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"You'll Fall In Love With It"

Dryberry Lake, Ontario

Dryberry Lake

As I write this, it's Saturday morning, cloudy and rainy. A fierce wind drives rain in sheets against the windows. The whitecaps of the waves on the lake smash against the cliff below the cabin. Dryberry is angry with us, this last day of our week here. Perhaps she's punishing us for intruding into her solitude. People don't come here very often, to Dryberry. She's not used to us. She wants us to go.

I sense that, as I look out the window of the cabin, down the channel to the south. We went down that channel every day, seeking her mighty muskellunge. Our two boats explored Dryberry, fishing the rock walls, the reefs, the weedbeds. We met no one else there. She was ours alone.

Horrific Storm - Huge Waves

But perhaps she didn't want us? And she guarded her secret, the one fish that we sought. She didn't give that to us.

But then, graciously, she gave us other things. She gave us other beautiful muskellunge, jumping bass, strong trout from her depths. She gave us blue skies and brilliant white clouds, rainstorms and rainbows. She gave us towering rock cliffs and green forests and air filled with the scent of Christmas Trees. She gave us solitude and peace, even as we disturbed her solitude.

And she gave us a glimpse of her secret...

But it's time for us to leave her alone. Neal is coming back to get us in a couple of hours, to lead us the fifteen miles from the island to the boat launch. We'll brave the wind and waves for those miles, and then take our boats from her waters. It's time to go home.

But is she really angry? Or is there something else, a promise?


What can you say about the Muskie Lake of your dreams? A Canadian wilderness lake way off the beaten path. A lake with virtually no fishing pressure, no other fishing boats. A lake with no resorts, no houseboats, no sailboats, no jet skis. A lake where you go to sleep and wake up to the sounds of Loon calls. A lake where you can count the rocks on the bottom at twenty feet. A lake with wonderful weed beds and awesome rock reefs. A lake with 300 foot depths, and readily catchable lake trout. A lake with dozens of sheltered bays that hold smallmouth bass also so eager to be caught that they chase your Muskie lures.

And the Muskies? A lake that's produced more 50-inch Muskies in the last ten years than the entire state of Wisconsin. A lake where the stories of monster fish are so incredible that you roll your eyes as you listen to them. Until, one day out there, you look down in the water and see...

What do you say about a lake like that?

"You'll fall in love!" That's what you say!

Elaine and Greg Dockside

That's what Elaine Randolph said to us, as she reluctantly climbed out of the boat onto the dock, having spent four days Muskie fishing on Dryberry Lake, Ontario. "You'll fall in love with it." And she was right.

We crossed paths with Elaine and Greg as they were leaving and our party was arriving. My friend Tom Bastian had finagled a deal with Neal Larson at Shingwak Resort, and got a week at Shingwak Outpost on Dryberry. The stories he spun for me and my fishing partner Jerry Peters were not to be ignored. We were promised "the Muskie experience of a lifetime," and we bought it.

So Jerry and I drove up from Minneapolis on a Saturday in August. We met up with Tom and his buddy Terry Lusk in Sioux Narrows and stayed the night at Shingwak on Whitefish Bay. The next morning we took an ancient five–mile long logging road to the one and only boat launch on Dryberry.

As we got there, the boat with our host and guide Neal Larson bringing Elaine and Greg back was just pulling up to the dock. And Elaine didn't want to get out of the boat and didn't want to leave! Their four days had gone way too fast. There were way too many Muskies and Smallmouth Bass left to chase. She wanted to stay! But it was our turn.

We talked to the Randolphs for a bit as we launched our own boats. The Muskie fishing had been great, the catching slow (although obviously that didn't trouble Elaine). They had raised a bunch, hooked several, and had a couple up to the boat before the fish escaped. And they had caught Smallmouth at will. But they hadn't caught "The Fish," and indeed hadn't seen it. That meant they were coming back next year.

Well, this was our own first year, and we were eager to go. We loaded our boats, parked the cars and trailers (after a few adventures with that, as I'll tell you later), and set off for Reddens Island.

Neal led us on the 20–mile, 45–minute ride to the cabin in his own boat, followed by Jerry and me in our Lund and Tom and Terry in Tom's Sylvan. An agonizing journey. Not that the weather was bad, or the lake rough, or anything like that. But we kept passing spectacular Muskie spot after spot, and we didn't stop to fish. I couldn't believe it!

Was this the "bad part" of the lake? Were we going to the "good part"? How could anything be better than this gorgeous stuff passing by? Well, we found out during our week on the lake, one of the truly memorable fishing experiences of my life, as promised. I'll tell you about our adventures in just a bit, but let me give you some background on the setting, the lake and our guide.

The Setting:

Dryberry is a sprawling, winding lake of about a hundred thousand acres. It's located some 20–miles north of Sioux Narrows, to the east of Highway 71, now virtually isolated. Access to the lake is by one un–maintained, rocky and pot–holey road that takes well over an hour to navigate. For sure, you need four–wheel drive, and even then the five–mile drive in is daunting. Our boat trailers took a bit of a beating, even though we crept along exceptionally carefully.

Decades ago, during the logging days, the lake was far more accessible and fished heavily. It was one of the "hot" lakes, and legends grew up about its monster fish. But the logging stopped in the 1950's, the logging roads disintegrated, and finally just the one intimidating access road remains. There are no resorts on Dryberry, and just five cabins.

Because of this, the fishing pressure on Dryberry is inconsequential. Neal Larson – more on him later – brings clients out to his Shingwak Outpost, but that basically is it. During our week, we saw exactly one other boat fishing, just once, and that was a man with two children out for an afternoon.

Understand what I'm saying here – Dryberry has to be one of the least pressured, unspoiled Muskie lakes left. I've never seen anything like it, certainly not in Wisconsin or Minnesota, or even elsewhere in Canada. The access situation makes "day trips" virtually impossible. Hopefully, this won't change – I'd hate to see a paved road and resorts appear on Dryberry. But until that happens, the fishing pressure will be trivial.

The Lake:

Ripe Blueberries on the Bushes

Dryberry is a classic Canadian Shield lake. It's all granite, with sheer cliffs rising in places a couple of hundred feet above the water and maximum depths to well over 400-feet. The surrounding forest is lush with Jack Pine, White Pine, and Birch. And Blueberries are absolutely everywhere! They surround the cabin, and we picked and ate them just about anyplace we put ashore. The origin of the name "Dryberry" may come from this, although it apparently dates back to Indian days.

The water in the northern part (the "Point Lake" area) is clear but tannic acid stained. The water in the southern part is crystal clear. With a high sun and calm water, we could readily see down twenty feet or more.

The lake is peppered with rock islands and underwater bars and reefs. Because of the water clarity, running into rocks is not a major danger, if just a bit of care is taken. (There are no depth contour maps or buoys.) As everywhere in Canada, you should always have a GPS with you.

Getting and Staying There:

Neal and Brenda Larson run Shingwak Resort on Whitefish Bay, and he has a deal on the cabin on Reddens Outpost. Neal brings guests out to Dryberry for stays of various lengths. You can get ahold of them at 1-807-226-5630, or e–Mail or visit their web site.

For your trip, Neal will escort you out, get you situated, and guide you if you so desire (which I strongly recommend). And if you want to stay by yourself, he'll come back to take you out, as he did with us.

It takes about an hour or so by boat to get to the island, with some tricky navigation involved. You have to raise your motor at least once to get through shallow rocks. At the island the dock has room for four boats, and it's partially sheltered by another small island just across from a weed bed that holds Muskies. There's a boathouse stocked with various tools for emergency use, and also a gas–driven generator that provides electricity for the cabin.

The Island itself is two or three hundred feet across, pine covered, with blueberries everywhere. The cabin is a hundred feet or so up a narrow, wooded trail.

The cabin sits on the highest point at the edge of a cliff maybe a hundred feet high. It has a deck overlooking a gorgeous view to the south. You can see miles down the lake, a panorama of nature, of water and wilderness. Sitting on the deck watching the patterns of sun on the water and the clouds drifting across the islands brings peace to your soul – the world is a million miles away. I wish I were there right now... But I have to tell you more about the place.

The cabin has two bunkrooms sleeping eight people. It has a propane stove and refrigerator, and a bathroom with a shower. It also has propane lights if the generator is off. It has a radio telephone for emergencies. Another nice touch – there's a wood burning stove for those cool evenings.


If you bring your own, you have to arrange for gas. Basically that means bringing in as many extra cans as you think you'll use. Neal also will guide you on his boat, which makes for much better fishing.


Okay, enough on all that stuff – before I get into the fishing I need to tell you about Neal. He's another one of those wonderful "Muskie Characters" that I've encountered over the years. But special. He's the one person I've met that I believe will catch the World Record Fish, on Dryberry of course. For one, that's his stated and serious purpose in life – to catch that fish. For another, he's had her on his line, at least once.

Neals background:

Neal fished Lake of the Woods for the first time in 1976, and fell in love with the area. On that first trip, he decided that he was going to own a resort on the lake someday. It took him 16–years. In 1992 he resigned his job as Vice President of the Western Region for Borden's, married Brenda, and bought Shingwak. He wanted to run an affordable place that also offered superior fishing. And Shingwak is certainly that. It's on Whitefish Bay, which itself has Muskies of trophy proportions, as well as walleye and other fish. And it certainly is a great resort for fishermen, with or without families.

But something happened along the way. Some 21 years ago, Neal went out with Roy Rawn, a local guide, to fish for Lake Trout on Dryberry. He caught a 48-pounder, which hit at 30–feet and took an hour to bring in. The next trip, he caught a 54–inch Muskie, jigging for lake trout. And the magic of Dryberry took hold, instantly, like it did with Elaine and Greg and us. Neal's been fishing it ever since, every chance he gets, with or without guests. He no longer goes after Lake Trout, it's just Muskies. And he has stories...

Like the time, a few years ago, he had a Muskie hit at boatside. Neal saw it clearly. He told us how long he thought it was, but I won't repeat that – it would just make you, the reader, snort in derision. But the Muskie took the bucktail and "spooled his line" on the first run. Neal, a highly experience Muskie fisherman, was helpless. The line broke and the fish was gone. Or like the time, some years before that, when he and Brenda were "dead bait" fishing for Lake Trout from shore. A Muskie, again of proportions that bear reporting, brought in the ciscoe, spit it out, and slowly swam away.

And there are other stories, too. But there's more than just stories. Neal keeps an exceptionally detailed journal of all the fish he's caught during the nine years he's been fishing Dryberry seriously. He has statistics on location, lure, weather, all that, for some 350 fish. That journal includes 64 Muskie of 50–inches or longer...

Neal Larson Marking Hot Spots

He has a map he showed us, marked with spots where he's caught fish. He doesn't use "X's," he puts the length of the fish on the map. It only shows the high 40's and 50–inchers. He has marks everywhere on the lake.

In 1999, he caught a fish, off a certain point, while fishing with a client. They measured the fish: 59 3/4–inches with a 28.75–inch girth. Neal released it. But run the equations on that length & girth combination. You're talking a 60–pound fish. He's got a photo. And from that photo had a replica made, now displayed at Shingwak Lodge. He's fished that spot continuously, ever since. He has seen the fish one more time – he estimates it at 62–inches now.

Mounted 60-inch Muskie

He took us to the spot on the first day he guided us, and we fished it. While he was gone, Jerry and I fished the spot at least a couple of times every day. One of those days in the middle of the week, we were drifting along by the rocks on the point. Tom and Terry were there in their boat, drifting and talking to us. At the end of one cast, as my mind was a million miles away and my eyes were on their boat. I looked down. There, a foot behind my bucktail, right at boatside, was...

Well, never mind. Once again, it's one of those things where I can't quote numbers, can't really tell you what I saw. You'd laugh again. But let me just note the following: by some oversight of the Muskie gods, I caught a 50 1/2–inch fish on Waconia a few years ago. The replica hangs above my fireplace. I look at it often. Bastian has a 54–inch fish above his fireplace. I've looked at that one many times too. I know how big a 50–inch fish is. I also know about the distortion caused by water, and how a brief glimpse in the situation I've described doesn't make for convincing estimates. But, with all that, as the fish turned broadside, and slid away from my bucktail, and as my mouth dropped open, I have to tell you that... Never mind.

Okay, enough on the yarns. Here's some fishing data of a more substantive nature on what lives in Dryberry.

Lake Trout:

Depth Finder's Screen Shot

Let me start out with those. Jerry and I are total novices at Lake Trout fishing, having never done it. But he's got a downrigger on his boat, and here was an opportunity to try it out. So for a couple of hours for two afternoons, we gave the Muskies a rest (Editor's note: We're the ones needing the rest) and trolled around in front of the cabin for Lake Trout. Take a look at the picture I took of the graph – there were marks all over the place! And the first day we dropped the rig down to 80–feet, drifted off down the lake for about five minutes, and fish was on!
(Editor's note: Instead of taking the pole himself, Juris yelled to me that my pole was wiggling and off of the downrigger weight. Luckily the fish hung on. What a guy.)
Jerry brought up a nice 24–inch fish on his very first try. I couldn't believe it.

A Nice 24-inch Lake Trout

Well it slowed down – we got another one, this time 26-inches the next day, and Tom's boat got three other fish, all in about six hours of fishing between our two boats. It made for a great Trout dinner one night.

But we were all rookies, and put in extremely limited efforts into Lake Trout. However – look at the graph picture again – there are fish at all levels over deep water, and Neal tells us that some huge ones are in there. So I would speculate that for those of you who may know how to do it, Dryberry could be a Lake Trout paradise.

Smallmouth Bass:

Of course, the Trout fishing has to hold second place to the Smallmouth Bass. I've got a bit more experience with those – I've got a 20 1/2–inch fish to my credit – but I've never seen anything like Dryberry. On the first day, when Neal took us out Muskie fishing, he kept pointing out the giant Smallmouth Bass that would follow our Muskie lures. In particular, the shallow bays with downed trees and weed beds seemed to hold them in great profusion.

Finally, Tom and I went out one evening to see what would happen if we fished Smallmouth seriously. In a little over an hour, we caught maybe a dozen fish, all between 14 to 18–inches. We were throwing small crankbaits on light line, and the fish were just nuts. We would have caught perhaps twice that many, but the "pesky" Northerns also insisted on getting hooked, and it was a chore to get them into the boat and off the hook. Finally though, right before dark, the smallmouth shut down and for the last hour or so we caught only Northerns.

So there you have a whole bunch of good–sized bass in one hour. We really never did get a huge one, though, although 18–inchers are nothing to sneeze at. Again, if one were to put in some even semi–serious effort, I'm positive six or seven pound Smallmouth would be virtually guaranteed.

Northern Pike:

Neal says that he didn't catch any Northerns on Dryberry until they showed up about four years ago. (That may one of the reasons the Muskies have done so well.) He doesn't know how they got into the lake. We caught Northerns quite often, both with Muskie lures and while fishing Smallmouth. The biggest was less than 30–inches, which goes along with their relatively recent introduction to Dryberry.

Neal doesn't like the Northerns, and I have to agree with him. They can't be good for the Muskies. Undoubtedly, there will eventually be big pike in the lake, but that's much less of an attraction than the giant Muskies that are already there.


Interesting situation. Neal told us that there were no Walleye in Dryberry, due to cold water or whatever. He's never fished for them. But then he told us that the lake didn't hold Perch either, until we pointed out that the schools of Perch under his own dock...

We didn't fish for Walleyes, so I have no data. But I'm ready to bet vast sums of money that any lake that has Muskies, Northerns, Smallmouth Bass, and Perch also has Walleyes. And I'm also ready to bet that the Walleye fishing, even more than the Trout and Smallmouth, just might be truly spectacular, give that there is zero pressure on them.

(Jerry and I haven't told Neal this, but next year when we come back, we're bringing some nightcrawlers or leeches, and we'll find out for sure about the Walleyes.)


Okay – Dryberry's prize attraction. Here's what Neal does. He has perhaps a hundred regular spots that he fishes, casting only. "A follow is worth its weight in gold," he says. He doesn't troll and doesn't use top waters because he wants to see the follows. Once Neal gets a follow and raises a fish in a spot, he keeps going back. Many of his fish were caught on a follow–up visit to a spot. (This applies to high 40–inch and bigger fish. He doesn't go back to spots with smaller fish.)

He's fished maybe 80% of the lake, and believes that the biggest fish come from the south, clear water part of the lake. (That's where his 60–pounder came from.) But most important is time on the water. He doesn't believe that there is any special technique or lure for the giant fish – it's just being there at the right time and the right place.

Neal's advice on fishing is to throw "a high confidence" bait with good hooking power. He uses almost exclusively a unique, custom–made "triple tandem bucktail" that Tom invented. Nobody else has them. And he's got a unique technique on a follow. When he sees the fish, he stops the retrieve and lets the bucktail sink. Then he brings it back up with a sharp snap. He's triggered a lot of fish that way. He's caught almost all of his fish on dark colors, but then he pretty much throws only dark colors.

I've already told you about Neal Larson's record, and some of the stories that he has. I think that shows the enormous potential of the lake. But then he's far from the average fisherman. When I got home I took a look at the superb statistics that Jim Bunch maintains in his "Lunge Log" on the Muskies Inc. web site. Those records show 658 fish caught on Dryberry since 1975, with an average length of 40–inches. (Note that Neal's fish are not a part of the reports.) Of those 26 – some 4% – were over 50–inches. So every 25th fish is a 50–incher; not bad.

How did our bunch of fishermen do? Well, we started slow. On Sunday and Monday, when Jerry and I fished in Neal's boat, we got all kinds of follows but no fish. The rainy and windy weather on Monday kept us off the lake, and then the "bluebird sky" cold front in the afternoon slowed the fish down, but Tom managed to get a fish. (He wouldn't tell us how long it was, and not because it might have been unbelievably big either.)

The cold front continued on Tuesday, more fish seen, and Tom managed to catch two more fish. Again, he wouldn't tell us how long. That afternoon we went Lake Trout fishing and got that first one from 80–feet. Wednesday – won't the cold front ever quit? – and a skunk day again. But Tom and I caught a bunch of Smallmouth and we had a pretty sunset.

Finally, Thursday, the weather changed, with clouds, sun, wind and even rain. And the fish started to move, with lots of follows that day. I lost one 50-incher that wanted to get caught. And I saw The Fish...

A Nice 49-inch Muskie

Then Friday, our last day at Dryberry, with a cool morning and warming throughout the day. The fish got hot. Jerry got his Muskie in the morning, a small one, and got a follow on the immediate next cast. Tom – apparently the champion numbers man of our crowd – caught two at 39" and 41". And Terry, also having been skunked for the week, made it a great trip for himself with a beautiful 48–incher. It goes without saying that all the fish were released.

So, for the week that we fished, we got 7 Muskies – one per day. (As in all my articles, in this context "we" always means the other guys and not me.) But we saw perhaps 50 fish, and several of those we (now including me) missed due to sheer incompetence, or perhaps a bit of bad luck. For example, I had that 50–incher, off a rock face, that wanted to get caught ever so badly, but I just couldn't get the figure eight going right, and eventually she gave up. It would have been a nice fish.

It was hard to quit on Friday, especially with the fish getting active. I just know if I'd stayed one more day, I would have got a lunker, I just know it! And, like Elaine on the way in, none of us wanted to leave not matter what. But the week was up, we had to go.

And then Saturday Dryberry showed us some other things....


The gray, racing clouds are low enough to touch. They send rain, driven by the wind, to sting my face and eyes. The waves bounce our boats against the dock, and it's a struggle to load up. But I love this, as much as anything. I love the energy of the wilderness here. I love it. The thoughts of the comforts of home awaiting me are on my mind. But I have to leave Dryberry, I have to go home.

I don't want to go home. I want to stay here, to explore more of her. There's so much I haven't seen, so much I haven't touched. But it's time to go...

We finished putting the black plastic garbage bags protecting our belongings into the boats, stow away our fishing rods, close up the tackle boxes. I climb into Jerry's boat, untie the lines, and the wind pushes us away from the dock. Neal is already circling in his boat, and Tom and Terry are just behind us. We turn and follow Neal's boat. The island shelters us for the first few seconds. But then we round the point, and the force of the wind hits us. I'm exhilarated. The wind, the spray on my face, the boat careening across the waves are wonderful, a moment to capture in memories.

And certainly in photographs. I take my camera from its case and begin snapping pictures. I can't hold the camera to my face, to look through the viewfinder. I'm thrown about far too violently, and have to hold on with one hand. I simply hold the camera high with one hand, point and push the button.

Neals Boat Being Tossed Like A Cork

We come up beside Neal's boat, which is smaller than ours, and I snap pictures. His boat is shooting across the waves, tossed like a cork. At times his boat disappears in a trough, and I can't even see it. Then it flies up, bow high on the wave, almost out of the water, only to smash down and send sheets of foam everywhere.

Neal's boat doesn't have a windshield, like our Lund does. I wonder how he can even see. At the dock, the stinging rain in my face made me squint. It was hard to see, even there. But here the wind is fierce, the spray and the rain together far worse. Then I catch a glimpse of Neal's face, through the spray. Is that a faint smile? Apparently he can see well enough. And I wonder – is he enjoying the untamed fury of the storm as much as I am?

Neals Boat Almost Disappears in a Wave

I wish that he had his ever-present pipe in his mouth, that I could get a photo of him with that, a sheet of water about to hit him. What a wonderful shot that would be! But this is not a time to be smoking pipes. It's a time to get off the lake. The wind is getting stronger, the waves higher. We begin to take solid water over our own bow. I look back behind us, and Tom's boat is falling behind. He too has an open bow, and he and Terry must be having a tough time.

But then, an island emerges from the mist to our left. It's upwind of us, and absorbs the full force of the wind and waves. The calmer water is a relief. We slow down and wait for Tom to catch up. He pulls up to us, waves, and we start off again. We're now in the narrow Western Channel part of Dryberry. The rock cliffs provide shelter from the south wind. It can't do much to us anymore. We speed up, and soon the dock and boathouse appear ahead. We pull up to the dock, tie up, and get out of our boats in silence. It's hard to say anything, after an experience such as we just had.

But then almost immediately an odd thing happens. The wind starts to die down. The heavy gray clouds, which had been almost low enough to touch start to break up, and the rain stops. As we put our boats on the trailers and pull them out of the water, we begin to see spots of blue through the clouds. Spots of sunlight paint bright green patches of color on the dark gray pines around us.

And then, after the boats are unloaded and we start up that misbegotten logging trail, I look back at Dryberry. To my great joy, there's a double rainbow across the lake. But why?

Beautifull Rainbow After Storm

You know, I wonder. I have no doubt that Dryberry was angry with us this last day. But perhaps I had the wrong reason. Suppose, just suppose, she had decided to grace us with one of her prize secrets today. Maybe she was going to give us one of her incomparable fish. And we spurned her. We left before she could give us the gift. We didn't accept her offering...

So then, the rainbow? A promise? Next year? An invitation to come back? I want to believe that.

And we've already made plans. After all, when you fall in love...


Author's note:

This is my fourth "Destinations" article for Muskie magazine. Previously I've written about Century Island on Osbourne Bay, houseboat fishing out of Kenora, and Red Wing Lodge on Sabaskong Bay. Those are all fine places to go, with wonderful people who run the resorts. I enjoyed the trips and writing the articles immensely.

And now Dryberry. I have to confess some qualms about this one. As I'm sure you can tell, Dryberry is very, very special. Some of that comes from its huge Muskies and great fishing for other species. But ever so much of it comes from its isolation. There's nobody else there. You're on your own deserted lake. Where else do you get that? Will this article spoil it?

When I first raised the possibility of a story on our trip to Dryberry with Neal, he said, "Sure, go ahead, but don't tell the name." I replied I couldn't do that. And after a couple of days reflecting on it, Neal gave me permission to write it.

And so I did and here you are. My excuse, if that's what I can call it, is that the single terrible logging road and the lack of resorts will restrain things. There's only the one cabin. Only one party at a time can be out there. For now, it won't be like other popular lakes, with boats all over the place, people fishing where you want to fish, going where you want to go. I really hope it never changes.

And I truly did want to write the story, especially after I got that glorious boat shot for the cover. For those of you who will get a chance to visit her, I'm jealous that I won't be there with you. For those of you who just read about this wonderful lake, well, maybe some day...

Juris Ozols

This article sparked considerable controversy within Muskies Inc.

Continue to read the authors' comments.

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