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Quiet waters of Quetico yield walleye bounty

Another nice walleye comes to the canoe. This one took a bubblegum-colored scented plastic worm. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

TIKOKAN, ONTARIO -- From the edge of our island camp in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park comes the soft plip of a jig and plastic worm hitting the water. Silence. Then another plip.

Terry Christensen and Larry Riley are already up, casting from our granite porch into the stained waters of this wilderness lake. A rod bows. A fish is on.

Our first afternoon in this camp, our six-person group would catch 21 fish from shore, nearly all of them walleyes. And we would catch 40 more from our canoes, jigging over shallow rock reefs within sight of camp.

We have come on this traditional early-June trip for this express purpose -- to catch fish, primarily walleyes.

The fishing is phenomenal in these lightly traveled wilderness lakes accessible only by canoe and portage trails. That's why Duluth's Scott Neustel, Mark Neustel and Christensen have been making a trip like this for decades, since Scott and Terry were in high school. They always come in mid-June when the walleyes are snapping.

We enter the 1.2-million-acre park on its north side, not far from Atikokan, and forge south to lakes where the Neustels and Christensen have found fish before.

Making the investment

We are willing to work for our walleyes. In six days, we'll paddle 40 miles and make 34 portages, four of them a mile long, some of them knee-deep with mud. We'll scrabble over beaver dams, negotiate winding creeks, battle headwinds and scrape unseen rocks in our lightweight Kevlar canoes.

These guys have their travel methods down. They single-trip every portage, which means someone carries a pack and a canoe and his partner carries two packs. Except for 15-year-old Rex Neustel, Mark's son, the rest of us range in age from 53 to 62.

"This trip was a lot easier when we were 25 or 30," Christensen says.

Scott Neustel maintains that this is a fishing trip, but he knows this isn't most people's idea of a fishing trip.

"When people talk about a fishing trip, they go somewhere and sit down at a resort or campground and they fish every day," he says.

We'll have only two full days of pure fishing among our six, he points out, and on one of those days, we'll make four portages and travel several miles to reach our destination lake. So, it's equal parts canoe trip and fishing trip.

"We really want to try another lake, go over the next portage, go where nobody else has gone," Neustel says. "There's a lot of guys who have come on this trip who didn't come back."

Well, they got out of the woods, Neustel explains, but they chose not to come on this kind of fishing trip again.

Into the fish

Our first evening, after a swim at camp, we prospect a nearby point for walleyes. We find clumps of boulders in 5 to 7 feet of water and dangle our quarter-ounce jigs and scented plastic worms over the side of the canoes. No organic bait is permitted in Quetico.

Immediately, we began catching walleyes, and finish up with 27, all from 17 to 22 inches long. They are beautiful, golden-tinged walleyes, thick and healthy. But the memorable moment occurs when Riley latches onto a northern pike at least 40 inches long and broad across the back.

He plays it to the canoe, where he suggests that his partner, Christensen, land it for him. Christensen reaches for the pike, then thinks better of it.

"That's not safe," he says, staring down the maw of the pike.

Eventually, the fish gets off and lies near the surface for several moments as we all gawk from our canoes. Finally, it flicks its massive tail and powers down into the rocks.

We keep no walleyes for supper that night because we've packed rice and Polish sausage. But the pot it's cooking in falls off the small campstove, emptying our supper into the forest duff. We improvise a dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches, salvaging some of the rice dish, now garnished with jackpine needles.

Layover day

We have plenty of walleyes for supper the following night, however, after a layover day of fishing. Four of us paddle and portage two hours to a lake where we catch 100 walleyes. Scott Neustel and I catch a dozen before we get one shorter than 20 inches. We catch one 26-inch walleye, another 25. All we use are jigs and scented plastic worms. We have no fish locator. We catch some of our walleyes on a wind-pounded shore in 2 feet of water.

Mark and Rex Neustel go anther direction, up a creek, alternately paddling and wading through muck. Back at camp, Mark's bare legs look as if he's encountered barracudas somewhere along the way.

With peepers calling and snapping turtles surfacing offshore, we eat fresh walleye fillets with garlic mashed potatoes. All of the portaging seems worth it.

A career day

After another travel day, we camp in a lake where nearly all of us have been before. It's full of islands and points and rocky underwater structure. On a layover day there, we venture out under cloudy skies and a wind that wrinkles the lake surface.

Scott Neustel and I fish a spot circled on our map by friends. It's marked, "Super." The map does not lie. In the morning alone, we catch 40 walleyes and miss countless others that try to rob us of our worms. We are giddy as little boys in our hook-setting frenzy.

We think we have had quite a morning until we gather for lunch. That's where we learn that Christensen and Riley have caught 59 walleyes, including a 27-incher. Mark and Rex Neustel chip in with a report of 30.

"That's a 130-fish morning," Christensen says.

We could prepare a shore lunch, of course, but that would simply reduce our fishing time. Instead, we munch peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and get back on the water.

One by one, the canoes come back to camp that evening. The afternoon fishing has been terrific.

"That was a career day, for sure," Christensen says. "I think I can safely say, within a margin of error of 2 percent, that I caught 100 walleyes today."

Christensen is not one given to exaggeration.

"I wanted to go for 110, but my partner's butt was getting too sore in the canoe," he says.

We tally up everyone's catches. Mark and Rex, 53. Scott and I, 63. Christensen and Riley, 163. That's 279 walleyes. So, is it a canoe trip or a fishing trip?

Out for supper

Our next to last evening, we find ourselves on a lake known to have lake trout. Four of us go trolling for dinner. Scott Neustel picks up a 4-pound lake trout. Christensen and Riley pick up a 20-inch walleye. Supper is secured.

Then Christensen notices a huge northern pike eyeing the walleye on the stringer. He scares the monster off but then sees it lurking in the shallows. He tosses his jig and worm and hooks the northern. The fight is on.

Riley paddles him to shore, where Christensen beaches the pike. It's 45 inches long and weighs probably 25 pounds. A quick photo, and it's swimming again.

That night, the full moon rises like the Great Pumpkin over the lake. It sends a shaft of peach light down the lake, interrupted only by a rocky island with a lone white pine clinging to it.

We stand there a long time, letting the scene etch itself into our memories.

"You don't know how lucky you are to be out here," Scott Neustel tells his 15-year-old nephew.

Maybe none of us does.

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