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Freshwater fishing at Northern Tier

By Tom Redington
Photographs by W. Garth Dowling

As my car drove away from Northern Tier High Adventure base, one thing was stuck in my head: five years, three months, 11 days …

Whereas it is a fundamental American value that all men are created equal, not all fishing trips are. Given a magic wand to grant the perfect fishing trip, I want a lot of action from hard-pulling, leaping fish — preferably large ones. While I’m asking, make it in a beautiful wooded setting, surrounded by natural shores and abundant wildlife.

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Oh yeah, nothing against my fellow anglers, but I’d like to have the lake all to myself so I can enjoy the great outdoors in its natural state. Plus, I want the fish to be super easy to catch, so make it a place where they might not have seen a lure in the last few weeks … or months.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area — located between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada — is one of the few areas in the world that meet all my requirements. I’ve dreamed about making this trip ever since I started fishing, having heard stories about its hundreds of pristine lakes that are so loaded with fish that even novice anglers are assured of getting action.

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On a Scout trip last summer to the Charles L. Sommers High Adventure Base, part of the BSA’s Northern Tier National High Adventure Program, we had to paddle our canoes for only a few miles until we arrived at some of the best fishing in the world.

Delicious walleyes are the favorite of many visitors, but there’s also northern pike, which range in size from 1 foot to more than 4 feet long and aggressively smash any fast-moving bait they see. And then there’s my favorite, smallmouth bass, which are known for putting up quite the fight once they’re on the hook. Often referred to as brownies or bronzebacks, smallies often make hard runs to deep water before rocketing to the surface and leaping 2 feet out of the water, often cartwheeling in midair. They might repeat the whole dive-and-jump sequence several times before surrendering.

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LOOKING FOR SMALLIES

Northern Tier is located 50 feet from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and within a few miles of departing the base, several Scouts, leaders and I were squarely into arguably the finest smallmouth fishery in the entire world. The only downside to all of this water is that it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide where to start. Of course, we had an interpreter leading our group, and he helped us navigate to a lake that was a traditional hotspot, and we all eagerly paddled in search of big catches.

Unlike their green largemouth cousins who love weed patches, stained water and snaggy areas with logs and docks, smallmouth bass prefer clearer water and hard, rocky bottoms. With narrow jaws, smallies are experts at sniping crawdads while rooting around boulders, rock piles or gravelly flats.

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Simply by looking for rock formations near the shore, we found spots that would be perfect for brownies. For less obvious rocky spots that are located offshore, I would cast a crankbait — a popular hard-bodied artificial lure with multiple hooks designed to look and behave like a small fish — or drag an artificial worm and wait for the classic rough feel that rocky bottoms produce. While smallies can be caught roaming all over rocky structures, the edge where the bottom quickly drops off to deeper water is often the key.

THE RIGHT SPOT

Smallmouth are typically found in shallower water in the spring and fall (approximately 5 to 10 feet deep on BWCA lakes), but they often venture into the 15-to-25-foot range during the peak of summer and near winter.

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Once I located some promising rocky areas, I looked for active fish that give away the location of the whole school. Then we slowed down and worked the spot thoroughly. A 3- or 4-inch tube — a soft artificial lure designed to look and behave like a crawfish — works anywhere smallies swim.

For smallmouth, a suspending jerkbait like a Pointer, Rogue or X-Rap worked quickly. If the fish are active, two or three short snaps of the rod and a one-second pause will bring them running towards the bait. A more subtle approach is simply casting out a 3-5-inch grub on a ¼-ounce jighead, and then slowly reeling it back in. If the wind is putting a little chop on the water, you can often catch bass with these two baits all day, along with some bonus pike. As is often the case, the weather was changing constantly when we were there, and slowing down with soft plastic rigs worked best.

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On this trip, a 4- to 6-inch straight-tail plastic worm rigged wacky style — with the hook attached in the middle of the bait instead of the end — was our crew’s best bait. We also had some success with a drop-shot rig, tying a ¼-ounce weight to the end of the line and letting it sit on the bottom, with a hook tied onto the line about 18 inches above the weight.

If you’ve never fished from a canoe, it’s as easy as the fishing. Northern Tier has a couple of options, including Kevlar canoes that are really light and fly across the water and are very easy to carry on portages to other lakes. With the expert instruction from their staff, even the novices in our crew were fishing like old pros in a couple hours. Simply getting upwind and drifting across areas is a quick and easy way to find fish. For staying in one spot, we selected the protected side of the lake because a lot less paddling is needed in those areas.

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I’ve dreamt of fishing the BWCA since I was a boy, and even under such great expectations, the trip lived up to the hype. After catching lots of bass and a few new fishing buddies along the way, too, it truly was a trip of a lifetime, equaled by few fishing places in the world. The only thing that could make the trip better would be sharing it with my Cub Scout son. And in five years, when he turns 14 and is old enough to attend Northern Tier, I look forward to sharing the adventure with him, too.

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