SIOUX NARROWS, Ont. - The steam rises off the late August ripples like a good pot of tea just about ready for steeping.
The morning air is coolish, not cold, just nippy enough to be a calendar reminder.
The rain -mist rather - blankets the southeastern section of Lake of the Woods. It's annoying, but strangely fitting, and if properly dressed, not a bad dynamic for a day's fishing.
My longtime friend Mark Lacombe and I wait at the Government Dock in Sioux Narrows, Ont., a 40-minute drive southeast of Kenora on Highway 71. It's a classic burgh with a winter population of a few hundred and a summer roster of a few thousand.
I have fond memories of the place -as pristine as a lake-front community can be considering the traffic. I spent a summer here as a student, and after work, I fished.
It was one of the greatest summers of my life.
Fast forward to the here-and- now, and just down the hill from the place I stayed those many years ago, we meet up with angler and outdoor writer extraordinaire, Jeff Gustafson of Kenora.
Jeff is a professional tour fisherman, all-round great guy, guide of fishermen and hunters alike -whose columns appear across the continent in various publications including a weekly piece in my beloved hometown paper, The Daily Miner and News.
We grab a great "fisher-men's breakfast"; that means lots of eggs, pancakes and ham/bacon/sausage at scenic White Birch Lodge and we discuss strategy.
Jeff is pre-fishing the annual Sioux Narrows Bass Classic, one of the many late-season bass tourneys in the region which attract anglers from many parts of North America, and obviously they are a financial boon for the host communities.
KBI -Kenora Bass International -and the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship are the biggies, but several regional communities make a loop and all of the fisherman know each other, help each other. Fish luck is one thing, but mutual aid is unwavering.
Jeff, or "Gussy" as he is known by his mates, has generously offered to haul us along while he pre-fishes, which in laymen's terms means checking hotspots to see if bass are bitin'. And if they are, you don't stick around hammering them; you note it and move on.
Neither I, nor my fishing compadre had ever caught a largemouth bass of any reckoning. Smallmouth yes, many times and some big ones too, but that elusive bucketmouth was something we both sought.
In the misty curtain of the post-dawn, we arrive at our first spot. Gussy pulls out his secret bait, handed me a rod, which my buddy grabbed, and he said "drop it right by that stump." He did, and at 8:15 a.m., Lacombe hauls up about a 4 1/2-pound largemouth.
While miffed I didn't get it, I figured there were hundreds more.
Not so much.
We caught fish most of the day, lots of smallmouth, even the odd pike, but other than the sporadic largemouths caught by Jeff and Mark, the day waned into more rain, more wind and more whitecaps.
As we were on our way home, I had resigned myself to the fact the Good Lord himself had decided I would not catch any Largies.
Then Jeff pulled the boat into one of his secret coves, fired a cast into a thicket's very back -with archer's pinpoint accuracy; he'd have split Robin Hood's arrow with the throw.
He hands me the rod, I take about four winds and BANG!
Minutes later we're hauling in a greenback around 6 3/4 pounds.
There is no drug that can replace that feeling.
We let, as we did with all fish, this giant slink back into the tangles, and to myself, I hoped Jeff would find him again come tournament time.
* * *
Lake of the Woods is a unique body of water. Its waves lap Ontario, Manitoba and Minnesota shores. At 4,348.6 km2, it is the sixth-largest Canadian lake which shares borders with the United States. It has been the traditional hunting and fishing lifeblood for aboriginal people for centuries. Key to the original fur trading and navigational routes, it continues to be a key transportation and anchor for communities from Bemidji, Minnesota, to Fort Frances and Rainy River, Ontario, and Kenora -its main northwestern hub .
Now an amalgamated city of around 20,000 (Keewatin and Jaffray Melick), Kenora Harbourfront's famous Huskie the Musky welcomes visitors from the west ; the harbour's magical fountain is picturesque in the community once known as Rat Portage -that's muskrats, by the way, and actually Manitoban until the boundary war of 1889.
A Stanley Cup win in 1907 by the Thistles, and home of former Flyer captain, Olympic gold medallist, now-L. A. King Mike Richards; Stanley Cupwinning exec and NHL coach Bob McCammon, and Team Canada 1972 and longtime Red Wing d-man Gary Bergman -this is where I grew up.
They say you can't go home again. I guess that's partially true, but I always feel at home when I am there.
And for fish-aholics like me, there is no better one-stop shopping. Where else can you fish for so many varieties of freshwater species in one spot? Renowned for walleye (pickerel) which is delish -especially the small ones - anglers seek small and largemouth bass, northern pike, lake trout, crappie, perch, whitefish, and specialty hunters will seek the fish of 10,000 casts -muskie.
The lake is shares the watershed with the Winnipeg River, and the big lakes in Manitoba which eventually flow north to the Arctic Ocean via Hudson Bay.
Largemouth bass have made their way north; not so many years ago, catching one on the north end of the lake was a rarity.
Let's get back to the Winnipeg River, because it is a very well-kept secret. To navigate the river, depending on fluctuating water levels, you need to be wary of its strong current and rapidly-changing levels. If you aren't familiar, get a guide for at least a half day.
We stayed at Perch Bay Resort in Keewatin, on the north side of the TransCan, in viewing distance of the iconic Norman Dam -which greatly impacts current and levels.
With education, slot sizes, and spawning-habitat rehabilitation and limit adjustments, the walleye population on both the lake and river has rebounded big time.
I was glad to see that.
Since I left almost 15 years ago, my hometown has endured many challenges, losing its largest employer, its pulp and paper mill, a mill at which my fishing friend and his father had both worked.
The resiliency of the people, its strong culture, pride and heritage and, of course, the beauty of the Lake of the Woods as its secret garden, has endured.
It's a beautiful destination year-round, depending on your recreational endeavours, but I've always loved it best in fall.
Colours, a beautiful sky, a little bit of a chill and the ol' walleye chop on the water ... it's magnificent.
By Labour Day, the crowds have mostly gone home, but there are still many days of autumn beauty to offer. For me, being away for so long just makes it special -something you can only cherish as much if you miss it, and wonder why you took it for granted when it was right outside your back door.
IF YOU GO
Thenewspaper's website has further links to lots of tourist information.
Kenora.ca: The city's official website with many of interesting links.
To Fly: Kenora does have a municipal airport with some service, but most commercial travellers fly into Winnipeg International and make the two-hour drive east on the TransCanada.
To Stay: We stayed at the Perch Bay Resort on the Winnipeg River, http://www.perchbay.com/,but there are a ton of motels, hotels, lodges and cabin rentals which cater to visitors. Vacancy and price in fall certainly helps the buyer. Try Lakeofthewoods.com formore details.
Both Kenora and Sioux Narrows offer a wide variety of cuisine at all price ranges. You will almost always find walleye on the menu, along with seasonal fruit such as blueberries. Kenora offers a few great Greek restaurants that have remained popular over several decades. Dino's on Second Street South has always been one of my favourites, but another great place is The Plaza on Main Street. It's where I got my first job as a dishwasher. All those years back, Tommy and Maria Adamopolous ran the place, Tom's brother "Uncle Chris" was a fixture and my trainer in the kitchen.
Today, it is daughter Tina who runs the place, and we enjoyed a fantastic Greek feast with Tina's brother Dimitri and Chris, talked about old times, had a little ouzo, and enjoyed a tremendous appetizer dish of spanikopita, Greek salad, olives, humus, tzatziki, dolmades, kalimari and other delectables. We were treated to the famous flaming saganaki OPA! - kefalogravria cheese, breaded and flambéed in brandy, as well as lamb and chicken souvlaki, and wonderful desserts ekmek -biscuits soaked in honey and Cointreau, sprinkled with cinnamon, light custard, topped with whipping cream and roasted almonds, drizzled with chocolate sauce, and Mar ia's homemade mocha-almond ice cream.
Reasonably priced, great service, great atmosphere, it's the perfect place to enjoy a prolonged meal after a long day on the lake. See Plazarestaurant.ca, for more details and menus.
There are several sure-bet, reliable, safe and reasonably-priced guide services on the lake and river. My fave is, as mentioned, Jeff Gustafson, Gussyoutdoors.com. His crew can help you find the fish you are looking for, and if he cannot, he can certainly refer you to another -as I said, these fisherman share a bond of honour.