How to find the best spots and locate fish in the BWCA

Recreation By Rob Christ

Everyone knows the Boundary Waters is a fisherman’s — and woman’s — paradise.

But from all those seemingly endless miles of lakes and rivers in the BWCA, how to you pick the best fishing spot?

It’s critical to be selective where you spend your time fishing. After all, it isn’t like you can just fire up your 2-stroke and motor your way over to the other side of the lake. You earn those nibbles!

So where do you go when your ‘ideal spot’ strikes out?

Although species, time of year, wind, weather, etc. can play a factor, there are a number of lake structures you can, and should, target when looking for your next honey-hole.  

These structures will allow you optimize your time on the water by utilizing visual clues and map information to make your sonar-less, motor-less, and GPS-less fishing experience in the BWCA second to none.

Catching Fish in Moving Water

When I’m paddling through Boundary Waters I am always on the lookout, or listening for, moving water.  


Of all the general types of locations I have fished, moving water, such as fishing below waterfalls, has proven to be the most productive.  

Larger falls tend to have deep pools with lots of hiding places for fish to find and stalk their prey.  Stream outlets, like waterfalls, bring lots of fresh food to a singular location for fish to gorge themselves.

Man fishing from the shore in the BWCA.
Fishing from shore is a great way to target deep holes beneath waterfalls and rapids.

They’re ready to strike.

You have a few options when fishing moving water: You can 1) fish from shore, 2) use a basketball net anchor to stay in one location, or 3) leverage the current and fish multiple locations while drifting.

Throw a jig head rigged with a paddle tail plastic or grub towards the source of the water and keep it suspended above the bottom. Reel in the slack as the current pushes the lure back towards you making it look like an easy meal.

Fishing the Sunken Islands and Humps

Areas of raised lake floor are prime locations for bait fish and provide easy access to deeper water for larger fish to hide.  

Without a depth finder, your map is your best friend in finding sunken islands or hidden humps under the water.

Sometimes humps can be identified as a rock or rock cluster slightly above the water, but more than likely you can identify a hidden hump by the ovular or circular contour lines on your map.   If the hump is primarily composed of rock clusters, it could be a great spot to specifically target hiding locations with a drop shot rig.

Depending on environmental conditions (weather, wind, temperature, etc.) you could also troll crankbaits slightly off the hump to draw the attention of waiting game fish. If you’re throwing crankbaits, make sure to keep your canoe far enough away from the structure to not spook the fish.  

Sample map showing lake depths

Reading the Shoreline for Clues

If you know how to look for them, the shoreline is full of clues that can point you in the direction of fish.

Points, for example, are easy to locate both visually and on a map.  As the name implies, it is simply where the land comes to a point in the water.

When fishing a point, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Due to their variability it is important to fish all sides of a point. Sheer rock faces are great for throwing a jig with a grub at.  

  2. Cast your lure toward the rock face and allow it to drop down the water column.  Game fish tend to chase bait fish toward sheer rock faces and push them upward, making them ideal fishing spots.  

  3. Look for points on the wind-blown side of the lake.

While not structure per se, the wind-blown side of a lake is a great place to start fishing. Bait, and some say fish too, are pushed by the wind, which can put a disproportionately large concentration of fish on one side of the lake.

Canoe with fishing pole next to a steep rock face
Steep rock faces like this are a treasure trove for catching fish

So look for points, rock faces, and weed lines on the wind-blown side of the lake to improve your odds of landing a fish.

Work the Weed Lines

Simply put: weeds hold fish.  

In the summer you can observe baitfish in abundance darting in and out of the weeds.  The three main species — walleye, pike, and smallmouth bass — can be caught in or along a weed line trying to get an easy meal.  

A jig tipped with a plastic, preferably in a weedless fashion, can be deadly when thrown at the edge of the weeds.

Another great option involves casting topwater into the weeds. Watching a pike or small mouth jump clean out of the water to devour your lure is absolutely exhilarating!  

Look for weeds in proximity to contour changes on your map. If there is deeper water close to their meal, fish will most certainly be close by.

Sure, sometimes trolling over a seemingly featureless lake bottom can land you a lunker, but if you want to consistently catch fish, it’s all about being in the right spot at the right time.  By fishing these lake structures, you are targeting the fish where they are most concentrated and increasing your odds of have shore lunch for dinner!

Do you fish these locations when you’re canoe tripping or are there some we missed?  Let us know in the comments below.

Rob Crist is a South Carolina transplant who has made Minnesota his home for the past 12 years. He’s an avid fisherman with a love of the outdoors and a goal of paddling every entry point in the BWCA. Over 10 years and two dozen trips to the Boundary Waters has given him an insatiable drive to be in the Boundary Waters. Each summer he can be found navigating his red canoe throughout the Boundary Waters with his lovely wife and Springer Spaniel.

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