The trip even provided a history lesson.
By SAM COOK
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. -- Mike Williams remembers clearly his first day of guiding on Rainy Lake.
"It was the summer of 1958. I was 11. I took out a guy named Walter Lammi from Orr," Williams said. "I took him out for half a day. He gave me $15. At that time, I was making $30 a month at the [Kettle Falls] hotel. I made myself a guide real quick."
Williams, now 58, began guiding full time on Rainy when he was 14. On one Wednesday afternoon, he was at it again. The two of us were tossing leeches and shiner minnows on Foggy Reef, catching plenty of walleyes.
It was a nasty day on the big lake, featuring a stiff northeast wind and an all-day rain that had begun at midmorning. You know the kind of day -- when you lean over to brush your teeth that night, you'll still feel as if you're bobbing up and down in the boat.
But fishing with Williams is enjoyable in almost any kind of weather. Not only are your chances of landing some walleyes good, but you're likely to learn a bit of Rainy Lake's rich history in the process.
Williams' grandparents bought the Kettle Falls Hotel on Rainy in 1918. His parents took over the operation, catering to anglers and boaters at the east end of the lake, in 1957. Williams spent every summer at the hotel from 1957 to 1982 except for two years in the Marine Corps.
Williams and his wife, Mary, owned Thunderbird Lodge on Rainy Lake from 1986 until this Aug. 1. Williams still guides as often as he can.
That Wednesday morning, we were still-fishing leeches and shiner minnows on reefs that topped out around 30 feet. The fishing wasn't fast, but it was steady.
"Got one workin' here," Williams would say calmly.
He was wearing blue rain gear, sitting near the bow of his 20-foot Crestliner, bobbing on the waves. He would take up any slack in his line, make sure the walleye was still sucking on the bait, then set the hook.
"Not too big," he'd say, and swing aboard another walleye of 14 or 15 or 16 inches.
A protected slot limit on Rainy requires anglers to toss back any walleyes from 17 to 28 inches, and Williams knows a 17-incher when he sees one. If a fish is close, he measures it to be sure. We kept our two-person limit of eight fish for the day, using three of them for a shore lunch. The largest fish we caught was a 21-incher.
Soon to expire
Rainy Lake's slot limit and four-fish limit are up for review this fall because the experimental regulation expires in March. Fisheries officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hope to have new regulations in effect for next year's fishing opener, and they'd like to see the slot and the four-fish walleye limit renewed.
Williams agrees. "It has really worked," he said. "Yesterday was an example. There were five of us fishing. We threw back 10 walleyes too big to keep. The largest was 23 inches. We threw back some little ones and had a nice shore lunch."
Williams wouldn't change current regulations a bit. He was on the committee in 1993 that helped draft the lake's first slot limit, a 17-to-25-inch protected slot. Initially, not all anglers were happy with the slot. Williams remembers an angler confronting him at a local restaurant, and Williams was afraid the angler might attack him physically.
Most anglers now favor the regulations because fishing has been so good. Compliance with the regulations seems to be good, too, Williams said.
"I haven't seen an illegal walleye in the fish house this summer," he said. "People seem to accept it [the slot limit and four-walleye bag limit]. The emphasis has been on catch-and-release for so many years."
But anglers still like to keep a few under the slot limit for a meal, and Williams filleted three of ours for a shore lunch. Rather than sit in the rain on a scenic point, we took refuge under a covered dock at an old cabin. It belonged to friends of Williams, and it's one of the few remaining cabins on Rainy. Most were sold to the federal government when Rainy Lake became part of Voyageurs National Park.
On a three-burner gas stove, Williams whipped up walleye fillets, fried potatoes and baked beans. We sat on the boat gunwale, listened to the rain tap on the roof and watched the rain falling on islands in the distance.
Rainy Lake looks good in any weather.