Ever sit on your patio chair, the backyard deck, Muskie pole in hand, casting a big wooden practice plug onto the grass and dreaming that you were out there on that favorite lake of yours? Wishing that you had a lunker Muskie instead of your dog chasing the lure right up to your chair? Or that you were bobber fishing for smallmouth bass from that same spot? Well, nice dreams. You can't do that of course, from your patio chair.
But you can - I did all of that for a week last summer. Now I did have to set up my patio chair on the back of a houseboat, but after that all else followed. I spent that week cruising around on our houseboat on Lake of the Woods, out of Kenora, Canada. My soul cries out to be back there right now, drifting around, chasing the Muskies and walleyes and smallmouth, wandering the pine-covered islands, watching sunsets, fires on the beach, falling asleep to the sounds waves on the beach and wind in the pines... But here I sit in front of my Macintosh, typing. Oh man! Maybe again next year...
If you haven't done a houseboat trip like that, well, your Muskie fishing experiences aren't complete. Let me tell you about it.
There's two ways to do it. First, you can go with your local crowd of scroungy Muskie fanatics. You'll undoubtedly live and breathe Muskies. But you'll also eat hotdogs and drink beer. And that crowd of yours will be bearded, grumpy, and smelly by the end of the week; you may well be sorry.
Or you can go with the love of your life, in company with some other couples. In that case you'll have wonderful meals three times a day and wine with dinner. There will be many other fringe benefits. But Muskies will be only a passing dalliance on the trip, if you have any brains at all.
We did it the second way.
In the first part of this article I'll report to you the on the "where to's & how to's" of houseboating on Lake of the Woods. Then we'll have my friend Rick Pike get into more of the serious Muskie matters. He'll fill you in some of the hard facts and good spots for getting the Muskies in northern Lake of the Woods. Rick wasn't with us on the houseboat, but he's fished that part of the lake a lot and his advice is excellent. But let me turn to our own "Houseboat Adventures."
There were six of us on our trip. Accompanying Marie and me we had our friend Mike Julik and his wife Edie and Mike's cousin Steve Julik and wife Nancy with us. We took a 49–foot houseboat out of "Houseboat Adventures" in Kenora for a week last August. We had a spectacular time exploring the thousands of square miles of lake with its countless islands, surrounded by the best Muskie & Walleye & Smallmouth waters in the world. And we escaped from civilization in a way that a shore–bound cabin or a leaky tent can't hope to match.
Part of that came from the freedom of just roaming around on the houseboat itself. But we also towed two of our own boats behind the houseboat, my 17–foot runabout and Mike's 16–foot fishing boat. We roamed around from spot to spot, parked the houseboat in secluded bays, and then piled the six of us into the small boats to explore and fish and sometimes–just drift. When we got tired of that, it was back to the comforts of the houseboat: great walleye meals, Bloody Mary's on the upper deck, bobber fishing off the back of the boat, naps, stars twinkling and full moon shining at night, loon calls to make you shiver, rain showers and rainbows... And it went on and on and on...
Getting the feel for houseboat life?
Here's how it went our first couple of days on the lake. (If you have a map of Lake of the Woods handy, bring it out and follow along.) We got into Kenora around noon on Saturday, found the houseboat dock with no problem, and unloaded all our things. There were four boats going out that day so it took a bit of time to get us squared away. That gave us a chance to duck into town to get a few final things. Safeway is a short walk from the docks, a "Beer Store" not much farther, and lots of other places to get things you may have forgotten to bring with you. Marie and I got some fresh fruit and vegetables at Safeway and other supplies, Canadian, of course, at the Beer Store. We also picked up walleye bait – minnows, worms, and leeches – at the marina right next to the docks.
Back at the boat we got thorough orientation briefings on operations and navigation of the houseboats from the HBA folks and then quickly cast off.
I started out driving the boat (I'd done a houseboat thing before) but we all alternated as captain and navigator – more on that later. That first day we went some six or seven miles southeast and stopped at a sheltered bay on the SE side of Scotty's island (Spot # 6 on the HBA map). A couple of other boats were already there – a houseboat with five scruffy, bearded fishermen arguing with each other and "Gypsy II," a 50' cruise boat.
Parking the houseboat boat was easy – we just ran the bow gently aground on a sandy beach and tied up to trees on shore with two lines, one on either side of the houseboat, at a 45–degree angle to the boat. (Here's a bit of advice – pay attention to the weather forecast and make sure you find a spot where the wind will be offshore, and not into your bay. That makes for a peaceful night and much easier casting off the next morning.)
We weren't up to fishing that first night, so Marie made what was undoubtedly our best dinner of the trip. She grilled sirloin steaks with her own special secret marinade, baked potatoes and fried onions and mushrooms, and of course fixed a salad. She followed with a homemade apple pie ala mode so good that it's indescribable. And did I already mention wine with dinner too? That kind of cooking you just don't get at a resort. Or from anybody but Marie.
And afterwards, at dusk, we got to talking with Neil and Brandy across the water on the Gypsy II. That led to a bonfire and marshmallows and beer on the beach with them. We stood there by the fire, bare feet in the warm waves, toes nipped every once in while by the crayfish. A soft breeze blew the pine smells around us as we watched the silver moon drifting in and out of the clouds, and it was grand.
The next morning – late the next morning, there's no hurry in these houseboat matters – we got up to sights of a calm bay, mist rising off the water into bright sunshine, and a fishermen from the next houseboat flycasting along the shore for smallmouth bass from a canoe. We watched him pull in (and release!) a fish on almost every other cast, as we ate breakfast – coffee and ham and cheese omelets and fried potatoes and muffins.
And then the pleasant task of picking a bay for the next night, out of the many, many bays of the lake.
I hesitate to tell you about this one; it comes close to sharing a secret Muskie spot. And I really want it to be empty the next time I go up, so I can park there again. But here it is – we pulled out from Scotty's Island and went south to the second bay (HBA # 43) on Shore Island. We came into the mouth of the long, narrow bay, to find it deserted, and there were gasps of delight from all of us. The beach at the end of the bay is wide, with a great spot for a bonfire. The high rocky shores on each side shelter you from all but a SW wind directly into the bay. And there are all kinds of moss–covered places to wander around on the island, through the pine trees and over rocks.
If there's a better lake with a better bay for a houseboat, in the entire world, I'd like to know.
After tying up we all scattered around the island to wander a bit and stretch our legs. Marie and I found many patches of Blueberry plants, but no berries. Earlier in the season I'm sure the island is covered with Blueberries. We're going back to pick them next time. We'll take them back to the houseboat, cover a scoop of Vanilla ice cream with the fresh Blueberries, and have that with a cup of coffee in the evening around the bonfire.
Are you getting more of a feel for houseboat life?
Back at the boat, while the others were puttering around, I snuck out for my first bit of Muskie fishing. There's a sheltered little nook just to the left inside the entrance to this bay with weeds and rocks that you just know hold a Muskie or two. I drifted around it throwing surface lures in all the right places, but the Muskies were apparently asleep. Or perhaps they were out roaming the millions of other great Muskie spots of the Lake. Anyway, a shout from the houseboat soon called me back – it's time to go Walleye fishing.
Well, unlike the Muskies, the Walleyes weren't asleep. They jumped in our boats. In my entire fishing career I've never seen anything like the Walleye fishing during this week. Our party had three expert fisherpeople (and one of those was not a fisherman!) and three with varying degrees of lesser experience. And all of us caught Walleye after Walleye after Walleye!
That first day we found an area of humps and reefs off the south point of Shore Island, and the fish were there. After a bit of experimentation, we discovered that rock piles in about 30–feet of water held the Walleyes, and they went after our minnows, leeches, or nightcrawlers with equal abandon.
Marie and I got maybe ten or twelve fish that first afternoon, and the other boat got a bunch too. A lot of the fish were in the 15" – 20" range, and we got a couple in the low 20's. And that continued throughout the rest of the week. Bright sun and calm water slowed things down, as you might expect. But anytime we had clouds or wind the Walleyes were biting.
During the week I remember seeing exactly one other boat fishing for Muskies and perhaps less than a dozen boats fishing for Walleyes. In the spots that we fished, there were never any other boats anywhere in sight. Compare that with other lakes that you might fish. At times, are the boats are so thick you can walk from one to the other? Northern Lake of the Woods is a different world. You need to see it.
After we finally got tired of catching Walleyes it was a five-minute ride back to the houseboat. And then naps and shoreline walks and gathering wood for the night's bonfire and for just doing nothing at all but sitting and watching the reflections of clouds paint pictures on the still waters of the lake.
And that evening? A wonderful Walleye dinner fixed up by Edie and Nancy. The only difference between this and a Canadian shore lunch was that there was no smoke from the fire to blow in your face. Otherwise it was just that – a shore lunch but with all the comforts of home to go with it. And every meal we had during the trip was like that.
One last time – getting a feel for houseboat life?
Okay – I'm sure you get the picture about our cruise. Let me stop with that and tell you how to go about getting there and doing it and all that.
Kenora is some 440 miles from central Minnesota. Marie and I drove from Minneapolis to Baudette on Friday, stayed there overnight, and then went around the west and north sides of the Lake to get to Kenora by noon Saturday. On the way back we came down the eastern side through Sioux Narrows and International Falls. We made the drive back in one day, leaving at noon and getting home by 11 PM.
Both drives are pretty once you get above the corn belt in northern Minnesota and into the pine forests. The western route has some 30 or 40 miles of gravel road on highway 308 in Canada, most of that along a stream where you can fully expect to see moose and bears and other critters. The east side drive is a bit more civilized with places to stop for food and gas. One point is that getting through Canadian customs in Warroad on the west is a breeze, compared to the traffic problems you sometimes encounter on weekends in International Falls.
In my previous story on Eagle Lake's Osbourne Bay (February, 2000 Muskie) I talked about Canadian customs, money, and other administrative matters. All of that still applies. If you don't have the magazine, the article is posted on the "fishing Memories" web site.
There are lots of lakes and lots of places to rent houseboats up north. Houseboat Adventures has the only rental in Kenora, but there are a couple of others in Sioux Narrows on Lake of the Woods. Other Ontario Houseboat Rentals are available at the Trent Severn Waterway, Rideau Lakes, Pigeon Lake, Lake Temagami, Lac Seul, Pickerel River, 1,000 Islands and the St. Lawrence. Minnesota Houseboat Rentals are available at Birch Lake, Cross Lake, Lake Vermilion, Leech Lake, Mississippi River, Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park. I recommend starting on the web at "houseboat.net" which lists all kinds of rentals, tips, forums, etc.
But from my experience, though, I can't see how it can get any better than Lake of the Woods and Houseboat Adventures (houseboatadventures.com). They've been in business for 18 years and have eight boats ranging in size from 40–feet to 58–feet, with several different rental packages, from 3 days to a full 7 days. The 40–footer is just right for four people. (However, every summer there's a fellow who takes it out by himself, with just his dog for company – talk about solitude!) The 49–footers can take up to eight or nine people, although with the three couples we had on ours we were cozily comfortable. Jeff Gordon, owner and operator of the business and a very likeable chap, says that they've squeezed up to 14 people into the 58–footer, but that's stretching it.
The cost? For the six of us the total houseboat bill for the week was $2400 US, which includes rental, gas, and certain supplies (including bait replenishment) on the "mid-week lake run" which I'll talk about later. I'd estimate that food, gas for the drive, a night in Baudette, etc., were well under $200 per person, so the week cost less than $600 for each of us. I think it's one of the spectacular deals around, considering what you get in the way of a true wilderness experience with all the comforts of home.
Speaking of those comforts, here are some of the things HBA gives you with the 49–foot houseboat:
One of their nice touches is the "mid-week lake run." On Tuesday evening you call them up on the VHF radio, order whatever items you may be running short of, and tell them where you'll be the next morning. They bring their boat out and deliver to your patio chair, literally, at no extra charge above the cost of the items. We got a loaf of bread, a jar of tartar sauce, a bottle of "Bells" for Mike, and four dozen minnows for those frisky walleyes. They also did some minor maintenance on the houseboat – a truly nice service.
Driving the Boat:
A 49–foot houseboat isn't a 16–foot Alumacraft fishing boat. The Volvo I/O pushes it along at a nice relaxing 4.5 miles an hour at best cruising speed. But the wind and the currents also push it around, and the boat responds slowly to the helm. My experience is that the boat turns quite a bit better going forward than backward. One time we had to use Mike's fishing boat to help get the houseboat off a beach when the wind came up from a bad angle. That can get a bit tricky. But if you pay attention to the weather forecast (Channel 3 on the VHF) and park in sheltered bays it's no problem at all.
You'll want to play around getting the feel for the boat in open water, before trying narrow channels or trying to beach it. Once you do get a bit of a feel, though, driving it is a breeze.
The map that HBA gives you covers way more lake than you can hope to see during the week. (We never got more than 20 miles from Kenora. You can certainly push it and see more, but why? To me the laziness and relaxation are far more important than covering miles on the lake.) It has numerous spots marked to show you where to park for the night and locations of resorts where you can get odds and ends of supplies if need be.
The map shows all the standard navigation aids in the way of buoys and markers. While driving the houseboat we had one person steering and another navigating from the map. Basically we just went from buoy to buoy, and never got lost. Binoculars are critical. Without them finding the buoys would be way harder. I recommend bringing several of them.
I had my portable Garmin eMap with me, but interestingly enough we never used it while driving the houseboat. Navigating using the buoys was good enough. However, the GPS came in really handy when we were out on the small boats. I entered the location of the parked houseboat as a "waypoint" and then it was impossible to get lost while out wandering around. The "GOTO" function told us exactly where home was, and we could find it easily. Without the GPS – and I've done this before – I've always been concerned about getting lost on the big Canadian lakes. Those of you who have been there know that the Good Lord made every single island and shoreline point to look exactly alike. That can be confusing enough, and if you get a bit of weather or fog things can become completely muddled. But the GPS takes care of all that spectacularly, and I'd recommend having one without question. (In his part of the story Rick also describes how to use GPS for night navigating.)
The houseboat has enough gas that you don't have to concern yourself with that at all. We brought along full gas tanks for our own boats, and HBA supplies an extra 18 gallons of 100:1 mix on the houseboat too. We had plenty enough for all the boating we did and gas to spare at the end. After all, you don't need to run miles and miles to get to the good spots – you're right in the middle of them!
My trolling motor battery died on the fourth day from old age. My boat's starting battery died on the next-to-last day for the same reason. Dumb, really dumb. The battery chargers on the houseboat let me limp along, but I was nuts to bring shaky batteries with me. Next time I'll make sure the batteries are good.
The shops in Kenora vary in their acceptance of credit cards. The Beer Store didn't take them, Safeway took only certain kinds, and the Marina where we got bait took all kinds. However, American money was accepted freely by every place, so no problems. I don't think you have to exchange for Canadian.
Okay, plenty enough on all that. This is a Muskie magazine and we need to talk Muskies. I fished maybe three or four hours for Muskies during the week, from my boat, to no avail. However, on one occasion while casting from the back of the parked houseboat (see my opening paragraph) I actually got a follow! So I didn't get any Muskies. But rest assured that I never cried about that over the wine at dinner, drifting on the boat with Marie, etc., etc.
But if you really do want to be serious about Muskies, and especially if you want to think about world record waters, then northern Lake of the Woods is special. My friend Rick Pike has some particularly relevant experiences in the "Houseboat Waters" south of Kenora, and here's his superb advice for you.
I've been fortunate enough to spend some time in this neck of the Woods in early August each of the two seasons prior to this one. My comments relate to fishing at that time of year and what worked for us. But here's some other good advice: Read the recent articles in Muskie by Doug Johnson, Dick Pearson, Bill Sandy, and others. They've spent thousands and thousands of hours on Lake of the Woods. Their recommendations about locations and seasonal tactics are tough to beat. I would count myself lucky if I could have a tenth of the time on the Woods that they have.
During our trips my partner, Bob Kuhl, and I fished through some of the hottest, stillest days that I have ever experienced. Both times we had temperatures above 90, no clouds, and no wind. Surface temperatures were around 80. The conditions made fishing slow, with the evening and night bite being best. The occasional fish we caught before supper came on the only days where we had some clouds and breeze. We used the time during the heat of the day to scout new spots, catch walleyes, and enjoy the scenery.
Get the Canadian Hydrographic Service maps of the area. They are the most accurate, most detailed, maps of Lake of the Woods by far. Accept no substitutes! These maps will show you all the buoys, hazards, and tiny islands. They are indispensable both for safe navigation and for finding likely fishing spots.
By August, many of the Muskies will have moved to rock reefs and points with access to deep water. Slop bays will hold fish, too. The cabbage weeds start to get slimy in August, so you have to deal with that. The algae bloom may have started, but it should not be bad. Using brighter colored lures should be enough to handle it.
We found that larger, complicated reefs with lots of boulders and fingers running off them were better than small reefs. Our best spots had access to deep water and topped out between 3 and 15 feet. The bigger the spot, and the more different features it had, the more likely it was to hold multiple fish. For instance, we saw and caught several fish from an area that has a small island surrounded by a 10 foot food shelf that has some scattered weeds on it. Less than 100 yards from that island is a long, rock reef that is adjacent to the main channel. We caught fish off both the island and the reef. I believe fish move from the deep water back and forth between the two adjacent spots. Similar, but isolated, spots in the same large bay never held more than one fish.
So how do you find these complicated spots with lots of features? Get out your CHS map! The maps show shallow areas (less than 10 feet) in a light blue color. These light blue areas around islands, reefs, and points can be prime fishing areas. Moderately shallow water between islands can tip you off to good saddle areas. The navigation buoys normally mark reefs, many of which are good Muskie spots. Look for combinations of things, like a cluster of islands with saddles between them that with adjacent deep water (say, 40 foot or better). As an example, look at the Hades Islands complex just west of Hay Island. There are more reefs, channels, points, and weedy bays than you can shake a stick at.
Some good sleeper spots that often get overlooked are smallish island points that show only a little of the "blue" shallow water on the map, but have a large food shelf that extends into deep water. The food shelf may or may not have a depth contour around it, but you can pick it off by looking for 15–22 feet depth soundings on the map. That food shelf will hold bait, walleyes, and Muskies. If your island is one of a cluster, has some good boulders or broken rock on the point, and maybe a few weeds scattered in the rocks, you are in business!
One lesson we learned about fishing these complicated spots was that it takes a long time! With the weather conditions we had, running and gunning, with just a few casts per spot, didn't cut it. To be successful, we had to thoroughly fish the spots from several angles. For example, one evening we each took more than twenty casts over a shallow rock shelf and adjacent channel with nothing to show for it. When we changed our angle and started casting from shallower to deeper water, Bob missed a 50–inch–class Muskie, and I had a follow from a mid–fortes fish. Those fish had seen our lures dozens of times already, but would not show themselves until we came at them from a different angle. On another reef, we had fished its entire length without a follow, but we decided to try another pass in a bit closer. Our result was a feisty 39–inch Muskie that followed a Suick on one cast, then drilled a small Reef Hawg at the side of the boat on a subsequent cast. If we hadn't gone back for the second pass, we never would have seen that fish.
Night Fishing by the Full Moon:
Both of my trips have been during the week of the full moon. I'm not sure if the full moon was a help or a hindrance, but the combination of hot days and full moon definitely concentrated the Muskie activity into the last couple hours of the day. The action would start to pick up around 8:00 p.m., then peak in the window of darkness between sunset and moonrise. Prime catching time has been just as the full moon was rising over the trees, which was around 10:00 p.m. in early August. We had some action later in the night, but it tapered off after 11:00 p.m.
Our after–dinner routine consisted of fishing several spots looking for active fish to set up a milk run. Ideally, we would have found the fish during the day, but with the hot, calm, weather, evening was the only time they would move. Our key to catching bigger fish was to be at our best spot at sunset, and to stay there until the full moon was up. The picture is of me holding a 42" Muskie that hit just as the moon was coming over the trees. We had fished that spot about 45–minutes earlier with no luck, but Bob convinced me that we were just a bit too early. He suggested we try another nearby spot and come back when it got darker. We did just that, and the Muskie hit on my second cast. A year later, I caught a 45" Muskie in the same spot under identical conditions. Coincidence? Probably not.
Fishing under the full moon on Lake of the Woods is quiet and peaceful. The moonlit ride back across the calm lake is stunningly beautiful, but you need to be careful. Just like night fishing anywhere, only attempt it after you have spent some time during the day getting familiar with the area, but this is especially true on Lake of the Woods. Have headlamps and a spotlight with you. You absolutely need to pay attention to where you are. Running into a rock pile, 10 miles from camp, in the middle of the night, will ruin your trip in a hurry. Juris said he didn't use his GPS for daytime Houseboat navigating, but I found mine indispensable for our night fishing.
During the day, I marked the locations of all the buoys and dangerous reefs between camp and where we were fishing. I also marked out a route of "safe" waypoints that I could navigate between. To get back to camp, I ran from safe waypoint to safe waypoint, and verified my position along the way by shining my spotlight on the buoys. If you are doing a houseboat trip as Juris suggests, your run home may be much shorter, but you still need to be careful.
Top water lures worked very well during the hot, calm evenings. We saw more fish with jackpots than with any other lure, but we caught fish on slow rolled spinnerbaits, topper stoppers, and reef hawgs. We also had fish follow Suicks and crank baits, so I guess the bottom line is to use your confidence lures. I think location and patience had more to do with our success than lure selection did.
Good luck if you go to this part of Lake of the Woods. I love the lake, and the Muskie action is only part of it. Juris has talked about the vastness, beauty, ability to find isolation, and all the rest of why he thinks it is such a special place, and I could not agree more.
Juris Ozols and Rick Pike
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Date Created: November 24, 1996
Last Modified: July 12, 2000
© Copyright 1996-2004