BAUDETTE, Minn. -- Lake of the Woods was rocking and rolling, and Tom Roberts had a battle on his hands.
A science teacher from Snohomish, Wash., Roberts, 58, had caught only one or two walleyes his entire life. Now, judging by the bend in his fishing pole, he had the kind of walleye many anglers can only dream of tugging at the end of the line.
"That's a better fish," guide Dan Carlson said, encouraging Roberts from the helm of the 27-foot Sportcraft as a stiff westerly breeze kicked up 3- to 4-foot swells.
This was more like a walleye rollercoaster than a walleye chop.
A couple of runs later, and Roberts was admiring a very large walleye in the bottom of the net. Brilliant gold on the flanks with a streak of dark along its back, the big walleye surely was a trophy.
Roberts and his two brothers, Jeff, of Blackduck, Minn., and Don, St. Croix Beach, Minn., had taken advantage of some vacation time to book a trip through Sportsman's Lodge on Lake of the Woods. The postmaster in Blackduck, Jeff, 43, had started the morning flurry by releasing a 24-inch walleye, but older brother quickly gained bragging rights.
The tale of the tape: 29 inches.
Carlson removed the fish from the net and gave Roberts a lesson in the art of holding a big walleye for a photo. After a couple of quick shots, the guide thrust the walleye head-first into the water and the big fish strongly swam back to the depths.
"That was a fatter walleye," Carlson said, estimating the fish would have weighed close to 9 pounds.
Catching the fish was fun, Tom Roberts said, but as a novice who'd only fished walleyes once or twice, he admitted he really didn't know what he had. Drifting a spinner tipped with a nightcrawler in 32 feet of water, Roberts said he felt weight on the end of the line and started reeling.
"It was just kind of there, and then it just didn't want to come up," Roberts said. "It did take a few runs, which was nice."
Call it a classic case of beginner's luck. And as all fishermen worth their salt will attest, there's nothing wrong with luck once in awhile.
"I fish trout streams so much in Montana I don't know how to do this kind of stuff," he said.
It's been another good year for big fish on Lake of the Woods, and walleyes such as Roberts' trophy have made regular appearances. Carlson, who logged 27 days on the big lake in June alone, said it's been a common occurrence for the charter boat crews to release several "slot fish" -- walleyes in the 19 1/2- to 28-inch protected slot -- daily, with the occasional 30-inch or larger fish thrown in for good measure.
"It's been good," Carlson said.
So good, in fact, that Sportsman's Lodge prominently advertises a 100 percent walleye limit guarantee on its Web site. As part of the offer, anyone who fishes one of the resort's guided charters for two days and doesn't go home with a limit of four walleyes will receive $10 for each fish short of the limit; fish caught and eaten during the stay count toward the limit.
Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman's Lodge, said he has yet to issue any refunds. And the way fishing's been this summer, he doesn't expect that to change.
"The lake is as healthy as ever -- that's for sure," Hennum said. "Some of these guides that have been doing this for 20-30 years, they've never seen this before. It's so easy to catch fish."
Shore lunch was on the agenda for this particular Friday in mid-July, and Carlson was beginning to worry a bit when the first two drifts of the morning produced only one walleye.
"Let's reel up and move," he said.
He didn't go far, but the decision to move about a mile paid off on the drift that produced Roberts' trophy.
There was a time when midsummer would have meant trolling the depths of Big Traverse Bay -- the vast expanse that forms the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods -- with crankbaits trolled behind downriggers. The trolling devices keep lures running at a consistent depth by means of a lead ball, which features a clip that releases the line when a fish hits.
In recent years, though, charter boats have spent more time bait fishing the deeper portions of Big Traverse by anchoring and jigging or drifting spinners and live bait in 32 feet of water.
The technique, which produced phenomenal results through June and early July, is a big change from the days downriggers dominated the water this time of year.
"Jig fishing might have worked then, too -- it's just that we never did it," Carlson said. "Downrigging was so good (guides) got addicted to it."
Carlson said he recently had the downriggers mounted on his boat for the season but so far hadn't used them. Still, the walleyes scatter as summer progresses and downrigging becomes the most productive option for putting fish in the boat on the Minnesota side of the lake.
"This is the tail end of our bait fishing now," Carlson said. "I hope this keeps going, but it's coming into downrigger season."
There'd be no need for downriggers to put fish in the frying pan, and the break for a shore lunch at nearby Zippel Bay State Park provided a welcome reprieve from the barrage of Lake of the Woods rollers that showed no signs of subsiding.
The feast of potatoes, onions and walleyes fried to perfection over an open fire with beans heated straight out of the can was worth every bumpy wave.
The waves would be waiting for us after lunch. If anything, the wind had picked up steam.
"You might get wet when I get on the big lake and give 'er," Carlson said as he steered the boat out of Zippel Bay and prepared to hit the rollers.
Keeping the bait on the bottom in 4-foot rollers and 32 feet of water required adding extra sinkers as we finished out the afternoon. Finesse fishing it wasn't, but every drift produced a few walleyes.
"This is probably the roughest I've ever done this kind of fishing -- and it's working," Carlson said.
Living up to its reputation, Lake of the Woods also served up eight to 10 "slot" walleyes that were too big to keep during the course of the day. Tom Roberts, besides landing the biggest walleye of the day, also had the hot pole.
By late afternoon, the waves were taking a toll, and no one complained when Carlson turned the boat toward the protected confines of the Rainy River. Days like this are made for charter boat fishing, and everyone aboard was glad to be in a 27-foot Sportcraft.
We rocked. We rolled. We conquered.
"I think we had a successful day, considering the conditions were a little bit adverse," Carlson said.
Successful days have been the norm on Lake of the Woods. All summer.
For more information:
Sportsman's Lodge: www.sportsmanslodges.com; (866) 533-8998.
Lake of the Woods Tourism: www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com; (218) 634-1174 or toll-free (800) 382-FISH.