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Last hurrah: November fishing trip to Lake of the Woods offers perfect, multispecies finale to another open-water season

FNS Photo by Brad Dokken A brilliant sunset marks the end to a great day on the water Nov. 2 in the Northwest Angle area of Lake of the Woods. The day also likely marked the end to another open water fishing season, and it won't be long before the big lake again is covered with ice.

LAKE OF THE WOODS, Ontario — Fishing Lake of the Woods from a boat in November is a little bit like living on borrowed time, and Dan Schmidt knew it was time to quit telling stories and put a few fish in the box.

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It took a couple of moves and a few more stories, but the bent-over fishing rods Schmidt encountered in a spot he calls “The Kitchen” told him everything he needed to know.

Every one of the four or five boats in the vicinity had a fish on the line and sometimes two or three at a time.

And that’s no fish tale.

The main course for dinner that night was assured within minutes. Walleyes, mostly, but plenty of toothy pike were lurking in the depths, as well, more than willing to help deplete supplies of jigs and the frozen shiners we used for bait.

Still, tugs on the line are a good thing, even if it means sacrificing the occasional jig.

No wonder Schmidt calls this spot The Kitchen.

“You can only tell fish stories so long,” he said with a laugh. “Then you’ve got to go catch something.”

Manager of Flag Island Resort on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, Schmidt, 55, has been serving up stories and good times on Lake of the Woods for some 30 years. It started as a teenager, when the Cloquet, Minn., native made his first trip to the Angle at the invitation of a longtime resident he’d met the previous year.

The bachelor’s accommodations were … well, rustic, Schmidt recalls.

“The cabin had a dirt floor, and there were mosquitoes and mayflies everywhere,” he said. “He was a really neat guy, but after that, we didn’t stay at his place no more; we bought a tent.

“We did that about 10 years.”

It’s the people

Schmidt moved up to the Angle for good about 10 years ago after 20 years as maintenance director at a nursing home. Time on the lake and a gift for gab has served him well, and showing others what Lake of the Woods has to offer is a job Schmidt finds to his liking.

“That’s what I love about the guiding part” of the job, Schmidt said. “I wouldn’t fish or hunt ever — I’d quit if I had to do this alone. I just like being with good people, and I love what I do. It’s like going to deer camp — it’s all about the camaraderie.”

Joining us on this Saturday in early November was the man Schmidt calls “Rabbit’s Foot.” That would be Joe Henry. Executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, Henry’s job is to help sell Lake of the Woods on behalf of nearly 60 resorts and lodging establishments in Lake of the Woods County.

“It’s just like running a company — how can we be the best steward of our budget that we can be?” said Henry, of St. Cloud, Minn. “I feel very honored to be representing the resort owners of Lake of the Woods.”

A native of St. Cloud, Henry, 46, earned a management degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where he began selling Kirby vacuum cleaners to help pay the bills. He stayed with the company after college, eventually becoming the company’s director of education and training at Kirby’s world headquarters in Cleveland. While in Cleveland, Henry earned an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace College.

Henry, an avid angler and tournament fisherman, also worked part time as a first mate for a charter boat captain on the western and central basins of Lake Erie and eventually earned his Coast Guard’s license while living in Cleveland.

He returned to Minnesota in 1998, working as director of international sales for Creative Memories, a scrapbooking company. Henry owned his own consulting business and also worked for a Baltimore-based consulting company, GP Strategies, before landing the Lake of the Woods Tourism job in November 2011.

Strong product

As a career sales and marketing specialist, Henry knows the benefits of having a good product to sell. And these days, Lake of the Woods is a strong product on both sides of the border.

Knowing the product doesn’t hurt, either. That’s where time on the water — or ice, which will be happening soon enough — comes into play.

Henry says he makes it a point to visit Lake of the Woods once every three weeks or so.

“We’re very cognizant a lot of businesses up here rely on tourism to keep going,” Henry said.

Living in St. Cloud instead of Baudette, Minn., isn’t a detriment, Henry said, because he’s closer to population centers such as the Twin Cities that see Lake of the Woods as a tourism destination.

Henry said he was able to convince Lake of the Woods Tourism board members that he could do the job just as well living in St. Cloud. After two years in the position, that view hasn’t changed. The tourists don’t live in Baudette, and Henry helps spread the word about Lake of the Woods through trade shows, seminars, articles in outdoors publications and social media such as Facebook.

“When I promote Lake of the Woods, I promote the opportunities and keep it as generic as possible, as opposed to favoring a particular resort,” Henry said. “I try to promote the experience.”

Crappie quest

The sunny sky the weather forecast had promised was noticeably absent when we set out in Schmidt’s 20-foot “Lake Assault” center console fishing boat to see what we could find. The slab crappies that inhabit parts of the lake in Ontario waters were the primary target, but on a pleasant day by November standards, any fish would be a bonus.

Schmidt said the crappies, which stage in about 30 feet of water in the fall, were biting best after 4 p.m., with the occasional walleye and perch showing up in the same areas.

For numbers, the best walleye fishing in Canadian waters was coming from deep points and “neck down” current areas between the islands, Schmidt said. Find current, he said, and the walleyes won’t be far away.

That certainly was the case at The Kitchen, which had all of the ingredients fall-time walleyes find to their liking.

Better and better

The sun had finally come out, and the wind, which wasn’t bad to begin with, had subsided when Schmidt steered the boat to one of his favorite crappie holes a few miles north of Flag Island in Canadian waters.

As the sun dipped, the fishing kept getting better.

Watching two anglers in a nearby boat put on a crappie-catching clinic, Schmidt managed to negotiate a couple of their hot lures, soft plastic “Mimic Minnows” produced by Bemidji-based Northland Tackle, in exchange for some pieces of venison jerky.

It turned out to be a good trade.

Schmidt knew the fishermen, which probably helped.

“He’s a rat up here,” Henry joked. “He knows everything and everybody.”

All too quickly, daylight was disappearing in a flurry of hook sets that produced a mixed bag of slab crappies, jumbo perch and walleyes up to 21 inches.

Following the soft-plastic cue, Henry switched to a yellow twister tail he found in the bottom of his tackle box.

For the next hour, he couldn’t keep the fish off his line.

No wonder Schmidt calls him Rabbit’s Foot.

“This is fun fishing isn’t it?” Henry said, as we soaked in our island-studded surroundings and blazing orange sunset. “We’re popping crappies and walleyes, and we’ve got a great sunset going on. There’ll be people that will never in their lives experience what we’re experiencing right now.

“We’re pretty darn fortunate.”

That night back at the lodge, over a meal of fresh walleyes fried to crispy-brown perfection, we reflected on an afternoon we didn’t want to end, an afternoon in which we’d landed walleyes, crappies, perch, saugers and even northern pike — all in the same location.

As Lake of the Woods experiences go, they don’t get much better.

“Look how it all came together,” Henry said. “All of a sudden the sun comes out and it gets warmer and the fishing gets better. That’s one of those days I’ll remember forever.”

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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