ON LAKE KABETOGAMA -- As soon as Tim Watson set the hook on this walleye, he knew he had something good on his line. And he didn't mean for the frying pan.
"This is a throw-backer," announced Watson, who has been guiding walleye anglers on Kabetogama for more than 30 years.
A slot limit on Kabetogama requires anglers to release walleyes from 17 to 28 inches long. Watson has played enough walleyes to know this one fit that description.
The walleye peeled line from Watson's reel as it made a couple of runs on this August morning. Watson smiled. In a couple of minutes we had the fish in the net, and we could verify Watson's early assessment. The walleye measured 24 inches. And, like most Kabetogama walleyes, it looked as if it had been working out with weights.
"Look at the girth on that guy," said Watson, 61. "Because they have that girth to them, they really battle."
It was a beautiful fish, thick and healthy and a golden-green.
"That's the '96 year class," Watson said. "There are a lot of these guys."
It's been a good summer of fishing on Kabetogama, this Canadian Shield lake within Voyageurs National Park south of International Falls. Kabetogama has a history of cyclic fishing success, said Kevin Peterson, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor at International Falls. Ten or more years ago, fishing was tougher than usual on this productive lake, Watson said.
Slot limits working
But tighter regulations -- slot limits -- have helped improve fishing.
"This year, I'd say, stands head and shoulders above the last 10," Peterson said.
Watson and I had drawn a less than ideal walleye fishing day -- hot and sunny, with light wind. Still we would put 17 walleyes and a sauger in the boat. Watson's 24-incher was the largest. We picked up a 21-incher and five plump fish under the slot limit for supper.
In addition, we caught a bunch of 10-inchers.
"That's our future," Watson said.
Those fish were hatched in 2006, and Peterson expects that to be a good year class for Kabetogama. In some years, however, Kabetogama has had good year classes, but those fish haven't shown up in DNR survey nets two or three years later, and they haven't shown up in anglers' catches, either.
A study launched this year will enable Peterson and other DNR biologists to get a better idea about Kabetogama's walleye population. In the meantime, the DNR bolstered the lake's natural reproduction by stocking 2.2 million walleye fry (tiny, just hatched fish) this past spring.
Checking the reefs
Watson bounced us from reef to reef, where Kabetogama's walleyes are supposed to be in mid-August. The reefs come out of 35 to 40 feet of water, topping out 10 to 12 feet below the surface. We trolled the edges with Lindy rigs, using leeches on plain hooks. Watson uses 6-pound-test monofilament line.
"Most of the summer, the fish are holding around 26, 28 feet, hanging just off the reefs," Watson said.
Resort traffic must have been down that day, Aug. 15, because we had most of the reefs to ourselves. The most company we had on any of the well-known Kabetogama reefs was two other boats.
Watson's best day so far this summer has been 72 walleyes, with two clients aboard. The largest walleye in his boat this summer was a 27-incher.
One of the pleasures of fishing with Watson is that he has 61 years of history on the lake. His grandfather, Tom Watson, built the first resort on Lake Kabetogama in 1916. Guests got there by taking the passenger train to the village of Ray, then a horse and buggy to the lake. Tim's dad ran the Watson General Store in Ray starting in 1938.
"I was 10 years old when I got my first boat," he said. "It was a wooden boat. I bought it for $50 from George Esslinger. I had to work all summer to pay it off."
It had a 10-horsepower Evinrude on it, and Watson covered a lot of water. As he got older, after he had passed gun safety, he and friends would buzz about the lake, fishing for walleyes, hunting ducks in Tom Cod Bay and hunting grouse on the islands.
"It was utopia," Watson said.
Watson left long enough to teach for 16 years in Moose Lake, where he met his wife, Char. She taught at Moose Lake for 34 years. In summers, they operated Harmony Beach Resort on Kabetogama for 16 years. Now the couple lives just down the shore from the National Park Service boat landing. Char picks blueberries and raspberries in summer and hunts shed deer antlers in winter and spring.
Watson knows the lake as perhaps few others do. He can tell you where the heron rookery is, where the suckers run up a creek, where the Civilian Conservation Corps camp was. He hauled groceries by boat to Jack Ellsworth, who spent years building an elaborate rock garden on the north shore of the lake.
We had lunch at the rock garden, a national park interpretive site. Char had packed us sandwiches, two kinds of dessert and fresh blueberries along with sugar and cream.
While we were eating, two park rangers came ashore. They said they had come to find the chicken coop that's reportedly on the Ellsworth site. Watson didn't say much, but he knew what they were looking for. It was a small chicken-wire structure overgrown with grass.
When the rangers returned, Watson explained, in a gentle and tactful way, that Ellsworth hadn't kept chickens there.
"He did have a tame skunk he kept," Watson told the young rangers. "It was an albino skunk."
He had solved, for the rangers, the mystery of the chicken-wire enclosure.
We finished our blueberries and cream, and then went out to find more of Kabetogama's walleyes.