As you read this story it’s likely the DeRosier clan is fishing for walleye somewhere on giant Smoothrock Lake in northwestern Ontario.
And among the 22 friends and family members on this year’s trip, Bill DeRosier of Silver Bay is likely leading the catching part.
Bill, 89, is marking the 70th anniversary of the annual family fishing trip. He hasn't missed a single year since it started in 1949. The trip — which started in tents on lakes off Minnesota's Gunflint Trail and has morphed into a fly-in trip to a full-service lodge in Canada — is as important as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays to this crew.
Just about every serious angler has a trip they look forward to each year, to a special place with special people. But this may be the longest running fishing trip in the Northland.
“It’s tradition, nobody misses it now,’’ Bill said. “It's not just the fishing. It’s the guys, the camaraderie. It’s something everyone looks forward to all year.”
Bill, who served as Lake County sheriff back in the ’70s, insists he is trying to age-out of the trip, saying this year will be the last.
“He’s been saying that for eight years now. We aren't going to let him stop,’’ said Gary DeRosier of Tamarack, Bill’s nephew.
Gary’s dad and Bill’s brother, Jack, 92, aged-out of the trip a few years ago after 55 straight years. Jack, a retired Duluth police officer, was the accordion-playing patriarch of the family trip for decades but felt he was becoming too much of a burden on the others.
“When you get to be my age there are things that get harder to do. And you get set in your ways and in your house,’’ Jack said. “I still have the great memories, though.”
Early trips, tents and portages
The DeRosier trips started as Minnesota fishing opener ordeals, with multiple motorboats launched off the Gunflint Trail and then portaged into remote lakes now well inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They would carry-in not just 16-foot fishing boats and 35-hp motors, but also gas, food, camping gear, tents and bait for a week.
“And a lot of fish coming out,’’ Jack DeRosier added with a smile. “I think we hit every lake you could off the Gunflint. Frost Lake was a real good one for us back then.”
They also portaged in Jack’s 30-pound accordion, which became the focal point of fireside song sessions late into the evenings. Sometimes early into the next morning.
“Imagine being six lakes back in the Boundary Waters and hearing an accordion across the lake,’’ Bill said, recalling one trip with the group camped at the mouth of the Alpine River when fishermen in other boats, unseen in a thick fog, suddenly requested more songs when Jack stopped playing.
“If I didn't bring the accordion the guys wouldn't have brought me,’’ Jack said. “Guys even volunteered to carry it over the portages.”
The group still sings the same old-time songs, just a cappella now without Jack’s accordion, or maybe with someone strumming a guitar.
Many of those early trips also included Leo DeRosier, Jack and Bills’ dad, who made the annual event until he was 81.
“He really got us into fishing and hunting,’’ Jack said of his dad.
Heading north of the border
As BWCAW regulations tightened in the 1960s and ’70s to exclude motors on most lakes, the DeRosiers moved the annual trip north to Canada, fishing in some of northwestern Ontario’s best known waters — Lake of the Woods, Cedar, Aerobus, Caribou, Sturgeon, Clearwater, Pipestone, White Otter and more.
In some years their caravan included 10 or more trucks and campers pulling all manner of boats. Those trips into remote lakes included many flat tires, broken trailers and assorted other mechanical issues.
There have been some big fish, too, including a 49-inch northern pike caught by Bill just last year and a 36-inch lake trout by Mike DeRosier in 2017. Bill also leads in the walleye category with a 13-pound, 6-ounce monster caught in the early days of the trip.
“And they filleted that 13-pound fish!’’ exclaimed Richard DeRosier, Bill’s son, also of Silver Bay, noting it was the era before catch-and-release fishing caught on. (In keeping with the law enforcement/public service theme of the DeRosier clan, Richard is a Lake County Sheriff’s Office investigator and many of the trip attendees are law enforcement officers or firefighters, some from as far away as Georgia, Florida and California. It takes a good connection to get invited on the trip the first time, the DeRosiers noted. “But once you are in, only you can un-invite you,’’ Bill noted.)
Details sometimes blur, but each trip and each lake stands out for some highlight, either the ordeal of driving in or weather or fishing or friendship or all of the above.
“I think, of all of the lakes we’ve fished, White Otter was probably the best, for most and biggest fish,’’ Bill said at a recent pre-trip gathering in Jack’s living room in Gary-New Duluth, with most in the room agreeing with that assessment.
For the past several years the DeRosier clan has been fishing Smoothrock Lake just west of Armstrong, Ontario, a massive body of water nearly 20 miles long with 24,000 acres of water to fish. They now make the trip in a float plane with Thunderhook Fy-Ins into a full-service lodge with beds and refrigerators and ice for their cocktails.
“It’s a lot nicer than the days we portaged those big Yukon boats and 30-gallon cans of gas,’’ Bill said.
Over the decades they have seen all kinds of fishing, usually good, sometimes great, in all kinds of weather — from blistering sunshine to significant snowstorms to ice on lakes and freezing cold temperatures.
“There have been days when you strip down to your underwear because it’s so hot and days that you can’t put on enough clothes to get warm… sometimes on the same trip,’’ said Mike DeRosier, Bill’s son, who also lives in Tamarack. “One year there were snowmen (built) on the seats in the boats.”
But no matter the weather, the DeRosiers are not ones to head back to camp early if the fishing is good. The clan often fishes together, sometimes by tethering the boats to one another to form a big raft.
“We generally fish all day, sometimes into the night… We’ve had days where we don’t get back to camp until 3 in the morning,’’ Richard noted. “We’ll coast into the dock singing in the dark.”
There’s nearly as much tomfoolery as fishing. On one trip anglers dressed in full superhero costumes, only to run into Ontario game wardens that day (the wardens thought it was funny.) On other trips there has been kite-flying behind boats. One time a group brought a life-size blow-up doll to disguise how many people were in their boat. On another trip a duo set up a working model train on the gunnel of their boat, complete with the battery-powered locomotive — all in honor of Gary DeRosier’s railroad career.
“We fish hard and we play hard,’’ Bill said with a smile that hinted at 70 straight years of interesting trips. “If we didn’t have so much fun we wouldn't keep doing it.”