ON LAC LA CROIX, Ont. - For Jim Glowacki of Britt, Minn., this was his second trip to the big border lake here in two years, after last year's trek when he bumped his outboard on an infamous rock in the Loon River.
For Mike Appelwick of Biwabik, Minn., it was his first time back to Lac La Croix in more than 20 years. But it was Appelwick who remembered precisely where the "56 Rock" on the Loon River was and how to avoid it in the fast-flowing current.
"I forget everything else. But I remember water,'' Appelwick said as he guided Glowacki through the rock-filled section of the river. "I spent a lot of time up here as a kid."
The river narrows at a sharp turn with rocks the size of small cars just inches under the surface.
"You get a little puckered up in this spot,'' Glowacki said as he maneuvered the boat. "But Mike remembers stuff from 20 years ago that I've forgot since last year."
The 56 Rock, directly in the middle of the river, is either named after the early 1900s Logging Camp No. 56, which was located on the shore, or the number of broken outboard motor lower units that lay strewn on the bottom. The big rock is easy to see, if you go slow enough. But go too slow and the boat gets moved around by current and the captain risks losing control. The key is the right speed and the right approach angle.
"I got caught on that one once when I was a kid," Appelwick said, pointing toward another underwater nemesis while recalling river runs he made a half-century ago. This time, we passed safely by.
35 miles by boat, rail
When Lac La Croix is the destination, getting there is truly half the adventure. It requires either a float-plane trip from Crane Lake; a long drive through International Falls, Minn., Fort Frances and Atikokan, Ont., that ends with 50 miles of very rough road; or a 35-mile boat trip, most of which is over water.
Last weekend, we opted for the boat trip, a scenic jaunt from Crane Lake. We motored in Glowacki's beefy 21-foot Alumacraft, first to Sand Point Lake to clear Canadian customs, then on into Little Vermilion Lake and up the Loon River, across Loon Lake and onto Lac La Croix.
In between the lakes are the two motorized portages where, for a hefty fee, your boat is pulled across short humps of land and gently deposited in the next body of water.
Both portages use creaky rail cars that cradle boats while a cable pulls the car down well-worn tracks. The portages are each a small oasis of civilization in the otherwise wilderness setting.
We saw a few fishing boats along the route. And we were passed by the occasional "towboat"' carrying canoeists and their camping gear to start their paddle trips on the water highway used by the Ojibwe and French Voyageurs 300 years ago. But we mostly had these border waters to ourselves.
Glowacki, Applewick, Gary Jensen of Side Lake, Minn., and a reporter they invited along pooled our resources to rent a cabin at Campbell's Cabins on the Ontario side of Lac La Croix, one of just two resorts on the huge border lake. (The other is Zups.)
Campbells started as a trading post in the 1920s, but now has well-furnished housekeeping cabins, a store (with ice cream treats) and good guides.
All of the Minnesota side of Lac La Croix is within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and off limits to boats with motors. But the Ontario side is just outside Quetico Provincial Park, so fishing boats are allowed. Just make sure you don't go over the line.
Our plan was to try for lake trout during our first afternoon on the lake then shift to walleyes as the sun got lower in the sky. Half the plan worked: We got some walleyes near sunset. But the lake trout plan was a dud.
The temperature hovered near 90 degrees with the humidity about the same under a nearly cloudless sky and unrelenting sun. It was almost too hot to fish. Almost. We worked big jigs tipped with frozen shiners and chubs near steep drop-offs where we saw big arcs on the fish-finder, from 50-90 feet down. We could "see'' the fish below on the graph, but couldn't entice them to bite. It was so hot that it felt good just to start up the 175-horsepower motor and cruise for a bit to get a breeze.
After dinner that evening, we jigged for walleyes near a mid-lake reef - and caught some - before we were chased off the lake by a lightning storm.
This is more like it
Day 2 brought a few clouds to start, but was still warm and muggy. We hired Gary Whitefish, a member of the tiny Lac La Croix First Nation village on the lake, as our guide. And that was a good thing.
The walleyes were in some unusual places, and it took Whitefish working through his first, second and third fishing spots before we found them in any numbers at the fourth spot of the morning. Then we nailed them in a place only Whitefish would have known to try.
The walleyes were biting on jigs tipped with plastic twister tails, Gulp imitation minnows and live jumbo leeches. Frozen minnows didn't work as well.
The fish that were most active were not far from weeds, in current, in about 10 feet of water. Most of the walleyes we caught were small, but that's "the best kind for shore lunch,'' Whitefish declared as he tossed a few in a cooler for our meal.
"This is more like it,'' Glowacki said as the walleyes started to add up. "Good thing because we didn't bring anything else for lunch."
It's only one guide's assessment, but Whitefish, who averages about 55 days of guiding each season, said the fishing on Lac La Croix has been steady in recent years, with a good population of walleyes, even as fewer anglers are showing up to pursue them.
Whitefish has been working at Campbells since 1989, first as a dock boy.
"Then I graduated to guiding 25 years ago,'' he said.
We also had a blast catching a bunch of smallmouth bass, now hanging tightly near shore. We let them all go, as we did with any pike we caught.
One fish, two lures
Whitefish also guided his boat up the Maligne River, where we trolled plugs, including Wally Divers and Rapalas, catching walleyes up to 20 inches along with some big pike.
On my first pass, a big pike smashed a gold and black Rapala. The fish jumped out of the water, but then severed the braided line after landing. It was fun to watch, but the pike got away with the lure I had borrowed from Appelwick.
On our second pass, trolling a gaudy orange and chartreuse plug from Glowacki's tackle box, another fish hit in the exact same place.
"It's probably the same fish,'' Whitefish declared as he grabbed the net.
Yeah, right, I thought as the fish battled all the way to the boat, making several long runs.
When we got the pike in the net, Whitefish went to work removing the lure, trying to avoid losing any body parts to the 3-foot pike's teeth. Whitefish detached the lure and then paused, looking deeper inside the pike's mouth.
"Here it is,'' he said with a laugh, pulling out the Rapala I had lost minutes earlier.
One fish, two hits, two lures. This was one tough fish.
"That was a water wolf,'' Glowacki said of the pike's disposition.
"You should go buy a lottery ticket with that kind of luck,'' Jensen added.
With enough fish to eat, and having released plenty more, Whitefish led our group to a small island where he previously built an obviously well-used fish cleaning table between trees and a fire pit near the lake. He shares the spot, under a canopy of white pines, with a few other guides. But we had it to ourselves on this day.
Within minutes, Whitefish had started a fire, filleted the fish and started cooking as our crew retold stories from the morning and past trips. We watched as a storm built to our south and east, with distant thunder and dark clouds.
Whitefish prepared the quintessential Ontario shore lunch: walleye fillets dipped in seasoned flour, canned potatoes fried in a cast-iron pan and creamed corn and baked beans cooked inside the cans they came in. Whitefish also opened a small can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, the first time I'd seen that on a shore lunch menu.
"Not everybody who comes out here likes fish," Whitefish replied to my query. "And I like spaghetti with my fish."
There is little that's more satisfying than eating walleye that had been swimming minutes earlier while sitting on a rock on the shore of a Canadian shield lake. Brazen gulls came in to our lunch spot eat the fish remains. Red-winged blackbirds sang. A merlin screeched from above the tall pines. There was just enough wind to keep bugs away.
If you can't be happy at an Ontario shore lunch you probably are in trouble.
So we gobbled up our lunch with visions of more walleyes, smallmouth and pike coming in the afternoon. That would happen, especially for Jensen, Appelwick and Whitefish back in the river. But our price for even more fish was getting caught in a typhoon-like rainstorm - rain so hard that it hurt your face to look into it.
We waited out the storm, caught more fish and eventually headed back to the resort to get dry clothes. It had been, despite the deluge, a fantastic day of fishing.
Our third and final day on Lac La Croix brought a 30-degree drop in temperature and a cold northeast wind. The dramatic cold front seemed to shut the fish off, so we motored back to the cabin to eat a late breakfast - including Glowacki's delicious oatmeal pancakes - then packed up for home.
Thes 35-mile trip back to Crane Lake was just a scenic as the trip in, with eagles soaring and a bright blue sky speckled with thinning gray clouds giving way to a powerful summer sun.
We had caught a bunch of fish, saw giant sturgeon jumping, watched mergansers and ducks fly by and ate like kings.
"This was a great trip," Appelwick said. "I'm glad I finally got back to Lac La Croix."
Jim Glowacki's oatmeal pancakes
Every fish, duck or deer camp seems to have a recipe or two that's unique, tasty and gobbled up with gusto by the group. When Jim Glowacki of Britt, Minn., is in charge of breakfast, he brings a pre-made batch of oatmeal pancake batter that easily stores in a cooler or refrigerator.
Glowacki stole the recipe from his daughter-in-law, then added a few items to zip it up a bit. (He also uses Krusteaz mix instead of a homemade pancake base.)
The pancakes are hearty and thick, but not tough or doughy. If you are looking to flavor up breakfast a bit on your next fishing trip, give them a try:
3 cups Krusteaz pancake batter
1 cup original uncooked (dry) Quaker Oats
1 cup vanilla yogurt
2 cups of milk (more or less to desired thickness)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Cinnamon powder to taste
Mix until desired thickness and refrigerate in a pourable container. Letting the batter sit overnight allows the oatmeal to soften better.