The old dart board hangs from the split-log wall, inviting a game of 501. It’s just to the left of the bar, which rests in the shadow of a massive bull moose mount. The fireplace crackles nicely, spitting flames up the rock chimney and spreading the aroma of seasoned spruce throughout the lodge. It mingles with the earthy smells of whisky and the fragrances of dinner being carefully prepared in the kitchen.
Books of all ilk line the walls. One corner bristles with fishing rods. A rug mount of a nice Canadian black bear drapes menacingly over an antique player piano. Massive pike, walleye and lake trout mounts adorn the log walls. Anglers, fresh from a blustery day that saw sideways rain, whitecaps on McGavock Lake and a cold gathering of hungry mouths for the classic walleye shore lunch, rest on the furniture, drinks nearby and smiles crossing wind-blown faces.
This is the lodge. It’s a lot like hundreds of other North Woods lodges that rest on the shores of sprawling lakes that pock the boreal bedrock from Minnesota to the fringes of the Arctic.
And if anglers are gifted their own special Heaven, it might look a lot like this.
Here, stories are shared over rocks glasses brimming with spirits. They start with phrases like, "Remember that time … " and "I’ll never forget … " As fishermen, we lean in. We listen. We grin and giggle. We don’t dare call bullshit on these embellished stories for fear of having our own tales trimmed down to size. We nod. We smile. We gin up our own tall tales and add a few inches, or maybe a pound or two. It’s accepted. Hell, it’s expected.
After a day spent fishing, it’s what we do. We gather. We share. We drink, eat and share some more. We’re mostly older guys, although a couple of younger characters have found their way to Laurie River Lodge this first week of the season. One, a 20-something Texan is here with his dad fishing and hoping to get a spring bear with his bow, and I’ve brought my own 16-year-old son on his first “big” fishing trip. And this day, he caught his first pike and his first walleye on the fly, and he soaked up the congratulations and the accolades. It feels good to be treated like a man.
And now, back in the cabin, he lies under a pile of blankets, sound asleep after a meal fit for a prince. And here I sit, a glass of Bushmills over ice resting within reach, remembering that smile on his face after we all boarded the twin-prop puddle jumper in Winnipeg and trundled north to the wilderness, only to be tucked into a classic De Havilland Beaver for the final jump to the lodge.
And then there was today, as he proudly said, “Fish on,” as if he’d done it a thousand times before when a feisty pike nailed his fly not five feet from the boat.
I’ve done this trip before—not here to Laurie River, but to the black spruce forests of the North. This is classic wilderness fishing—the stuff we dreamed of as kids after we carefully trimmed the ads for “fly-in wilderness lodges” out of the classified section of dog-eared editions of Outdoor Life or Field and Stream, and started saving coffee cans full of coins for this mighty adventure. These North Country lakes were brought to life by grainy black-and-white photographs, and carefully crafted tales penned by legends we idolized, like Ham Brown and Ted Trueblood. The stories lived in my soul for decades before I finally got the chance to fly north and cast over dark water to massive fish equipped with more teeth than common sense. Now, I can’t imagine life without this occasional visit.
We’re the only anglers toting fly rods on this trip. That’s on me—I never really bothered to introduce my son to fishing with traditional gear and tackle. He doesn’t think it’s weird, thankfully, to be the son of the fly-fishing junkie who wouldn’t know what the hell to do with a baitcast reel if his life depended on it. He accepts it as normal, and he’s a good sport about it. He tries hard, even if he’s done after shore lunch and opts, instead, to hang in the lodge and throw darts while his die-hard dad refuses to let a little wind and rain spoil the fishing.
And later, he sits with the men and he listens and laughs. He’s polite and friendly. He’s just one of the guys, and he likes that. And he has witnesses when he beats his old man at darts, which makes him puff up a bit.
Yep. This is the North Woods lodge. It’s a wonderful place for a father with his son kept close. It’s where every angler should be, even if it’s just once. There’s no place like it.
Except for maybe Heaven.