COOK, Minn. — The last week of September was gray in the north woods.
Gray sky, gray water, gray sheets of rain, sleet and hail. Everything gray but the caps of the Lake Vermilion waves, which were white.
The maples had turned and would have been pretty had the sun ever lit them. In the overcast gloom, however, they were as dull and almost as dark as the pine, balsam and spruce trees that appeared to grow without benefit of soil on the lake’s 365 rocky islands; almost as dark as the omnipresent eagles and loons, which were considerably more stoic about the weather than me and my fishing partner Dave Patterson of Atkins.
Though our memories have dulled with the years, neither Dave nor I can recall the last time we enjoyed comfortable weather during a fishing vacation. In fact, our mutual friend Vance Gordon of Marion has asked to be notified in advance of our fishing trips so he can plan non-fishing activities for the applicable dates.
At 40,557 acres, Vermilion is Minnesota’s ninth-largest lake. As the southernmost Canadian Shield lake, whose basins were gouged by glaciers from bedrock, Vermilion is ringed by rocky shoreline and studded with 365 rocky, pine-topped islands, which account for much of the lake’s 313 miles of shoreline, more than any of the state’s 10,000-plus other interior lakes.
I’d always imagined Vermilion, which lies just to the west of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, would basically be the Boundary Waters without all the paddling, portaging and privation of having only the comforts you can carry.
The look is similar, but the feeling is much different. The volume of boats and anglers plying its waters — even on cold, windy midweek days — and the thousands of cabins and homes on its shore and islands preclude the silence and solitude that wilderness lovers cherish.
Both solitude and discomfort seem less important when the fish bite, as the walleyes and perch did whenever we could get our minnows and night crawlers within their reach.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
On each of our seven days at Vermilion, we were driven from the lake at least once by wind and/or precipitation. On our next-to-last day, we sought shelter from rain, then sleet and then hail, which stings like hornets when it strikes the lips of a passenger in a boat traveling 30 mph.
By week’s end, we could predict with a high degree of accuracy the type of precipitation to be dispensed by each oncoming cloud bank.
On all or parts of each day, strong winds and big waves rendered large portions of the lake off limits to anglers in an aluminum bass boat, but the myriad islands always provided sheltered spots for safe fishing.
We baited our plain hooks with a minnow or ’crawler, sank them to the bottom with a 1-ounce slip sinker and dragged our rigs slowly across the bottom in the manner practiced by most of the many guides we observed.
Like the guides, we also used a powerful and sensitive sonar unit to identify fish-holding areas.
The fish hardly ever tipped their hand with an electrifying bite. Instead, we detected their presence as nothing more than additional weight when we lifted our sinkers off the bottom.
Despite the adverse weather, we caught and released many fish and kept enough perch and walleyes for a big evening meal on five of our seven days at the resort. Each of us also brought home the four walleyes allowed by Minnesota law.
To our disappointment, however, we were not affected by the Minnesota law requiring the immediate release of any walleye between 20 and 26 inches in length.
We’ll catch some of those slot fish on our next visit, and we’ll do so unencumbered by 20 pounds of waterproof boots and clothing during a seemingly endless stretch of Indian Summer.