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Celeste outfits a family of three with ice, life jackets, and bait in much the same manner as her late husband’s father, the titular Jake, would have when he started the resort back in 1945. The man gathers fishing poles while the woman snacks on a candy bar, sitting beside a scatter of kitchen table–type clutter: two fly swatters, a half bag of tortilla chips, a Sudoku puzzle book, a baseball cap, an open Bible, and a calendar for recording cabin bookings.
Next to the desk, a pink heart-shaped sign reads, “If we see you smoking, we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate measures.” Celeste has the same firm yet lighthearted tone in her voice when she insists on lending the family a cooler to store any fish they catch—no, no, you can’t use a stringer, the warm water will affect the quality of the fish.
Because the fishing at Lake of the Woods is some of the best in North America, there’s hardly a car in the Angle—nearly every visitor arrives in a truck or a motor home with a boat trailer hitched to the back. Paul estimates that 90 percent of their guests are repeats, who keep coming until they can’t. This weekend, two men were out fishing with their octogenarian fathers. “You have some groups die off on ya,” Paul admits. More than 10,000 visitors come and go each year, mostly family men in their forties who, in the summer, sport farmer tans, khaki shorts, and Ducks Unlimited T-shirts. At the end of the day, these groups will gather at Grumpy’s Bar & Restaurant, hunkered over plates of prime rib and iceberg salads, trading stories of the day’s catch.
Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, socks, and Teva sandals, Paul extracts night crawlers from a box of dirt and packs them into small Styrofoam containers. He says that about two-thirds of Jake’s guests come for the walleye fishing; the rest hope to land muskie. Walleye fishermen, he explains, tend to be a relaxed bunch, focusing as much on group-bonding and wildlife-watching as bringing home a trophy. Muskie fishermen, on the other hand, tend to have a macho mindset that won’t be deterred by bad luck or weather. “For them, it’s like boot camp,” Paul says. “It’s a mine’s-bigger-than-yours mentality.”
Paul has been guiding since he was 13, and he knows the lake better than just about anyone. He says fish are plentiful these days due to a strong ethic of catch-and-release and the changing way the sport is being marketed. Paul and others are trying to emphasize the experience of fishing (enjoying the outdoors, landing a catch) rather than what you bring home (“kill shots” and a cooler-full of fillets). Fishermen don’t have to bring home dinner to justify a fishing trip to their wives anymore. “If you want your best buy on walleye,” Celeste says matter of factly, “go down to Byerly’s.”
But the waters haven’t always been calm. Because Lake of the Woods is shared by the United States and Canada, fishing rights have been a point of contention, particularly during the “walleye wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Ontario began imposing fees and quotas on Americans fishing in Canadian waters. The regulations discouraged visitors; resort bookings declined. When Angle residents lobbied Congress for help, no one paid much attention.
That is, until residents proposed to secede from the United States, in the spring of 1998, in what they now readily admit was a publicity stunt. As soon as Representative Collin Peterson introduced the resolution (which he had neglected to discuss with the Red Lake Indian Band, which controls the Angle’s uninhabited interior), the phones started ringing with calls from the Boston Herald, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. When a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times asked Paul if he thought the exploit had worked, Paul cracked, “Well, you called me.”
In the end, a compromise was reached and the Colsons did reap a few benefits from the dustup. Paul, for one, met his wife, who was selling fishing licenses at a Canadian resort, and, looking to increase business, Jake’s started accommodating ice fishermen, which now generates more revenue than summer fishing. Yet the unusual border continues to pose challenges.