It’s 5 AM and the fog is rising above the mirrored reflection of a ledge rock bordered lake in the Boundary Waters It’s light enough now to see easily without a headlamp and the sooner you get on the water, the more time you have to spend chasing that fish of a lifetime. You knew when you were planning this July fishing trip that there were dozens of other destinations to choose. Likely all putting you in front of some big fish, but when the call of a loon is all you hear while pushing off shore, you instantly remember why you chose Ely. If this is your first trip or your twenty first, whether your craft is powered by motor or paddle, there’s nothing quite like Canadian border lake fishing.
When it comes to having a delicious shore lunch on an uninhabited island, opportunity is plentiful!
Like clockwork this time of year, I start off the morning by pulling out the shallow diving crankbait box; the contents of which are primarily Rapala Shadow Raps, Original Floaters (F9-13) and Shad Rap #5’s in Bone, Clown, Firetiger, Gold/Fluorescent Red, and Silver/Black. I look for bays on yesterday’s windward side of the lake and begin cycling through and trolling these baits around the points and weed lines. Much of the water is stained in this area, and the fish will be up in 6-12 feet of water.
After the day’s lunch is promptly placed on the stringer it’s time to start chasing big fish! Still digging into the same bait box near feet I decide to go after pike and smallmouth. They should be lurking around trees, lily pads, pickerel weed, wild rice, cabbage beds and rock piles off shore, so a near-surface presentation will be the best bet. The first cast lands just beyond and between two patches of pickerel weed in about 4 feet of water. The Shadow Rap drops slowly, so I let it sink below the surface a few inches before snapping the tip of my rod away from the slack line and then pausing again to allow the bait to fall a few inches once more. The water boils from behind a patch of spade-shaped-mini-lily pads and the slack in my line disappears and cuts through the patch of weeds as I set the hook. The sound of the drag screaming and the splashing of water—as a big pike comes topside for a sneak peek at her challenger, before going on another peeling run—instantly covers the peaceful sound of nature moments prior to the battle.
Once the winner is decided a new location is chosen and a few casts later a solid thump penetrates the cork at the butt of the rod. Without even having to venture into the Boundary Waters, dozens of motorized accessible lakes in the area are loaded with smallmouth bass. In a full day’s Bass fishing, it can be easy to lose count of the 17-20 inch Bronzebacks pulled over the gunnels; so we just try to keep track of the ones over 20 inches. As the rod doubles over and a big bass dives, the heart begins to whisper into your thoughts. “Jump, Jump, Jump.” As the fish leaps from the water, one of my favorite recipes holds fast into her cheek; a #3 off-shank worm hook threaded through a TriggerX Aggression Minnow. This fish was hanging out on the leeward slope of a rocky extension from a point in 6 feet of water. The partially digested remains of a Rusty Crayfish she coughed up on my shoe is a sign to switch colors. Fortunately for the remaining bass who lack a sore upper lip, it’s time to upgrade on our trifecta!
Out comes the deep diving crankbaits and out comes old reliable, a #7 Silver/Black Shad Rap to be trolled about 90 feet back at 2-3 miles per hour. Then on the next run I swap out the same lure in gold/black. I made a few fruitless passes, and then headed out a little deeper with Rapala’s Tail Dancer Deep 20 in UV Green. We’re looking for big walleye today and they will typically be hanging out in deeper than than the schools of eater sized fish. Upon reaching the extension of a rocky point, the depth comes up from 22 feet to about 18. I raise my rod tip so I don’t lock my bait into the rocks and by the time my offering reaches the rocks I feel the lip of the bait hit a rock and scrape over the top of it and instantly afterward my rod doubles over! The first thought is “Big Fish!” The second thought quickly afterward sinks into the gut, “Rock”… but the drag isn’t screaming; it’s giving line, sure, but it isn’t peeling off the spool. “This is definitely a fish,” I say in my head. Maybe I said it out loud, I can’t remember, but either way this could be a walleye over 30 inches. The head shakes are coming from deep, and since there hasn’t been a peeling run off to the side it is safe enough to rule out the possibility of it being another pike. As the fish nears the boat, her last attempts at making a break for it come into play and she dives a few times, taking some line and shaking her head through her shoulders. As she nears the surface and our eyes meet, there is a moment between us. She has given in to me, declared me her champion! I reach for the net, bring her nose to the surface and as soon as the net hits the water, she jerks her head away from the boat—freeing herself from the hooks—and swims back into the depths from where she came. She played me for a fool and I took it hook, line, and sinker. Maybe next time sweetheart, maybe next time.
It’s just another day in life fishing in the Arrowhead of Minnesota. Whether you’re seated in 20 feet of fiberglass or 14 feet of tin, the fish don’t care, all waiting for you with open mouths!