Drowned docks, willing walleyes

INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- At Thunderbird Lodge east of International Falls, the gas pump at the boat docks is neck-deep in the tannin-stained waters of Rainy Lake.

Island View Lodge
Mike Vincent of Indiana (left) and Norbert Belz of Nixa, Mo., walk along a newly constructed ramp connecting the docks to the deck at Island View Lodge Thursday. The original ramp is 4 feet below the water level. (Bob King /

INTERNATIONAL FALLS - At Thunderbird Lodge east of International Falls, the gas pump at the boat docks is neck-deep in the tannin-stained waters of Rainy Lake.
“We’re still pumping gas. But we have to bend over to read the meter,” said Mary Jane Haanen, who owns the lodge with her husband, Rod.
In spite of water levels 3½ feet above normal on this vast border lake, most resorts remain full and their guests are finding plenty of walleyes.
“We’ve got a joke,” said Trella Opp, who owns Island View Lodge on Rainy with her husband, Ron. “The water’s so high the fish are being pushed over from Canada, and we’re trapping them here.”
Fishing has been good, said longtime Rainy Lake guide Mike Williams of International Falls.
“I’ve always been a true believer that high water and the lake being refreshed makes for great fishing, and that’s what it’s doing,” Williams said. “Fishing has been great so far.”
A room-size chunk of floating bog cut loose and drifted down the lake the other day, lodging against shore next to the deck at Island View Lodge. Instant fish habitat. Guest Norbert Belz of Nixa, Mo., caught a 21-inch walleye fishing next to the bog from shore.
At lodges along the shore of this 230,000-acre lake shared with Ontario, crib docks at lodges are weighed down with sandbags and barrels of water to keep them from floating away. Anglers have to launch and land their boats each day rather than keep them tethered to docks. But everyone is adapting.

Watching weekend weather

Many people who live or work on Rainy Lake went into this weekend with some anxiety. More rain was forecast, which could drive lake levels 13 to 20 inches higher, according to the International Lake of the Woods Control Board, which monitors water levels.
“We’ve had no cancellations,” Trella Opp said Thursday morning. “People have been very tolerant. In the morning, it’s very hectic getting everyone out to go fish.”
Resorts on Kabetogama Lake near Ray, part of the same flowage as Rainy Lake, also are holding their own, said Ellen Hart of Pine Tree Cove Resort.
“I know one resort said they had a cancellation. We had somebody move to a week in August,” Hart said.
At Thunderbird, Haanen said guests on a waiting list filled in for any who canceled.
“We’re full,” she said. “And we’ve had an increase in the dining business from people coming out to take pictures.”
At Thunderbird and Island View, industrial-size pumps run intermittently around the clock to remove water from crawl spaces under the lodges.
Sitting in the bright sun at midday on his deck at Island View, Ron Opp wore his standard uniform these days - camouflage chest waders and a headlamp. He never knows when he’ll be back under the lodge, checking a pump.
As the water has risen, the pumps kept showing up, courtesy of neighbors or volunteers. Resort owners were effusive with praise for friends, neighbors, townspeople and National Guard troops who have come to help.
“I get calls all the time, asking, ‘What can I do?’ ” said Haanen, at Thunderbird.
For guests like Belz at Island View, who makes three trips to Rainy Lake from Missouri for fishing each summer, the high water wasn’t going to keep him at home.
“The high water didn’t faze a thing,” Belz said. “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead - I’m coming.”
Already, his group had caught walleyes of 29½ and 27½ inches and lots of smaller ones.
“The fishing, on a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10,” Belz said.
But the high water has required more vigilance on the part of anglers who venture onto Rainy Lake.
“A lot of (submerged) rocks are not marked because they’re usually visible,” Belz said. “Now they’re at lower-unit-eating height. Where there was an island, all of a sudden, there’s no island.”

‘Heart-broken’ campers

Thursday morning, at the Tilson Creek boat ramp along Minnesota Highway 11 east of International Falls, the Bauer family from Northfield, Minn., fished from the dock. Alyssa Bauer grew up in International Falls. She and her husband, Russ, had a cabin reserved at Birch Point Camp on Rainy Lake, but high water prevented use of the cabin. Now they’re camped in a tent at the campground, back in the woods.
“In the mosquito conservatory,” Alyssa Bauer said.
“We’re kind of heart-broken, but what can you do?” Russ Bauer said.
The Bauer girls - Evie, 5, and Whitney, 2 - fished from the dock with bobbers.
“It’s hard not to be on the water when you come up for a Rainy Lake vacation,” Alyssa Bauer said. “The girls really miss the beach.”
A lot of beaches on Rainy Lake are now under water.


Tougher on local residents

While the resort industry is making the best of a tough situation, high water has kept many local anglers off the water. Many of their docks are under water or were destroyed in a storm about two weeks ago. Plus, many local residents have been busy helping resort owners or neighbors place sandbags to protect property or weigh down crib docks.
Fishing guide Barry Woods of Woody’s Fairly Reliable Guide Service in Ranier says boat traffic on the lake is down.
“It looks pretty bare out there some days,” he said.
Williams agreed.
“Traffic is reduced,” he said. “I’ve got so many friends - their docks are under water, their boats are in the garage. The lake has been quiet.”
That hurts local businesses such as the Rainy Lake One Stop, a bait and tackle shop east of International Falls on Minnesota Highway 11.
“All of the locals pulled their boats,” said Laura Besch of the One Stop. “All of the locals are busy volunteering their time. It’s been pretty quiet.”
Meanwhile, every morning, guide Barry Woods gets up and looks at the weather, hoping for no more rain. He tries not to let the situation get to him, and he’s keeping it in perspective.
“It is what it is,” Woods said. “We’ve done what we can do. Nobody has lost a leg or a finger. It’s probably better than a hurricane or a tornado.”
Back at Woody’s Rainy Lake Resort that Woods and his wife, LeeAnne, own in Ranier, she keeps in touch with guests who have booked fishing trips.
“We’ve only had one cancellation,” she said, “and they’re going to come in August. I promised them in August they’d have a dock.”

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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