Fishing Lake of the Woods
Tucked into the bottom corner of Northwestern Ontario, Lake of the Woods stands out from the region’s other great fisheries because of its sheer size and diversity of species. More than 100 kilometres long and just as wide, Lake of the Woods is home to world-class angling for muskie, walleye, pike, bass, crappie and even lake trout.
This immense body of water stands as the second-largest inland Lake in Ontario, but that’s only a fraction of the story. Lake of the Woods is a maze of islands, bays, narrows, passages, coves and inlets. An aerial view of the lake reveals a circular swath of interconnected waterways with the Aulneau Peninsula as the hub of this giant wheel of water. This remote 32 x 16 kilometre landmass is surrounded by the rock-encased waters of Lake of the Woods, stretching over a vast surface area of 3150 square kilometres.
As its name suggests, the remote rocky shoreline is lush with pine forests, but it is also dotted with waterfront communities, lodges, campgrounds and marinas that cater to boaters and anglers. But what makes this an angler’s dream destination is the incredible fishing. Most game fish relate to shoreline like weeds edges, drop-offs and rock structure. Considering that there are more than 14,500 islands, Lake of the Woods has almost 105,000 kilometres of shoreline to explore. From an angling perspective, devoting your life to discovering the secrets of Lake of the Woods would be a life well spent.
Getting on the Water
With a population of more than 14,000, Kenora is the largest town on Lake of the Woods and the angling and boating headquarters for the north end of the lake. Located along the TransCanada Highway, Kenora’s downtown is stretched along the waterfront, with beaches and marinas. There’s even a great craft brewery, Lake of the Woods Brewing Company, and a grocery store with docking facilities.
Sioux Narrows is on the east end of the lake where Highway 71 crosses the narrows the town was named for. The population swells from 400 in the off-season to 2000 through summer and serves the anglers, boaters and numerous lodges in the Whitefish Bay area. Just down the highway on the lake’s eastern shore, similar-sized Nestor Falls is the gateway to the waters of Sabaskong Bay. To the west, at the end of Highway 621, the community of Morson welcomes anglers to Miles Bay and the waters west of the Aulneau Peninsula. All these resort communities are close to drive-to or boat-in lodges and are busy jumping off points for fishing, hunting and outdoor adventures.
Navigating this labyrinth of islands, bays and narrows is made easier by red and green channel markers that guide boaters to navigable waters through hazards like rocks and shoals. A fish finder/GPS unit loaded with nautical charts available through Navionics.com shows all the boating channels, as well as the water depth throughout the lake and is an indispensable companion when travelling this immense waterway.
Considering the number of communities with launch ramps and marinas, most of Lake of the Woods’s forested shoreline is surprisingly undeveloped and wildlife is abundant and diverse. Bald eagles soar the skies, pods of pelicans fish the shallows and whitetail deer walk the shoreline. There are smooth sloping rocks supporting skylines of towering white and red pine, low and swampy wetlands, and towering lichen-covered rock faces. On some of these sheer rock walls red ochre pictographs, painted hundreds of years ago, provide a glimpse at an earlier time when First Nation’s canoes plied these waters.
Even though the average depth of Lake of the Woods is around 8 metres (26 feet), hinting at the shallow structure that many Ontario sport fish love, there are significant areas of deeper habitat. The North West Arm around Clearwater Bay and in areas of Whitefish Bay in the Sioux Narrows area have the deep, cold, clear water that lake trout need. -Down rigging with spoons at 50 feet or more is an effective way to catch summer lake trout but as the waters cool in fall, lake trout relate to a shallower structure and you can drop a jig and soft plastic right below the boat. Jigging for fish that average around five-pounds, but regularly exceed 15, makes this hands-on approach an exciting way to fish.
A wide range of regulations designed to promote catch and release fishing has worked well in maintaining the excellent lake trout fishery. These include ice fishing restrictions, a lake trout tag system, rules around live bait and the use of barbless hooks, so it’s important to know the area you are fishing and what rules apply. It’s always a good idea to have a copy of the Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary, no matter what species you are targeting.
Excellent walleye fishing is found throughout Lake of the Woods. There is no shortage of walleye within a short boat ride of Kenora and venturing into the West Arm, or east into Long Bay north of Sioux Narrows, or Sabaskong Bay between Morson and Nestor Falls, opens a world of options. Casting jigs and soft plastic along windblown shorelines connects with walleye that lurk the shallow structure in 10-15 feet of water.
Slowly trolling live bait like a worm, leech or minnow along the edges of main lake shoals in the 20-30 foot range is a proven strategy through summer. Fast action for 15-18 inch fish is common but Lake of the Woods is well known for its healthy population of trophy walleye exceeding 30 inches.
These tasty plate-shaped panfish are found throughout the lake in isolated bays off main lake basins. The best fishing is in mid-May to early June when they spawn in shallow pencil reeds or in autumn when they congregate in deeper holes, often suspending at the tops of deep weed beds. In spring, jigs tipped with soft plastic minnow imitations presented under slip floats catch crappie from the shallows. In fall, casting jigs and soft plastic grub bodies or small Jigging Raps over weed tops connects with 10-12 inch fish that are almost as wide as they are round. The best crappie populations are found around Nestor Falls.
Smallmouth bass inhabit the entire lake in a wide variety of areas but the best way to pinpoint high percentage locations is to look for shallow boulder piles or sandy areas that transition to rock. These hold the high crayfish populations that bass prey on. Any crayfish-imitating lure, like black or pumpkin-coloured tube jigs, or short and stubby shallow-diving crankbaits, are effective through summer. When the waters cool into late autumn jigging shiny spoons over deep shoals in 20 feet of water or more can yield impressive catches of fat smallmouth up to 20 inches.
Largemouth bass love weeds and on Lake of the Woods they are found in the numerous isolated shallow bays and inlets in the Sioux Narrows area. Largemouth specialists work weedless topwater or subsurface frog imitations amongst the gaps in thick aquatic vegetation. The explosive smash of an aggressive largemouth from the shade of a lily pad in knee-deep water is not soon forgotten but you can also catch largemouth casting short and fat crankbaits over coontail beds in deeper water.
Pike and Muskie
Northern Pike spend the early spring in shallow water, close to shoreline, waiting for the water to warm before they venture out to rock shoals, edges and weed beds to chase anything that swims. Pike are found throughout Lake of the Woods but main lake rock piles south of Kenora are known to produce 30-40 inch fish through September. Northerns will hit a wide variety of lures from spinner rigs cast through weedy shallows to diving crankbaits trolled along drop-offs.
It’s much the same story for muskie, just be sure to increase the size of your rod, reel and lures before attempting to engage these toothy predators. Lake of the Woods is regarded as one of the finest muskie fisheries in the world, where a good day can mean multiple fish over 40 inches. They are found throughout the lake, preying on baitfish like cisco and gamefish like lake trout and walleye, and one of the best areas is south of the Aulneau Peninsula, around the Morson area. Just about every muskie technique will work, from top water presentations to trolling 10-inch crankbaits but jigging large soft-plastics like a Bondy Bait is becoming popular in the fall around the current of neck-down areas.
Walleye are the most popular species through winter and there is also excellent fishing for lake trout, pike, crappie, perch, whitefish, and burbot. The surface of the lake is much quieter in winter than in summer, but on any given day there are anglers travelling to their favourite spots by snowmobile, on foot or even by truck on plowed ice roads. Northwest Outfitters out of Kenora rent out Ice Castle fish houses that are like travel trailers designed for ice fishing. Amenities include refrigerator, microwave, stove/oven, television and bathroom. There are several outfitters out of Kenora as well as Sioux Lookout, Nestor Falls and Morson that welcome winter anglers with a wide range of services. Visit Sunset Country to explore the ice fishing possibilities on Lake of the Woods.
The fishing is so good on Lake of the Woods that you can stay in a motel in Kenora, launch your boat at the marina and simply go out and explore. If you are an experienced angler the chances of encountering your target species, in sizes from tiny to trophy, are pretty good. If you want to increase your chances, try staying at one of the resorts on the lake. There are more than 30 boat-in or drive-to resorts ranging from rustic housekeeping cabins to high-end accommodations with formal dining rooms serving gourmet fare and all are ready to meet the needs of anglers. Lodge staff will mark likely spots on fishing maps to get you pointed in the right direction. Most lodges are affiliated with a guide service or have fishing guides on staff. Considering the sheer size and staggering range of fishing options, choosing a guide is a fast-track to experiencing what Lake of the Woods has to offer.
These luxury housekeeping cabins just off Highway 71 at Sioux Narrows, provide access to the clear, deep waters of Whitefish Bay. It’s a great place to target lake trout but the fishing for bass, walleye and muskie is also exceptional. Crawford’s Camp owner, Matt Rydberg, is an excellent angler and can help guests find fish during the open water season as well as ice fishing.
Located on the West Arm in Ash Bay south of Kenora, Ash Rapids Lodge is central to a maze of islands and bays holding excellent walleye, bass, pike and musky fishing. It also offers access to Shoal Lake and its great smallmouth and pike fishing via Ash Rapids. When choosing between housekeeping and American plan, keep in mind that their dining room/restaurant is known for exquisitely prepared cuisine.
Renting a houseboat is like having a mobile cabin on water. Wilderness Houseboats have a fleet of boats up to 19.5 metres (64 feet) long that can sleep a dozen anglers or more. You can fish right from the houseboat or tow a smaller boat to explore the waters around the Morson area. Take a break from fishing by landing on one of the lake’s beaches. Houseboating is a unique and fun way to spend time with friends and family and explore the fruitful waters of Lake of the Woods.
This remote, high-end resort is in the middle of the lake’s West Arm and offers 5-star service, dining and accommodations. Accessible from Sioux Narrows or Kenora, Wiley Point Lodge is a boat-in access only destination in the heart of great walleye and musky fishing. Amenities include hot tub, sauna and massage services and guests can fish from 19.5-foot fibreglass boats powered by 135 horsepower outboards.
See a full list of lodges and resorts on the Sunset Country website.
Last updated: October 10, 2023