Longtime fishing guide and retired Minnesota state senator Bob Lessard serves up good times at fly-in fishing camp in Ontario
Trout Lake North of Fort Frances, Ontario - We had caught our fill of walleyes atop a seldom-fished reef and put back a couple of blackish-gold beauties flirting with 24 inches when Brett Lessard decided a change of scenery – and a change of species – was in order.
Even after some 25 years of guiding on the big lake the natives called Otukamamoan, there’s always new water for Lessard, 36, to explore. And when shifting gears means the potential for doing battle with lake trout, one of the most beautiful, hard-fighting fish that swims, Lessard’s game plan was an easy sell.
Unlike many bodies of water, where switching from walleyes to lake trout requires long-distance moves or even changing lakes, Trout Lake – about a 25-minute floatplane ride north of Fort Frances – offers both in proximity.And so it was that barely five minutes later, Lessard was watching his depth finder for the telltale blips that suggested lake trout below the boat.Lake trout favor cold, pristine waters and head for the depths when water temperatures reach the low 50s, but Lessard wasn’t looking in 80 feet or deeper on this sunny August afternoon. The pod of fish swimming 43 feet below the boat told him everything he needed to know.So did the chatter of one of his passengers who lowered a green-and-white tube jig to the bottom of the lake seconds later.“Fish on! Fish off!” And again. “Fish on! Fish off!”Lake trout are notorious for hitting at the top of the jig, where arms are at the highest point and there’s no room to set the hook, and these fish were no exception.“We may have found them,” Lessard said.The waters of Otukamamoan have flowed through the Lessard family since 1948, when Brett’s dad, Bob Lessard, first fished Trout Lake, a mass of islands and water just north of Rainy Lake that stretches about 15 miles north to south. These days, Brett manages his dad’s deluxe outpost camp on Trout Lake, a small operation that comfortably accommodates six to eight anglers and offers not only walleyes and lake trout, but smallmouth bass and northern pike, as well.Besides cooking breakfast and supper and keeping the operation on track, the younger Lessard is on the water most days from mid-May through September. He’s been guiding on Trout Lake since he was about 10 years old.“Back then, we had 16-foot boats with 30-horse Yamahas and six-horse Yamahas,” Lessard said. “I could barely pull that starter.“A couple of times, guests had to do it for me,” he added with a laugh.‘The Ol’ Trapper’If the name Bob Lessard rings a bell, it’s no coincidence. Now 83, the elder Lessard from 1976 to 2002 served in the Minnesota Senate, where he landed the nickname “The Ol’ Trapper” early in his tenure. Before entering politics, Lessard, of International Falls, Minn., owned or operated camps on Rainy Lake and Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and guided on Trout Lake throughout his time in office.A longtime champion of outdoor causes, Lessard helped make Minnesota the first state to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the right to hunt and fish and led the charge for the dedicated funding amendment Minnesota voters passed in 2008.The Lessard-Sams Outdoors Heritage Council, which makes funding recommendations to the Legislature from the Outdoors Heritage Fund, one of four created by the amendment, bears his name along with Dallas Sams, a state senator who died in 2007.Today, Lessard works as a special assistant to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr. He loves a good cigar and still has a passion for hunting and fishing.When possible, he joins son Brett on Trout Lake, guiding and visiting with some of the parties who have been coming to the retreat for years. This year marks his 70th season as a fishing guide.Last week, after guiding all day, crossing a land portage into a smaller lake teeming with walleyes and cleaning fish back at camp – he estimates he’s filleted about 100,000 fish, give or take a few thousand – Lessard held court in the lodge at night, telling stories and playing cards with a crew that has been coming to Trout Lake since the early ‘90s.“I don’t know how he does it,” Brett Lessard said.The Ol’ Trapper hates losing or getting outfished, he admits, and says slowing down isn’t an option.“I can’t run across the portage as fast anymore, but I still go across the portage,” he said. “I will say one thing – I don’t enjoy the cold as much as I used to. I used to come up here in my 20s and 30s and fish trout in the winter. That’s when we didn’t have the good snowmobiles. We’d get them stuck in slush up to your neck, have a great time and think that was fun.“I’m just not as mad at the fish anymore that I have to sit out there and freeze,” he adds. “But deer hunting, I can sit. I don’t care how cold it gets, I’ll sit for hours.”Trout reunionThe crew fishing Trout Lake on this late August excursion met Lessard the legislator when they worked with the Waste Management Board, a state agency that was charged with choosing a site for a hazardous waste facility. There’s Kevin Johnson, now a Minneapolis attorney; Kevin Rosenberger, director of solid waste programs for Clay County in Moorhead; Tim Kennedy of Grand Marais, Minn.; Andy Datko of Gilbert, Minn.; and Jon Penheiter of Rosemount, Minn.“We developed a good working relationship with Bob on a lot of issues,” Johnson, 56, said. “So it was a lot of fun, really, a lot of fun.”That association eventually led them to Trout Lake and Sunny Beach, another camp Lessard owns on the Ontario side of Rainy Lake. They might work in different jobs, but the annual fishing trip remains a tradition.“For one thing, you’re going to catch fish and particularly up at Trout Lake,” Johnson said. “I never had a bad year for fishing up there. Rainy Lake’s been kind of hit-and-miss, but we’ve had some good years up at Rainy, too.“And then Brett and Bob – it’s fun to hang out with those guys.”The get-togethers are just as much fun as ever, Rosenberger, 62, says.“We can go anyplace, but we always come back here because there are a lot of memories, and we all have worked together over the years, and Bob was part of our work history,” Rosenberger said. “It’s just a really good place.“It’s not so much necessarily about the fish now, although fishing is the focal point. It’s the telling stories and reliving the memories and just reconnecting because we’re all scattered now, and it’s real important that we stay together. I feel fortunate that we have the number of people that are still as tight as we are after all these years.”Trout Lake lived up to its reputation for variety. That included lake trout, several of which managed to stay hooked and find their way onto the grill for the second night’s main course meal – or into The Ol’ Trapper’s smoker for some of the best smoked fish the crew had ever tasted. As advertised, the trout averaged 5 to about 12 pounds.In three days, we’d barely scratched the surface of what Trout Lake has to offer. And it wasn’t a long-distance trip. The Rusty Myers Flying Service floatplane base in Fort Frances is a mere four hours’ drive from Grand Forks.A four-hour drive to a different world – a world of wilderness, island-dappled waters and the kind of fishing that makes you wonder what’s at the end of the line every time you set the hook.No wonder, then, The Ol’ Trapper has been coming back to Trout Lake since 1948.“This has always been very special to me, this lake,” he said. “It’s close, we think we’ve got extremely good fishing, and it’s relatively unexplored. I mean, it’s one of those lakes – I don’t know how to word it – that has always fascinated me.“I love this lake.”