Ken Kuttner and his fish

Ken Kuttner of Stewart holds up a protected slot limit walleye on Lake of the Woods. Kuttner has spent 27 years fishing the lake and has perfected late-summer walleyes using downriggers.

Aboard Ken Kuttner’s 30-foot cabin cruiser, Lake of the Woods feels rather manageable.

Winds are light, blowing to the southeast around 5 miles per hour. The most noticeable condition is the heavy haze settled over the lake, restricting visibility to around half a mile on what would otherwise be a clear, sunshiny day. The haze is not the standard early morning fog that might follow a humid day and night.

Instead, it is the product of a small series of wildfires burning in Ontario. The effect is a cloudy day with a faint smell and taste of smoke. The conditions are another reminder that each day on the water can bring something you’ve never seen before.

Today’s voyage includes Kuttner, myself, my father, Merlin, and longtime Kuttner friend and fellow farmer, Warren Klammer. Kuttner sits at the console of his craft, fixated on his color graph, steering wheel in one hand and engine throttle thruster in the other.

“I’ve fished this lake for 27 years,” Kuttner said. “Most years, when walleye fishing opens, I’m in a field, so I needed to find a place where you can catch fish in July and August, when my schedule slows down.”

Lake of the Woods was the answer to Kuttner’s needs. Kuttner has farmed and sold seed near Stewart his entire life, but has always been bit by the fishing bug. He has perfected his locations and technique, downrigging stickbaits, over the course of his time fishing Lake of the Woods.

Downrigging is a method that was brought to Lake of the Woods from salmon anglers on the Great Lakes and has been a very effective summer pattern.

“One of my friends likes to say that there are fishing lakes and catching lakes, and that Lake of the Woods is a catching lake,” Kuttner said with a smile.

No one, Kuttner included, can deny how abundant walleye and sauger are on the sprawling and productive border waters fishery, but you still have to find the fish and make them bite.

We start off what appears to be the middle of the U.S. portion of Lake of the Woods. Kuttner’s graph shows several marks. He pulls the boat off plane and slows the Chevy 454 inboard engine to a gentle idle. He’s marking his prey. If there are enough fish around, and if they’re large enough, we’ll put out some lines.

It takes a couple minutes, but he sees enough fish to give it a try.

After a short tutorial, Kuttner has the crew trained in. We attach 40 feet of line to a spring-tensioned clip running behind the 8-pound ball of lead attached to a cable, then crank down the rods to put tension on them and shorten the slack in the line when a fish hits.

Four Cannon downrigger machines are anchored to the gunnels and wired to a set of batteries, powering the cabled lines up and down. We settle in around 28-31 feet of water in the 35-foot depths. A little experimentation across the four lines will help see what depth the fish prefer the baits. Similarly, we can play around with lure colors.

With a whole crew trained in, it’s not incumbent on Ken to both drive the boat and run the riggers, and it’s nice to have complete familiarity with the setup, as opposed to cranking in fish only as you might do on charter boats.

After one false alarm, we’re back to conversing with lines out when the first legitimate take is evident by the rod tip being up and bounding. Merlin takes the rod while the fish works its way up.

“The little ones usually come up right away,” Kuttner says, “but the big ones will stay down and make you work at it for a bit. You usually know if you have a (protected) slot fish or an eater by how fast they come up.”

In a fast minute or two, the fish is on the water’s surface and sliding in, jaws spread and thrashing over the surface. With a quick stab beyond the transom with an extended handle landing net, the fish is quickly brought aboard. It measures 24 inches. After a quick photo, it’s back in the water, released headfirst with a quick toss overboard to send it on its way. The fish hits the water, and without missing a beat fans its way deeper.

A few more fish come to hand, a mix of both eating-sized fish and some real chunky specimens, including a 27.5-inch female. A few fish are lost along the way, part of the learning process for those new to the method.

“Don’t worry if you miss one, either on the take or when reeling in, or when netting one at the boat,” Kuttner said. “If you miss one, it won’t take long and there will be another.”

His proclamation comes true just a few minutes later when another fish is hooked and landed.

We fish to late morning, then breaking from conversation, realize we haven’t had a bite in some time.

“Check the lines,” Ken recommends. “There are usually little ones hanging on that can’t trigger the release.”

We reel all four rods up and add two saugers to the cooler filled with ice. Kuttner notices fewer marks on his graph as the morning progresses and figures the fish have moved on, which by his calculation means so should we. The lines are reeled up and everyone grabs a seat. We blast north, encountering a flotilla of boats crowded around the deep edge of a reef. We’re in the vicinity of Knights and Bridges Islands. Carefully weaving through the masses, we mark very few fish.

“It’s probably one boat catching a fish and then the others thinking he’s on the spot,” Kuttner says. “There’s a lot of room up here. I have some spots that should have some fish.”

We motor west a short distance and then notice plenty of arcs on the bottom of the graph. We deploy the downriggers and in short time are bringing in the fish hand over fist. By now, our crew is setting our watches on when to check lines. If we don’t have a fish within 10 minutes, we reel up and check lines. The result almost every time is a small walleye or sauger on the line, some large enough to keep, some small enough they go back.

The brisk pace of fish capture and line checking helps us rally from the late morning doldrums and fill up the cooler with fish. By the time midafternoon settles in, a long drive in awaits us, so we reel up the lines and call it a day. The drive in is a gentle glide over still waters as the wind has come to a complete stop. Looking back at our wake trail with engine roaring, the gray sky fades seamlessly to the water’s edge.

It’s been a great day on the hazy water, catching photo-worthy walleyes and filling limits.

Freelance outdoor writer Scott Mackenthun, a Brownton native, has been writing for the Hutchinson Leader since 2005. You can follow him on Instagram @scottmackenthun and on Twitter @ScottyMack31.

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