American Fly Fishing

Into the Boundary Waters
By Jonathan Hill

How do you fish 11,842 lakes? Or 6,564 rivers, for that matter? And what’s the best way to traverse an area that has more shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined? Well, you explore it one year at a time. At least that is how my friend Randy Wilson and I have come to tackle the vastness of Minnesota.
Randy and his wife, Jennifer, travel all across the United States and abroad, and one year, back in 1999, they decided to vacation in a remote area of Minnesota. When they returned, Randy could not stop talking about Minnesota for at least the next nine months. On and on he marveled aloud at how amazing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) was and how I needed to take the time off to explore it with him. So, two years later, I decided to find out what’s so great about Minnesota, and I haven’t stopped going back since.
   On trip number six, we decided to head into the BWCAW via the Gunflint Trail, which begins in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and ends at Saganaga Lake. This 57-mile roadway was originally established as a footpath between the inland lakes and Lake Superior. It is now used as one of the two main entry points into the BWCAW, serving as access to numerous lodges, outfitters, hiking trails, and lakes within the boundary waters. Getting to this area is no easy task. Randy was coming in from North Carolina and I was headed there from Colorado, and the plan was to meet at the Duluth airport. On the small plane from the Saint Paul–Minneapolis airport to Duluth, a few fellow anglers were in front of me, going over their meal plan for the coming week. It put a little smile on my face knowing that soon I would be planning the same thing with Randy when we met in Duluth. 
   Upon arriving in Duluth, we rented a car and headed to the local sporting goods store for some last-minute purchases, then the grocery store, before heading north for the three-hour drive to our first destination, Clearwater Historic Lodge, aka Clearwater Lake Lodge.
   Clearwater Lake Lodge sits on the west end of Clearwater Lake and is the oldest and largest freestanding hand-hewn whole-log structure in the region. It has been in the resort and outfitting business since 1915 and is the oldest resort on the Gunflint Trail. Current owners Adam and Kasey Van Tassell greeted us enthusiastically as we pulled into the lodge late Saturday evening. After offloading our gear into the bunkhouse we had rented for the night, we organized as much as we could before calling it a night.
   The next morning we went to the main lodge for our complimentary breakfast, then headed down to the docks to find Adam getting our canoe and gear ready for our departure. After getting some local fishing information from him, we loaded the canoe with everything we would need for our six days in
the wilderness.
   Our objective was to paddle a few miles down Clearwater Lake and set up a base camp for the week, taking day trips to portage to other lakes in the area. Every lake in the BWCAW has designated camping sites, each with fire grates and latrines off in the woods. To prevent overcrowding, each lake has a certain number of permits granted each season. You must sign up for permits for the days and entry points you intend to access the boundary waters. Getting our permits for this particular trip was fairly simple because we were camping late in the season—actually, the last week Clearwater Lodge was open before closing for the winter.
   After reaching our camp, unloading the canoe, setting up the tents, and getting everything else as organized as possible, we were ready to decide on a plan for the afternoon. We knew Clearwater Lake held very large lake trout and lots of small to medium-size bass. We weren’t well equipped for deep fishing for lake trout, so we opted for plan B, which was to canoe across the lake and take the portage over to Caribou Lake. The portage to Caribou is 143 rods. Portages are measured in “rods,” with one rod equaling 16.5 feet or 5 meters. What a rod doesn’t measure is the difficulty of a portage. Depending on weather, elevation, and the landing, each portage is not created equal. Hiking any portage with a canoe on my shoulders is a skill I am still trying to master.
   We got on the water at Caribou with our fishing gear in hand, Randy armed with his spinning gear and me rigged up on my fly rod. No matter what type of fishing you are doing in the boundary waters, you can’t go wrong when you have leech imitations, crayfish patterns, and some poppers in your arsenal. I had previously tied all three kinds of flies, and for my first cast in the BWCAW for the year I decided to use a crayfish pattern I had created. Fifteen minutes later it was fish on! First fish of our trip on my fly rod on a fly I tied myself, and as I got the fish to the surface, I realized it would be another first for me: my first northern pike on a fly. That is one great way to start a boundary waters trip! Unfortunately, it would be the only northern of
the trip.
   The rest of the afternoon was spent hooking and releasing numerous 2- to 3-pound smallmouth. There truly are no words to describe the feeling of being on a lake without another soul in sight. 
   Finally, we headed back to our camp, stocked up on firewood, made dinner, and discussed our options for the following day. The great thing about base camping in the boundary waters is that there are a ton of options for day trips. For the next day’s trip, we decided to head east to a lake that is stocked with brook trout. The following morning was got under way with a quick breakfast, a short paddle, and the start of our hike/portage up to the lake. The trail is mainly for hikers, so taking a canoe proved slightly more difficult
than anticipated.
   Once we were on the lake, I felt a little out of my element. Fishing for brook trout in Colorado is pretty straightforward: throw your fly in the water and catch a brook trout. But fly fishing for brook trout from a canoe in a lake, in the middle of the boundary waters—well, I wasn’t quite prepared for the hours of casting and paddling around the lake without even seeing a fish. One word of warning: if you ever find yourself trying to target brook trout in a lake in Minnesota, be prepared to fish deep, because if it’s not early spring or late fall the brook trout will be many feet below the surface. (Mental note: maybe I should have done a bit more research.)
   As we headed back down the trail to Clearwater Lake, we stumbled upon one of Minnesota’s native animals, the moose. One of us had a canoe on his shoulders, and the other was carrying daypacks and other fishing equipment, so the cameras were packed away and out of reach. But seeing a moose 20 yards ahead of you, walking down a trail and then disappearing into the woods, is unforgettable. (Mental note: always keep the camera ready.)
   The following day we headed to Watap Lake via Mountain Lake. The portage is 81 rods from Clearwater to Mountain, and then 89 rods from Mountain to Watap; both segments are moderate to easy. Watap borders the United States and Canada, and a marker lets you know where the border is, one side saying “canada” and the other “united states.” It’s a great photo opp.
   On the portage to Mountain Lake, Randy drew the short straw, so he was carrying the canoe. I arrived at the lake first and heard voices from the shore. When I reached the lake, I saw three men talking, two in a canoe and the other ashore bearing a backpack. There are many hiking trails in the area if you are not a canoer; the three were friends, and one was hiking while the other two met him at specified spots along the trail. The men looked familiar, and then it hit me: they were the guys I’d overheard on the plane three days earlier. We started talking about the coincidence of ending up in the same place so late in the canoeing season, when few people travel to the area. Making it even more of a coincidence, as Randy came over with the canoe, they told us they were from Florida and had studied medicine at one of the universities—the same school where Randy’s father had taught one of their classes. Small world. 
   We said our good lucks and goodbyes and headed over to Watap. On a previous trip we had fished Watap with great success, catching large smallmouth bass, but on this day it was windy and difficult to catch the number of fish we had expected. After fishing three-fourths of the day with only nominal success, we started back to our lake.
   That evening we stayed close to camp and fished Clearwater. As the day drew to a close, the winds started to pick up. Not wanting to get caught in the middle of the lake during a windstorm, we quickly headed back to camp. Soon we found it wasn’t much safer at camp: the high winds broke a small tree, and it fell right next to one of the tents. The winds in the boundary waters can blow very hard. A few years ago, on another trip, we got caught out on the lake during a windstorm, with waves up to 2 feet high crashing over the bow of the canoe. This was not something I wanted to experience again, so dealing with the wind at camp, even with falling trees, was the better option.
   Caribou Lake was our destination the next day; it had been the most productive lake we had fished thus far. And once again, it did not disappoint. All morning we caught smallmouth after smallmouth, hoping to throw some pike into the mix. But only the bass were hitting on this day. At one point, a bald eagle hung out with us, moving from tree to tree as we drifted down the lake. I’m pretty sure he was waiting for us to make a mistake so he could take off with one of our fish, but he would have to go elsewhere for his lunch on that day.
   We stopped for our own lunch a little past noon and noticed that the winds had started to rise yet again, howling down the lake. So we headed back to the portage after lunch and hiked back to Clearwater. The portage at Clearwater is in a small bay, and once we reached the lake it was calm at the landing, but the main body of the lake was alive with whitecaps. We launched and paddled out of the security of the bay, but hugged the shoreline, out of the direct wind, while reviewing our options.
   Clearwater Lake runs east to west; our campsite was directly across from where we were, and the wind was blowing west to east. We had a couple of options: head east into the wind and then try to maneuver back across the lake with the wind to our backs, or head west with the wind and try to hug the shoreline around to the other side.
   The second option seemed less sound, as we could have been blown into shore with the possibility of capsizing. So we went with newly added option C: head straight across the lake toward our camp, taking a slight diagonal approach while trying to keep the wind to our backs as much as possible. We hunkered down, mentally prepared for the journey across the lake, and dug in with our paddles.
   The canoe didn’t capsize; we suffered only a couple of bobbles and took on just a bit of water, and made it to camp safely, albeit with our nerves slightly frayed.
   Sitting at camp, sipping on a little bit of whiskey to calm our nerves, we discussed our options. Our plan was to be out until Friday, then head back to Clearwater Lodge Friday afternoon. With the winds worsening as the week went on, another plan came into play. We could pack up camp, wait for the wind to die off in the afternoon, and head back to the lodge a day early and then have a whole day of sightseeing and fishing in and around Grand Marais. Our decision was made easier when we remembered that we could grab some burgers and beers in town. That was the catalyst; we started to break down camp and head back to Clearwater Lodge. 
   Luckily, the wind calmed in the late afternoon and also switched directions. With the wind now at our backs, the return paddle was uneventful, and Adam and Kasey generously made room for us in one of their cabins, even though we were back a day earlier than expected. After unloading everything, we headed to the Trail Center Lodge for our semiannual burger and beer run. Trail Center is conveniently located on the Gunflint Trail and offers the best burgers in the area. With a general store attached to the restaurant/bar, Trail Center is the perfect destination, whether you plan on staying at one of their cabins or are just passing through and need to stop for last-minute supplies.
   A few days before I started this weeklong adventure, it occurred to me to do a little research on fly fishing in the area of Grand Marais. I found that the Brule River is just north of Grand Marais, with an easy hiking trail running streamside. I brought an extra fly rod in hopes that we would have time to fish the river and could get Randy set up to fly fish it as well. Exiting the boundary waters a day early gave us an opportunity to sample a new fishery. With an extra day in town before catching a plane and heading back home, we decided to hike the trail and check out the Brule.
   We headed for a stretch of the river contained by Judge C. R. Magney State Park, 14 miles north of Grand Marais. Day hikers on the way to check out Devil’s Kettle Falls frequent the trail in the park, and we too headed to the falls. They are aptly named. The east side of the waterfall is typical, with the water tumbling to the river below and continuing on to Lake Superior. But the west side of the falls dumps the flow into a deep hole where it disappears, baffling hikers and drawing scrutiny from scientists. I found it fascinating.
   After taking in the view of the falls, we sat next to the river and I rigged up a fly rod for Randy and one for myself. While researching the river previously, I did not bother looking up what insects are in the water or what flies to use. I understood my error while looking in my fly box and trying to pick something. You can never go wrong with a Prince Nymph, I reminded myself, so I tied one on, picked a promising-looking pool behind a large boulder, and made an exploratory cast. In seconds, a fish inhaled the fly. We fished downstream for a few hours; I landed a dozen or so rainbow trout. New to fly fishing, Randy hooked a few trout, but brought none to the net. He would have to wait for another day to land his first fish on a fly rod.
   That evening was spent exploring the shore of Lake Superior in Grand Marais and enjoying pizza at Sven & Ole’s before heading back up the Gunflint Trail to Clearwater Lodge. Back at the lodge, we played cards and packed up our things. While reminiscing about the success of our week, our conversation eventually turned to future exploration and just where off the Gunflint Trail trip number seven would take us—the options seem boundless. But the exploring is half the fun.


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