In a small cove with a light rain on the roof, on a lake at the top of Minnesota, the silence at the edge of the wilderness seeped into our consciousness.
On this, my first trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I pictured Minnesota when my grandparents were teenagers in the 1930s. Flat land and timber, country churches and little white houses with big gardens, dirt roads, a dusty Model A in a gravel driveway, kids with fishing poles.
On the highway headed north from Duluth to International Falls, we passed cars with canoes on top and rigs with boats in tow. At every intersection, a sign pointed the way to another lake.
Our destination was Rainy Lake in Voyageurs National Park, named for the hardy French Canadians who plied the waters in birchbark canoes. Our craft would be a 65-foot houseboat called the Chairman.
Close to the lake, we began to see outcrops of the ancient granite, some of the oldest rocks visible on the face of the planet. Here, at the heart of North America, it rises above the surface, an igneous structure that joins the Great Lakes to the Arctic and runs south into the United States.
Once, the ice here in northern Minnesota was two miles thick and some of the surfaces still bear the ancient scars of the glaciers. The fish too are prehistoric: pike, walleye, sauger, muskellunge with jagged teeth and powerful jaws.
We lugged our duffels aboard the 65-foot SkipperLiner houseboat. Onboard was Steve Quinn, from In-Fisherman magazine; Mike Pehanich, senior writer for Bass Master; and Wes Remmer from Cabela’s in Sidney, Neb.
We toasted the good days to come with fried fish and glasses of the dark and foamy at the Thunderbird Lodge across the bay from the marina. We would cast off in the morning and look for a secluded bay from which to base our days' adventures.
The Boundary Waters
With a boundary shared by Ontario and Minnesota, Rainy Lake covers 225,000 acres with 929 miles of shoreline. It is populated by 1,600 islands, which add another 635 miles of shoreline. This is big water, though rocky and shallow. Back in the coves and along the rocky banks, it isn't too hard to imagine a small flotilla of fur traders making their way into the interior of North America.
In 1731, the first trading post, called Fort St. Pierre, was built in the Rainy Lake Region. The North West Company built their first post here in 1787 and the Hudson's Bay Company established a house in 1793 on the Rainy River.
Here, the Europeans met first the Cree, the Monsoni and Assiniboine. In the 1780s, the Ojibwe were the primary tribe acting as go-betweens for the Europeans in the East and the tribes further West.
To satisfy the Europeans' seemingly insatiable need for beaver, Indians brought pelts from the Rocky Mountains and beyond to trade for technology they wanted: fish hooks, fire steels, needles, kettles, knives, metal arrowheads and guns. The Ojibwe supplied food, furs and birchbark canoes to the explorers.
Thanks to the whims of fashion, a continent was mapped by white men with sextants and compasses. Over the span of two decades, the explorers David Thompson and Peter Fidler paddled Rainy Lake in birchbark canoes and charted this land defined by water.
Exploring Rainy Lake
Soon after first light we unrolled a map. Rainy Lake is bisected by a line that clearly defines United States and Canadian waters. Moorage sites are marked with anchorage symbols; hundreds of houseboat campsites are available on the US side of the lake. Each site has a fire pit and a moorage ring concreted on the shoreline.
Our captain fired the diesels and we motored away from the marina, an expanse of blue water ahead of us. Our destination was Brule Cove, a small bay sheltered from the wind by high, rocky outcrops.
Tethered to our houseboat were two Lund boats, powered by outboards and equipped with depth finders to mark the bottom.
To learn the lake fast, we studied charts, watched the wind and prowled bays with the depth finder to look for sunken islands and schools of baitfish. Using a GPS, we marked the best spots for further exploration. We started each day on the hunt for walleye, then switched to smallmouth in the afternoon and ended by trolling for pike.
Fish For Dinner
We were armed with Cabela’s Platinum ZX spinning rods and Prodigy reels. Our guides, Billy Dougherty and Jon Balaski, had live minnows, leeches and nightcrawlers. Leaned into one corner of our boat were a couple of fly rods, a six-weight for bass and an eight-weight in case we needed to tease a pike out of the cabbage.
We started with 1/4-ounce jig heads and tipped our hooks with minnows. Wes Remmer dropped his bait 22 feet to the bottom and lifted the rod when a walleye sucked the minnow in. I caught the next spiny-rayed walleye and Jon caught another one. Wes boated the next six.
After lunch the first day, I threw a red and white popper with the Cabela’s six-weight MTx fly rod. Against a rock cliff, I splashed the popper and when I chugged it, a fish broke water like someone had thrown a wheelbarrow in the lake.
I set the hook and stripped line as the fish blasted away, then turned to charge the boat. That’s when I saw the bronze of its flanks, saw the popper pull from its mouth and the fish, a bigger bass than I have ever battled on a fly rod, turn straight away. To me, line slack, jaw slack, rod limp in hand, the bass looked as big as a Shetland pony.
We trolled huge baitfish imitations for pike. I chose a Storm Giant Flatstick No. 22 in a black and silver pattern. Jon ran the motor at 3.4 to 3.6 mph and zigged and zagged. In the next hour, four 26- to 30-inch northern pike smashed the bait.
Trolling for pike, when my rod bent with the weight of a fish, I brought a 25-1/2-incher to the net. The next time the rod slammed down, it was a 28-inch walleye with the 11-inch stickbait in its mouth. The sting of losing that big smallmouth was lessened.
On Rainy Lake, an angler can keep walleye smaller than 17 inches and no more than one over 28 inches. I expected small walleye, but in fact, these were big ones. I only caught a few in the 12-inch range and most ran to 23 inches.
That night, we deep-fried our walleye fillets and relived the day’s bite on the deck of the houseboat.
Afloat On The Lake
Two houseboat companies offer rentals on Rainy Lake. Boats range in size from about 37 feet to upwards of 60 feet and can sleep up to 10 people. Included in the rental rate from Rainy Lake Houseboats is a 16-foot aluminum Lund with no motor.
The company requires houseboat renters to provide a tow-behind boat with motor. Boats and motors are available for rent for boaters who do not bring their own. Navigational charts, ship-to-shore radios, generators with 110-volt electricity, full furnished kitchens, gas barbecue grills, deck tables and chairs, coolers and other amenities are standard equipment. Groceries can be purchased in nearby International Falls. A Minnesota fishing license is required.
A houseboat is simple to operate with basic instrumentation and navigational charts supplied. Company staff provide a short operational course and the lake is marked with color-coded and numbered buoys, which are reflected in the charts.
If a renter requests a captain to drive out and park the boat in a cove then return at the end of the stay, the company can provide that service. Fishing guides and cooks can be furnished by special reservation.
On the last evening we motored back toward the marina where we would spend our final night. Our cook, Bernie Lessard, put steaks on the barbecue. We sat up on the top deck, soaking in the late afternoon sunlight while the beef sizzled on the grill below.
Fishing boats cruised the international channel in the gathering dusk. Ontario was on our starboard side and the United States was off the port bow.
They call these the Boundary Waters and the line that divides two nations was defined long ago by the route the French Canadian voyageurs established in the fur trade.
Toward the end of that era, in the 1840s, some of our family headed south out of Ontario, through these waters to make homes on what was then the American frontier. It wasn’t too hard to picture the land and water the way they saw it, nor the kids with fishing poles that were my grandparents not so long ago.
White strokes of cirrus spanned the western sky like the first brush strokes on a master’s canvas, then shaded to lavender and rose, bright against the sky in the last light of day.