Casting for Walleye in the Lake of the Woods, Canada
By Bill Pfeffer
‘How’d ya do?’ begins every conversation in this neck of the woods – as in, how many fish did you catch? When the guest with the hi-tech boat, announced, matter-of-factly, ‘forty walleye,’ I stared at my shoes, humbled by his achievement. ‘How is that possible?’, I asked my wife. Clearly, I needed to recalibrate my expectations.
We had traveled into Canada to fish the famous Lake of the Woods. For diehard anglers, this is the ‘Pebble Beach’ of lake fishing, with the opportunity to catch a lot of fish. An added bonus is hooking one of the monster, carnivorous, muskellunge (muskie) that roam the murky waters.
That’s what led us to Grassy Narrows Lodge ñ one of many family owned resorts scattered throughout the upper Midwest and Canada. Grassy Narrows Lodge occupies an enviable island site on Lake of the Woods, twelve miles from the nearest marina. This lake, which spans Ontario, Canada and parts of Minnesota is huge – seventy miles long, seventy miles wide, with 65,000 miles of shoreline, and more than 14,000 islands.
Jerry and Betty Fisher have owned Grassy Narrows Lodge for twenty-five years. Open from May through October, loyal customers return every year. On this lake, it is common to catch and release forty to fifty walleye in one day.
The resort offers rustic cabins, a comfortable lodge, three meals a day, and the use of a boat and motor. Besides the prolific walleye (the state fish of Minnesota), the real prize is a trophy muskie. This member of the pike family has a ferocious appetite. Tempted with exotic lures like Double Cowgirl Flashers, Tinsel Skirts, and Bucktail Jigs, these fish can exceed fifty inches in length and weigh in at thirty-five pounds (trophy size is up to six feet and seventy pounds).
A thirty-minute boat ride brings you to the sheltered dock of the lodge. ‘Welcome home,’ Jerry booms as the boat squeaks against the rubber tires of the pier. A pair of black-and-white checkered loons patrol a nearby cove, their hollow cooing echoing against the water. Pelicans awkwardly crash-land nearby, sending the loons into a panicked dive.
Jerry points to a distant island – ‘there’s our resident bald eagle.’ I whistle, and the magnificent bird, squatting on a thick hemlock branch, sends me an icy stare. Overhead, his mate screeches, joyfully swinging back and forth in the currents of the wind.
Inside the lodge, a Grey wolf welcomes you to the dining room. Four-foot muskie, mounted on the piney walls, stare down, with hooks the size of my index finger dangling from their jaws. A bear cub claws up a tree, next to a beaver chewing a log. There are ducks, raccoon, a mink in winter white, and a rack of moose antlers. The lodge still organizes moose and bear hunts, though fishing is their main focus.
Wall of Fame
Nowadays, muskie are the ultimate prize. In the dining area, a ‘Wall of Fame’ is adorned with photographs of people struggling to hold their fat muskie, the menacing smile baring teeth that will rip your fingers. Because of their low reproductive rate, true anglers release their muskie catch to live another day, and to offer a thrill for other fishermen.
Besides the walleye and muskie, there are northern pike to four feet in length, and plenty of yellow perch and bass. However, Canada has strict regulations. You can catch and release fish until your arm is numb, but you cannot have more than four of any species in your possession at any one time.
Walleye is the ‘filet mignon’ of fish in the Midwest (it seems just about every other restaurant offers Friday night fish-fries with a choice of either perch or walleye). Barbeque grills at the cabins invite you to eat everything you catch (four walleye a day per person is a lot to eat).
Even better, take part in a traditional ‘shore lunch’. The resort supplies utensils and frying pans in a wooden crate ñ you provide fish, potatoes, onions, and beer. Two veterans staying at the lodge ñ Jerry and Cubby ñ invited us to their shore lunch one day.
Cubby enthusiastically offered directions, which I quickly scribbled in the cover of a paperback. ‘Take a hard right after the three buoys, drop through the chute, then aim towards the bald island with the dead tree, you can’t miss it ñ continue to the second bay on the right, not the first. To the left you’ll see a big island, which is actually two islands – stay to the north side, but don’t get too close because it is rocky – keep going until you see a narrow channel that separates the islands ñ there’s a big flat rock – we will meet you there at noon.’
‘Maybe Cubby could show you on the map,’ added my wife – as if that would make any difference.
The next day, we made a dry run ‘past the buoys’ and ‘down the chute’, and actually found the flat rock. Then we motored to a sheltered cove, and fished until Cubby and Jerry drove by and waved us to follow.
‘No problem getting here?’ asked Jerry, as we rammed the aluminum boat up unto a rock, and tossed him a line. ‘Piece of cake,’ I replied.
Grilling the Walleye
A stack of birch logs, the bark peeling off in layers of paper, quickly ignited. Balanced on the grill were black frying pans, half-filled with cooking oil. ‘You know it is ready when a wooden match ignites in the oil,’ informed Cubby. ‘Won’t the match ignite the oil?’, I wondered aloud. ‘Hasn’t happened yet,’ he chuckled.
Jerry sliced the potatoes and onions, distributed them into a frying pan, and stirred while the oil spattered. Walleye fillets, shaken in a plastic bag with breading mix, crackled in another pan. A can of baked beans, its tin top peeled open, bubbled and steamed on the far side of the grill. ‘Ok, help yourselves,’ Jerry announced. We scooped out portions, chose our favorite rock, and enjoyed the luncheon feast.’ Just like Lewis and Clark,’ commented Cubby, poking me in the ribs.
After lunch, everything was burned, including the cooking oil. ‘Otherwise, it will attract bears,’ cautioned Jerry. We dawdled, hoping Jerry and Cubby would be heading back to the lodge. ‘Think you can find your way back?’, asked Jerry. ‘Yea, Marge is good with directions, no problem’, I replied as he tossed the rope and pushed us back into the bay.
Lake of the Woods is a labyrinth of islands, coves, channels, and rocky shoreline. As our confidence grew, we extended our exploration further into the lake. Pay attention where you go – obvious channels are quickly hidden behind a bank of trees, small coves will suddenly open into large bodies of water, and buoys will warn of shallow water or propeller destroying rocks.
‘Fishburger Cove’, ‘Twisted Pine Point’, ‘Bird Crap Island’, ‘Witch Bay’, and ‘Three Buoy Corner’ are some of the colorfully named fishing sites. Veteran anglers have their favorite spots locked into GPS coordinates. Helpful people at the lodge will share their favorite fishing locations ñ or just watch where other people fish. Even better, hire a guide for the day.
A fish locator (on every boat), displays both the depth and dark specks (representing fish) of varying size. We drifted through waters with a blank screen, when suddenly, a few specks appeared, then more, until a solid mass of fish passed under the stern. Reaching into the minnow bucket, the miniature fish was hooked unto a lake spinner rig, and dropped into the murky, tannin-colored depths (walleye have sensitive eyes and prefer cloudy waters).
During our seven-day stay, I was ‘skunked’ on catching a muskie. However, I did catch and release a dozen walleye a day. Unlike the veteran anglers who had boatloads of poles, boxes of lures, and high-definition fish radar, I borrowed a pole from the lodge and purchased lures and minnows every day.
On a drizzly day, Jerry transported us back to the marina. A fresh group of guests waited on the dock. ‘How’d ya do?’ one asked.
‘Not too shabby, skunked on muskie, half-dozen northern, twelve to fifteen walleye a day, the hot weather has put a crimp on the bite,’ – I replied, throwing Jerry a wink. ‘Good luck!’
And next time, I’ll bring my Bulldawgs, Shiners, and Exotic Dancers, and get my picture on the muskie ‘Wall of Fame’.
Cross into Ontario, Canada at either International Falls, Minnesota or Baudette, Minnesota. Park your vehicle in a secure lot ($3/day) at the Morson Marina in Ontario, and a boat from the lodge will meet and transport you to the resort. Passports are required for re-entry into the United States.
Eight rustic cabins and a main lodge are located on the island property. Each cabin has a fully equipped kitchen, shower, and flush toilet. Cabins can sleep from two to fourteen people. Prices can be found at Grassy Narrows Lodge.
Various packages are available ñ three meals/day, dinner only, or housekeeping only (where you cook your own meals). Or you can buy dinner as you go ($15/person). The meals are family-style and fixed ñ one night ham, another meat-loaf. Beer can be purchased in the main lodge. Wireless connections are available throughout camp.
Weekly Canadian fishing licenses can be purchased at the lodge ($25-$35). Guides are also available for hire at the resort. Credit cards are accepted for final payment. We stayed the middle of August and mosquitoes were not a problem.
Bill Pfeffer is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD.com. Visit his author page and his website at www.billpfeffer.com.