I ran out of work on time and grabbed my daughter from daycare. My wife left work on time as well. After a brief goodbye and some last minute additions to my gear I was off to the airport in Detroit.
I had my usual luck on the flight…it was packed and I was sitting next to another large frame person like myself. I never get to sit next to a little petite thing that only takes up half a seat, I always end up with someone like myself who is to tall and bulky to be comfortable in those sardine boxes they call airplanes. I landed at 9:30 PM local time in Minneapolis and waited for my luggage. Much to my surprise both pieces of luggage made it here. Unfortunately, because of the slow loading time and extra wait before the flight took off, the rest of my crew had been waiting for me for an extra hour.
The rest of the crew picked me up at the jump-n-run loading area and we headed for Ely. I think it was about 4 hours, or a little more, with the stops we made and the deer we had to dodge. You have to watch them, they are thick in there. We finally arrived at Ely at 2:30 AM and decided to nap for a couple of hours before we met with the outfitters.
We met the guys from Wilderness Outfitters at the local breakfast joint (I cannot remember the name but they had excellent food) at 6 am. After breakfast we went back to the outfitter’s and packed our gear. We had two canoes, six packs, and two rod tubes. Everything we needed was in those packs including our food, fishing gear, tents, clothes, cooking utensils, etc.
We headed off to the Chainsaw Sisters around 7:30 AM and climbed into the canoes around 8 am. The water was high enough that we could canoe down Pickett creek without much difficulty. I was in the canoe with our guide Jeff. During that first few minutes he went over basic canoe strokes and their effects and we tried them out in that slow moving twisty creek.
Mudro Lake was our first open water to cross and it didn’t take real long. I didn’t realize, however, that the nastiest portage of the trip was at the other end…the “Stairway To Heaven.” I had been told by others in the group that this was nasty but I had underestimated it. The portage path was slimy with mud. The first half of the portage was mostly a gravel path up hill and the second half was an incredibly nasty downhill that was made up of water smoothed rocks like steps, if the steps had been done by a mad man. I huffed and puffed my way up one side and started down the other but I kept slipping with the weight of the double pack. One of the others came back and helped by taking the top pack off my back and that allowed me to finish the portage without falling and braining myself on a rock. After what seemed like forever, but really was just a few minutes, I made it to the end of the portage and arrived at Sandpit Lake.
The paddle across Sandpit was uneventful. While the lake is not really that big it is quite pretty and there are supposed to be decent Walleye and Smallmouth in the lake, but that can be said for a lot of lakes in the BWCA. In short order we arrived at the portage between Sandpit and Tin Can Mike. This portage is longer than the first portage but it is a little easier because the slope of the uphills and downhills is not as great. You still need to watch your footing but you don’t feel like your going to die if you fall over.
After we finished the Sandpit portage we found ourselves paddling across Tin Can Mike lake. On some maps this lake is known as Murphy lake, but no one seems to know why. Tin Can Mike looks a lot like Sandpit, only larger. Again it supposedly has good populations of Walleye and Smallmouth, but we weren’t stopping there. The portage at Tin Can Mike lake takes you to Horse Lake. I don’t remember much about the portage trail between Tin Can Mike and Horse Lake so it couldn’t have been real tough.
Now that we are in Horse Lake our destination is the river. Luckily for us there is not much wind that day, because our guide said that this lake can get quite nasty to paddle across when the wind picks up. We paddled halfway up the lake and turned east into the Horse River. Shortly after that we came to our first river portage. At this point the guide had us get out of the canoes and he took them through the very short rapids one at a time and we climbed in at the other side. There were a couple of short rapids to negotiate before the next river portage and those were uneventful because we took our time and picked a good line through each. The next river portage was quite a bit longer than the first river portage but still not more than a couple hundred yards. Back into the river we went and paddled a while longer before coming to the final river portage before the falls. This is another average portage with nothing special to describe other than wonderful scenery like always. We now are on the last leg of the river before Lower Basswood Falls.
There are two different portages that I know if at Lower Basswood falls, one on the American side and one on the Canadian side. The Canadian portage is a little better in the long run because it positions you downstream from the falls outflow and make the paddling easier to start. After passing Lower Basswood falls we are now in Crooked Lake. The portaging is over for us because our destination is Skull and Crossbones.
Skull and Crossbones camp site is located about 4 miles paddle down current in Crooked Lake. It’s situated on a south facing point next to the current just south of Wednesday bay. The paddle to that location is quite nice because you pass some pictographs located on a high rock wall. As we neared our destination the weather started to turn for the worse as we saw thunderheads start to roll in. We began to paddle a little faster as we heard the thunder crack in the distance and we got to the campsite before the rain started. We got out our rain gear and put up a tarp over the area near the firepit and stored our gear there as we dug out the tents. After the monsoon passed we finished putting up camp and decided to do a little fishing.
Just south of our campsite are two currents separated by a pool with an island in the middle. We began to drift around in the current eddies and jigged for Walleyes. No one caught any huge ones but we did catch enough for our group of four to have supper. By that time it was getting dark so we headed back to camp, had supper, and collapsed into our sleeping bags.
Day 2 brought more rain and wind. We decided to fish the currents south of camp and right next to camp that day because Wednesday bay was churned to a froth. While we fished in the cove across from camp we saw two canoes start out into Wednesday bay, a few minutes later they came back after seeing the waves in the bay. Towards the end of the day the sun came out more and the wind lightened a bit, but it was still quite windy. We didn’t catch any huge Walleye but we did catch enough for another supper.
Day 3 saw better weather and our tent had a mascot. It seems a local spider liked to sit on the outside of our tent every morning. He was about two inches across and had interesting patterns on his back. That day we went up to third current and fished after netting some minnows in the shallows near camp. Everyone caught Walleye’s and Northern Pike but there were no trophies that day either. Again, we had enough for supper.
Day 4 brought more wind so we decided to fish around camp. More eating size walleye were caught and a couple of Northern Pike and Smallmouth made an appearance. The smallmouth bass were 22” and 21” respectively and quite chunky. That night we grilled fish instead of deep frying them, it was VERY good. I would suggest grilling Walleye to anyone. I would even consider leaving oil at home all together and just bring a grill basic, some spray butter, and some spices.
We decided to go back to third current this day come rain or shine. The day started out overcast with a nice drizzle. We got almost to American current and the wind whipped into a frenzy. Trying to paddle against the wind through the current was quite intense because it generated some nasty white caps where it met the current in the narrows. We fought on to third current and waited to see if the wind would let up, but it never did. We went back down through American current and found a spot for lunch. After taking a siesta there and watching the weather, we worked back down to fourth current to get out of the wind and fish. We drifted all over the area just above fourth current and caught enough fish for supper. We then tried fishing the points back through Wednesday bay to Tablerock but nothing but a hammer-handle Pike was on the line.
This day we broke camp and headed back out. Paddling up the Horse river wasn’t too bad until we reached the little rapids that we had ridden through going downstream. We got the boat stuck both times but were able to get off the rocks. We portaged around the first rapids before entering Horse Lake. Once we reached the lake we had lunch and decided to fish for a little while before exiting the BWCA. We saw several people fishing reefs for Walleye but decided it was too early in the season for there to be much there. We concentrated on the points and islands at the downwind end of the lake. We caught probably five Walleye in the couple of hours we had to spare and threw them all back since we weren’t taking fish out. Then we finished the paddle out.
Once we reached Chainsaw Sister’s we went to the bar and had a couple cold ones while we waited for our ride. Those were the best beers I had in a long time. Our ride picked us up and took us back to the outfitters. Once there we got keys to the bunkhouse and took a long anticipated shower. After that we went to Cranberry’s and had burgers and beer for supper, then it was off to bed.
That morning we had another good breakfast at the something-or-other café (I still cannot remember the name) and settled up with the outfitter. In the midst of all the hubbub of the night before we managed to lock the keys in the truck so we had to wait for a locksmith as well. Oh well, you know how it goes. Once we were all settled up and geared up we made the drive back to civilization. I was dropped off in Minneapolis at the airport and the rest of the crew continued on to their destinations.
What to say about my first trip to the BWCA? I loved it. I would turn around and go again in a heartbeat. The quiet, the fishing, the scenery, it has it all. Even though we didn’t catch any trophy Walleye, and no one we spoke to had this year, I know they are in there. That place also has killer Smallmouth fishing and some huge 20#+ Northern Pike to offer. There is enough water to fish different water every trip for a lifetime if you like to paddle into the back country.
I would also like to say that our Outfitter was very good. Wilderness Outfitters provided excellent gear, canoes, and their guides are top notch. Jeff is especially good, even when the fish aren’t biting the best he has a sense of humor and enough stories to fill the slow time. The owner has been fishing , trapping, and hunting the area since he was a small boy and probably knows as much or more about the area as anyone. Their bunkhouse was clean and they were in the process of renovating it. While the bunkbeds were a little squeaky they were comfortable and the shower room was nice and clean.
As far as fishing gear is concerned you can probably catch all the fish you want with 1/4, and 3/8 oz jigs tipped with leaches or minnows. You can also catch fish on the grub bodies but the live bait seemed to work a little better. You might also want to throw in some lindy rigs in case the fishing gets a little tougher so you can slow down the presentation. Others have a lot of results fishing slip bobber rigs tipped with minnows or leaches. Instead of bringing in minnows I would recommend bringing a net and catching your own. It gives you less to carry and they work just as well.
I will have to say that I didn’t adequately prepare for the trip physically. Next time I will starting taking long walks with a backpack filled with weights. That will help condition me for the portaging. I still haven’t figured out a good conditioning idea for paddling other than just going out and paddling around somewhere.