The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota fascinates thousands of visitors each year because of its true wilderness aspect of lakes and forest. But there is much more here, for the rocks exposed along the lakeshores and on the portages between lakes in most of the BWCA reveal a fascinating story of what this wilderness region, including the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park across the border, was like 2,700 million years ago when explosive volcanoes rose out of a practically lifeless sea to dominate the landscape (page 184).
Weathering and erosion by running water over a period of more than 2 billion years have reduced the entire Canadian Shield, including the present BWCA, to a low-lying, generally featureless topography. Then came the glaciers of the Ice Age to gouge out rock that was either softer than adjacent rocks or more thoroughly fractured, thus forming deep, commonly elongate lake basins separated by more resistant ridges (page 185).
-Minnesota’s Geology, by Richard W. Ojakangas and Charles L. Matsch
[post-expedition correspondence to paddling mates, dated 9/22/10]
Air temps near Ely, which can be seen in attached file, paint this picture:
The first days of September show a plummeting temperature record, for both high and low daily temps. Sept 4,5 and 6 started back up again, only to stop suddenly on 7 and 8 with narrow temp ranges that barely broke 50 F. Then on the night of Sept 8 temps plummeted to a sub-freezing low; this was surely the night of the frost of which we heard rumor going in. Two mornings after that frost we paddled in. Over the span of days we fished (entry/exit noted with red dots), air temps show a general negative slope for both daily highs and lows. After we came out, it looks like things leveled off pretty well showing highs in the mid-50s for a solid week or so.
In summary this suggests that we came in on the tails of some remarkable instability. I recall reading that the best scenario to fish SMB is a stable scenario; the second best scenario is increasing temps, and the least desirable scenario is decreasing temps. You could take that further and say that a highly undesirable scenario would be rapidly dropping temps culminating in the fall’s first frost.
Don’t have it in me to give the per day blow-by-blow. Rather, I can summarize via pics, and with these notes:
(1) Weather for the duration of our stay (9/10-9/16) was good. It rained all the entire first night at camp, but fortunately it didn’t start until after tents were pitched and we were dug in. Things got a little wet, but we were able to dry out and handle it just fine. Air temps were just right: not cold enough to ever really feel cold, but cold enough to keep away all mosquitoes. Count on one hand the number of buzzes in ear that were ever heard. The weather trouble came via antecedent conditions, as described above in Prologue II.
(2) Paddling conditions were also good. On the way in we fought some wind. Light to moderate winds were around here and there. Nothing really kept us off the water though, and the paddle out was in near-calm setting (so much so that the solo paddler was not only able to keep up, but whip the other two canoes and beat us back to the landing).
(3) We camped at a site that we’d never employed before this year. It offered good protection from wind and four very good tent pads. Also a superb canoe landing/beaching cove. The vertical climb to the fire grate and center of camp was unique in that it was quite the stairway with respect to both angle and length. You could call it a positive (exercise) or negative (potential hazard and/or bother) depending on your mood and how fishing has been going.
(4) In general, fishing was way off this year. That statement is relative to the 25-year history documented by KLW, and the approx 10-year history documented by other party members including me. My speculation is as described above in Prologue II: the instability really did us in. However, we were able to adapt somewhat and make it work. Here a few notes, by specie:
a. Small mouth bass: the heretofore dependable SMB was missing. Here is what usually works in the water we typically fish: poppers get some great action early, and clousers do well after sun comes over the treetops… and all the while, the bait guys catch fish after fish. Not this year. Four of the five guys (including me) caught ZERO SMB from that normally-dependable water. Three SMB were caught on the second-to-last day by one guy using bait. All were large fish. There was nary a strike on a popper. The good thing was that this situation was recognized early on: the SMB were absent, and that was pretty much it. Nothing to do but look for them elsewhere. So I did that. Over the course of the trip I caught ~15 nice fish, all from another lake. Only one on a popper though. At this lake too, things were different: usually a guy can pick up many SMB from 8-12 inches, with some smattering of fish up into 16 inch range. This year, nearly every fish was 13-16 inches, and one was taped at 17” and one was taped at 20”.
b. Walleye: like SMB, they were off… but not to the same degree. They were still around to be had by both bait guys and clouser minnows. We ate nearly every walleye caught, save some really small specimens. My estimate is that the party landed maybe 12-15 walleye total, of which none were remarkable in any way other than good fit for cast iron skillet. Walleye were found in the “normal” fishing waters.
c. Northern pike: they were surely around. They are always around, but I don’t deliberately fish for them much – preferring the SMB. This year though, in the home water, I did go after them, as SMB was gone. Thus it is hard to say if they were around in greater numbers, or just “normal” numbers… and I just tackled them more often. Whatever the case, it was fairly easy to catch 1-2 decent pike in an hour or so of fishing. There were some dead spots, but there was also a stretch in which I hooked seven and landed five in ~30 minutes. There were not many snakes hooked, and there were not many big pike hooked. Nearly all were in the 3-4 lb range, with some maybe approaching 5 lbs. The remarkable thing re northern pike was that we ate a lot of them. The meat was put on the pole, and this year it worked out to be Esox lucius. I don’t recall in years past ever eating so much pike: we probably cleaned 6-7 of them. And to be honest, the flesh was nearly perfectly camouflaged in amongst the walleye fillets. You can tell the difference, but just barely.
(5) Specific fish notes/stories: there were three notable instances with respect to the fishing:
a. Early one morning while fishing a big (7 inches) streamer pattern I hooked a large northern pike. I fought/held this fish for about 10 seconds, afterwhich it made a solid, almost carp-like run for deeper water – peeled off maybe 20 feet of line. I handled that run, tightened up the line and brought it back in a bit… Then it just held steady for a few seconds. I kept pressure and pondered next move. On for maybe 30 seconds by now. Then the hook popped. Never saw the fish. Mystery keeps one coming back.
b. The 20” SMB marked the second-largest SMB I’ve ever had to hand. Compared to the 21” from last year, it was taken in markedly different fashion: full sinking line, counted down in deep water (guessing 12-16 feet) and retrieved slowly. Ate a “micro bugger” in rust and olive. It was one of only two fish I caught all day, fishing fairly hard. It struck immediately after I started retrieving along the bottom in that deep water. The 17” was taken in roughly similar fashion, only there I was using a super fast sinking tip instead of full sinking line. It ate one of those crappy pike streamers that I modified a few months ago to better fit carp/SMB (previous post).
c. A companion caught three SMB on bait from our normal water, trolling a worm slowly just off the bottom. I wasn’t around for this action, but I know all the fish were large. One was taped at 20”. They were the only SMB caught from that water this year.
d. Another companion and I trekked back to a designated trout lake. We portaged ~600 rods, half of which was done in the rain. We fished the lake (blindly) for 2 hours and got zero strikes. Need to do that again with more time, better dedication, better conditions and various techniques. Good adventure day though. Took us a while to locate one of the portage trails.
e. KLW caught two nice LMB.
f. Everyone contributed some walleye to the food pool.
(6) Other notes:
a. As usual, most of the smallies caught ate the fly on the drop or just as retrieve was started. This requires pretty good focus. In one case I even say my line tighten as I was letting a fly fall to the bottom of the lake. Probably have a number of fish eat and spit and I never know it. Holschlag details this in his books.
b. We saw marauding fish on the first and last days of our trip. Splashing after fleeing baitfish. At first, this gave me hope re topwater smallies: in years past, casts at these situations have often resulted in crushing takes by SMB. Not this year though. I concluded with pretty good certainty according to a few lines of evidence that those marauders were all pike (this year). One of those lines was the stomach contents of Esox: all 2-inch perch. Every pike we cleaned had ~14-18 perch in stomach. My feeling is that that is pretty much their forage base. It explains why they crush clouser minnows with regularity. It was even made clear to me that they prefer smaller clouser minnows to the big gaudy streamers. I caught some on the latter, but more on the former. And in a couple cases after beating the water with big streamers and getting nowhere, I’d get pike immediately after switching to the smaller clousers. This was frustrating in some cases because in switching I was going after SMB or walleye. Pike would then bite off. Didn’t take long for me to learn though and eventually I was fishing clousers with steel. Did land a number of pike without steel leader though.
c. Wearing breathable waders, walking the shore is the way to go. Not fishing from a canoe. Cover more water, be more independent, cast easier, etc.
d. Two rods, with backup, is a sufficient approach: one with multi-tip line, one with full sinking line. Over-weighting rods is highly desirable if not critical.
e. Lost a lot of gear this year: there is a significant conundrum present when fishing a steel leader with a big fly: when you snag, it is unclear just what will break. It won’t be your steel leader. It’ll be either your leader higher up, or any tip you might have on. That happened to me a few times. Late in the trip I lost my sink tip with leader and streamer. I also lost nearly all my big pike streamers –most to snags. One was to an unseen pike that railed the fly right near the boat, and simply stripped the swivel on the steel leader wide open and swam away with the fly. Pretty damn cool. Don’t come with inferior gear is the lesson there.
f. Got one LMB.
g. Due to odd conditions, this was the first year in which ratio of fly-caught fish to bait-caught fish was >1.0. Won’t see that again for a while.
Only thing left to say beyond the technical, observational and fishing notes is that the struggle to fully appreciate the BWCA continues. There are various components to appreciate: (1) the incomprehensible history of the place, as described in Prologue I above; (2) the insight and emotion provided by viewscapes that you can figure are pretty much like they were when first looked on by human eyes; (3) the opportunity to establish to a great degree long-term relationships with lakes – always learning more about them and their resident fish – taking notes, tuning approaches, taking fish for consumption; it’s more than just “fishing BWCA” it’s fishing places that I could draw with a pencil right now in approximate 3D space because the rocks and deadheads and trails and portages are burned into my brain; (4) the fact that the BWCA is not a vacation destination but rather a place – a place to be set aside and left as is to the greatest degree possible (i.e. no logging, no “improvements,” no roads, no cell phone towers); “improvements” are often bungle jobs and any effort like that, IMO, would change the BWCA status from sacred place to vacation destination; ruinous is what it’d be; attached to that appreciation is the understood fact that we roll into that place with a lot of “improvements” – packaged food, sleek canoes, expensive fishing gear, etc. So a person struggles there in making it all fit together; in the end I suppose you think hard on it and do what you can do to make the experience as right as you can, and to pay proper respect and reverence to the place; (5) the company – I mentioned to my wife that I figure I wouldn’t go if it were a solo trip; it’s not too often that you can spend a significant block of time with your father, father-in-law and a cadre of good friends – fact is, it’s a rare opportunity; conversation ranges from political to business theory to music history; some good singing comes from some folks, and whittling pops up here and there; I try to work on being a better conversationalist and appreciating the quality of the gentlemen to the fullest; admittedly these items for me require continuous improvement because I tend to over-focus on fishing and I might be aloof sometimes or jittering to get out on the water; relax is the lesson to carry forward – relax and slow down and I figure I’m doing that a little more each year (maybe).
Thank you paddle-mates for another solid adventure. Thanks especially to KLW for planning and executing. See you next year: return of the topwater.
Selected photos, in chronological order
Red dots below mark our entry/exit times...
First and last fish caught on clouser minnows were walleyes...
17" footballer below...
Big smallie of the trip: just made 20" from tip of tail to edge of lip... note human hand for reference.
Micro bugger that caught the 20" smallie below...
Bell Yellowstone solo canoe used by one of our party...