I slid the canoe into the lake and stared out at the white caps. Across the bay, the pines were bending and straining to stay upright in the 30 mph gusts of wind. A light rain started to fall as Braden and I shoved off and headed for the tiny island a hundred yards off the campsite. Canoeing, let alone fishing, seemed downright ridiculous in the fierce, heaving lake. For the past two days, we were stuck in our tents as the wind howled and rain pounded our tent as temps approached record lows (in the high 30’s), weather more conducive to curling up and reading a book rather than fishing. But it was the last day. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
At first, the wind seemed manageable as we started out from shore. But when we reached the open water it was obvious that it would be all I could do to paddle and keep Braden in position to make a few casts before we were swept to the opposite shore. I figured the pike would be patrolling the reeds off the windswept little island, gorging themselves on minnows blown in from the lake. Braden pulled his spinner from the hook holder as we blew over to the island. Fly fishing was impossible in the wind. A few casts produced nothing. We circled it, pounding the shoreline with spinners, crankbaits, and even jigs, but not a bite. Confused, I switched to a diving Rapala and paddled out to deeper water. Trolling out to a point, we dragged our Rapalas through the rocks. The rain was still falling sporadically and the wind kept pounding the canoe. Just as I was about to get discouraged, Braden’s rod bent over. The fight wasn’t very long, and he pulled in a little walleye, just big enough to fry over the fire. It was all of twelve inches, but at this point we didn’t care. It was a fish, and we were pumped to get out there overcome the challenges that the lake threw at us when our instinct told us to crawl back into the tent.
A few days earlier, we decided to make a last minute trip to the Boundary Waters. The BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) is a huge canoe-only wilderness area in the northeast corner of Minnesota. The hundreds of lakes have some of the best warmwater fishing anywhere. Most are filled with smallmouth and pike and walleye that reach monstrous sizes in the large, clear lakes. Some have lakers and even stream trout. Besides a few of the entry lakes and motor routes, the pristine lakes are lightly fished and the fish can be quite aggressive. Canoes and your back are the only way of transportation in the BWCAW, so it tends to weed out the city slickers once you get a few portages in. It is one of my absolute favorite places to fish. The deep wilderness and the stunning solitude provokes a feeling of awe and reverence.
View from camp
The only permit available (that didn’t require a 300 rod portage) the day before entry was the Fall Lake route. The unmistakable smell of damp pine forest greeted us as we reached the end of the road out of the canoeing town of Ely. Ely is a quiet little town, yet full of excitement and anticipation as it is the last stop before the wilderness. We launched our canoes from the Fall Lake landing on Wednesday and paddled across the lake and made a quick portage around the rapids. After paddling through Newton Lake, we portaged into Basswood Lake and set up camp.
Poor man’s lobster
Rapids on the portage
The three of us launched the canoe the next morning at a lazy ten o’clock after some scrambled eggs over the fire. The scenery was breathtaking. Pines and cedars and birches towered over the lake. A few stark rock faces jutted out from the clear, deep waters, rising steeply above the lake. To cover some ground quickly and get an idea where the fish were we tossed some hardware and started trolling for pike. It wasn’t long before my rod was bent over and I had a little pike in the canoe. He swallowed the spinner, so we kept him for a little shore lunch.
A tiny island rose out of the middle of the bay, surrounded by reeds and cabbage. It wasn’t much more than a few rocks and scraggly bushes, stretching only a few canoe lengths long. But it was one of the most fishy spots I’ve ever seen. A light rain began falling on the quiet northwoods as I paddled closer to the shallows. Braden started casting his new eight weight toward the island, landing his Meat Whistle right up under the bushes. Only a few casts into the day, a pike came flying out from the rocks to intercept the fly, engulfing it as Braden started stripping.
“Got him” he said as his line went tight. The pike, a decent fish of about twenty inches, bursted out to deeper water, but Braden pulled him up to the canoe after a short fight. Just before I could land him, he shot out of the water, severing the line with his sharp teeth, leaving us with a shredded leader and a grin on our faces. This was gonna be good.
I strung up my eight weight and tied on a llama fur clouser minnow. It only took a few casts to the edge of the weeds before I hooked up with a strong fish. At first I figured it was a big pike from the hard run it made when I hooked him, but the water flashed bronze and I landed a solid Boundary Waters smallmouth of about sixteen inches. It wasn’t a monster, but even the smaller bronzeback put up quite a battle and had my eight weight throbbing and took line a few times. This guy was very fat and muscular, obviously gorging himself on the abundant crayfish that are a staple food source for the fish up here.
Boundary Waters bronzeback on the fly
I landed another smaller bass and Noah caught a little pike on the spin rod. Braden landed his first fish on the eight weight, a pike that smashed his Hog Snare. A thunderstorm started to roll in, so with one pike on the stringer we headed back to camp.
The storm lasted for a few hours, and after dinner we hit the water again. A loon’s eerie laugh echoed over the calm lake as we paddled out to the island. Braden and I fly fished while Noah launched a spinner at the weeds. One small pike on the spinner was all we could manage after a full paddle around the island. The fish had seemingly turned off with the storm. But not completely.
Noah tossed his spinner up into the cabbage and it got nailed. He set the hook into what looked like a decent fish. The pike rolled on the surface, betraying its true size. It was a beast of a northern, at least ten pounds! Then all chaos broke loose. Noah’s little ultralight stick doubled over, his drag squealing almost as loud as he was as the monster pike shot off. Braden and I immediately calmed him down, and he fiddled with his drag until he got it right. It seemed like an eternity, but miraculously the six pound test held through the battle, enduring some powerful bursts and dives near the boat. I slid a hand under the monster and got her in the canoe for a quick hero shot. She taped at 36” and would’ve been close to twelve pounds according to a weight conversion. I revived her, and she slid back into the depths.
We fished a bit more before heading back to camp and crawling into a warm sleeping bag. The next two days were just miserable. The rain poured and the wind howled, gusting up to thirty mph. It was cold, too, more like weather you’d find in October than the end of July. I did brave the squal and tried a little shore fishing Friday night. My first cast into the surf I hooked another big pike on the spinner. I battled the fish, a few inches shorter than Noah’s, right up to the rocks, but it popped off before I could get a picture. I stuck a couple hammer handles in the shallows before the fishing shut off and I couldn’t buy another bite.
The walleye was the only fish we managed to catch on Saturday. The weather was just as bad as Friday, keeping us in our tents for practically the whole day. On the paddle out Braden and I trolled Rapalas in a last ditch attempt to pull in some fish. I caught a little bronzeback and a hammerhandle pike, and Braden LDR’d a big smallie. It looked like a salmon jumping way out on the horizon with all the line he had out. Despite all the rain it was a good trip and it was great to get up there again. There’s almost nothing better than a few days of camping and fishing up north.