112,000 acres. Even though I had never been there, by virtue of my being a Minnesotan and the lake’s unusual shape, I could quickly point it out on a map. It isn’t just a round blue blob. Instead, it has an amoeba-like quality.
Plus, on a map, the land around the lake is always shaded as it is within the boundaries of the Chippewa National Forest and the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Both ensure that almost 80 percent of the lake’s shoreline is undeveloped.
Tourism is a major industry for the Leech Lake area. Lodge-style resorts, campgrounds and RV parks dot the western edge of the water near the small town of Walker. I was eager to get there simply to see the scenery.
Exaggerated Fish Tales
My husband, on the other hand, wanted to go fishing, an activity that draws flocks of tourists to the area as the lake boasts trophy-size muskies, northern pikes, crappies and perch. Beyond those, though, it was the walleye — the most prized of Minnesota’s fish — that everyone wanted.
The moon rising over Steamboat Bay on Leech Lake
Calling on my girlhood, I agreed to the fishing without any thought that I might catch a fish, let alone a walleye. I was thinking more about how nice it would be to get out on the water, to see the lake from a different vantage point, maybe get some sun.
But I didn’t want my husband to know that. Some sort of long-lost tom-boy pride in me wanted him to believe I was excited to spear a minnow with a hook. I ended up over-embellishing, though, and soon (I don’t even know why) I was going on about how I was going to personally clean all the fish we would catch.
It didn’t take him long to call my bluff, which is how all the trash talking started about me having to pee on a boat.
Limit the Liquids
By the time we actually made it to Walker and checked in to our room at the Hiawatha Beach Resort, I was so freaked out about the possibility that I really might have to pee on the boat (not to mention clean a fish) that I planned to limit my liquid intake both the night before and the morning of our fishing trip.
Unfortunately, a thermos of hot coffee would have tasted really good out there on the boat. When we woke up on fishing day, the sky was slate gray. Storm clouds loomed thick and the lake reflected their ominous warning. A check of the thermometer revealed a harshly cold June morning — it was only 48 degrees!
Our hired guide called, though, while I sipped on my one allotted teeny cup of coffee, and said we were still a-go. Dress in layers, bring a coat and meet me in 30 minutes, he said.
Meeting Our Guide
We met Dana Pitt at his place. Pitt and his wife own Bailey’s Resort, a collection of nine free-standing cabins on a quiet Leech Lake bay. Because he is usually busy manning his resort, Pitt doesn’t often work as a guide.
But today he was and before we headed for his boat, he gave our clothing a once over. My husband, who hates being cold and had paid attention to the weather report before we’d left home, was wearing a down, winter coat. I was not.
I needed one more layer, Pitt announced, disappearing into his house and returning with one of his wife’s coats.
“Let’s go,” he then said, turning downhill toward his boat.
“Do you have a bathroom I can use?” I called out. I figured I’d better use this last chance to eek out whatever I could.
A sloppy drizzle had started falling by the time my husband, Pitt and I were in the boat and on our way. I shivered and wondered how long it would take before the damp chill seeped through my layers and settled into my bones.
Maybe, I thought with a perverse sort of glee, my bladder wouldn’t be the end of our fishing trip. Maybe it would be the weather.
But a bald eagle interrupted my thoughts. It swooped down out of the sky, dipped only its feet in the lake and flew off with a sizable fish flopping in its talons.
If you’re going to go fishing on Leech Lake, then surely you must fish with a leech, right?
This happened just off the side of our boat and despite the misty rain, I saw it clearly. That fish had been big! Not to mention the eagle!
As I watched the great bird disappear beyond the trees, I felt a warmth creep through me. If this guided trip was going to give up natural encounters like that, maybe I could hack fishing in the rain.
The eagle wasn’t the only bird we saw. As our boat sped out of Pitt’s small bay toward the larger, deeper main lake, a flock of roughly 15 black birds the size of ducks soared over our heads.
“Cormorants,” Pitt yelled over the motor and wind.
“The birds everyone hates?” my husband yelled back.
Pitt nodded and returned to his driving. A neighbor back home, an avid fisherman, had told us about these birds when he found out we were going to Leech Lake.
The cormorant population, long a part of the lake’s natural life cycle, had grown freakishly out of control a few years back.
No one, not even the DNR or the native Ojibwe Indian tribe, knew why or how this had happened.
While the cause of the cormorant explosion was a mystery, the effect was not. The birds dive and feed on fish and their sudden surge had wreaked havoc with the lake’s population of fish, in turn dealing a crushing economic blow to an area largely dependent on sportsmen tourism dollars
The sky remained threatening, but our boat was surrounded by 22 others, and most of those held three people or more, each with a line in the water.We didn’t know anything about this when we planned our Leech Lake getaway, and by the time our guide stopped the boat off the coast of a small island and dropped a drag into the water, it appeared that no body else knew about it either.
I was counting the boats, thankful to note the drizzle was abating. Pitt was readying the poles and my husband was asking questions about the cormorants. “So what are they doing about the fish and the birds?”
“They’ve been stocking the lake,” Pitt said. “And you know we’ve got strict size restrictions. You can’t keep any walleye between 18 and 26 inches. Those are the breeding adults.”
“And what about the cormorants?” my husband asked.
“Sharp shooters,” Pitt said.
“To kill them?”
“All of them?”
Pitt huffed. “No. Just thin ’em out.”
“Do you know how many there are?” I asked.
This walleye swallowed the hook.
“They say 10,000.”
“As in ten, zero-zero-zero?” I was shocked. That was an awful lot of birds.
“Yep,” Pitt said matter-of-factly, handing me a pole with a finger-sized minnow squirming on the hook. “You know how to cast?” He looked doubtful.
“Yes,” I said. Casting a fishing pole was like riding a bike, right?
Pitt stepped back, giving me space. I raised the pole above my shoulder, flipped my wrist and let the line soar out over the water until it landed with a plop. He nodded, satisfied. I was satisfied too. It hadn’t been a perfect cast, but it hadn’t been a novice one either.
“We’re going for walleye,” he instructed. “They’re smart. Tricky. They’re predators and they play with their food, nibble, test it to see it real or if it’s bait. You have to keep your minnow swimming, make it look like it’s a real little fish down there.” He put his hands near mine on the pole and wiggled it, demonstrating.
Trolling for Bites
We soon settled into the standard fishing routine: quiet concentration. Fishing requires a sort of solitude. Even if you are fishing with others, you have to tune them out, focus on yourself, on the weight of your line, on the tiniest tug.
Pitt quickly fell in to this alert-yet-semi-zoned state. My husband followed and I fidgeted. This was why I had quit fishing. If I was going to sit still with my mouth shut, I’d rather be reading, not staring at some nearly invisible spot on the lake where my transparent fishing line sank underwate
I squinted at the other boats, trying to guess the gender of the people in them. Were any of them women? It was hard to tell. Everyone was bundled up in big coats and stocking caps.I gently pulled on my pole, reeling my minnow, willing it to dance below the surface, to entice a walleye. Sigh. I was already bored.
Probably, I mused, I was the only girl out there, the only woman foolish enough to climb aboard a fishing boat on an overcast, 48-degree day. This meant, of course, that if I really did have to pee on the boat, if I really did have to hang my butt off the side and let flow into the lake, all the people watching me would be men.
Then my line dipped, rousing me. I gave it a tug and it resisted. “I’m stuck on a weed,” I said, pulling harder on the pole.
“You got one,” Pitt reeled in his line, hopped up and came to my side.
“Ooh,” chirped my husband. He reeled in his line. “I got the net.”
“It’s a weed,” I dismissed. How could it be a fish? I hadn’t even been trying.
“No, no. It’s a fish, a walleye,” Pitt said, standing at the boat’s edge, peering out over the lake and into the water, catching the first glimpse of my fish. “Use your arms now, but gentle. Steady. It’s heavy. Don’t jerk.”
“She got one!” yelped my husband, now seeing the fish under the surface too. “Baby, you got one!”
I have no memory of how I reeled in my catch, of how it ended up in the boat, just that suddenly it was there, this really big fish! It was as long as my arm, so long that it didn’t fit in the bottom of the net but was cradled instead into the shape of a U.
The Outdoorsman Cafe in downtown Walker — hearty breakfasts for the avid fisherman or woman
Sizing It Up
Pitt worked it off of the hook then held it firmly with both hands. He spread it on top of a ruler bolted onto the boat. “Twenty-three inches,” he proclaimed.
“What’s that? Four pounds?” My husband stood on tip toe, looking over Pitt’s shoulder. He was a kid in a candy store.
“’Bout that,” Pitt said, turning his focus to me. “You know how to hold it up for a picture, right?” His brought the fish close to me and held open one of its gills. I was supposed to stick my fingers up there — and by that grip alone — hold the fish up next to my head and smile for the camera.
I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t do it. Instead I stood and looked at my fish. Its scales were a mixture of green and yellow, its underbelly white. Its back fin splayed out into a prickly fan and its teeth looked capable of damage.
I peered into the open gill. Its thin layers of red tissue were the fish’s lungs, and while I’d never held a fish this size — or any fish for that matter — by the gills, I knew that all those layers of flesh could cut my skin and make me bleed.
“You want a glove?” Pitt asked, sensing my hesitation. He pointed his chin at the boat’s glove box and addressed my husband. “There’s one in there for her.”
A red glove, sized for an outdoorsman, was shoved over my fingers and soon I was holding my walleye up for a picture.
Catch and Release
“You gotta let it go now,” Pitt said, interrupting what was turning into a photo shoot as my husband maneuvered about the boat for the best angle. “It’s in the no-keep zone. It’s gotta go back.”
I tried to pass the fish back to him, but he stopped me. “It’s your catch, you release it.”
I leaned out over the edge of the boat and bent low, gently setting my fish back into the water. It stayed there, stunned perhaps, floating on its side, looking up at me with its marble eye.
It started to sink and I worried I had hurt it, held its gill incorrectly or kept it out of the water too long. Then its tail flipped, its eye glistened, and it disappeared into the deep, leaving a faint ring on the surface of the lake that soon dissipated and was gone.
We stayed out a couple more hours, three in all. The heavy clouds remained throughout, drizzling off and on but never letting loose. The temperature barely climbed.
Pitt hauled in another fine walleye although his measured 21 inches, which was, of course, smaller than mine. Even so, it also fell into the mandatory release range and had to be let go. Then he caught a perch the size of my forearm, which did go into our bucket.
My husband snagged a walleye we were able to keep. Its 10 inches put it safely in the keep-zone. He never did reel in a big one; however, he adamantly swore that three different times he had a heavy fish on the line that somehow got away.
And I didn’t catch anything else for the rest of the day. I didn’t even get a nibble. My poor minnow eventually went limp, all its life, even the final twitch of its nerve endings, drained and gone.
Any burst of enthusiasm I’d gained from catching my fish had drained and gone from me as well. My stomach started to growl and I remembered a granola bar I’d stuck in the bag we’d brought on board.
I reeled in my line for good and sat staring at the horizon, nibbling my granola and marveling at the sheer expanse of water that was Leech Lake.
It was beautiful, even on this perpetually gray and unnaturally cold June day. The longer I sat, though, not moving and just looking, the more I felt a chill, and the more I felt a familiar pressure deep in my gut. I had to pee.
“You have to pee, don’t you?” said my husband.
I met his eyes but I wouldn’t nod or open my mouth. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“Hey, Dana!” he called up to the front of the boat where our guide sat. “We probably better call it quits. Kelly’s gotta pee.”
I was surprised by how quickly the poles were packed, the drag was pulled in and the motor was fired up. A rough and bouncy 20-minutes later we were back at the dock where we started.
Before I even had a chance to take off my lifejacket, my husband was up and out of the boat, running up the hill and calling out, “Man, I gotta pee!”
I gaped. Pitt smiled and shook his head. He stepped up on to the dock and reached a hand back to me. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you up and clean your fish.”
Leech Lake Fishing Resources
The Fishing Leech Lake web site keeps updated information about the lake’s fishing conditions.
Unless you’re an experienced fisherman (or woman) with all your own gear, you might find it useful to hire a guide. A guide will take you out in a fully-equipped boat and make sure you’re dropping line in all the current hot spots.
Chuck Emery, Guide
Jeff Woodruff, Guide
Larry Anderson, Guide
Harry Lueck, Guide
If you’re planning on fishing Leech Lake, you will need a valid fishing license. Options are listed on the Minnesota DNR web site. You can purchase a fishing license at either of these outfitters. Area resorts also offer this service.
No visit to Walker is complete without trip to Reeds. This family-owned institution has made a name for itself by stalking more outdoor gear than one could ever hope use in a lifetime. Find everything you’ll need to outfit your fishing expedition, including poles, lures, tackle boxes and more.
For the Ladies
Stop in to Shriver’s Bait Shop and ask the owner, Jim Shriver Jr., the son of a pro fisherman, about area fishing conditions and competitions. Pick up live bait, then stop at the Subway next door (which Shriver also owns) and pick up a sandwich for lunch out on the boat.
When you’re out on a boat swaying with the waves, well… sometimes a girl’s just gotta go. While the guys can simply go over the side of the boat, gals, unfortunately, don’t have that option. Until now. Pack some P-Mates along on your fishing trip and stay out all day!
There’s no shortage of places to stay in the Walker-Leech Lake area, and options range from a hotel room to a resort lodge to a north-woods cabin. If you decide to go with a cabin, you’ll want to bring in your necessities like soap and shampoo. Cabins also come with kitchens, so you can pack coffee, pasta and whatever food you’d like.
For a full listing of area lodging, visit the Leech Lake Tourism Bureau.
Hiawatha Beach Resort
Book a cabin or book a room in the main lodge. Bring your own boat or rent one here.
Rent a cabin and bring your boat. Owner Dana Pitt can offer advice on fishing hot spots; he’s guest-hosted several local TV shows on the area.
Adventure North Retreat
A variety of cabins for rent, some large enough to accommodate a group of 24.
If you didn’t catch any fish out on the lake (which is highly unlikely), you won’t go hungry. There are lots of places to eat.
Fill up before you head out on a big breakfast. Located in downtown Walker on the main street.
Treat yourself to a classy meal. Even though the menu is spendy ($16-25 dinner), the food is superb. If you classify as a ‘senior’, arrive between 5 – 5:30 pm for early bird specials. Just a few miles north of Walker.
Grab a pizza and a beer and relax while watching the big game on a big screen TV. You can also shoot some pool. Located in downtown Walker on the main street.
Lucky Moose Bar and Grill
All you can eat fried walleye every Tuesday. Wine list, kids’ menu, outdoor tables. South of downtown.
If you want to try your fishing luck in a boat of your own, several area resorts have boats for rent. If you’re booking a stay at a resort, it’s worth asking what they have available. You can also give these businesses a call.
Hiawatha Beach Resort
Rent a pontoon, speed boat, fishing boat, canoe or kayak. Hiawatha Beach also rents the only house boat on the lake. It sleeps ten.
Jim’s Trailers Plus Marine
Rent a pontoon, a fishing boat, canoe, kayak or paddleboat. This outfitter is not located in Walker, but in Hackensack, which is nearby and on the way if you’re driving up from Minneapolis-St. Paul.Read more GoNOMAD stories about Minnesota
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