The Challenge and Thrill of Boundary Waters Fishing

Recreation By Stuart Osthoff

Tips and Tricks on how to catch trout, walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike.

Most people will tell you they go to the BWCA to escape the rat race- the noise, traffic and stress of modern urban life.

But wilderness canoe trips should be about more than escaping the negative. They should be about embracing the positive, what I call wilderness values: Beauty, solitude, freedom, adventure and challenge are all essential parts of the wilderness experience.

Perhaps the most powerful wilderness value is engaging with nature.

This could be photographing a moose, picking blueberries, swimming off your own private sand beach, portaging neck-deep through a bog, paddling into the teeth of a big wind, or awakening on a moonlit night to loon music out on the lake. For about 40% of BWCAW paddlers, the most intense way to engage nature comes through fishing.

The beauty, power and wildness of the canoe country Grand Slam- smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike and lake trout, allows anglers to transcend the ordinary canoe trip.

Fishing bag and tackle

Wilderness fishing

There is fishing and there is wilderness fishing. 

In the BWCAW and Quetico wilderness areas, there are no roads, cabins or floatplanes and even small motorboats are restricted to the periphery lakes. We’re talking hundreds of backcountry lakes accessible only by canoe and with what I call sweat equity: You gotta pay the piper with paddle and pack to reach these waters that see relatively light fishing pressure each year. 

If you’re willing to do this, you won’t have to do much to experience world-class angling. 

I refer to catching the four “big-game” fish species in canoe country, Lake trout, walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike, the grand slam of wilderness fishing.

Grand slam, trophy caliber fish are caught all across canoe country every year. The challenge and thrill of chasing top-end fish is out there for the hard-core, dedicated angler. Other more casual anglers who are happy with a few pan-sized walleyes for a special lakeside dinner. 

Whether fishing for trophies or a wilderness meal, here are some tips to help you add some excitement and drama to your next wilderness canoe trip.In this piece, I’m going to take you through the essential tips and tricks to catch these four fish. With this knowledge, you be more likely to land a…

Lake Trout in the Boundary Waters

Lake Trout

Best time of year: Ice out to mid-June in 20 to 40 feet of water. From July to August, fish in deeper water, of over 50 feet.

Best tackle: Large spoons such as Dardevles or Dr. Spoons; Klos Bay’s lipless crank baits

Favorite locations: Deep water spots in trout lakes such as Lac La Croix, Oyster, Knife, Kekekabic, Thomas, Little Saganaga, Wine, Gillis and Hanson.

Man holding a giant Lake Trout next to a canoe in the Boundary Waters

They say timing is everything in life and that includes fishing. 

My favorite time to fish big canoe country lake trout is when they are shallow from ice-out to mid-June. For years, my standard technique was to troll large spoons- Dardevles or Dr. Spoons, and we caught some nice lakers this way. 

But more recently, the Klos Boy’s lipless crankbaits (LCB’S) have been a total game changer for big Boundary Waters lake trout. The Klos LCB’s can be fished on a standard walleye/bass outfit. Just let the heavy 1 oz. plug, sink to the bottom and vertically jig it as the canoe drifts with the wind. In calm conditions, you can cast the Klos LCB out, let it sink to the bottom and then jig/work it back to the canoe as lakers will often suspend and hit it up off the bottom as well.

Where and when to catch Lake Trout

We catch big lake trout in 20-40’ of water through June. There is no greater thrill in canoe country angling than battling a 3-foot plus laker for half an hour on light tackle in a canoe. Lake trout prefer 50-degree well-oxygenated water so they go deep in July/August. They can still be caught but I am strictly a catch and release angler on lake trout (and smallmouth and pike as well) and trout caught deep then reeled up into warmer water can be severely stressed. Their air bladder will often inflate when caught from 50’+, making it necessary to “burp” them (massage their belly) before they can descend again. 

Some people like to eat smaller lake trout but they have Y-bones and in my view, walleye are hands down the best canoe country fish in the frying pan. 

My favorite Lake Trout Lakes

Favorite Lake Trout Lakes in the BWCA

  • Lac La Croix
  • Oyster
  • Knife
  • Kekekabic
  • Thomas
  • Little Saganaga
  • Wine
  • Gillis
  • Hanson

 

Favorite Lake Trout Lakes in Quetico

  • Argo
  • Elk
  • Brent
  • Suzanette
  • Robinson
  • Pooh Bah
  • Antoine
  • Jean
  • Quetico
  • North Bay
  • Agnes
  • McEwen
  • The Man Chain

Walleye fishing in the BWCA

Walleye

Best time of year: June and July for trophy and smaller eating-sized fish

Best tackle: Rapala Jointed Shad Raps Size 7; 1/8 – ¼ oz yellow jig with a leech or Berkeley Power Baits 

Favorite Locations: Areas where rivers and rapids spill from one lake to the next, or shorelines that have been hit by wind and waves during the day.

A man in a canoe holding up a giant walleye in the Boundary Waters

I believe lake trout, smallmouth bass and northern pike are best fished for sport- for the challenge/thrill. By being a conservation-minded angler who largely practices catch and release, you are protecting this priceless wilderness fishery and giving a fellow angler the opportunity to experience the same thrill. 

But walleye seem to have been created as the perfect food fish. They are super-easy to turn into boneless fillets and are absolutely phenomenal when deep-fried over the campfire. I limit my 8-10 day trips to one all-you-can-eat walleye fry as a special wilderness treat (we only keep walleyes from 14”-20” for eating, carefully releasing all the bigger/older breeding age fish).

Best time of year and location for walleye

Walleyes generally spawn near moving water before the fishing opener, but creeks and rapids spilling in from one lake to the next are always a good place to start your walleye search. 

For time of year, I prefer June/July for both numbers of eating-sized walleyes and trophy caliber 28”-30” fish. But many dedicated BWCAW walleye anglers prefer to wait for July and August, when walleyes concentrate on mid-lake reefs. 

I have my proven spots which tend to be in the prevailing westerlies where waves pound into the downwind shorelines or narrows. I wait for evenings when the wind quits and the phytoplankton and baitfish have been concentrated by the daytime winds. The big walleyes know this and will come in from 20 to 30 feet to feed in the shallower areas, of about 10 to 15 feet, at sundown. 

I fish right till dark and if you do, you will catch trophy walleyes.

Best Boundary Waters walleye bait and lures

I like to troll or cast Rapala Jointed Shad Raps Size 7. This lure will run about 10 feet deep. 

More walleyes are caught on jigs than any other presentation. In the BWCAW, where live bait is legal, you can’t beat a yellow 1/8 – ¼ oz yellow jig with a leech. (Nightcrawlers and minnows work great on jigs too but they are more difficult to manage on a canoe trip than leeches). Many anglers are changing to bismuth jigs vs. lead jigs as loons and other birds have been harmed and poisoned by ingesting snagged or lost lead jigs or sinkers.

In the Quetico, where all live/organic bait is prohibited, we tip our jigs with soft-plastics- Berkeley Power Baits are very good, such as the white twister tail grubs, yellow paddle tail minnows or the Gulp minnows that have scent and taste added to them to attract fish.

My favorite walleye lakes in the BWCAW are:

My Favorite Walleye Lakes

Favorite Walleye Lakesin the BWCAW

  • Heritage
  • Stuart
  • Beartrap
  • Fourtown
  • Horse
  • Crooked
  • Basswood
  • Ensign
  • Insula
  • Gabbro
  • Alice
  • Pan
  • Koma

Favorite Walleye Lakes in the Quetico

  • McAree
  • Ballard
    Crooked
  • William
  • Brent
  • Conmeeas
  • Suzanette
  • Pooh Bah
  • Sturgeon
  • Bentpine
  • Burt
  • Basswood
  • Kawnipi
  • Carp

Smallmouth bass in the Boundary Waters

Smallmouth Bass

Best time of year: Mid-May through mid-June

Best tackle: River2Sea Whopper Plopper #90; Blue Fox Vibrax Spinner, Size 5 in gold or yellow

Favorite Locations: Shallow water zones in the early season. By mid-season, hit the shallow areas in the evening.

A man in a life jacket and red hat holds up a very large smallmouth bass.

Ironically, smallmouth bass are not native to the BWCAW or Quetico. And yet, they are by far the preferred game fish on my Grand Slam Guide Service trips

On most of my canoe trips, smallmouth dictate who goes, when we go, where we go, why we go, what we do out there, what we pack, and what memories we will take to our graves.

Best time of year for wilderness smallmouth bass

From mid-May through mid-June, smallmouth can be found in the shallow water zone where the bigger males make spawning beds that appear as “golden halos” on sand and gravel bottoms in 3 feet of water. 

During mid-summer, it is typical to find only smaller 12-inch smallmouth in the shallows during midday, but fear not, the big bass will come into shorelines or shallow boulder flats to feed on crayfish or minnows in the evenings. Be there then.

I especially love “hunting the shoreline cover” for the best big bass lairs- old half-sunken logs, weedy patches, big partially-submerged boulders, deep little nooks in the rocky shoreline or distinct points jutting out from the mainland. 

By slowly moving the canoe along in stealth mode, parallel to shore, the bow angler makes long casts up ahead with topwater plugs to these big bass hideouts.

Best bait for BWCA smallmouth bass

There is no greater adrenalin rush in canoe country fishing than a 20-inch smallmouth exploding to the surface to slam your topwater offering. Big topwater bass is why we toil with paddle and pack into the backcountry. 

My “go to” topwater bait is the River2Sea Whopper Plopper #90. This unique prop bait is much easier to learn to fish than the traditional popper, casts much further, creates more disturbance, and attracts more bass with noise and vibration it makes. Also, it’s just so much fun to fish. I especially like making long 100’ casts, hooking up with a big bronzeback and battling him all the way back to the canoe. 

Some will get off, especially because we only use barbless hooks (these cause way less stress when unhooking and releasing fish, and are required in Quetico). 

Smallmouth are not always in the mood to whack topwater baits. My #1 subsurface bait for canoe country smallmouth is the Blue Fox Vibrax Spinner, Size 5 in gold or yellow

Many Boundary Waters bass anglers bring their southern bass techniques to the north country and fish smallies with jigs and soft plastics, which can be very productive too. 

Favorite Lakes for Smallmouth Bass

Favorite Smallmouth Lakes in the BWCA

  • Lac La Croix
  • Oyster
  • Crooked
  • Basswood
  • Indiana
  • Gabbro
  • Ensign
  • Knife.

Favorite Smallmouth Lakes in Quetico

  • Wicksteed
  • Darky
  • Elk
  • Gardner Bay
  • Big Newt
  • Little Robinson
  • Bart
  • William
  • Suzanette
  • Jean
  • Pooh Bah
  • Sturgeon
  • Draper
  • North Bay
  • Agnes
  • Kawnipi
  • McEwen
  • Saganagons

Northern Pike in the Boundary Waters

Northern Pike

Best time of year: May and June

Best lure: Blue Fox Vibrax Spinner, Size 5 in

Favorite Locations: Weed beds in large lakes such as Lac La Croix, Crooked, Basswood and Knife Lakes.

A man on a grassy lake holds up a long, fat northern pike.

Most northern pike on my trips are caught incidentally, while casting our Whopper Ploppers and Vibrax spinners for smallmouth. Most of these pike will be between 24 and 34 inches and full of teeth so we carefully unhook/release them with the 8-inch forceps we keep clipped to our life jacket. 

This size pike and mid-sized smallmouth will be the most common catches for novice BWCAW anglers. Both species are very aggressive and will hit just about any bait thrown when hungry. Big canoe country pike can reach between 38 and 45 inches. We call these gators because that is what their huge toothy maws remind you of. 

If I had to catch a big BWCAW pike I would throw a #5 Vibrax along weed beds in May/June and I would do it on Lac La Croix, Crooked, Basswood and Knife Lakes. 

The formula here is that big lake equals big pike.

Canoe Country Fishing

I have been fishing canoe country for 45 years and have guided family, friends and clients on over 200 week-long canoe trips with Grand Slam fishing being the focus. It is a lifelong challenge, and passion, to catch big fish out in this watery wilderness. I never tire of catching big canoe country fish.

That’s when you know you really love something. 

I have published thousands of pages of detailed canoe country fishing intel: The how, when and where of every aspect of this sport in my magazine THE BOUNDARY WATERS JOURNAL

To subscribe, order back issues of the fishing topic of your choice or to order the Klos Boy’s Lake Trout Lures, go to boundarywatersjournal.com  

Good Luck fishing the Boundary Waters.

Stuart Osthoff is a wilderness canoe and fishing guide and the publisher of The Boundary Waters Journal.

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