BAUDETTE, Minn. — After a seemingly endless barrage of wind, rain and overall cruddy fall weather, the orange glow on the eastern horizon near the mouth of the Rainy River offered the promise of a welcome reprieve.
The reprieve would turn out to be short-lived during this Fall That Wasn't, but all signs pointed to a beautiful day on Lake of the Woods.
It was Monday, Oct. 7, the first morning of a "Wings and Walleyes" hunting and fishing event that brought a small crew of media from the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers — AGLOW, for short — and outdoor industry partners to River Bend Resort on the Rainy River for a taste of what Lake of the Woods country offers in the fall.
On days such as this, that offering is particularly tasty.
While a half-dozen in the crew departed long before daylight for a morning goose hunt guided by local hunter Dillon Reed, five of us, including Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, set out in a 24-foot pontoon boat to test the waters of Lake of the Woods.
By all accounts, fishing had been good, Henry said, but there was only one way to find out. On a day that offered the promise of perfect fall weather, catching fish would be a bonus.
Through pure coincidence, we were fishing with Roger Niesen of De Forest, Wis., sales manager for St. Louis, Mich.-based Angler Qwest pontoons and Polar Kraft, who had booked an annual fall trip to Lake of the Woods with neighbor and fishing buddy Andy Roelke.
Niesen, who also is a member of AGLOW, was staying at River Bend Resort but didn’t know about the “Wings and Walleyes” event until he booked his fishing trip. The pontoon has an abundance of room, so he offered to take some of us fishing.
Acting on a tip, we made our way through the mouth of the Rainy River and Lighthouse Gap and headed west along Pine Island toward Zippel Bay, where we’d be well protected from the light southwest wind.
Aspen and tamarack trees bathed the south shore of the big lake in a shade of gold made even more brilliant by the first blue sky many of us had seen in days.
Powered by a 200-horse Suzuki at speeds up to 40 mph, Niesen’s pontoon soon had us where we wanted to go. Judging by the small fleet of charter and private boats fishing nearby, other anglers had the same idea.
Now, to catch a few golden walleyes.
Fishing in a pontoon boat might conjure up images of putt-putt-putting around the lake with a six-pack of beer while taking in the scenery, but the Angler Qwest triple-toon Niesen piloted — so-called for the three metal tubes that keep the boat afloat — is a fishing machine.
Downriggers, rod holders galore and double metal walls in the back of the boat to accommodate storage and stability are just some of the features on the 824 Pro Troll model.
No wonder, then, that the pontoons are catching on among anglers and fishing guides alike. Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are the strongest markets, but sales also are on the uptick in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, Niesen says.
"There’s more people going this route," he said. "Sales have been phenomenal. It’s a harder sell for the average angler because again they have the 'pontoon mentality.' I’ll take guides out, and they’ll get on it first and they’ve already got their minds made up.
"But then you get them out for the day, and you’ll see them lounging on the couch, and I’m cooking them brats and we’re doing everything their boat would have done, and they’re like, 'Alright, my bad — you’ve got me.'"
A Devils Lake fishing guide recently bought one of the pontoons, which are available in a variety of styles and models, and all of the other guides were giving him grief until they saw the boat for themselves, Niesen said.
"Now half of them are contemplating selling their boats" and buying a pontoon, he said.
While far from crowded, Lake of the Woods was surprisingly busy, especially for a Monday. That’s not unusual in October anymore, said Paul Johnson, who with his wife, Brandi, owns River Bend’s Resort and Walleye Inn, the latter in nearby Baudette.
Between spring sturgeon and northern pike fishing, summer and fall fishing and a winter season that sees anglers log some 2 million hours of ice fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, based on Minnesota Department of Natural Resources creel surveys, there’s really no off-season, Johnson says.
That’s changed since they bought the resort about 8½ years ago, Johnson says.
"(Spring) used to be a slower time, and now people can come off the ice in (ATVs) and sleds, so they can get out on the lake" later in the season, he said. "There’s no shoulder (season) in the spring anymore — it’s really something.
"And then October speaks for itself. We can count on weekends being completely booked through October."
The AGLOW crew that hunted geese encountered phenomenal hunting during the "Wings and Walleyes" event, shooting a mixed bag of Canada geese and blue geese. Goose hunting success requires gaining access to private land, Johnson says, but duck hunters can have a heyday on the lake and connected bays and tributaries.
"That is a whole other aspect," he said. "There’s so much cover in Four-Mile Bay, Bostick Creek, Swift Ditch — that whole shoreline. If you can’t get in the field and hunt geese, you’re going to be able to get in somewhere and hunt ducks.
"Bluebills, redheads, goldeneyes and the buffleheads — you can always have a bufflehead shoot down here; they’re everywhere."
Despite beautiful weather, walleye fishing wasn’t as fast as it can be in October, but by day’s end, the livewell still held enough walleyes and saugers for an evening fish fry back at the resort. Fishing with jigs and frozen shiners in 18 to 24 feet of water, every stop produced a couple of fish before the bite slowed, and it was time to move.
Best of all, the time on the water offered a chance for everyone aboard Niesen’s pontoon to either get acquainted or renew acquaintances. That’s part of the attraction of being a member of AGLOW, said Lake of the Woods Tourism’s Henry, who also has an active social media presence and contributes stories to several publications.
The sunset that wound down our day on the lake was every bit as brilliant as the sunrise, despite the looming forecasts of wintry weather later in the week.
"I think it was a beautiful day of fall fishing," Henry said. "We caught fish to eat, but we didn’t do great. Not for a fall day on Lake of the Woods.
"But the cool thing about it is, even though I would say it’s not the typical day of fall fishing on Lake of the Woods, we’ve still got fish in the livewell, and we’ve got some throwbacks, some good fish that way. And that’s one of the things about Lake of the Woods, you never know what you’re going to catch."
River Bend’s Resort and Walleye Inn: riverbendresorts.com.
Lake of the Woods Tourism: lakeofthewoodsmn.com.