By Shawn Perich
In the north, the best fishing requires a little extra work. You can lots of fish from roadside lakes, but inevitably the fish are bigger and more plentiful in the lakes beyond the roads. That’s why Chuck Uhrhammer and I decided to make a mini-expedition to Pine Lake. Minnesota has many lakes names Pine, but the one we like lies just inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at the end of the Arrowhead Trail. It’s a good place to catch walleyes on summer evenings.
Pine is a long and narrow lake, running east-west between high, pine-clad hills. When the wind blows from the west, as it often does, the waves run the full sweep of the lake, making it challenging to fish from a canoe. That’s why we prefer to take a boat. Doing so is a bit of a production. You launch on McFarland Lake and then motor a couple of miles to where the channel enters from Pine. Landing beside the channel, you take the outboard motor off the boat and chain it to a tree for safe-keeping. Then you pull the boat through the short channel to Pine and proceed via rowing. Usually, you don’t have to go far to find walleyes.
Even though Pine is within 20 miles from where neighbor Chuck and I live in Hovland, neither of us had been there for years. We decided a Pine expedition was in order after commiserating over the phone about our lousy luck for walleyes this summer on other, more accessible local lakes. Surely, Pine would produce. Thus we hatched a plan. Chuck had the boat, while I had the motor. He would use a come-along to remove his heavy, 25-horse four-stroke, which we would replace with my somewhat less heavy, 15-horse four-stroke. While I love four-stroke outboards, they sure weigh more than the old two-strokes.
“I’m excited about this,” Chuck said as we headed up the Arrowhead Trail. “It’s been a long time since I fished on Pine.”
We launched on McFarland about 5 p.m., allowing plenty of time to catch the evening bite. At the channel we took the motor off the boat (with a few grunts, groans and curses) and chained it to a nearby cedar. And then we went fishing. I rowed while Chuck cast from the stern and watched the fish-finder. Pine is deep—before it was invaded by non-native walleyes, it held native lake trout—so we followed the shoreline and focused our fishing near points or other structure.
We started marking fish around the 20-foot contour. While we hoped the marks were walleyes, what we caught were smallmouth bass about 8-12 inches long. This was disappointing, because one of the reasons we tried Pine was that we had tired of catching small bass on other lakes. We held out hope the walleyes would bite at sunset.
“I just like going fishing,” Chuck said. “It doesn’t really matter if I catch anything.”
“That’s what everyone says when the fish aren’t biting,” I replied.
You can’t really be disappointed when you’re out on Pine Lake on a quiet summer evening. Chuck and I have decades of memories out there, so we told stories about past adventures, summer and winter, and the people who joined us on those excursions. Neither one of us really knew why it had been so long since we last fished there.
The bass kept biting, so we decided to keep a few 12-inchers, throwing back several smaller bass for every one we kept. Working our way along the shoreline, we passed two campsites where separate groups of young guys had pitched their tents. They asked about the fishing as we passed. Unbelievably to me, none of the campers had wet a line. Instead, they were just sitting around the campsite. That sort of passive, canoe and camping trip just isn’t my cup of tea.
We also had a visitor approach from the water. A loon that was a couple of hundred yards distant decided to swim over and check us out. The bird came within a few feet of the boat, paused to watch us and then dove. Soon it resurfaced nearby. We enjoyed the loon’s company, but eventually rowed away from the bird. I worried its diving might spook the fish. Perhaps it was a needless worry, because when the sun set, the walleyes still didn’t bite.
We decided to troll back to the channel. I clipped on an Ugly Duckling bait that dove and wiggled as we moved along. We hadn’t gone far when I had a hard strike and subsequently landed by far the largest bass we’d caught all evening. With enough dinner bass already in the boat, I decided to let the big one go.
We floated through the channel and went to shore to retrieve the motor. Soon we were cruising down McFarland in the dark. The lighted cabins we passed made it feel like we were coming back into civilization. However, it was dark when we touched the dock at the boat landing, where the DNR also has a small campground. I thought back 20 years, when you had to walk past unseen bears rummaging in garbage cans as you walked to the your truck. The garbage cans were removed years ago.
Driving home, we rehashed our evening, still wondering why the walleyes refused to bite. With the eternal optimism of anglers, we eventually agreed it was just an off night and we’d have to go back and try it again. Next time, we’ll leave earlier, row farther and undoubtedly knock ‘em dead. At least, that’s the plan. Of course, we can’t control whether or not the walleyes will be biting, but one thing is certain. It won’t be long before we return to Pine Lake.