October 04, 2019
By Matthew J. Breuer
In 1978 the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act passed. This act ensured that 1,090,000 acres of beautiful forests, lakes and streams were protected. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is one of the last and largest standing uncut forests in the United States.
With so many acres of forests, over 1,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of streams within the BWCAW, opportunities for hunters and anglers abound. Into October, the Boundary Waters and the surrounding areas might just be the best place on the planet for a cast and blast.
THE BOUNDARY WATERS
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a large chunk of mixed forests, Canadian Shield lakes and winding rivers that extends along roughly 150 miles of the United States-Canada border. The BWCAW, Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park and La Verendrye Provincial Park all combine to make up what’s simply known as the “Boundary Waters.”
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The BWCAW is full of wildlife. Aside from the Minnesota and Ontario usual suspects like beaver, otters, grouse, coyotes, bears and deer, the Boundary Waters holds a good population of moose, and it’s a stronghold for timber wolves.
The Boundary Waters has been under protection since the early 1900s, but it didn’t see the strict rules still enforced today until 1978, when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was inked.
This protected the BWCAW from all logging, mining and prospecting activity, putting very strict limitations on each. It also limited or banned the use of many motorized vehicles, including motors on boats and the use of snowmobiles. A permit-based system was enacted, only allowing a certain number of people to utilize access points and sites each day.
The clash of the northern hardwoods with the southern edge of the boreal forest makes for a beautiful mix of trees and sites. When the leaves change in the fall, you might see a lone sugar maple shining in all of its colorful glory, standing apart within 40 acres of pines.
Speaking of pines, some of the white pines within the BWCAW are large enough that it would take four adults with arms outstretched to reach around their trunks. Around every corner, a different chunk of beauty awaits.
Although the BWCAW is a hugely popular place for the outdoor enthusiast, hunting is one of the lower activities on the popularity scale —mostly because it’s overlooked. With Minnesota being a top state in the U.S. for ruffed grouse hunting, pursuing grouse in the Boundary Waters is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Grouse numbers in northeastern Minnesota are good in general, and the population within the BWCAW is incredible in some areas. With hundreds of miles of hiking trails, ease of travel is good, and there are plenty of suitable openings for shots on flushing birds.
A giant bonus to grouse hunting in and around the BWCAW is the fact that it’s one of the few areas in Minnesota where you can encounter both ruffed and spruce grouse. While spruce grouse aren’t the best table fare, they sure are pretty, and they aren’t birds that many people are lucky enough to encounter.
If you’re not hardcore and want a cast-and-blast that’s a little less intense, sticking closer to the entry points offers a lot of options for some great hunting. Public lands near Ely, Tower and Isabella are all excellent places to start your adventure.
If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across chanterelle and lobster mushrooms, and three types of berries native to the BWCAW. There’s nothing like a blueberry pancake breakfast made over an open flame.
Nearly 20 percent of the Boundary Waters is made up of water. Hundreds of miles of rivers and streams and over 1,000 lakes to choose from—what more could a fisherman ask for?
Walleyes, largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, muskellunge, panfish, brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout and splake all call the Boundary Waters home. Some great river fishing for muskies and northerns can be had, and if you want to pack a fly rod, they are ideal if you’re trying to maximize the level of difficulty your trip includes. If you’re looking for shore lunches and a more laidback trip, walleyes are easily caught in many of the lakes within the Boundary Waters. Northern pike can be caught from shore right near your campsite, and some dandies to boot. There’s no shortage of fishing opportunities in the Boundary Waters.
Looking at a map for the BWCAW can be very intimidating, but if you’re looking to do a cast-and-blast, your trip can easily be broken down to certain areas based on how difficult you want your trip to be. You can even plan a trip to the edge of the BWCAW, staying in one of the towns outside of the Boundary Waters, hunting and fishing the local areas, and visiting the BWCAW for some beautiful hiking and sightseeing. It all depends on how rugged you want to get.
If you’re looking to do some paddling, portaging, hiking and really work for your meals, then look to places like the Lower Beaverwood Falls. It’s a grueling push to get back there, and might be better off broken down into two days, but the smallmouth and northern pike fishing make it worthwhile. The beauty of the shorelines almost makes you forget about the burn from the portages. When you need a break, you can easily take a small jaunt through the brush looking for grouse; there are plenty in that area.
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If you want a similar experience, with a little less effort, Bog Lake is for you. Excellent walleye fishing will keep your shore lunches hefty, and enough grouse inhabit the cedar edges surrounding the lake that your wing shooting will be tested.
If you want to keep it simple and start your day with a good breakfast and a hot shower, then staying in Ely or any of the other towns near access points will allow you the luxuries of home. Ely has some great eateries, and some neat little shops. It’s also very close to several entry points, allowing you to visit the BWCAW within a few minutes. Fishing for several species on Burntside Lake just outside of Ely can be outstanding. You can also use a motor there. The grouse hunting in the Ely and Isabella areas is phenomenal as well. If you go this route, be sure to hit up the Powwow Trail for a hike. You might even encounter a spruce grouse on your walk.
PLANNING AND PACKING
Let’s start with time of year. Late-September and early October would be my suggestions, as the leaves are likely changing, and the beauty can be phenomenal. Much of the undergrowth should be shedding by then as well, making it easier to see and shoot at grouse. The temps that time of year can vary, but are usually about right for hunting and fishing, and they are cool enough to keep you from overheating while portaging or walking.
Things to keep in mind are often based on the level of difficulty you’re planning for with your trip. If you plan to make four portages and paddle 13 miles, pack light, but have essentials that will keep you warm and safe. If you’re only going in a little bit, then packing more comfort items is feasible. Just remember, whatever you take out of the truck is going to have to be carried, packed, unpacked, carried and packed several times.
Since you’re going to be bringing a gun, ammo, rods, tackle and possibly a dog, having a friend or two along is always a good idea. There’s nothing like spending time with buddies, and the BWCAW is an amazing place to bond and take advantage of the fact that your friends can help you carry gear and flush birds. Tackle is relatively simple: a handful of jigs and some 4-inch plastics for walleyes and smallmouth; some bobbers with baitholder hooks, weights and some frozen dead bait for northerns from shore; and some jerkbaits or spinnerbaits for multi-species action, too. For grouse, I like to go as light as possible. A 20 gauge at the very most, and low-brass No. 7 1/2 shot works just fine.
There are many entry points into the BWCAW and permits and regulations changed at the end of September, so be sure to do your research and plan your trip well in advance. Mapping out your exact travel route from your point of entry to your campsite is a must. Know your portages and be prepared for them. Bring a GPS.
BE BOLD, BE SAFE
Many people underestimate how “wild” the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is. It’s remote, and in some areas, it feels absolutely desolate. In the fall, the water is cool, and the weather can be unpredictable. Go into the trip with expectations for tough scenarios or bad weather, but also go with a sense of exploration and a set of goals that keeps you pushing. Be bold, be safe, and enjoy one of the most pristine pieces of wilderness on the planet.