After 15 years of Boundary Waters Canoe Area fishing trips, I’ve learned a few things about how to be efficient and comfortable on the water for much of the day.
The BWCA offers tremendous fishing experiences because of its remarkable and undeveloped wilderness, which means all fish habitat is intact and not destroyed by human development. Because this wilderness is a limited entry system and harvest is largely limited to enough fish for consumption, you end up with some fantastic fishing.
Live bait is permitted in the BWCA but not in Quetico Provincial Park across the border in Canada. For most anglers, leeches are the preferred bait of choice.
I know one former coworker who used minnows; he would pack in a 15-foot seine net and seine beaches for bait. But he admitted that the bait would quickly die in plastic bottles, so it often meant fishing with a dead minnow on a hook. If you take good care of leeches, they will take good care of you!
I’ve had members of my party return to camp, get out of the canoe to stretch, then leave everything behind until they next push out. That’s fine, except your leeches may be cooking in the sunshine.
The first thing to do when you get to camp is get those leeches back in the water on a short tether of rope or string.
When you’re traveling on the water, give them a good dunking from time to time to get them fresh, cool water. I like to dunk then rinse, dunk then rinse, so some of the junk in the container gets flushed out, too, like gobs of slime and pine pollen or other small objects.
My favorite way to transport leeches is in a Leech Locker, a hard plastic, two-piece cylinder that locks in places and is perforated on top to add and drain water.
You can also purchase a Nalgene bottle, drill out some holes in the cap and have a wonderfully efficient leech hauler.
A fitted or screw down lid for your leeches is a must so you don’t have an accidental release of the bait you’re counting on using during your trip.
I like to use one container of leeches per boat, but to ensure both anglers in the canoe have access to leeches, I pack a couple plastic Kool-Aid containers with the tops cut off. I’m already packing in Kool-Aid for drink options and the leftover containers are perfect for providing a few leeches to my partner at the front of the boat without making me a personal bait wrangler all day.
Being comfortable in your canoe is paramount if you plan to spend several days fishing. One tip is to buy a couple foam pool noodles and cut them in half lengthwise. Wrap them along the tops of both sides of your canoe gunnels where the bow and stern paddlers are seated.
This allows both people in the canoe to stretch their legs comfortably against the side of the canoe and it also is a handy spot to hang lures for easy access.
You can also travel with a small automotive sponge. Water accumulates in the canoe from drips off the paddles, landing fish and spilling water from your bait container, and while you probably dump it out at portages or when you turn your canoe over in camp for the night, you may want to get rid of that water while you’re in the canoe and the water rushes to the heavier and lower end of the vessel.
A sponge helps you soak up all that water and wring it out over the side of canoe.
Finding fish in the BWCA takes some effort. A map will give you the outline of the lake, but BWCA lakes have little to no bathymetric maps, so you either learn to read water and shorelines, build your own map or fish blindly but intuitively.
My preference is to build my own maps. I have read water and shorelines — typically you can make out where drop-offs are steep or gradual from thinking that the shoreline mirrors the underwater element and reading aerial imagery often shows where underwater reefs can be found since the water is so clear.
You can also fish blind but figure things out, intuitively. A good pair of polarized sunglasses lets you see down 10-20 feet. I now build my own maps by portaging in a modern SONAR and GPS plotter that can computer process location and depth information and build a bathymetric map.
Bringing in such a unit means bringing a suction cup mount for the transducer, a set of lithium batteries that are powerful and lightweight, and turning my display down so I can prolong battery life. I attach the head unit base to my canoe’s thwart bars with silicone plumber’s tape that sticks to itself.
When it’s time to catch dinner, start with search lures — a jig and leech dragged or pitched around, a drop shot cast or pulled, a slip bobber and leech fan casted and pulled through good spots, or trolling with no snag sinkers or bottom bouncers.
Once you find fish, you can put the pattern together, or stay on a productive area.
Now is when it’s time to drop anchor. Thankfully, the BWCA is full of big cobble rocks that make perfect canoe anchors.
You can purchase a basketball net and zip tie the bottom closed, or draw the bottom with a rope to encase the rock for a portable option that doesn’t require portaging. Drop the rock at the portage and find a replacement on the other side.
This year’s BWCA trip found us in some very thick pine pollen and aspen cotton. I’m used to cottonwood trees on lake and riverbanks dropping cottony seeds in May and June in southern Minnesota, but this year I learned aspen (Populus spp.) drop cotton, too, and this year was particularly prolific!
It did make casting challenging and for trolling we had to use swivels to stop the cotton from sliding down our line and piling up near the lure tie-on. Remember a swivel and leader if you are ever in a similar situation.
Other fishing gear has made the trip a bit easier. I carry a few extra guides and rod tips with a stick of meltable epoxy. I can service broken or missing guides and tips in a jiffy. Rod sleeves and slicks do a great job of protecting rods in transit with little weight.
Take off the reels and stuff them in a gear bag or pack and you’ll travel much easier with less chance of stressing and fracturing rods.
As a rule, I try to never portage with hooks on rods. It’s just asking for an accidental hooking accident. Such an accident has not happened yet, and I aim to keep it that way.
A lanyard with clippers, hemostat, jig eyebuster, measuring tape, scissors and other fishing accessories is very helpful. Or you can pack a vest with all those things in pockets or on retractors.
I have such a vest for fly fishing trips on streambanks that occasionally gets double duty on canoe fishing trips.
All my tackle and trays fit in a backpack of fishing equipment. If I just packed in the gear I routinely use, I think I could do it with one tray, but since my BWCA trips are solely for fishing, I don’t mind packing the extras in case I want to try something new, someone needs something they are missing, or you want to throw the kitchen sink at the fish for good or bad reasons.
Once you start catching the fish, it’s time to take good care of them. String them up through the bottom of the jaw rather than through the gills when you are keeping fish for dinner. This keeps fish alive longer and fresher tasting.
I prefer a stringer that has individual links or loops, so I’m not having to tie and untie my stringer each time I add a fish. That many moves is asking me to make a mistake and lose our valuable meal.
Use a fish grip or boga grip to hold fish securely while taking pictures so you don’t lose fish overboard or dropping them in the canoe. It’s hard on the canoe and the fish.
Land your fish using telescoping landing nets — make sure you know how to deploy them and handle them so you aren’t learning while a green fish is flopping near the canoe.
I like to cut up my fish in camp on single sheet plastic cutting boards. A canoe paddle works in a pinch.
If you have the luxury of more fish than you need for dinner, try sinking the fish in the lake’s refrigerator. If you have access to deep water near your camp, you can sink your fish below the thermocline into the lake’s hypolimnion, where there is less risk of tampering by turtles, otters or mink.
The hypolimnion is cold but by mid-summer may not have enough oxygen to keep the fish alive — just know that putting your fish here means you will be eating them at some point rather than deciding to release them later.
BWCA canoe fishing is an annual highlight of my summer. Each trip is a new chance to connect with nature, try something new and see if you can put the pattern together.
A lifetime of trips has taught me a great deal, and I’ve learned from others as well. Hopefully a few of these tips will help you make the most of a canoe fishing trip.
Scott Mackenthun has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.