Late Spring in the North

The smell of gas station jerky in a well-filled station wagon, in the very early morning, is distinctive, to say the least. “Man,” I said to Tony, Leader of Expeditions, “I don’t know how you can eat that stuff so early in the morning.” “Well,” Tony replied as he took another bite, “I don’t see how people can eat chocolatey sweet stuff this early in the morning.” I glanced down at my 3 Musketeers bar and pint of chocolate milk, and decided that this was a clear challenge. “Wanna fight about it?” I said. “Sure,” was Tony’s calm response. And nothing more was said on the matter, for there was no time to be wasted as we headed north.



Over the next few hours, we saw the landscape alongside the freeway change, and grow ever more piney, ever more rocky. We drove along the Big Lake, and I marveled at the mounds of taconite by the big, rusty loading docks. We all wondered aloud about what all might be down on the bottom of that big lake. How many lost boats and barges, how many lost treasures and garbage, how many lost men, how many lost fish.


The next thing we knew, we were in a rangers station, being quizzed about the introductory video we had just watched. The ranger-lady judged us knowledgeable enough to enter, and so enter we did.


It must have been the late winter of 2012, when Tony and I first tossed the idea of a trip to the Boundary Waters around. We agreed that it needed to happen, but events didn’t line up for that summer. This June, we made it happen. With RF29 and Tony’s father joining us, it became a four-man adventure. Ruffie made it five.


We drove until the road ended, and put in our canoes. We paddled clear across the first lake.





The wind gave a decent account of itself, and pushed us around a fair bit. Especially 29 and myself. This, clearly, was due to our taller frames catching more of the wind, and had nothing to do with our lack of paddling experience. When we reached the end of the lake, we took our stuff out and made the portage to the next lake, where we planned to camp and fish. Along the way, we spied a group of Swallowtail Butterflies engaging in some serious puddling (yes, I looked it up, and that’s what they’re doing).



As we put back in, the first drops of rain started to come down. “My streak remains intact,” Tony remarked. “Rain on the first day everytime I come to the Boundary Waters.” It was, at first, no more than a pleasant June drizzle, and so we paddled on with vigor. Not much later, we reached the point that would be our home for the next few days. By that time, the June drizzle had turned a lot less pleasant, so we wasted as little time as possible in getting the tents and a tarp up. When the downpour faded, as the mist rose from the trees, Tony and I paddled out to plumb the depths around our point and take the lake’s temperature.





We found the conditions around the point to match Tony’s intricate calculations very nicely. The Lake Trout and Burbot should be within range. We headed back to shore and made our first casts.



It didn’t take long at all for the first bites to materialize. And they kept materializing. Hooking up, however, was a different matter. But, after a few misses, 29 brought in the first Lake Trout of the trip. And a lifer to boot.



Considerably later, I managed to connect to a strong fish as well. It wasn’t what we were looking for, but it was a very rare catch for this particular lake.



It seems I have a knack for catching Pike in places where folks rarely, very rarely, get them. Especially when I’m after an interesting lifer.


The light faded, but the bites sure didn’t. Tony landed a handsome Laker in the dark.



Followed very quickly by a Burbot.



As it grew later, the Burbot moved in thick. 29 had no trouble getting his second lifer of the day.



And they were two solid lifers, too. A Burbot wouldn’t be a lifer for me, so of course I had no difficulty hooking one. Not even while wearing a hairnet.



With the bites coming so thick and fast, it took us a while to notice that Tony’s father did not have a line in the water. It seemed he was content in calmly looking on. “Are you not fishing, Mr. S.?” I enquired. He gently replied that he would let us boys have at it tonight and cast a line in the new day. This, of course, had us predicting that Mr. S. could not fail to catch the biggest fish of the trip then.


The next morning dawned not clear, but glorious all the same.





I was the first to make my way to the water and put a bait out. I soon missed two more bites, Lakers, obviously, and was joined by Tony and then his father. After a quiet spell, Tony and I noticed that something had pulled the line out from under the rubber band on Mr. S.’ rod, and was running like Hell followed with it. Tony remarked that this had to be a joke. “I’ve never seen anything run like that,” he said. With the line disappearing so hurriedly, Mr. S. felt it was time to make contact. He did, and there followed a very serious and ripping battle. As Mr. S. got the fish close, the clear water lent us all a good gaze at a very impressive Laker. It looked very impressive, still, when Mr. S. cradled it in his hands for a few photos.



A 31 inch tub of guts. It seemed our predictions of the previous night had come true. Eventually, 29 joined us at the water’s edge and we filled him in on what he had missed. As the day grew brighter, the bites grew more numerous. Tony and 29 each brought in splendid Lakers.





Nobody mentioned what we were all thinking: I couldn’t connect to a Laker to save my life. The bites were evenly distributed, I just kept missing them. I tried a quick strike rig, and it didn’t change things. “Keep at it,” Tony calmly reassured me. “It’ll happen.” I switched back to a circle hook, and decided to try something different, since the bottom rig wasn’t agreeing with me. The drop-off from our point was so steep, right down to the 30 foot bottom, that I reckoned I could cast out a freelined Cisco 20-25 feet or so, and let it sink slowly so that it would hang loosely against the almost vertical wall of rock. I would place the rod in the branches of a conveniently located bush, ask Ruffie for some assistance, and await events.



In my mind, I could see Lake Trout patrolling along that edge. In my mind, it would be impossible for them to refuse such an easy and tasty morsel just hanging there. Soon, the line was plucked from under the rubber band and I finally got my lifer.



With that out of the way, I quickly caught another one.



I also managed to catch another Pike. So, as far as I’m concerned, this lake holds as many Pike as it does Lake Trout....



In between the baitfishing, we took turns casting some spoons and other lures. We also took turns in catching the same silly Bass. Many times over.




One of the Lakers didn’t make it, so we feasted on it at the end of the afternoon.



Prepared and cooked mere steps from the pristine waters that yielded it. I have never had a better meal of fish.




The next day, with all of us having caught the species we were after, we thought it safe to make our way back to the first lake. We would camp there for the last night, and generally play around.




With the water mirror-flat, we decided to paddle into a nearby bay and try our hand at jigging for Ciscoes. Sure enough, the wind picked up as soon as we entered the bay, and it became impossible to stay over our lures. Tony was marking fish on his electronics, but we were being pushed over them at too quick a pace to allow fishing with any confidence or effectiveness. The experiment was abandoned.


Later, Tony and I headed out to scout for possible new shore spots and paddle-troll along the way. Tony got one bite, but the fish shook the hooks within seconds. Nothing else hit as we paddled along the drop-offs with our rods clamped between our legs. We did find a very promising and comfortable looking shore spot. It was just off a point, and it had an even more serious drop-off, or “abyss,” as Tony called it, than our point of the previous days. We decided that would be our fishing spot for the evening, and headed back to camp to pick up Mr. S., 29 and the gear. We enjoyed a quick supper before heading out again.



Back at the abyss, we cast out small rigs baited with wax worms in silly hopes of Coregonids, and Ciscoes for the Lakers and Burbot we felt sure would come along. I employed my free-hanging Cisco technique again, and it produced the only Lake Trout of the evening. A very pretty specimen that we forgot to photograph. We lounged on the warm rocks and enjoyed our last Boundary Waters sunset.







In the dimming light of the westering Sun, the waters turned completely flat again, and smallish fish started to rise in good numbers. Ciscoes? They sure looked the part. Naturally, the rises ranged from just out of casting range to just-forget-it range. Tony rigged up a waxie under a float and put in a valiant effort of getting it out there as far as he could. Alas, nothing touched his bait.



As darkness enveloped us, nothing touched our Ciscoes, either. Strange, for we all had felt so confident that Burbot would show up in the night. They did not, and so we paddled back to camp slightly puzzled, but not dejected. We dragged the canoes ashore and went to ground for the final time.






The Waters had been so generous to us, offering up numerous specimens of numerous species, that we decided to wake up and paddle out early on the last day. This way, we would be out before the winds would start to blow along the long, narrow lake. Also, it would give us time to stop at an interesting spot or two on the way back down. Tony told us about one spot in particular that made our casting fingers itch. The mouth of a brisk, northern river. Tony himself had not fished it before, but going by his knowledge of the species, he had a hunch that there might well be some Longnose Suckers still hanging around out there. 29 and I didn’t have to think on this one for very long.





So it was that, the next morning, after a brief drive along the Big Lake, we found ourselves on the banks of a riffling, rocky, northern stream. It was running fairly shallow, and we saw no immediate signs of fish. We scouted upstream, and came upon a dark and promising looking pool below a giant rock. There had to be fish in there, but it was near the far bank, and wading out looked slightly hairy and very cold. We lingered for a minute or three. Tony stuck his thermometer in the water, sniffed the air, looked the stream up and down, and quietly suggested we check out the mouth. We hiked downstream through the brush, until the woods and the water opened.





The scenery at this spot alone was worth the hike, but there was a definite fishy energy in the air. Almost electric. We cast half-a-crawlers into the crease that the river created in the water of the Big Lake. No taps came in the first few minutes, and we reeled in and re-cast several times, searching the seam and surrounding area. On one such occasion, I put in a pause while reeling in, to let the rig sink and feel out the bottom and depth. When I started reeling again, there was a fish on. It must have grabbed the bait right when it landed. A zipping fight ensued, and when a slender, sucker-shaped fish materialized, the tension built. “Obviously a White Sucker,” I said. “Definitely,” Tony agreed. “I mean, how could it be anything else?” I continued. “Right,” said Tony. But our tone, if not our words, betrayed that we felt it very probably was something else. Tony landed it, and grinned: “That’s a Longnose, man!” “I know!” I said, “I just wanted to hear you say it!” A glorious moment, but something looked off. The fish was foul hooked, right on the snout. It must have nosed down on my bait right as I lifted it off the bottom. A dissapointment, but an encouraging disappointment. That fish couldn’t have been alone.


Soon, 29, fishing to my right, got some good taps and missed on the strike. Tony, to my left, did the same. The suspense was almost too much. Tony moved a few yards up, into the mouth, cast out, and walked away from his rod. That did it. The tip went nuts, Tony shot back to grab his rod and brought in a Longnose Sucker for real. There was much rejoicing. “Don’t you want a picture, Tony?” I asked, as he matter-of-factly went to release his fish. “Well...” he said, “I’ve never caught one here...” “Oh,” I replied, “‘I’ve never caught one here,’ he says!”



Tony released his fish, gave the little pool he caught it from a brief once-over and declared: “I’m gonna scout upstream a bit. Maybe you guys could check out this spot here...” 29 and I didn’t need another hint, and plopped our baits into that magical little swim immediately. It didn’t take long for the first taps to materialize. We missed a bite or two, but then, just before Tony rounded a corner and was out of sight, I brought in my lifer Longnose Sucker.



After that, the bites just kept coming. We were casting only a few yards out, just beyond a slight drop-off, and it never took more than a few minutes for our tips to tap. We missed more fish than we hooked, several bites just quit on us (finnicky biters they were), and we lost a few fish too. But action was so constant that we could not complain. Words really cannot convey how wonderful a session it was; it almost seemed unreal. Maybe the pictures will do a better job.












Tony returned, having caught two more Longnose Suckers himself. We told him about our modest bonanza. “I figured you might get a few,” he said. He joined us and caught one more. In the end, both Tony and 29 had four splendid Longnose Suckers, I had five and two bonus Whites. It was very difficult, but, when the bite slowed down a little bit, we decided to leave this magical place and check out another river mouth before we headed back down.



This place, too, looked lovely. But more artificial and less fishy. We cast our little crawler chunks to the horizon, but nothing touched them. Other than a zombie troot forelornly swimming around in the shallows, we didn’t see any signs of fish.


That was just fine.


~~This report is dedicated, in humble and awestruck gratitude, to TonyS. Expedition Leader, Longnose Sucker Master, Rod Building Mentor, and Plain, All-Round Classy Guy~~

Species List: 
Bass, Smallmouth
Sucker, Longnose
Sucker, White
Trout, Lake


Jknuth's picture

Thats just awesome man! Well done guys.


Gunnar's picture

I sure hope I can get back up there some day soon. It's been more than 20 years. I'd never heard of burbot, ciscoes, longnose suckers or lake trout at the time, so fished for smallmouths only. Need to go back.

Great report, as always.


Redhorse ID cheatsheets, gars, suckers:

2019: 16 days fishing 25 species 7 lifers. 2018: 39/40/5 2017: 49/52/14

TonyS's picture

Nice report man!  Worth the wait to live it over again.  


Gunnar... Smallmouth?  You mean those invasive brown-ish carp-things that hit most everything in many of those lakes?  just ribbing ya... I like to cook Quetico Carp on the half-shell every now and again when I'm in the BWCA...  Though that Lake Trout was fantastic, better than a Smallmouth but I take what I get.

Eli's picture

Thanks man, thoroughly enjoyed that! Good on you for persevering and getting a laker. I would have been frustrated seeing them caught on either side of me like that. The longnose suckers are awesome as well...


Border waters time you should cross that border. We can meet at Lake Nipigon. The trout fishing there is supposed to be so good it makes your nipples fall off.




Mike B's picture

It just blows my mind how immense the Canadian Shield really is. Those lakes could be in the Northwest Territories. No smallmouths though. Congrats on the lifelist lakers Gijs. They really are cool fish. On another note, I'm surprised some of you guys down in Minnesota don't come across lake whitefish more often in the Boundary Lakes. The lakes must be full of them and easy enough to catch in the fall.

mike b

TonyS's picture

Ain't supposed to be no Smallmouth in those lakes... but that's another invasive species story.  They are otherwise pretty typical "shield lakes"  -  plenty of Ciscoes and Whitefish in many of those lakes, maybe in late Fall they could be caught easier or through the ice - I might go back to these lakes this winter, mostly for the huge Ciscos and Whitefish that are supposed to be in some of ones in this little cluster. 

Jason E.'s picture

Sweet report.  The longnoses were the best lookin' fish, in my humble opinion.

Deftik's picture

Awesome report man, looks like you guys had a blast (the most important part) and managed to pull in some hefty lifers while doing so. Well done!

Your momma fishes for lifers with Eagle Claws.
Eric Kol's picture

reading this, january into the winter of 2015, I was physically transported to one of my favorite places on earth (BWCA). What a cool trip

Carpy Diem!

TonyS's picture

funny, I was just planning my next trip to one of my favorite places (BWCA)...