GRAND FORKS — Every year with maybe one exception since 1950, members of the Grand Forks Builders and Traders Exchange have gotten together for a spring Canadian fishing trip to wet a line, trade a few barbs, talk shop and perhaps even engage in a late-night card game or two.

Their destination since the late 1990s has been Obabikon Bay Camp, an island getaway on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods near Morson, Ont., about 4½ hours from Grand Forks.

With an abundance of beautiful scenery and great fishing, the Ontario side of the big lake is a popular destination for the Builders and Traders group.

“I’ve seen a fair amount of water in my day, but that part of Lake of the Woods to me is just beautiful,” said Pat Hefferman, 61, second vice president of the Builders and Traders and an organizer of the trip since 1998. “With all of the islands, no matter what the weather elements are, you can seek protection and still fish.”

The crew typically meets the 40-person minimum required to take over the entire camp for three or four days in late May, and 45 guys were signed up for this year’s trip, Heffernan said.

Then the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic came along and threw the world into a tailspin. The U.S. and Canada have closed their borders to nonessential traffic until at least May 21, and even if the border reopens, the status of this year’s trip scheduled for May 28-31 is in limbo, Heffernan said.

“I just can’t see where we’re going to be able to do it with that many guys,” Heffernan said, given the 6-foot social distancing guidelines in place to minimize the potential spread of the virus. “And that island isn’t very big.”

Rescheduling for later in the summer with a smaller group seems the most likely scenario, but even that is far from certain, Heffernan said.

“Hopefully we can salvage some of it anyway,” he said. “That’s kind of the direction we’re looking at right now.”

Common concerns

The situation facing the Builders and Traders and the camp that’s hosting them isn’t unique. Whether it’s American anglers planning Canadian fishing trips or Canadian camp owners wondering if they’ll see American clients, the summer of 2020 is shaping up as a season of uncertainty.

That’s especially true if the two countries extend the border restrictions.

“Nobody knows — it’s day by day,” said Paul Wiens, a co-owner of Viking Lodge near Cranberry Portage, Man., about 500 miles north of the U.S.-Manitoba border.

Paul and Anita Wiens are partners in Viking Lodge near Cranberry Portage, Man., about 500 miles north of the Canadian border. May and June are crucial months for American tourism, Paul Wiens said. (Photo courtesy of Paul Wiens)
Paul and Anita Wiens are partners in Viking Lodge near Cranberry Portage, Man., about 500 miles north of the Canadian border. May and June are crucial months for American tourism, Paul Wiens said. (Photo courtesy of Paul Wiens)

Without American traffic, what was shaping up as a banner season could be a disaster, said Wiens, a fifth-year owner of the camp with his wife Anita, brother Matthew and sister-in-law Sharnell. They’ve already lost the spring bear season because of the pandemic, and the border closure means the month of May is probably gone, too.

May and June are “make or break” months, and U.S. traffic represents 90% to 95% of the camp’s bookings that time of year, Wiens said. The Minot and Rugby, N.D., areas and Wichita, Kan., are especially strong markets.

“We can trace that North Dakota crowd and Wichita crowd back to a couple of guys that have been coming for many, many years — like 40-50 years,” Wiens said. “And it’s just kind of grown from that.”

Most groups scheduled for May and June are hanging on as long as they can before deciding what to do, Wiens said; others are looking to reschedule either later in the fall or next spring.

“I don’t think we’ve had anyone just outright cancel and not rebook for either fall or next spring,” he said. “Everything we’re getting from our guests so far is that if the border’s open, they’re coming.”

Holding out hope

That’s the hope for Shawn Engels of Tipton, Iowa, who is part of a crew of three to six guys who have been making an annual trip to a lodge on Lake Athapapuskow in northern Manitoba for the past 13 years. They’ve had this year’s trip, scheduled for late July, on the books since December and even have hotel rooms reserved in Grand Forks, which is about the halfway point of their 1,100-mile trip.

The lure of tangling with trophy northern pike — they’ve boated monsters up to 48 inches — is a big attraction, Engels says, and they’re holding off until early June before deciding what to do if the border closure is extended.

Shawn Engels of Tipton, Iowa, with a 43-inch northern pike he caught during a trip to Lake Athapapuskow in northern Manitoba. Engels is part of a crew that has been making the trip to chase northern pike for the past 13 years and says they'll wait until early June to see if the U.S.-Canada border reopens before deciding whether they'll make this year's Canada trip. If not, he says they'll look to fish a U.S. destination such as Lake of the Woods or Devils Lake. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Engels)
Shawn Engels of Tipton, Iowa, with a 43-inch northern pike he caught during a trip to Lake Athapapuskow in northern Manitoba. Engels is part of a crew that has been making the trip to chase northern pike for the past 13 years and says they'll wait until early June to see if the U.S.-Canada border reopens before deciding whether they'll make this year's Canada trip. If not, he says they'll look to fish a U.S. destination such as Lake of the Woods or Devils Lake. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Engels)

“We’re going to try as best we can to give the Canada trip the best chance we can give it,” Engels said. “But I think once it gets to June, and if it still doesn’t look like we’re for sure going to be able to go, we’ll probably have to look at Lake of the Woods or Devils Lake or something else in the U.S. that we can get to.”

That’s also risky, he concedes.

“If we wait too long, looking at Lake of the Woods or some of these other lakes in the U.S., are we going to have availability to get a place to stay on short notice? So, we’re kind of trying to balance that,” Engels said.

Gary Moeller of Baudette, Minn., a partner in Ballard’s Resort on Lake of the Woods, said the resort has fielded “several calls” this spring from groups looking to salvage fishing plans if their Canadian trips can’t happen.

“We could use the extra business about now,” Moeller said.

Ballard’s Resort also shares the uncertainty of Canadian camp operators as owners of Ballard’s Black Island on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods. Moeller runs Ballard’s Black Island during the summer months, but until the border restrictions are lifted, he can’t get to the camp because Citizenship and Immigration Canada isn’t issuing work permits to nonresidents.

“I kind of get the feeling, understandably, that tourism is very much on the back burner right now,” Moeller said. “End result? More than likely (Ballard’s Black Island) will not be in operation for the month of May, knowing that it takes us at least two weeks to prep before the camp is generally ready to go.”

Waiting and seeing

Despite the lingering border uncertainty, Phil Engen of Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan says he’s optimistic the camp can start its season on time. Typically, work on opening the camp for the season begins in late May, and the first guests arrive June 6, said Engen, who lives in Tolna, N.D., during the off-season.

Lawrence Bay Lodge this year marks its 50th season.

Phil Engen (right), sister Mindy and dad Randy, all of Tolna, N.D., are partners in Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Phil Engen says he remains optimistic the border will reopen and the camp's first guests can arrive June 6 as scheduled, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Phil Engen/ Lawrence Bay Lodge)
Phil Engen (right), sister Mindy and dad Randy, all of Tolna, N.D., are partners in Lawrence Bay Lodge on Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Phil Engen says he remains optimistic the border will reopen and the camp's first guests can arrive June 6 as scheduled, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Phil Engen/ Lawrence Bay Lodge)

“Luckily, we were about 90% booked by mid-February, so we’re very fortunate that way,” Engen said. “Most people aren’t canceling anything yet; they’re just kind of waiting and seeing and hoping for the best.”

About 90% of the camp’s customers come from the U.S., so the border issue is crucial, he said.

“I’ve talked to about 80% of the booked customers, and most of them have just said they’d roll it to 2021 if we can’t operate,” Engen said. “We’ve had a few people where they asked for the money back just because the situation is affecting their businesses in a very bad way.”

If the border closure extends past May 21 and continues into June, Engen says he probably will become more concerned. But for now, he’s hoping for the best.

“We’re just moving ahead,” he said. “The only thing that’s changed is we’ll probably have a few spots open in June we maybe wouldn’t have had. But other than that, if we can operate, we’ll be there as soon as we can.”

And so, it seems, will the American anglers for whom Canadian fishing trips are a highlight of their year.

“Every year when we drive back, we’re already planning next year’s trip,” said Engels, the Iowa fisherman who treks to Lake Athapapuskow. There hasn’t been a trip, he says, when the crew hasn’t landed at least 15 pike big enough to meet the 41-inch minimum required to qualify for Manitoba’s popular Master Angler program.

“That’s what keeps us coming back, just the quality of the fish that we catch up there,” Engels said. “And then you get the lake trout. We’ve caught walleye that are over 30 inches every year when we’re fishing for pike.

“And then just getting away. We rarely see other people fishing, and that’s a big part of it also because you can’t get the isolation you get up there in many places down here in the states.”