The Quiet Joys of Ice Fishing in the Boundary Waters

Recreation By Mike Bartz

After waking up early and skiing into what I thought was a trustworthy fishing spot, I wasn’t having any luck. Clouds raced across the blue sky and apart from some gray jays that were bold enough to jump in for the crumbs that dropped from my sandwich, it was one of those completely silent afternoons in the Boundary Waters. As I poured some coffee from my thermos, I noticed seven wolves along the shore line. For a moment, I wondered if they were coming near me. I should have been nervous, but I was not. Instead, the pack crossed the ice and near a point on the Canadian side of the lake, lay down in the sun.


Ice fishing in the BWCA

When anyone asks why I go through the trouble of hauling a sled worth of gear over portage trails, or go through the effort of drilling a fishing hole by hand and sit out on a bucket in the cold, this memory comes to mind. My answer is: “Because sometimes you see wolves.”

The fishing in the BWCA is great, too.

If I could only catch one kind of fish, it would be Lake Trout. They fight like bulldogs, taste great and they’re beautiful. Lucky for me, up the road from where I live in Grand Marais, it’s relatively easy to access a number of great trout lakes on the Gunflint Trail.


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I don’t bring anything like a portable icehouse. If I need shelter, I make a windbreak out of my toboggan and hunker down. That being said, there have been times when the conditions got so rough that I had to call it a day. If I had had a shelter, I likely would have been able to continue to fish comfortably and have had fresh trout on my plate that night. But even with a shelter, you can still run into problems.

A few years ago, a friend and I were out for a couple of days, fishing on Duncan Lake. We ended our first night by enjoying a few drabs of Jameson in our hot tent. The wind rustled the tent, but it was nothing to be worried about. However, by in the middle of the night, the tent was shaking so violently that it woke both of us up. The wind ripped the chimney from our stove off, which caused the tent to fill with eye-stinging smoke. Even though I was able to put on some leather gloves and bring the stove outside, we were left with a cold, smoke-filled tent.


Pulk BWCA

It took a few hours, but we aired out the tent, put the chimney back in place, got the stove back in the tent, and rekindled the fire. It never really did get warm again that night, but by sun up, the wind had quieted and the temperature was almost above zero. After some hot tea and oatmeal, we were ready to skim the ice off the holes and fish. We spent the rest of the day reeling in some respectable trout, exploring, reading, rigging the tent, gathering firewood and enjoying what Jack London described as the “white silence.”

Using a hand auger is a lot more work than a motorized one, and being exposed to the elements on an open the lake isn’t always as comfortable as watching TV in an icehouse next to a propane heater, but this silence is the ultimate reward. If you’ve experienced the quiet that comes over the Boundary Waters in winter, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, add it to your bucket list.


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I consider coming home with a fish or two to be a good day, but there’s so much more to the experience than catching fish. It’s the totality of the experience: watching the occasional wolf, moose, even lynx, cross the lake, being with friends or enjoying the solitude, and that magical silence that sometimes makes me forget I’m here to catch fish.

IF YOU GO…

DNR’s website is a great resource for researching lakes in the BWCA:

A basic set up includes:

  • 2 jig poles

  • Tackle (Kastmaster spoons, Swedish pimple, buckshot jigs)

  • Sled or toboggan

  • Depth finder

  • Auger (Nils makes a folding auger that is compact and perfect for the BWCA)

  • Bucket with a seat cushion

  • Daypack with emergency gear, extra layers, food

  • Ice picks

  • Snowshoes or skis

  • Throw rope

  • Stove

  • Appropriate cold weather wear

Finally, be sure to pick up after yourself. Leave only tracks and some fish blood on the ice.

Mike Bartz is a retired conservation officer and currently owns and operates Border Lakes Tours & Guide Service (https://borderlakestourcompany.com/) out of Grand Marais, Minnesota.

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