SIOUX NARROWS, Ont. — Whatever was down there peeling line off my drag was heavy as it bulldogged back toward the bottom of the lake some 85 feet below.
“Stay hooked, stay hooked,” I said, gripping my fishing rod. “I want to see this fish.”
There wasn’t much I could do but hang on and enjoy the ride.
It was Saturday afternoon, July 20, and two friends and I were fishing lake trout on Whitefish Bay of Lake of the Woods using a drop-and-reel technique known as “bombing,” or “bomber fishing.”
As fishing techniques go, it doesn’t get much better in my world. ...
Drop and reel. Reel and drop. Drop and “argh, I missed one.”
Or, in this case, reel and … “fish on.”
Even though they head for the depths once water temperatures rise past 50 degrees, lake trout are notorious chasers, known for hitting a lure just about anywhere in the water column. Their anatomy allows them to expel air from their swim bladders and adjust to water pressure changes that would kill other fish being reeled up from deep water.
The fish peeling line off my reel hit about 50 feet down while I was reeling my blue and chrome Buzz Bomb jigging lure to the surface.
I might have thought I was snagged if my lure hadn’t been more than 30 feet off the bottom when it got slammed.
Deep and cold
Unlike the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods, most of which is a vast expanse of stained water no deeper than 35 feet, Whitefish Bay is deep, cold and relatively clear. The deepest spot in Lake of the Woods — 216 feet give or take, depending on water levels — was within eyeshot of the spot I now battled the lake trout.
Dotted with rugged, tree-covered islands, Whitefish Bay might be the prettiest spot on Lake of the Woods, a big lake known for its abundance of pretty spots. It’s also one of the few areas of Lake of the Woods deep enough and cold enough to support lake trout.
My two friends who joined me on the trip — they're not looking for publicity so I'll leave it at that — also have bad cases of “Lake Trout Fever,” an affliction made even worse by the phenomenal action we encountered last summer on a fly-in fishing trip to northern Saskatchewan. Whitefish Bay would never match the action we enjoyed in the Saskatchewan wilderness, but it does hold some big lake trout.
Judging by the lack of progress I was making, the fish engaging me in battle was one of those big lake trout. I’d gain 10 feet, only to lose 20.
“Please, oh please, let me see this fish.”
Bubbles rising from the depths as the laker expelled air were the first sign the fish was within reach. Then we saw it, a spotted package of fins and power and beauty in a setting that was every bit as stunning.
A flawless dip of the net from one of my fishing buddies and the lake trout was in the boat. It measured just a hair under 35 inches — my new “PB” for Whitefish Bay — topping a 34-incher I released more than 20 years ago. The fish’s smooth, slimy skin felt ice-cold to the touch.
I held the lake trout for a couple of quick photos before watching it return to the depths, an encounter just as satisfying as the battle. If not for a frayed dorsal fin, the laker would have been a perfect specimen.
Aside from a single boat trolling in the distance, we had the area to ourselves, even though it was a Saturday afternoon. Lake trout fishing isn’t a numbers game, and most anglers prefer the faster action walleyes, pike or bass will provide or the heart-stopping thrill of a muskie hitting or following a lure at boatside.
As the best trips often are, our excursion to Whitefish Bay had been hatched by a campfire several weeks earlier. One of my fishing buddies, from St. Paul, flew to Thief River Falls on Boutique Air, and the other, who lives in Grand Forks, drove and hauled his 17-foot Yar-Craft.
He’d never had a lake trout in his boat, and we were fortunate enough to change that the first afternoon. Powered by a 140-horse Suzuki, the boat allowed us to cover water quickly and comfortably.
I booked a cabin at Rod and Reel Resort, a Sioux Narrows fixture since 1943, according to Allison Motlong, a third-generation owner along with her brother, Chan. Complete with a historic lodge next to the Sioux Narrows bridge, 11 lakefront cabins and ample docking space, the resort and the two-bedroom cabin we stayed in provided ideal, laid-back accommodations for our short visit.
We’d definitely stay there again.
The second afternoon, after lunch and a short siesta, we decided to take a break from lake trout fishing and explore a long, narrow bay that was protected from the wind.
Little did we know it would serve up an encounter that was every bit as memorable as the big lake trout that started the trip.
Casting jigs and crankbaits along the shoreline of the bay, we’d landed several smallmouths and pike — nothing big — when one of my fishing partners set the hook into what felt like all of the other fish we’d caught up to that point.
Then it suddenly got heavier and started peeling line.
What we saw next will be the stuff of campfire tales for many years to come. A small bass, this one a largemouth, was engulfed in the jaws of a big muskie that must have been lurking nearby and triggered into striking.
Judging by its torpedo-like shape in the water, the muskie was at least 40 inches long.
I tried netting the fish from the back of the boat but was out of position and handed the net to my friend at the front of the boat who was running the trolling motor.
In the process, I bonked my friend in the middle of the boat — who was playing the bass and muskie — in the head with the net.
“That’s my head,” he said.
“Oops, sorry,” I replied.
The muskie held a firm grip on the largemouth until it was right next to the boat. Then, deciding it had had enough commotion, the muskie dropped the largemouth and bolted away.
It was right there, so close, and we all saw it. If we’d had a longer net with a larger hoop, we’d have landed both bass and muskie.
We landed a heck of a cool story, though, and it’s one we won’t soon forget.
The bass swam away, but its prognosis wasn’t favorable.
Typical of previous trips to Whitefish Bay, the lake trout were more abundant on the depth finder screen than they were at the end of our lines. Still, we managed to land a half-dozen and missed or lost a few others during our time on the water. We kept three, and the smallest laker of the batch grilled with a sugar and Dijon mustard glaze reduction sauce was a tasty accompaniment to the jerk chicken wings my fishing partners served up the last night of the trip.
A fine time it was.