With the fishing season in full swing and the Memorial Day weekend in our rearview mirror, I was reminiscing about some of the best places I have ever fished.
I know, it’s hard to top the mighty Mississippi River, but there is something about lake fishing — whether in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota — that creates an amazing experience every time I am able to make the trek.
My late father and I fished numerous lakes in the Bemidji, Minn., area for more than 15 years, including Lake Bemidji, Lake Plantangenet, Lake Andrusia and even tiny lakes like Walkerbrook, but there is one lake that rises about the rest.
Ever heard of Lac des Mille Lacs?
It’s a monster-sized lake — 59,584 acres — featuring hundreds of islands, fingers, bays and inlets that is located about 90 miles west of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It’s a solid 12-hour road trip from La Crosse (550 miles), and one I would love to make again after the pandemic — and border restrictions — ease.
If your mind is drifting off to your favorite fishing lake or river, send me a note at email@example.com letting me know its name, where it is and why it is special to you. I’d love to hear your stories, and maybe I’ll write about it in a future column.
Back to Lac des Mille Lacs, and why it’s such an amazing fishery and memorable place. When our family first made the trek to the lake’s clear and but cold waters years ago, we had no clue was to what we were getting into. The only road — which was a mixture of more dirt than gravel — to the lake off the only highway for 50 or more miles was the first sign that this would be an adventure, for sure.
The lake, or the part we frequented, is located a mere 10 miles off the main highway near Upsala, Ontario, but the twisting and turning course of the road, plus the fact there were board planks strategically positioned across the swampy areas of the trek, made it hair-raising from the get-go. Get off the plank, you’re stuck (which happened). And the trick to getting out? A shovel, a hydraulic jack, and any wood you could find to create a short runway to dry ground.
Once you reach the lake, however, it’s worth every cuss word that was perhaps uttered as this pristine northwoods wilderness takes your breath away. The road, by the way, has been upgraded significantly since our first trip there 45 years ago, but the beauty of the lake remains unmatched. No upgrades needed.
We quickly learned it was a big mistake to venture out from our resort, which still operates under the name Open Bay Lodge, without a map, a compass and plenty of gas for the boat. Remember, our early trips were pre-GPS days, so the sense of adventure seemed greater, especially when trying to return from a day of fishing when every island — and there are literally hundreds and hundreds — seems to look the same.
Rock walls that plunge to the waterline and below, boulder-filled shorelines and pines that somehow find a way to root themselves on this terrain are picturesque, until sundown when you’re still trying to find your resort.
This is how one resort owner put it in an article about Lac des Mille Lacs in Northern Wilds Magazine: “If somebody has never been on the lake before, I beg them not to leave sight of the resort because they will get lost.”
Been there, done that. It was, well, a bit unsettling.
It’s all part of the journey, but what tops it off is excellent fishing. Walleye, northern pike, perch, bass, they seem to bite non-stop most days in a lake filled with perfect structure, drop-offs, rock bottom, sand bottom, weed beds, you name it.
In more than 20 trips to Lac des Mille Lacs since that first memorable venture, we caught numerous large walleye — some trophy-sized — as well as medium and small walleye. We caught northern, we caught perch, we caught bass.
My-oh-my, the lake is loaded with walleye and in some areas “stacked like chord wood,” my father would often say, smiling.
During one trip, a favorite “hot spot” near Fisherman’s Island produced the memory of a lifetime. We were trolling for northern pike, using basic red and white Daredevils and spinners when my father hooked a nice one, as I still recall his rod bending and his beloved Zebco reel hissing like a snake.
After a decent battle to bring it closer to the boat in order to net it, we were surprised to see the flash of a walleye — a very nice-sized walleye — as it spun and dove deeper. I was fully prepared to net this keeper, as I still recall being laser-focused for its next run at the surface.
What I never expected in a million years was to see this walleye speed to the surface with a monster northern, or muskie, or something, having swallowed three-quarters of its body. Decades later, I still recall falling back in the boat — a mixture of shock and fear — and dropping the net, much to my father’s dismay.
What separates this fish story from a single-source to multiple-source tale is that my father saw the monster northern/muskie/lockness monster as he tried to net the walleye one more time. This time, the huge fish let the walleye go as it approached the side of the boat.
When we finally landed the walleye, we were in total disbelief as to what had just happened. There was one thing, however, that kept everyone at the fish cleaning shack from laughing hysterically at us: the walleye, which weighed 6.5 pounds, had very distinguishable bite marks circling its body right behind the gills.
I still recall the owner/operator of Open Bay Lodge at the time, a French Canadian named Emil, uttering in broken English: “Eh, tiger muskie.”
The new owners of Open Bay Lodge, Kevin and Jennifer Vander Hooft, purchased the resort in December. Kevin, who left his job of 25 years, and Jennifer packed up their three kids and decided to take a leap of faith and test the resort waters.
No doubt they will have plenty of stories to tell and memories to be made in the years to come.
Well that’s my best fish tale, so what’s yours? Got a story about a big fish you landed? Or a big one that got somehow got away? If you’re like me, you love a good fish story. Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me yours.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at email@example.com