FLAG ISLAND, Minn. – All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, the old saying goes, and while there wasn’t a Jack to be seen in this crew, it was time to go fishing on this breezy Sunday afternoon in early June.
Pat and Ann Zavoral of Fargo have spent most of the time at their lake home on Flag Island since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite the convenience of having Lake of the Woods right off their front yard, the retired couple hadn’t wet a line all spring.
That was about to change.
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Fresh walleye was on the menu for the evening meal, but fishing reports were mixed. Two days earlier, the mercury had soared to nearly 100 degrees F even here at the northernmost point of the Lower 48. Heat waves and hot fishing rarely go hand in hand when it comes to walleyes.
Adding to the challenge was one of those “flash-bang” kinds of thunderstorms that rolled through the area in the wee hours of Sunday morning, June 6. The .8 inch of rain that fell during the overnight storm was much needed and much appreciated, but the aftermath of thunderstorms can be a jolt to fishing prospects.
No matter, that. The temperature had dropped to a comfortable level, and the classic “walleye chop” that resulted from the breeze might be enough to coax the fish into biting.
Only one way to find out.
Joining the Zavorals on this afternoon fishing junket was Anita Laurin, who with her husband, Joe, own the renowned local landmark known as the Flag Island Lighthouse. Known more as an aficionado of Lake of the Woods history and a smartphone app he developed highlighting points of interest across the big lake, Joe stayed back at the lighthouse/cabin while Anita went fishing.
A Herald reporter and photographer rounded out the crew in the Zavorals’ 21-foot Ranger Reata fishing boat.
Adventure to be had
Getting to the Northwest Angle these days takes a bit of ingenuity with the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel. That cuts off the road through Manitoba that connects the Angle with the rest of Minnesota, but options for getting there exist.
And for those who take advantage of those options, the adventure is good as ever.
A key lifeline to the Northwest Angle is Lake of the Woods Passenger Service and Bait Sales, which operates out of Sportsman’s Lodge on the Rainy River at the south end of Lake of the Woods.
Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge and Sportsman’s Oak Island Lodge, operates the passenger service venture. On Friday, June 4, the passenger service moved 73 people across the lake and logged more than 800 miles crossing from the south shore to various destinations on the Northwest Angle.
Business has been brisk. Gregg’s dad, Jerry Hennum, said his Friday started at 4:20 a.m. and didn’t end until 7:30 p.m. after his fifth round-trip trek across the lake. That’s 40-plus miles each way.
“People are fed up with staying home after last year, and this year they said, ‘We’re going no matter what,’ ” he said. “They’ve had enough of being closed in.”
These days, retirement means “just being tired,” Hennum, 67, joked. It’s noticeably busier than last year, especially for some of the resorts on Oak and Flag islands, but the uptick in traffic has eluded resorts on the Northwest Angle mainland, he said.
“I’ve just got to help out my son on this problem at the Angle,” Hennum said. “We’re just overwhelmed with boat trips. We’ve got a lot of good friends up there that are in business, both me and Gregg, and said we’ve got to do as much as we can to help our friends in business.”
For the good of the area, the road to the Angle needs to open as soon as possible, Hennum said. In the meantime, floatplanes or boats are the only travel options for all but permanent Northwest Angle residents.
“We’re the only ones hauling people up there, and they’re grateful for it. But it’s just not enough people to make it pay for them to break even on the mainland,” Hennum said. “We’re surviving better (on the islands), but the mainland is getting killed because of that road (being closed).”
Dave Zentner of Duluth was part of a four-person crew taking the passenger service across the lake June 4 to Sage’s Angle West, a resort on the Northwest Angle mainland. Even during the worst of the pandemic last year, they made three trips to the Angle, said Zentner, who is renowned in Minnesota conservation circles and a past national president of the Izaak Walton League.
The border closure keeps them confined to Minnesota waters for now, but the lure of the Northwest Angle still beckons. In a normal year, they’d fish for smallies in Ontario waters, Zentner said, perhaps traveling north to Labyrinth Bay, which connects Lake of the Woods with Shoal Lake.
“That’s one of two places in my lifetime where I’ve been able to observe schools of walleyes swimming by me is in Shoal Lake,” he said. “Shoal is a magical place, and we’ve had some wonderful lake trout fishing in Clearwater Bay” on Lake of the Woods.
Now in his 80s, Zentner has been coming to the Northwest Angle for 35 years.
“We’ve caught a lot of fish,” he said. “The scenery and the stories are special. It’s all been wonderful.”
Like the Zentner crew, Pat and Ann Zavoral and their fishing partners likely would have fished more sheltered water on the Ontario side of the lake on this breezy Sunday afternoon.
If they could have, that is. Instead, they fished where the wind would let them.
The goal was to catch enough walleyes for a fish fry that night back at the Zavoral cabin, and on that count, the afternoon was a success. Ann Zavoral had the hot hand, landing bragging rights with a 17-inch walleye, but a certain Herald outdoor writer held his own.
The walleyes and saugers hit jigs and minnows in 20 feet of water on the south side of Oak Island and in 6 to 7 feet of water in a popular early summer spot known as the “Flag Island Flats.”
Fishing wasn’t fast and furious, and the action likely would have improved if we’d stayed out until dark. But with the main ingredient for dinner assured, we headed back to the island and the comforts of the Zavorals’ home away from home.
The walleye, as always, was fantastic, prepared by Pat Zavoral using a coating of Old Bay Seasoning and rice flour dipped in an egg wash and fried to perfection in a mixture of olive oil and bacon grease.
Fresh wild asparagus picked just two days earlier and sloppy Joes complemented the feast.
Getting to the Angle will remain a challenge until the border reopens and the road through Manitoba that connects Minnesota with Minnesota again is accessible to nonessential travelers. But for those who make the trip, whether by private boat or using the passenger service, a pretty darn fine adventure awaits.
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