Lake of the Woods is shrinking
Better navigation, bigger and safer boats, and cell phone technology are opening more of the fishing waters on Lake of the Woods to more anglers, and fostering more exploration of the lake's 14,000-plus islands in summer and winter.
ANGLE INLET, Minn. — A framed map of Lake of the Woods hangs on the wall of my family’s cabin on Flag Island. As a child, studying the navigational chart by the light of a kerosene lantern, taking in the 14,522 islands which dot the 70-some miles of water between Kenora, Ont., and Warroad, Minn., the place names read like exotic distant lands that should only be explored by Neil Armstrong, or perhaps Captain Jack Sparrow:
Dead Man’s Portage. Monkey Rocks Reef. Devil’s Gap. Buffalo Bay. Massacre Island. The Big Traverse.
For generations, most of those names represented far-off places that you would dream of, but were unlikely to visit. In the era before cell phones and GPS navigation, when an open boat with a 25-horsepower outboard motor was the standard mode of travel, Lake of the Woods was a beautiful but dangerous place, and exploring more than a few miles beyond your base of operations was difficult. A sudden wind squall, an empty gas tank, or an encounter with one of the thousands of unmarked rocks just below the lake’s surface, and a simple family fishing trip could turn problematic in seconds.
Just getting to the handful of islands at the very tip of Minnesota was an adventure in the 1960s and earlier. Before the gravel road to the Northwest Angle was completed in 1970, one got to Flag and Oak islands via a four-hour ride on a wooden trawler from Warroad, across 40-some miles of often angry open water. I first made that trip at the ripe age of three weeks old in the summer of 1969, wrapped in blankets and nestled in an unused wooden fish crate dubbed “Jess’ Ark,” as there was no such thing as a car seat then. The road — still gravel, 49 years later — reduced the over-water portion of the trip to less than five miles, and crossing the open stretch of the Big Traverse was all but forgotten for a generation.
Back on the big water
It is a trip that is being rediscovered today, often by the fishing launches from north of Baudette that will make a long run to the islands in the morning in search of walleyes. Warroad’s successful girls high school hockey coach David “Izzy” Marvin routinely makes the trip to his Oak Island cabin in around 50 minutes, and an afternoon journey from the Minnesota islands north to Kenora for dinner, a visit to the Lake of the Woods Museum and a quick stop at Tim Horton’s isn’t uncommon for many, especially since the U.S. Customs service debuted an app that allows people to cross the border legally with a few taps on their cell phone.
In the summer of 2018, as Gordon Streiff pulled up our walleye-blessed fish basket from the flats north of Zippel Bay State Park and punched his 300-horse Mercury to life, he noted that in the era of better communications, more advanced navigation and bigger, safer boats, Lake of the Woods has effectively gotten smaller. Indeed, the 20-mile trip back to Warroad that sunny afternoon took all of 25 minutes.
“When I was a kid we’d go a half mile off the blinker in any direction,” said Streiff, who moved back to his hometown after completing pharmacy school at the University of Minnesota. The blinker is the flashing red navigation buoy positioned a mile out from the mouth of the Warroad River.
“Or we’d rent a boat and go a half mile out from Rocky Point. That was the extent of fishing I knew,” he continued, noting that today if he has two hours to fish after work on a summer evening, it’s not uncommon to make a 30-mile run to one of the small reefs near the Canadian border. “Nothing is off limits anymore on the Minnesota side.”
Fishing on Facebook
Phil Talmage, the Minnesota DNR’s area fisheries supervisor stationed in Baudette also thanks Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for changing things, as more people are apt to share their fishing successes, which has led to more interest in the lake.
“I think it is easier for people to get out and around. Boats are bigger, technology is there, plus I still think a big part of it is social media getting information out to people about where they need to be fishing,” said Talmage. Cell phone coverage varies by company, but a signal can usually be found on much of the southern half of the lake today. “More people have boats that can get them out to those spots regardless of weather conditions.”
While some have expressed concern that mobility will lead to increased fishing pressure on the lake, Talmage said that currently all is well.
“Our fish population on Lake of the Woods is in really good shape right now. We’re still seeing very good production and good growth,” he noted. “Everything we’re keeping a pulse on is looking good. The fishing pressure has actually stayed fairly equal in the last 20 or 30 years. The biggest change is where people are fishing and where they’re able to get around to.”
The increased mobility is not just good for fishing. On YouTube, viewers can find a pair of professionally produced 40-minute videos narrated by Winnipeg television reporter Sean Kavanagh, pointing out some of the unique islands and history around Kenora — home of the 1907 Stanley Cup champions — and throughout the lake’s endless pine-forested nooks and crannies.
An app for adventure
When Joe Laurin and his wife Anita bought land on Flag Island and built there 20-plus years ago, they began exploring the lake via personal watercraft. Polaris, Joe’s employer, was making them at the time, and he always had a few on hand for a run to see a remote island or other point of interest. Their travels led to the rediscovery of abandoned gold mines, old trappers’ cabins with journals from 75 years ago or more, secluded beaches, abundant wildlife, prisoner of war camps from World War II, and petroglyphs dating back to before recorded history. Initially, like a fisherman unwilling to give out the locale of his success, Laurin was hesitant to spread the details of their travels.
“A lot of people have the theory that they don’t share. They have their secret spots. I was like that at first,” Laurin admitted. “I’d post something on Facebook and when people would ask for the location, I’d jokingly say ‘Lake of the Woods.’ But then I thought, why die with all this knowledge? Why not share things beyond fishing?”
That led to the creation of the first cell phone app designed to aid in the exploration of Lake of the Woods. Laurin launched it a year ago, asking $19.99 per download, in an effort to recoup some of the thousands he estimates they have spent in gas over the course of two decades or more. In the year it has been available (with constant updates as the Laurins find more of the lake by watercraft in summer and by snowmobile in winter) hundreds of copies of the app have been purchased, although Joe joked that he’s not retiring on the income just yet.
“One gold mine we found has bats and mosquitoes hibernating. You can get a mosquito bite in the dead of winter, if you take your gloves off,” he said. “My app is just touching the surface of a lot of things.”
Luckily, there are countless miles of Lake of the Woods’ surface still to be explored. And those once far-off exotically named lands are seemingly getting closer each day.