walleye

Boundary Waters Pike and Smallmouth

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.101_5259

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

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

Poor man’s lobster

Rapids on the portage

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.

shore lunch in the bwcaw

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.

Fighting a bwcaw pike on the fly

“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

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.

Pike!

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.

Noah's monster Boundary Waters pikeNoah's 36 inch pike on Basswood Lake

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.101_5247

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.

Tight Lines,

Conner

Bluegills, Bucketmouths, and Bowfin on the Fly

We hit the lake last weekend for a couple days of chasing some bass and panfish. The fish have moved into their summer patterns but there were still a few bass to be had in the shallows.

fighting a largemouth bass on the flyI caught this bowfin on a variation of Rich Strolis’ Hog Snare just before dark in the canoe. He put up a great fight on the fly rod.

One mean-looking fish

One mean-looking fish

I caught a good sunrise–but not much else– early the next morning. The mist and the super calm lake made a very picturesque morning.101_5099

101_5104 Braden and I got out in the rowboat and fished docks for bass with spin rods later in the morning. He thought he snagged a log on his Rattle Trap, but then it started moving….he managed to land this beast of a 20″ bass after a good battle in the weeds.

20" bucketmouth right up in the shallows

20″ bucketmouth right up in the shallows

We paddled up the creek a few times to the outlet of another small lake searching for some bluegills and bass. Moving water always seems to attract fish, and despite the crazy pressure from the local bait fisherman, the little hole below the culvert produced lots of ‘gills on the fly and a few bass. The bluegills were thick and ravenous. Braden rigged up a homemade tenkara rod with a stick and hammered the fish. He got some curious looks from the locals :)

A Flash Bugger streamer fooled this nice bluegill

A Flash Bugger streamer fooled this nice bluegill

101_5133

Nailed this 17″ largemouth on a chartruese meat whistle at the culvert

fly-caught largemouth

Grandpa caught this nice crappie while trolling for walleyes

27 incher

27 incher

The Bite:

Largemouths have started to move to deeper summertime haunts, but there were still plenty of fish in the shallows on the docks and shorelines, especially in low light. Fish jigs slowly crawled along the bottom in clear water or crankbaits in the murky water

Crappies were in the weeds in 3-8 feet of water

Water Surface Temp was 74

 

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

Lake Pepin Walleyes

Pepin is a huge natural lake on the Mississippi that straddles the border of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. Revered for its prolific walleye and sauger fishery, the lake also produces lots of bass (both smallmouth and largemouth), big crappies, and plenty of catfish. This is big water – Lake Pepin is around 21 miles long and encompasses nearly thirty thousand acres of water. The influence of the Mississippi makes it very productive and brings in some interesting fish, like white and yellow bass, sheepshead, gar, and sturgeon.

We hit Pepin for the first time today. We launched late in the afternoon and hopped over to the Wisconsin side. Started trolling a little point with Lindy rigs, and it wasn’t too long before Noah hooked the first fish, a little walleye that popped off right at the net. Dad put the next fish in the boat, a sauger of about fifteen inches. Sauger rarely get much bigger than a few pounds (the average fish is around twelve inches), so it was a nice fish. We kept trolling the points and steep breaks, gradually moving shallower as we found more fish. The action was steady, but not crazy. We picked up lots of little walleye and sauger over the next few hours, but nothing too big.

The sauger were a new fish on our species list. These guys are closely related to walleye, but prefer murkier, shallower water and are usually smaller than their walleye cousins. (typically under eighteen inches).

Sauger

Walleye/sauger double!

 

Pepin is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever fished. It sits right in the middle of the Driftless Area, bordered by towering bluffs. The lake rubs right up against the steep limestone cliffs, with creeks slicing through the valleys and spilling into the lake. Many of these little streams hold trout, and the cold water at the mouth creates a hotspot for all kinds of fish. The bluffs jut right out into the lake, producing lots of interesting points and bars to fish.

Baby sauger

We headed back to the MN side and grabbed a quick walleye sandwich from a lakeside restaurant. As we were waiting for our food, Noah and I pitched jigs and crankbaits into the shallows hoping for some bass. Nothing on the jig, but I did manage to pull out a walleye on the crankbait in only about six feet of water! After we downed our sandwiches, we took a drive downstream. We stopped and hit the shallows with lipless cranks and jigs. A creek poured into a shallow, weedy bay with lots of brush, a perfect spot for bass. Sure enough, Braden hooked into a feisty smallmouth that put up quite a battle, leaping straight out of the water four times before making it to the net! I was surprised to find a bronzeback in such a weedy spot, but you never really know what to expect on Pepin.

Just before the sun fell below the horizon, we ran into a school of fish crashing bait on the surface. We were motoring around another creek mouth when a fish jumped only about twenty feet from the boat. Braden was right on him, casting his Rattle Trap slightly beyond and to the side of the rings. His Trap got nailed, and after a short but exciting battle he landed his first white bass!

Braden’s first white bass

After that it was pure chaos. Fish were erupting on the calm surface and minnows were flying everywhere in the shallows. All of us were furiously throwing our baits into the fray. I switched up my crank for a Rattlin’ Rap in light blue to better match what might be shad swimming in the shallows. My Rap got nailed after I cast it to a wake, and I pulled in another smaller white bass, my first. The fish were still frantically pounding the minnows in the shallows. Noah’s rod bent over, and a big smallie thrashed on the surface. He played him perfectly and soon had him in the net, a nice bass around 17″!I kept casting my blue Rap into the brawl. Right in the middle of the retrieve my line stopped, a good fish on the other end. I played him for a minute before landing a nice walleye of 20 inches. All of a sudden, it was dead. Just as quickly as it started, it was over. A few fish sporadically jumped, and we kept tossing our Raps, but we didn’t get another bite. As we motored back to the launch, a spectacular sunset ended a great day of fishing.

Twenty incher in only about three feet of water!

The Bite:

Walleye and Sauger were anywhere from three to eighteen feet of water, but the most consistent depths were about twelve to fifteen feet. I would fish the shallows at first and last light, and hit the deeper water during the day. We got most our fish on Lindy rigs and crawlers.

Creek mouths were hot for bass and had some crazy action right at sunset.

 

Day 3…Chasing Gold – Walleyes from the Deep

May 27, 2013

After two early mornings and some hard days of fishing, I was beat. I slept in a bit today and hit the water almost an hour after sunrise. The clouds had returned. Hopefully the bass crept back into the shallows with them, I thought as I rigged up my rod. I lazily tossed a small black/silver Flicker Shad on the spin rod from shore, slowly working the scraggly new cattail stalks and the flat adjacent to the river mouth. The familiar tap of a strike abruptly interrupted the steady wobble of the Shad, and a bass struggled at the other end. I pretty quickly landed a fat sixteen incher that inhaled my crankbait. As I released him, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I’d been out at sunrise.

I caught one more decent bass on the Float-Tail Worm bass fly before heading in for breakfast. A few hours and a cup of coffee later the four of us piled into the old row boat and headed toward deeper water looking for some walleyes. We puttered out to the dropoff with the old electric trolling motor, dropping Lindy rigs armed with nightcrawlers into the depths. We trolled the flat just off the dropoff, Noah keeping us in about eighteen feet of water. As we drifted just off a tiny point, Grandpa’s rod bent over.

“Got one?” Braden asked.

“Doesn’t feel like a weed,” Grandpa replied as he reeled it in. The water flashed gold behind the boat, and Braden put the net on him, a nice little fourteen-inch walleye! Not a monster, but it was a great start.

I’ve never really caught walleye from a boat before. Honestly, before the one I caught on the fly the only ‘eyes I’d ever caught were through the ice. Besides a few short bouts of drifting somewhere in the middle of the lake over “deep water”, I’ve never pursued them very seriously. For most anglers in Minnesota, a few walleyes wouldn’t be anything special, but we were pretty excited to get one on our first serious attempt at targeting these fish. Finding good structure, picking the right rig, and Grandpa putting a walleye in the boat gave me a great feeling of satisfaction.

We trolled for another hour without another bite. Later in the afternoon Braden and I trolled around the entire lake. For the first hour of our trip we dragged Lindy rigs along the dropoffs, over a few points, and through the flats but failed to interest any fish. Near the end of our float, we came to the same point where Grandpa pulled in his walleye earlier in the day. I picked up a baby twelve inch ‘eye and Braden caught the fish of the trip:)

Needed the net for this monster!

 

Nice fat largemouth

Bassin’ was pretty good tonight. Grandpa and I started the evening by soaking some nightcrawlers at the river mouth. Yeah, it was straight up bait fishing, but it was nice to just slow down a little and relax. A lot of (fly) fisherman get so intense in trying to match the hatch and stalk the fish that they often forget to slow down and enjoy the moment. Fishing this way allows you to do that and really enjoy the peacefulness and experience of the lake. Grandpa pulled in a nice largemouth, and both of us lost a few more worms. I fished a Meat Whistle and caught around eight in an hour. Nothing huge tonight, just bass around a pound that put up a good fight on the fly rod. I also landed another baby walleye, a cute little guy only about five inches long. Just after sunset I got perhaps the oddest catch of the trip on a fly, a little yellow bullhead! Bullheads don’t have great eyesight but rely primarily on their sense of smell to find their food, so I was surprised to find this guy on the end of my line.

 

Noah launched floating Rapalas into the dark of the night hoping for some walleyes. The fish have been coming up real shallow at night, taking advantage of the darkness to sneak onto the flats. He wasn’t disappointed, and caught two fish almost an hour after the sun slipped behind the trees, a solid sixteen incher and a smaller walleye.

Floating Raps are deadly on walleye in the shallows. This one ate a 4" monkey puke (chartreuse/fire tiger)

Tomorrow is our last day…should be another good one.

Tight Lines,

Conner

Day 2 – Sunrise on the Bass Lake and More Walleye on the Fly

I was up at five again this morning. Unlike yesterday, the clouds had thinned a bit, so we actually had a sunrise – and it was awesome. Standing knee-deep in the shallows of a lake or stream at the break of dawn on a cool morning is one of my favorite times to be outdoors. The lake is usually dead calm, yet frantic with feeding fish. Trout are rising in the creeks, bass are jumping, and every fish in the lake seems to take advantage of the relative darkness to snatch an easy meal.

Unfortunately, along with the sun came slower fishing. Despite pounding the river mouth and surrounding shoreline, I managed only two fish on the fly the whole morning, a decent largemouth that ran about fourteen inches and a smaller “pounder”.

Later in the morning, we hopped in the old van and scouted a new spot on a lower stretch of a favorite smallmouth creek. All the recent rain we’ve had put the stream running high and muddy, so it was a little tougher to figure out where the fish were holding. We tossed a variety of flies, but came up empty. The river was quite a bit wider here and very close to the confluence with a large lake, so there were undoubtedly some fish hanging around, maybe some bigger bronzebacks and pike. We backtracked and hit a favorite spot farther upstream. The creek here was unrecognizable from the last time we were here when low summer flows reduced it to practically a trickle. I only fished for a few minutes before heading back.

August

 

Late May

Once we returned to the lake, we set up at the mouth of the river for the evening bite. I nailed a nice 3 pound, six ounce largemouth on the Meat Whistle, my largest fly-caught bass of the trip. Fishing was a bit slower tonight, but all of us got some fish, mostly bass around the twelve inch mark. I also caught another walleye on the fly rod, a baby eight incher that smoked my Meat Whistle.

About 17″ on the fly rod

Gold on the fly

Overall, it was another great day of fishing. Tomorrow we’ll pull out the old row boat and hit some deeper water looking for some ‘eyes.

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

Day 1 – Bucketmouths and a surprise on a fly

May 25, 2013

Bass Opener is to fisherman what Christmas Day is to little kids. It’s one of the most highly anticipated days of our fishing year. To those who don’t have closed seasons or “Opening Day”, it might seem odd that you can’t just go out and fish whenever you want and why one day of fishing is such a big deal, but for those in states like Minnesota that has managed seasons, Opening Day becomes like a sort of sacred holiday. Opener has a way of generating incredible excitement. Weeks before Opener, we decide what flies or lures we’ll toss that morning, muse on what the weather might be like, and wonder if the big ones will be shallow. Flies and jigs are tied, leaders are checked, and strategies are made and revised for the big day.

Bass are hands down my favorite warm-water fish, so when Opener rolls around near the last weekend of May, I naturally start to get pretty excited. Largemouths hit a fly with passion, and usually put up a good fight complete with acrobatic, gill rattling jumps. Typically, the bass have already spawned out, but are still hanging around the shallows in good numbers, making them particularly vulnerable to a fly rod.

The bass were still shallow this weekend for the Opener. The crazy late spring (which we practically never had here in Minnesota) pushed back the spawn, so the big females were still right up in a foot or two of water, fat with eggs, and ready to nail a well presented bait.

 —————

Morning came quick with a five o’clock alarm. I rolled out of bed and stumbled half-awake into the pre-dawn darkness. The crisp spring morning air and the prospect of catching some unmolested bass quickly woke me up. I rigged up a small crankbait on the spin rod and the trusty brown Meat Whistle on the fly rod. I figured I’d try for the aggressive fish with the crank and go back later with the fly for the finicky ones. Second cast and a bass choked it. I forgot my bass net at home, so I ended up thumbing her after a somewhat lazy battle, a solid 17 incher. With only a slight feeling of guilt about catching her on a spin rod, I cradled the bass in the shallows before she shot off, leaving my arm soaked. I kept tossing the crank into the calm shallows, eventually switching to a fly. I caught two more smaller bass, one on the Meat Whistle, and another on the crank. The weather was perfect for a day of bass fishing, one of those soft, sleepy days where the clouds hung low and the lake was calm, the ripples only occasionally interrupted by the ker-sploosh of a jumping bass. Fisherman develop a kind of sense for these days, where somehow it just feels right for fishing, an urge inside you, pulling you to the water. I kept working the opposite shoreline with the Meat Whistle, but the fishing slowed, so I stopped for a much needed coffee break.

I rigged up a “stupid tube” with a 3.5″ brown tube and had a few bites on the spin rod, but nothing stuck.

Braden and I were deep in a heated wiffle ball game when I heard Noah half-excitedly, half-trembling, yell for the net. I booked it over there to find Noah’s rod deeply bent with a good fish on the other end. At this point, my poor little trout net just wasn’t going to get the job done. The fish jumped, which was more like a lazy flop due to the fact of its pure fatness not allowing it to get more than halfway out of the water. After a few tries, I managed to get a thumb in her lower lip and landed the big bass, a fat female that taped to 18″, his personal best largemouth!

The fish really started hitting, and Noah and I had fast action for another half-hour. I grabbed the fly rod and a Meat Whistle and caught a bunch, including a nice 16 incher. Later in the afternoon, we pulled out the rowboat and hit the docks, tossing plastic worms and tubes in every likely spot, but ended with only a few small fish to show for it.

Largemouths love the Meat Whistle

Hungry little guy

The great weather held through the afternoon, and so did the fishing. Noah kept tossing the stupid tube, and hooked up with another beast. After a few heart-pounding jumps, he landed a monster 20″ bass that tipped the scale at just over five pounds!

20″, five pounds!

Evening found the three of us still working the river mouth, Noah and Braden with the tube, me with my six weight and a Meat Whistle. It wasn’t long before Noah’s rod was deeply bent, a good fish thrashing at the end of his line. This one was just shorter than the five pounder, but one of the fattest fish I’ve ever seen. Another great bass!

The action stayed pretty consistent, with plenty of smaller “pounders” to keep us busy. Braden hooked and landed a nice seventeen incher on the tube, his best bass of the day. The biggest fish of the day came late in the evening. Almost a half hour after sunset I was hopping my Meat Whistle along the shallows when my fly got hit hard. As soon as I set the hook I knew it wasn’t a bass, no deep headshakes or bulldogging, but an excited, nervous tug tug flowing into a quick run toward deeper water. The purr of fly line coming off the real cut through the stillness of the night, a good fish at the other end. My first thought was pike, but it wasn’t quite quick enough for that. Not knowing what I had on, I slowly eased the fish toward shore, Noah waiting with the net. He scooped, but came up empty, a flash of fish rolling on the dark surface. The second try proved to be the end of the battle. A second later, I had my first walleye on the fly! I was stoked. Catching a walleye on a fly rod has always been one of my crazy ambitions, but I never dreamed I’d actually land one! The fact that it was a solid 23″ inches was a bonus. Braden snapped a quick pic before I got it back in the water, its golden sides illuminated by my headlamp before it disappeared into the darkness.

First walleye on the fly!

Knowing I really couldn’t top that fish, I called it a night. Today was just amazing. All of us caught some solid fish. Noah nailed some huge bass, and the walleye was icing on the cake. Tomorrow should be another great day on the water chasing bass.

Tight Lines,

Conner

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