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Long-awaited return to Headwaters Lake in northwestern Ontario delivers good times, great fishing

Like everything else in the past two years, our trip to Headwaters Lake didn’t go as scheduled. There were times, during the darkest days of the pandemic, when I wondered if the trip would ever happen.

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A sign greets visitors to Headwaters Lake, a remote, fly-in outpost camp 120 miles northwest of Red Lake, Ontario.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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HEADWATERS LAKE, Ontario – “Top of the morning to you,” the old gentleman, a rather jolly sort, said with a handshake as he greeted us on the dock upon our arrival at this remote, Canadian fly-in outpost camp that would be our home for the next week.

It was Thursday, June 30. It was partly cloudy and breezy in northwestern Ontario, and six of us were about to begin a long-delayed, much-anticipated, seven-day fishing trip to Headwaters Lake. Located 120 air miles northwest of Red Lake, Ontario, and nearly 600 miles northeast of Grand Forks, Headwaters Lake is part of the Cobham River system, which flows across this rocky, forested landscape between northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba.

Like so many of the lakes that dot the rugged Precambrian Shield – or “Canadian Shield,” as the land commonly is known in geological terms – Headwaters Lake is basically a wide spot in a river. Its root beer-colored water teems with blackish-gold walleyes, most in the 1½- to 3-pound range but occasionally larger.

Brats and beans? Not when this pair is in the kitchen. No wonder we never made it out fishing after evening meals; we were too stuffed to move.

There’s also northern pike, including the potential for a trophy, for anglers who take the time to pursue them.

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The rugged, remote Canadian Shield country of northwestern Ontario is dotted with lakes and rivers as seen Thursday, July 7, 2022, on the return flight from Headwaters Lake to Red Lake, Ontario.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

We didn’t catch our greeter’s name, but we liked him immediately. Part of a four-person crew from the Milwaukee area, he had spent the past week experiencing what we were about to enjoy.

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The fishing, he said, had been good.

Very good. As in 100-walleyes-a-day good.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, the jolly gentleman and a young man we assumed to be his grandson boarded the DeHavilland Beaver floatplane that had brought us to this remote destination for their return trip to civilization.

Two others in his crew had departed on a Cessna 185 that had brought the first two members of our crew into camp about a half-hour earlier.

So began our visit to Headwaters Lake.

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Tom Laumb of Berthold, North Dakota, with a 26½-inch walleye he released Wednesday, July 6, 2022, while fishing Headwaters Lake outpost camp in northwestern Ontario.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Special place

Headwaters Lake holds a special place in my memory bank of fishing experiences. It had been 30 years, almost to the day, since my first visit with two friends. Four years later – again, almost to the day – I made my second trip to Headwaters as part of a six-person crew.

Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minnesota, was on both previous trips to Headwaters, and Peter Howard of Stillwater, Minnesota, was part of the six-man crew that made the trip in 1996.

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Now, the three of us were back – finally – this time with three first-timers: Peter Hinderlie of St. Paul, Jason Laumb of Grand Forks and Tom Laumb of Berthold, North Dakota.

Given my history on Headwaters, the build-up to this trip had been considerable. The walleye fishing was spectacular both times, and while we didn’t spend much time targeting northern pike, Jensen and I encountered one of the largest pike we’d ever seen during that first trip in 1992, when it tore into a 16-inch walleye he was reeling to the boat.

If that pike wasn’t 25 pounds, it was close.

Like everything else in the past two years, our trip to Headwaters Lake didn’t go as scheduled. We booked the trip and paid our deposits to Excellent Adventures Cat Island Lodge and Outpost Camps of Red Lake way back in 2019.

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A trio of boats is tied up to the dock Saturday, July 2, 2022, after a day of fishing at Headwaters Lake outpost camp in northwestern Ontario.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

We were supposed to make the trip in 2020, but COVID-19 and the resulting closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel took care of that. By the time Canada reopened its border to nonessential travel in August 2021, last summer was pretty much gone.

There were times, during the darkest days of the pandemic, when I wondered if the trip would ever happen.

In that context, standing on the dock upon our arrival at camp and exchanging pleasantries with our jolly greeter was almost surreal. Considering the two-year delay and all we’d gone through to get here – including heavy rain, at times, and a close encounter with a bull moose on the 8-plus-hour drive from Grand Forks to Red Lake – it was only appropriate that we’d buck a stiff northwest wind for the 90-minute flight to camp.

But here we were – finally – and it was very good indeed.

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Good fishing, as expected

A lot can change in three decades, but the walleye fishing we experienced during our June 30-July 7 excursion was just as good as our jolly greeter had reported.

Walleyes in these remote Canadian lakes don’t see a lot of lures, and it definitely showed. The fish often willingly smacked jigs tipped with soft plastics or Berkley Gulp!, but the pound of leeches and 10 boxes of frozen shiners we bought in Red Lake before the trip came in handy later in the week, when a mayfly hatch put the walleyes in a slightly more finicky mood.

Fish came from a variety of depths – as shallow as 5 feet down to about 25 feet.

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Peter Hinderlie of St. Paul with a 22-inch walleye he released Sunday, July 3, 2022, while fishing below a small set of rapids that flows into Headwaters Lake in northwestern Ontario.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Catching walleyes – and lots of them – wasn’t a problem, but the lake seemed different after three decades. Trees that were just beginning to grow back in the early 1990s after a forest fire charred the landscape were much taller. The cabin in 1992 had been a dump – to put it bluntly – with busted-out screens, no indoor plumbing and no way of communicating with the outside world; duct tape and mosquito coils saved the trip.

Under new ownership, the cabin had undergone a complete makeover by 1996, with solar electricity, indoor plumbing and the addition of a screen porch overlooking the lake.

This time around, the cabin, again under different ownership, fell somewhere between dump and deluxe, considerably better than 1992 but not as plush as it had felt in 1996. The addition of satellite wi-fi provided constant communication – for better or worse – with the outside world, even though we were more than 100 miles from the nearest road.

The boats also showed signs of wear and tear. Rotten wood on the transom resulted in a near brush with disaster on the boat I was driving when the motor came loose and nearly fell off in rough water on the first full day of the trip. A bit of engineering from Howard and a couple of pieces of scrap plywood strengthened the transom enough to keep the motor in place for the remainder of the week.

Eventually, the transom will have to be replaced, but after the difficulties Canadian fishing camps have experienced just to stay afloat these past 2½ years, a few glitches are understandable.

The weather improved on day three, and we had sunny skies and light winds right up until our last day of fishing Wednesday, July 6, when morning showers sent us back to the cabin for an earlier lunch break than we otherwise might have taken.

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A ruffed grouse with chicks provided entertainment and became the camp "pet" for visitors to Headwaters Lake during a June 30-July 7, 2022, visit to the remote outpost camp 120 miles northwest of Red Lake, Ontario.
Contributed / Peter Hinderlie

The trip – as all of the good ones do – quickly settled into a routine of morning coffee and a light breakfast before a few hours of fishing. Walleye sandwiches garnished with raw onions and washed down with a favorite beverage quickly became a noontime staple back at camp before we’d hit the lake for another afternoon on the water.

Evening meals back at camp included such creations as stuffed pasta shells, leg of lamb, pork loin, New York strip and walleye with black butter caper sauce, very likely the best meals the outpost cabin has ever seen.

Summer days are long in the North, and while twilight lingered until 10:30 every night, we opted to forgo fishing until dark. Instead, we spent our evenings relaxing in the screen porch or on the deck, talking smart and enjoying our surroundings.

To a man, everyone said they’d fish here again.

Fingers crossed.

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Two floatplanes – a Cessna 185 and a DeHavilland Beaver – land on Headwaters Lake in northwestern Ontario on Thursday, July 7, 2022, to pick up a six-man crew for the return flight to Red Lake, Ontario, at the conclusion of a seven-day fly-in fishing trip.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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