With summer winding down, do you still have the urge to get away from it all just one more time this year? It's not too late to hook up with the BWCAW's walleyes, pike and bass! (August 2007)
As summer moves toward fall, the BWCAW's walleyes put on the feedbag.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.
The temperature in the Twin Cities was pushing very close to the triple-digit range. The fishing on most of the lakes in Minnesota was miserable on two counts. The heat was unbearable, even with a frequent dip in the lake to cool off, and the fish weren't biting either.
I almost started believing there could be something to that global warming thing, and then it hit me that it is much cooler in the north, and the fish are always biting up there. So, what was I doing on this west-metro lake in a Speedo with three coats of sunscreen all over my body?
I thought about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where the cool evening breeze requires a long-sleeved flannel shirt, where the window of opportunity for shorts and a T-shirt is only a few hours in the middle of the day, and where a frying pan full of walleyes works much better on a stove at a campsite than the stove in a house.
My next scheduled Boundary Waters trip was for October, but I had to hit the road now. This would be my last call for some summer action for BWCAW walleyes, pike and bass. So, I cleared five days on my calendar, packed the canoe, boat and some gear, and called my No. 1 guide in Ely, Bill Slaughter -- and I was off to northern Minnesota.
Fortunately, Slaughter had a couple of days open on his schedule during the week so he and I could explore some small lakes in the canoe. The other couple of days I would base out of the Fall Lake campground where I could use my 12-foot boat with the six-horsepower motor. The weather forecast looked favorable, the last-minute details were coming together, and the reports from some of my other connections in that area were that the fishing had been good. The plan was coming together nicely.
August is a great month to be taking advantage of the great fishing and camping in the Boundary Waters. While downstate anglers are trudging through five to six weeks of "dog days" trying to coax a bite from a fish that seems content to just lie on the bottom, BWCAW anglers are chasing walleyes, pike, bass and panfish that are willing biters.
I break the BWCAW up into three sections. I call the first section "Gunflint," which consists of lakes off the Gunflint Trail heading north out of Grand Marais. I call the second one "Sawbill," and this area includes the lakes north of the Sawbill Trail out of Tofte. The third is called "Ely," which consists of all the lakes you can reach from the entry points around the town of Ely. When I first started to explore the Boundary Waters about 25 years ago, I started in the Gunflint zone and worked my way west. Today, I find myself utilizing the lakes in the Ely range more. Each area has its advantages.
As I drove north to dodge the heat wave engulfing the lower portion of the state, I began planning my strategy for the week. I would set up a base camp on Fall Lake at the U.S. Forest Service Campground and fish there in my boat the first few days if I could get a permit. When Slaughter became available, we would take canoes and explore some of the other BWCAW lakes on day trips.
This is what I call a "low-impact trip" because the portages are lightweight ordeals where you are not taking all the gear you need to camp remotely -- just some rods and tackle, snacks and bait. You can hike into great fishing locations this way.
I still make trips into the BWCAW where we haul all the gear and food, and set up camp well into the boundaries of this popular wilderness area. Those trips are fun as well, but they take more planning and time than I had when I decided to break loose on the spur of the moment.
Walleye anglers will discover that the lakes in the Gunflint range provide some breathtaking scenery, quality fishing for big pike, lake trout and nice walleyes, and there are some quality outfitters in that area.
You will appreciate what you get with an outfitter. They provide the watercraft that best suits the water you are traversing. The outfitters set you up with a nice array of meals in packs that work well for the hiking and portaging you do. Maps, directions and even pre- and post-trip accommodations can be booked through an outfitter. If you are worried about getting lost or fear the uncertainties of a maiden voyage into the BWCAW, an outfitter can also fix you up with a guide to quell those concerns. Check out the trips offered by Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters. They have a trip into Seagull Lake that pops out at Lake Saganaga. It's a light to moderate trip in terms of difficulty, and the fishing will be outstanding.
"Your trip starts on the north side of Seagull and you have four miles of paddling along the island-studded north shore of the lake," according to the outfitter's Web site. "Then comes the longest of your three portages during the trip -- it is a bit over 100 rods -- about one-third mile long. Beautiful Alpine Lake just begs to be explored and fished, and is a very good spot to spend your first two nights camping. Then you move on to Red Rock Lake for another two nights. This lake tends to be more remote with fewer visitors. The fishing is usually good for walleyes and bass. On your last day, you take the short portage over to Saganaga Lake and are met by a towboat for a fast ride back to the roadhead and our waiting van. This easy trip works well for soft fishermen, easy-going couples and families."
Want something a bit tougher? Check out this trip Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters offers.
"We start you on West Bearskin Lake and you head north through Duncan Lake and on toward Rose Lake," says their site. "You cross Stairway Portage, a particularly scenic spot, as you leave Duncan Lake. A few feet off the portage is a beautiful overlook at the top of a cliff. The entire Canadian valley opens up north of you with Rose Lake sparkling in the foreground. Fortunately, you are going down Stairway Portage (108 log steps) as you journey on to Rose Lake and a pine-studded campsite for the coming night. The lake is known for outstanding fishing, so it is worth casting some of the shoreline for your dinner. Rose Lake is a border lake, so the north half is in Canada. You continue your trip heading west through Mud, Rat, South, North and Gunflint lakes. You cross the Laurentian Divide between South and North Lakes -- you leave the Atlantic watershed and enter the headwaters of the Arctic watershed, much as the voyageurs did. You paddle back to our dock on Gunflint at the end of your trip."
When fishing the Gunflint, take plenty of 1/8-ounce jigs and 2- an
d 3-inch scented plastic grub tails. This simple fishing setup catches walleyes, bass, pike and even lake trout. I also bring along a few weedless spoons like the Johnson Silver Minnow so I can strain some of the cabbage in the bays for pike.
If there is one mistake that anglers in the BWCAW make, it is that they always feel compelled to fish too deep. Seldom do I find myself fishing much more than 12 feet deep, even in the middle of August. I have discovered that if I find a spot on the lakes where there is some water flowing into the lake, I can fish the edges of the current and always catch some walleyes or smallmouth bass. Be sure to key on the cabbage beds and bulrushes for pike. Lake trout anglers may have to search deeper, but the hardcore laker chasers usually carry portable sonars.
My first couple of days on Fall Lake were perfect. Slaughter had drawn me a map on the back of a paper placemat from Sir G's restaurant where we gorged ourselves on fine Italian cuisine soon after I arrived in Ely. The spot he showed me that was holding walleyes was producing a fish on every pass. Most were only around a pound, but about one out of seven fish were in the 20- to 22-inch range. My best spots in front of the spillway from Fall Lake into Newton and the reef on the east side of Mile Island didn't produce, so I was lucky I had the makeshift map Slaughter provided or I wouldn't have had any walleyes for dinner.
The pike on Fall Lake were predictably back in the bays and unpredictably very shallow. I had to drop a spinnerbait right on the shore edge and drag it back through the heavy grass to tempt the northerns.
Anglers who are pushing into the BWCAW to camp and fish for a few days at a time like to set up their routes in loops. This is where you start out on a lake and make a big loop with a few portages, never backtracking but ending up back at your starting point. You will find many loop options where the lakes are densely packed like what you find out of Sawbill.
One of my favorite loops out of Sawbill is the Temperance Lake Loop from Cherokee Lake. It's a four-day jaunt that will get you into some big pike and decent walleye fishing. Heading north out of Sawbill, you'll slide through Ada and Scoop lakes, and make a long portage before getting to Cherokee, which is a great lake to spend a night and soak up all the BWCAW beauty. Spend one day on Cherokee chasing the big pike. You may be tempted to ply some of the deep water for lake trout, but don't waste your time. Try the bays and chuck spoons for pike, because there are some nice ones in Cherokee.
When you are done with Cherokee, head down to North and South Temperance lakes, where you will find some decent walleye fishing. South Temperance was always my favorite for walleyes because you can find them on the saddles between islands. I cast a jig and twistertail, let it sink to bottom and slowly retrieve it back to the canoe.
On your way back to Sawbill, you should make it a point to spend a half-day on Smoke Lake. On the south side of the big island on the northeast corner of Smoke, you can suspend a jig in 10 feet of water to catch 2-pound walleyes with some consistency. If you don't find them there, cast a grub-tipped jig into shallow areas between the smaller islands. There are plenty of walleyes in Smoke, so you should find some.
When Slaughter and I could finally get out in the canoes, the sky took on some clouds and the air had that heavy feeling of humidity. Not wishing to get stuck too deep into the wilderness with the potential for heavy rains, the decision was made to head up to Lake One.
Lake One is a great entry point because portaging isn't required -- just park and drop in the canoe. Be aware there are some permit logistics that need to be dealt with whenever you venture into the Boundary Waters. Day-use motor permits need to be acquired for the lake you are on if you plan to use a boat with a motor. If none are available, you need to make adjustments.
If the Fall Lake permits were unavailable, my plan was to camp at Fall Lake and use the boat on Shagawa, which is a lake outside the BWCAW. Fortunately, I was able to get the necessary permits for the motorboat as well as the day trips I took with Slaughter. On a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Boundary Waters, you have to take things as they come. Certain lakes or loops are very popular and permits are rarely available without early reservations, but some can be had on the day you get there. Slaughter and I would have liked to take a trip into Horse Lake, but the permit wasn't available. We settled for Wood Lake the day after Lake One and Lake Two.
The reason we ventured into Lake Two on that potential rain day was that the walleyes weren't cooperating on Lake One. I didn't like the idea of paddling and portaging in too far, but the portages from Lake One to Lake Two are short, and it was a wise decision by Slaughter.
There are narrows on the southwest section of Lake Two as you head to the Rock Island Lake portage. We were tipping 1/8-ounce jigs with leeches, and every time I dropped that bait down, I got a bite from a 2- to 3-pound walleye. We would have stayed there far longer than the two hours we were there, but the thunder started barking in the distance. By the time we arrived back at the truck, the rain had started. By the time we had all the equipment packed and the canoe lashed, it was a deluge. Slaughter credited the outstanding walleye fishing we had to us being right on the cusp of the weather front. He predicted the next day on Wood Lake would be tougher.
I guess tough is a relative term. The portage from the parking off the Fernberg Trail to the drop-in point on Wood Lake is 180 rods. That's over a half-mile, and there are plenty of ups and downs to this trail. Fortunately, we had little gear or it would have made a tough portage even tougher.
There is a small island right in the middle of Wood Lake, and between the west side of the island and the shoreline point is a shallow rock flat. I thought the weather front could push the walleyes to the deep edge of the rock, but Slaughter positioned the canoe in 6 to 8 feet of water and drifted us over the shallow top of the rock slab. My experience fishing with Slaughter over the years has convinced me to never question his judgment, and our success on Wood Lake only cemented that conclusion. We set the hook on a few dozen 1- to 2-pound walleyes that fell for the jig-and-leech combo.
I was glad about this, because Slaughter mentioned a couple of times that if the walleyes weren't biting on Wood Lake, we would grind out the three portages into Basswood Lake's Hoist Bay where he knew for sure we could get into some walleyes. Of course, we may have had to portage back after dark, but the almost-full moon would make that "a simple task." That comment by Slaughter made me smile.
Even though I own all the gear I need to make a successful outing in the BWCAW, I still use outfitters and guides. It makes the trip easier, especially those short-notice decisions. Here are a few outfitters who will take good care of you when you go.
In Gunflint, call Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters at 1-888-226-6346 or www.gunflintoutfitters.com Out of Sawbill, contact Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at www.sawbill.com or (218) 663-7150. Out of Ely, the best is Bill Slaughter's Northwoods Guiding Service at www.elymnguide.com or 1-800-559-9695.
Did anybody say, "Road trip"?
Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com