Paddling the pristine waters of canoe country leads a modern day voyageur through vistas of raw boreal beauty. Wilderness travel routinely tests and enhances a paddler’s character, it rewards with primitive adventure, and rejuvenates a soul with nature’s splendor. There are many benefits offered in a trip to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. But beyond the scenery above the surface, below the waterline lies some of North America’s premier fishing locations. There are a lot of fish in our northern canoe country, many are big, and often they are hungry!
Many border country waterways contain what is referred to as the “Grand Slam” of sport fishing, where you can catch Walleye, Lake Trout, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass all in a week-long canoe trip, or even the same day! Many species grow to trophy-size in several Boundary Waters lakes. Isolation, clean water, perfect habitat, and reduced angler pressure all lead to wonderful fishing possibilities in the Boundary Waters. If and when you go up there, you owe yourself a shot at hooking a lunker— you might just come back with a fish story for the ages.
Those fish don’t catch themselves though…. and you can only bring a limited amount of tackle and gear with you as you’ll often need to portage whatever you bring along. With no motors allowed in most of the wilderness, you must fish from a canoe or from shore. North of the border, on the Canadian side there’s no live bait allowed, and you can only use barbless hooks.
Jigs and twister tails rule the roost for traveling light on canoe country fishing trips. Simple and portable, they travel well, are simple to use, and inexpensive to replace when broken off. There are lots of rocks, submerged trees, and toothy Northern Pike up there. Keep an eye out for non-toxic, lead-free jig heads if you’re buying new ones… the lakes and wildlife would thank you.
An assortment of sizes should be in your tackle box, and 1/8 oz, 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2 oz will cover most conditions. With 8 or 10 of the two middle sizes and a couple of the bigger and smaller ones you should be set up for a week or so of fishing in changing wind, water current conditions, and depths. Jigs are made in a rainbow of colors, with all sorts of rattles, propellers, and zing-its on them. Plain jigs with a white head are usually the best (a painted eye may or may not help). The same goes for twister tails — simple is best. Bring single tails with fat bodies in an assortment of 3”, 4”, and 5” lengths. Again, white or light colors most resemble the baitfish you’re looking to mimic. Be sure to bring extra tails, they’ll get beat up from catching all those fish. The jigs work best for walleyes, but you’ll also pick up Smallmouth Bass, Northerns, and maybe a Lake Trout as well, though those brutes normally lurk in the deeper waters.
Sure… crankbaits, spoons, spinners, and plugs catch fish too, especially diving lures used while traveling from place to place. You’d be surprised where suspended fish will hit a lure while trolling back to camp. And there is something wholly spectacular about catching Smallmouth Bass on topwater baits, but pound-for-pound, the practically of jigs with twister tails present some of the best and safest options for fishing in canoe country.
The single hook simplicity of a jig is easier on fish and easier on you too. Fewer hooks make catch and release quicker and less stressful for the fish (many canoe country anglers don’t use a net). That also helps cut down on chances of catching yourself on a hook too!
You can get Boundary Waters permits at Frost River, learn more about planning your next adventure here. Keep an eye out for more tips on where to fish in the wilderness, coming up soon.
Happy Fishing to you!