BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 21 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1237 feet
Stuart River - 19
ER Nurses in BWCA
June 10, 2019
Number of Days:
Living in the Twin Cities I’ve always just left home around 2:00am to arrive at my outfitter to pick up my canoe, and then mosey onto my entry point, paddle in like 6-7 hours and then setup camp. I call it the “long day”, it’s useful for many reasons, most important being that it helps reset my schedule to “BWCA” time, I fall asleep good that night, none of the sounds wake me up, and I wake up early ready to get going on whatever we’re doing. Anyways, the guys didn’t care too much for the “long day” and I got lots of gripes. 4 of us left the Twin Cities around 130am and enjoyed one of those good “hype up” drives over the next 4.5 hours, talking about all the stuff we’d like to do, fishing tactics we’re going to use, what we’re going to do, game planning, it was a good drive. We got to the outfitter, Spirit of the Wilderness in Ely at about 0515….Whoops, plenty of time to change and situate before they open I guess. We had to pack the bear vault, and a couple food packs in someone else’s backpack, which got done quickly, we changed, got into the right clothes to minimize time at the buggier entry point, then the other group shows up, and we finish off our tasks in time to stand around for 15 minutes waiting for them to open. Good timing I’d say.
The outfitter opened, seemed like they were slower than other outfitters in getting going and getting us out of there, but I didn’t complain and we got on our way at about 0650. The other group had low fuel, and it’d had been a few years since I have been on the Echo trail, so when they asked if they should get gas before we go, I said “Oh it’s only 20 minutes away” HAH! About 10 minutes into that dirt road I remembered “Oh yea! This is one long ass road”. We’d be fine, I shrugged it off and we flew down the road to our entry point listening to the most perfectly matching classical music (only radio station out there that morning). Was going so fast we missed the entry point, eventually we drove over the Moose river bridge where I had been before I then it hit me “Yup, went too far”, the car desperately needing gas LOVED that part. Finally, we get to our entry point at Stuart River, pull in and it’s all good spirits after that. We were finally there, after months and months slogging through work and waiting for this trip, we were there. We slowly got our canoes off, our gear out and stowed appropriately, and as I’m packing my wallet I notice someone in my group carrying his backpack on his back, and his partners backpack on his front, I wondered if they were serious. I asked and he said “well how is he going to carry the canoe?” to which I reply “He’s gonna carry it with a backpack on, it’s easy”. They both look at me with a perplexed look, I confidentially say “give me 3 minutes, I’ll show you how it’s done”. I may not have known my coworkers as close friends before this trip, but I damn sure knew they were athletic and could handle what was coming on this particular entry point. They didn’t know they could handle it, I did. After about 3 portages they had it down, and were taking no longer than 2-5 minutes to exit and enter the water, single portaging. I was proud. Anyways, so I put my stuff away, threw on my CCS Pioneer, asked for help “balancing the boat” as I threw it on my shoulders (not necessary but nice if someone’s there to help you), once it was on my shoulders off I went. I yelled back “Lock the truck!” and off I went, must have knocked out a 1.25 miles before I got the canoe down for a breather and sip of water. The other guys were a ways back, but they quickly caught up. 1st one sucked hard, but it was over soon enough and we were soon paddling down the Stuart River. One fella’s military boot that he had been to Iraq and back in finally died on this portage in. The sole came unglued from the shoe and he had a talking shoe the rest of the portage. Home to at least 5 beaver dams, one of them being 4.5’+ in height, I was nervous of the guys using improper technique to get over the dams, and hurting the Kevlar canoes, or falling in themselves. Neither happened, they’re a very intuitive bunch and it was a pleasure not having to worry about them doing what I wouldn’t do. The one set of guys were leaving us in the dust, and flying over the shallow water obstacles and dams with such ease it left me in awe. I know who I’ll ask to go again.
Finally, after a day that seemed to take longer than it actually did, we were on Stuart at around 12:30pm. We made great time, the original plan was to shoot for Iron the first day, but I stopped talking about that plan halfway through the 1st portage out of the EP because I didn’t know how realistic that actually was for this group. Physically it’d have been no problem, we were still fresh at Stuart even though they felt tired and winded, we could have easily taken the hell of a portage out of Stuart into Fox, but for the sake of our morale we stayed at Stuart. It was a good move. We had the island campsite, though it was apparent we were on the lake alone and could have taken any site, we settled on the closest to us as we got on the lake. We set up our stuff, unpacked things in the sun, the occasional cloud came overhead to give us a little bit of shade, it was the perfect weather. We only got sprinkled on once for about 10 minutes that day and that was it. Weather forecast was a lot more foreboding. The guys were anxious to get onto some fish. 3 of them went out in the 3 person canoe and under the lead of my good friend whom I call “The Pike Guy” they went around to all the spots that look good on the surface, shallow bays with weeds, rocky cliffs, rocky points, all those spots that I usually have the most dependable luck with Pike and Smallmouth, and they only caught a couple small pike that got thrown back. Prior to this trip I praised day and night the Slip Bobber, and not to bring much fishing stuff, it wouldn’t be needed. They get back, we talk for a little bit and they decide to go back out. I had read on the forums that you can always catch eater walleye out of the falls, and so I sent them that way with a bucket of leeches while I stayed back and set up camp and the kitchen, we fished off shore and did pretty well from our campsite! I think we had caught 4-5 walleye right there which was really exciting. Love getting into them on your own campsite. The guys took a while to get back…And when they did, the Pike Guy says “Nah we didn’t get any fish, I think I broke your rod”. I remember rolling my eyes as if I’d expected this of my borrowed rod, they pulled up the canoe and got out and I came over the investigate my rod and found a half a dozen walleye in the bottom of the canoe. Pike Guy got me so good on that one.
While the guys vied over who could produce the cleanest fillet (which was great cause I didn’t have to clean anything) I set out to hang the bear rope, a task that has come to be a time of great reflection over the day for me as I search the trees for a good branch. No more than a few throws to get it exactly where I wanted it, it was a good day. For dinner we had breaded walleye, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fish tacos with rehydrated salsa. It was a hit, I can’t believe I haven’t done fish tacos before. We talked about what we’d do the next day, we all had some drinks, which hit way harder when you haven’t really eaten all day and are super sleep deprived! Next time I’ll remember that. The sky was clear that night, the moon ever waxing and seemly brighter than ever wasn’t letting us see too many of the stars but there were obviously more than the light pollution of the cities lets you see. From the minute we got to camp, to the minute we hit the hay, we kept our fire stoked and burning hot as symbol of our unwavering high morale. Whoever pitched the tent put a rood under my hip, but other than that it couldn’t have been a better day.
So, I title this day the “Second Long Day” for good reason. We slept great that 1st night, I woke up at about 5am, something I always do, with what I thought was a really bad headache from being dehydrated. It probably had a little to do with not drinking enough water, something that’s always a challenge to do in the BWCA, but it probably had more to do with the vodka I was drinking with my water the night before. I didn’t think it was THAT much to produce a hangover let alone more than a buzz, but like I said I hadn’t eaten as much as I usually do so it probably snuck up on me. Went back to bed, slept for a few more hours, long enough to listen to my friend and Pike Guy snore up a storm, it wasn’t actually annoying snoring, more comical. You know that snoring you always joke about, but have never actually heard that goes “Snoreeeeee (nasally inhale)” with the “mum mum mum” exhale? I found it, get Pike Guy a little drunk and totally exhausted a day into the BWCA and the unicorn of a snore can be heard at 530am on a little island at Stuart Lake. We all woke up around 8:00am and lazily packed our stuff, after of course coffee was made for the coffee drinkers. Felt like it didn’t take long to pack, but I remember us leaving that campsite around 10:30-11am, doesn’t seem like we got a late start but in retrospect an earlier one might not have helped much as all the campers we ran into on Iron looked like they had been there for days, more on that in a moment.
So we’re packed, everyone knew our goal was to pack and move that morning so there was a good flow to the morning. Didn’t take long to travel across Stuart to the portage into Fox, and likewise it didn’t take long for the realization to set in that the portage itself was hell! I had done all the portages the day before, so Pike Guy stepped up and carried our 3 person canoe across the first half of this portage, definitely the harder half. About 10 rods into the portage there’s a tree fallen over that makes a “Low bridge”, you don’t notice it on the way up cause you’re going up a hill. On the way back if you aren’t keeping your nose down you can easily bonk that. Then there’s a big tree root in the portage, so you have to squeeze through that and a rock, followed by about 6 trees that are all thigh-high and hard to step over (imagine carrying a canoe and stepping over them, single portaging). It proceeds to go for about 75 rods before the real monster comes out. In the thick of a bunch of pine trees, one of the pine trees fell over the portage, and it’s not just a tree it’s bushes, roots, other bushes and trees, and it’s so thick there’s no way of getting over it. Looks like a pile of dead pine trees waist-height that is approx. 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep (where the other side of the portage comes out, but you can’t see that). A little poking around and we find that there’s a path trampled around this pile, but it too is in this dense pine thicket, long story short maneuvering a canoe through there was really difficult, and getting 20 feet turned into a 10-minute ordeal. On the way back it was easier because we knew what it was, but still very physically difficult. This is just the first lick of the portage. It has another 10 or so trees down that you have to step over, and it goes up and down 20-40 feet at least 4-5 times, not to mention the whole portage is a mile long. The longer portage is out of the entry point, which was a mile and a half. But that is more of a gentle slope down to the water, where as this was a rollercoaster of downed trees. The group made it through, another shoe hang-up with those military boots, the other boot’s sole came off, and the boots were left in a bush off the portage (which we retrieved on the way back, more on that later). Once into Fox lake, it was a cake walk. The portages following were in the 70-rod length average, and a walk in the park compared to the Stuart/Fox portage. We were on Iron in no time.
Once on Iron Lake, it became a mission of finding a campsite. Today is Tuesday so I’m thinking the odds of finding a site are better than most days. We paddle to the nearby island site only to be disappointed. Knowing Curtain Falls is a good target for fishing and sightseeing, not just Peterson Bay, we continue heading east, there’s one sight on the south shore, taken. There’s two campsites on “Three Island”, both taken. There’s 2 more on the east Shore on the far east end of the lake, both taken. This sucks we thought, we stopped at a nearby bay on the east end of the lake, sat in our canoes out of the wind, took bathroom breaks on the nearby rocky peninsula, and made a game plan on where to go. The only sites left were on the far west shore, where we had started out at, and I knew the odds of an open site were highest at the worst site, the south western most campsite. We headed there as it was already 2:30pm, it took us about an hour to get back to the Island campsite north of Peterson bay when the weather started getting darker and darker. Getting to the “worst campsite on Iron”, it was open, and willing to settle, we happily accept it as our campsite of the night. Again, original goal was to land on the Island campsite on day 1. Oh well, we’re here. This campsite was a bad campsite, it functioned, but it had very little going for it other than being open that day. I have now decided that you can judge the quality of a campsite by the size of the spiders that accumulate in your bugout tarp. More on that in a minute. I set up my Green CCS 10x14 just in time for it to rain for 2-3 hours, we all sat in our chairs on this rocky slope under the tarp and just talked as our camp’s pyro tended the fire and dried out wet pine wood for that nights fire. We used this time to make up some food, and try my dehydrated chili and new Solo Stove light. The chili was great, all I did was make homemade chili at home, and then dehydrate it on a cheap dehydrator from Walmart, and vacuum sealed it to keep it small. Absolutely hit the spot and next year I’ll double my quantities for the same amount of people, it was that easy and that amazing. The Solo Stove caught everyone’s attention, I had never used it before, so I myself didn’t really know what to expect. If you’ve never used one I suggest you try it out, the double can style was just too great, it burned with such efficiency I couldn’t believe it. Next trip it’ll definitely be my workhouse, and I’ll just use my Pocket rocket and/or whisperlite to boil water and fry fish. It took no more than 5-10 minutes to gather fuel for it for an hour or so of cooking, I was primarily just using wood chips, pine cones, broken twigs and what not that were literally under-foot, where I sat. I’d throw in a couple pieces of wood every time I lifted the pot to stir it, at first I wondered if it was a two person job but once I started cooking I realized throwing in more fuel was as easy as stirring and lifting the pot for 5 seconds in one motion.
After a couple of hours, the rain dies down and stops, we were lucky. 3 of the guys take the 3-person out, 3 different guys from yesterday which was nice to see everyone mix things up. They actually left mid-rain so we didn’t see them for a little while until the rest of us decided to go out and try our luck. I paired with badass-army-medic/ER-nurse-broken-boot-guy for a great afternoon of fishing, we just went out to that south western most bay, just north west of the portage into Iron from Rush, and we found the other party fishing off the shore, beats the heck out of fighting for canoe space when you have a productive spot that can be fished easily from a good shore spot nearby. Army medic and I decide to attack from water rather than land, and we lazily drift around this big open bay casting stuff out. He hooked a massive pike, the kind of pike that you only get a glance of its mid-section before it sees the boat, and makes a huge dive, running your line like a massive lake trout for a solid 3 seconds before the heart-dropping “doink” can be felt/heard, and the line returned snapped off somethings razor sharp teeth. No leaders out fished leaders 6:1 in my opinion. The guys who religiously used leaders caught very few if not any walleye. The smallmouth were bedding, and the pike just didn’t seem to be as active. It was walleye time, and once I tied on an Orange jig that became all too apparent. For some reason all of the fish were really into Orange colors and we were hitting them left and right on orange. They ended up not minding the green and other colored jigs we ended up having to use after we snagged up the few orange jigs I had brought, but it definitely felt like they preferred orange and were easier to find and caught more when we had the orange. Anyways, Medic guy loses his huge pike, I wasn’t having much luck with whatever I was trying, so I tied on an orange jig, and stuck a leech on it. I then casted out, and wanted to slow us down so I left my rod in the bottom of the boat with the line just hanging over the side, I took one stroke with the paddle and my rod dove down and “doink”, snapped off as I lifted the line. “Wow” I thought to myself, not thinking much of it other than I should have been paying attention to my line, but I’ve always been told that you have the best look when you’re not thinking about it. I tied on another orange jig and right away a walleye is in the boat, good eater size, maybe 15 inches. I set my rod down, paddle us around for a few minutes and cast a few more times, another walleye. I set my buddy up with a jig and we both started getting into them. The 3 guys came off the shore which had stopped producing, and caught a few where we were floating around. We drifted around for a while just catching walleye here and there. Pretty soon we had 8-9 between the 5 of us and the other 2 guys show up with a big pike from their adventure, they take our fish and Medic guy and I stay out past everyone else just trying out the walleye bite. We paddled in as the sun went down and the ambient temp dropped a good 5 degrees. When they’re biting, you can’t beat it. If I didn't say it before, Pike guy delivered on his name by catching the biggest pike of the trip. Way to go Pike Guy!
Back at camp everyone is going strong on getting our fish cleaned, I loved how competitive everyone was, and how helpful and willing everyone was to do their part. It seemed like we all fell into our roles and niches that we like to fill and accomplish. One guy really took to getting water, and fulfilling that role, filling the water bag, getting it going on the gravity filter, and filling up our clean water reservoir. Another person really enjoyed being on fire duty, collecting firewood, exploring the campsites, and cleaning fish, and cooking fish on the fires. I have a Silky Saw Big Boy that I got after reading rave reviews on the forums, and it was just as much a hit on this trip as it ever is. The guys loved it so much, collecting firewood was something you had to call “dibs” on. Everyone took turns using it to cut wood at camp, they really are just such great saws. We made fish, didn’t turn out the best but this was the first trip where instead of bringing any liquid oil I brought just Ghee in little vacuum sealed packets (I made them myself). Ghee is amazing, and we really started having great success frying with it at the end of the trip when we were using much more of it than we did at the start. All in all the amount of Ghee we brought compared to the normal volume of oil was smaller, and it went much further. That night we stayed up and burned a lot of the wood we had previously dried out, hit the hay and the night was rather uneventful.
We woke up in our jungle’y overgrown campsite, and made coffee for the fiends, and then came up with a game plan which involved upgrading from our current campsite. The plan was to split up into 3 groups. 1 group would stay at the camp, and get breakfast going, while cleaning up and packing things. The other group was going directly north on a mission to explore the 3 campsites we hadn’t checked out the day before. They brought my yellow CCS 10x12 to claim a sight in case they found an open one. The other group’s mission was to go directly east to the island campsite, a short 20-minute paddle, to see if its previous inhabitants were still there, then they’d come back and eat breakfast with us. We didn’t have a ton of faith that the site would be open, but thought it was worth checking out. As we’re packing at this grassy overgrown campsite, we start to put away my bugout tarp. I was folding up all of the skirts around the sides and using the little ties inside the tarp that drape down, to tie the skirt up. On the 3rd side I was going to tie up, I reached my hand inside and swear I saw the silhouette of a giant spider that I was about to grab and I pulled my hand out faster than the speed of light, screamed in one of the higher pitches of that entire trip, and proceeded to do the “oh god they’re all over me” thing. I delegated the rest of the task to my friend whom commented “There’s no spider in here”, bla bla bla. I believed him, maybe it was just my imagination. Bugout tarp is now put away. To our surprise, they came back and said the island site was open, and they grabbed some gear and raced off to claim it. We began packing too, everything, and we got on our way there. About 10 minutes into our paddle towards the island I realized it would be a mission in and of itself to retrieve my tarp if they had planted it somewhere. We got to the island, emotions were high, canoes were wobblily and an inexperienced canoeist at the bow lead to me falling in knee height water in my “dry” shoes. Something that pissed me right off. Anyways, 2 of the guys went to find the 1st group, and retrieve the tarp if they had planted it, while the 1st group went to the 1st site to get all the remaining gear. About 45 minutes later both groups got back to the island with us at the same time, tarps are all set up, we had home on one of the best sites on the lake!
Here on our newfound campsite island that is also a paradise of open pine trees and walking paths that go on forever to each corner of the big island, we’re all set up, tents set up, tarps up, kitchen organized, and the guys even went so far as to drag out some fallen pine trees, cut them up and split them for firewood that night. One of the guys went swimming, he swam across the small bit of water in front of the campsite, to the small island in front of the kitchen, and back again. This of course got a few others involved and wanting to get in the water. The weather was perfect, the sun was out, and there were thick clouds just floating by occasionally. It was hilarious when Pike Guy went out nut-deep in the water only for a cloud to pass by in front of the sun for a solid 10 minutes. It was a good time for everyone to get in the water and scrub up if they wanted to. The water was brisk, but you couldn’t beat the quality of the bath at the time. I of course don’t smell at all when I’m camping, and in fact smell like roses the longer I go without a shower. When I went out to hang the bear bag ropes I have, there were tons of trees but none that really screamed perfection, the best spot had an ant hill directly under the landing, not ideal lol. The best spot ended up being a tree overhanging the front of the island, a sign to everyone else that this site is taken, a giant yellow carrot-shaped dry bag hanging high in a tree. Nice.
We were truly set, we just needed some fish on stringers laying in the water ready for dinner time. It’s about 3pm at this time and so we set out on our own fishing missions. 2 guys set out by canoe in one of our two mans, I could see them skimming the shore lines, fishing the usual pike and smallmouth tactics. The other 4 guys set out towards the back of the island to fish a small shallow weedy bay. I finished up some chores, mostly organizing my stuff, I like to pick up things as I go. Then I joined them in their bay for about 5 minutes before I realized this just wasn’t the spot to be in for what I was after. I walked back to the campsite, drank some water, and headed the opposite direction on foot out of camp out of curiosity, towards what Pike Guy had dubbed “Dead Crayfish Point” earlier that day. I walked out to “Dead Crayfish Point”, a solid 5-10 minute walk from camp, didn’t even bring a stringer, just my rod and was taking pictures of the woods as I walked there. Upon arrival I found a small rocky point that the wind was hitting at an angle so as to make a trail of bubbles along the shore that extended out from the point with the wind. The rocks looked like they shot down to at least 5 feet in as much of distance, so I started chucking my orange Jig. A few casts in I landed a solid 20” walleye that was around 3lbs. Few more casts and I got a few more, ran back to camp to get a stringer, and there were the guys from their bassy-bay, anxious to follow me to my productive point. The walleye were hot, together we must have landed another 6-8 fish on that point. My friend caught the biggest Walleye of the trip, around an inch bigger than mine and a little more girthy right on that same point. It was renamed “Bigass Walleye Point”. We filleted up a dozen walleye that night, a couple pike and a bass and cooked in various ways. Always fun to try and sample fish in all the different ways that you a cook fish. “If you’re not in the snag zone, you’re not in the strike zone!”
The island campsite on Iron is amazing. It’s littered with a hundred pine trees, great shade, pine needle floor with trails that go on forever and tons to explore if you don’t want to get out in the boat. Peterson Bay was phenomenal, I wish I had gotten out there sooner and spent more time there. Iron Lake is the first lake I know I’ll for sure return to in the future, soon maybe at that. That night we cooked up and rehydrated my own homemade Chipotle Penne Pasta, along with fish, long grain wild rice, breaded fish, basically a buffet of food that became available as it was finished cooking. “Where’s your bowl!?”. We also had Summer sausage that day, pepperoni from a pepperoni stick. Water filters were full, had a great tree setup to facilitate the water filter hanging there. The tent pads were prefect and flat, we had to sweep away a ton of pinecones but that’s nothing. That evening listening to my NOAA radio we heard that there was a frost warning for that night, also a couple guys portaging out warned us of the frost warning as we were on our way in. No big deal I thought to myself. It did get damn cold that night, but I don’t think anyone was phased once in their sleeping bags. My quilt is rated at 36 degrees and I slept like a baby that night. Pike Guy slept in the bugout tarp and didn’t notice the cold at all.
This was definitely the best day of the trip. The whole trip we were so lucky to have nice weather but this day really took the cake. The sun was bright and hot, temps were in the mid-60s low 70s, and nice puffy clouds floating across the sky. Occasionally one of them would block the sun and give us a little respite from the heat, it couldn’t have been better. A good 5 mile west-north-west wind blew us from our island paradise to the east end of the lake where we were going to visit Curtain falls that day. The plan was to have a day trip to Curtain falls, do some fishing in the area, and just blow a couple hours out there checking things out. Another lazy day getting up, none of us are morning people I guess, we got up around 8am and lazily made coffee and packed the canoes with our day packs and fishing gear to leave the site around 9-10am. It only took about half an hour to 40 minutes to paddle across the lake. I was under the impression that the water actually poured into Crooked from Iron Lake, so as we’re looking for the portage to the waterfall I was thinking we’d have to avoid getting sucked into the current and caught in the falls. To my surprise Crooked pours into Iron! We paddled nearby the site on the far east end, just south of the portage that goes into Crooked, we checked out the little nearby island with a U.S. Marker on it, took our pictures with the marker because we didn’t know there was going to be another marker at the top of the falls.
Paddling up to the portage to Curtain falls we notice 6 other canoes just pulled up on the grass, looked like 3 different groups. The walk was easy, the portage was bone dry, the woods were alive, birds chirping and the heat and sun keeping most of the bugs at bay. First we took a left, checked out the portage on the north end of the water, about 30 rods up from the entrance to the south. Then we continued on the seemingly long walk to the falls. After what felt like a long walk, you could finally hear the waterfall in the background. The low tone of the water roaring was a pleasant sound to pick up through the thick woods as the end of the portage came about, our walking pace increased, you could see water raging on the left through about 50 feet of thick pine trees and then finally you come out of the woods and atop a little clearing that opens up into the giant body of water that is Sunday Bay of Crooked Lake. The waterfall was gorgeous, the pristine water of Crooked gently spilled over the top of the waterfall into a chaotic torrent of water. Watching the waterfall in amazement I started to wonder why this waterfall doesn’t get more popularity in the Minnesota community, the BWCA doesn’t share its secrets with just anyone I suppose. There was a dad and his boys at the top of the falls, hanging out just enjoying the sun. A trail off to the side goes up through the woods and back to a flat landing about 100 yards upstream of the falls, must be the portage in from Crooked, walking back there 2 guys were sitting in their Helinox chairs just smoking cigars, watching the falls and apparently talking life and business. It was a great spot to sit in your chairs shooting the breeze with a friend.
After seeing the sights and soaking it in, we decide it’s time to see if there’s fish in it. Immediately the guys start fishing all the spots that “look good”, and the fishing wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. It didn’t take long for the guys to start thinking we weren’t going to catch much in the bright sun, they weren’t far from wrong. I was determined, being from Montana and growing up fishing rivers, there were too many delicious looking pockets and eddies of water for there not to be fish there. As fly fisherman say, it was all about getting a good drift. I took my little rod, put on my trusty dusty orange jig that had been delivering the fish for me so far all trip, flicked a leech into the really fast current and reeled it in until I could feel the swirly eddy take it away, first cast I landed a nice eater sized walleye. Shoot. Where do I put him? I don’t have my stringer on me; one of the guys has it in his pocket. I noticed there are big holes in the granite rock I’m standing on, holes filled with water, a natural fish keeper! I plunked him in there, casted out again and hooked a nice smallmouth, thinking I was going to keep on catching fish I toss him back. Being the great guide I am, I know I gotta get the guys onto these fish so I turn around and try to persuade any and all to join me in my newfound honey hole. One of the guys comes over with his slip bobber rig, a rig I had professed for months would be the best setup they’d use on the whole trip, and he flicks in his leech, and I notice right away he’s not fishing the current naturally. I help him out, “let out line” “just let the current sweep it around”, sure as heck he opens his bell, the bobber swirls too and away, and then it goes down. Walleye on! It’s a great feeling getting your buddies onto fish. The rest of the guys find their way down the portage to the entry point from the northern side of the downstream river there on the Iron side and start to fish what looked like a heavenly fish sanctuary that couldn’t let down. It did. They fished it hard for about an hour. Bobbers, top waters, bottom baits, jigs, the fish just weren’t interested in biting back there. I think the sun really had a lot to do with the mediocre bite. An hour and a half or so of hanging out at the falls and it’s time to start thinking about leaving. The fishing just wasn’t as hot as we’d have liked, and the afternoon was flying by. Everyone walked down to the boats, I went up to the top to see the falls one more time and also to make sure no one else in our party was up there, more so to see the falls one last time. By now the guys sitting on the portage were gone, the dad and his boys had left, and nobody was up there, the universe had carved out a little window just for me to stand up there and enjoy Curtain Falls alone. It was spectacular. I stood on the portage, looked out to Crooked, and said “Someday Crooked, we’ll meet again”. I didn’t do one of those cheesy yells where you stick your arms in the air, I just looked out onto the vast openness of Sunday Bay, back down the falls, and felt thankful to be there at such a perfect time. I grabbed my rod and headed down the portage to join my group.
After leaving Curtain Falls we headed back to our campsite, it was about 3pm when we got back. We decided to take the rest of the day easy, we passed around some cliff bars, filled up the water bottles, and went out to catch some fish and get some food for dinner to add to the dehydrated food I brought for everyone. Some of the guys went back to the little Bass Bay on foot, other guys went to the aptly named “Bigass Walleye Point”, the wind had changed, the weather wasn’t the same, it was apparent the fish weren’t feeding where they were the day before. The spots weren’t delivering. I offer to take out my buddy who we’ll call Wisconsin Guy, I like Wisconsin Guy, and he’s calm and patient and has an attitude that is positive and energetic no matter what comes our way, he’s one of those guys that you bring along on a trip like this and you can just tell he is truly thankful to be there for every minute. So Wisconsin Guy and I head out in a 2 man canoe, we paddled up Peterson bay, I had read so much of it being amazing that was no way I wasn’t giving it a good shot. We paddle back in there, trying all the usual spots. It becomes obvious this bay is actually pretty darn shallow, and my walleye-radar was telling me they’d be deeper than the shallow weedy areas that took up most of Peterson Bay. About an hour of putzing around and casting at everything that looked good, we found a little spot back there where there’s a good hole about 20 feet across. Wisconsin Guy is more of a trout fisherman, and has limited experience with Walleye. He starts to talk about the characteristics of a walleye bite. I explain “It’s like an ‘electric tick’ they’ll just tap your line like a ‘pop’ or a ‘tick’ and if you don’t set the hook then that’s all you’ll get”. That’s all it took to dial in Wisconsin Guy, after I told him that he went on to boat 3 walleye so fast I couldn’t do anything but put them on the stringer for him. Couldn’t even tie my own jig on before he’d be throwing another one back at me to get on the stringer. Needless to say I handed the stringer to him so he could slow himself down! We kept on that hole until it seemed to be empty, threw a couple small guys back, and giggled as our friends continued to paddle around casting at the weedy pike/smallmouth spots.
The sun started to drop lower and lower, it was slowly getting darker and we were inching our way back to camp out of Peterson bay. I had Wisconsin guy sitting on front just casting nonstop while I was the “trolling motor” in the back of the boat. I’d get a few casts out, paddle to correct us, cast some more, paddle one more stroke, it worked great. The wind was calm and things really started to slow down, paddling wise, it gave me a chance to start to fiddle around with vertical jigging, a technique that has long since eluded me as useful. I found a spot in the little bay there near the opening where it must have been about 8-10 feet deep, I was just playing with my rod, “bottom must be there” so I real in a little bit, just trying to figure out what works best for me, learning where the bottom is and how to move my jig in a realistic lively way. “This must be the bottom, and if I keep my rod right here I’m about 6” off the bottom, and I guess I’ll try this little slow rise to give it a little life, then I’ll drop it back down to that 6” spot or so……….” And then BAM my rod tip goes down hard. A good fight ensued, a better fight than I thought a walleye would put up, and if it was a walleye it had to be a big one. It ended up being a huge smallmouth that looked almost blonde. With no net (too much to pack), landing such a beast was a tricky endeavor. I ended up losing him rookie style when I tried to lift him in the boat by the line, line snapped and away he went. My last orange jig caught firmly on his lip. It was a magic moment for me as I had finally figured out how to use the vertical method. I gave it another 10 minutes of solid effort to no avail, the sun was down pretty far now, and it was time to paddle in. I was on a high.
Back at camp the guys were a few fish into cleaning, WI Guy and I added our fish to the pile and I got to cooking and preparing the kitchen and dishes. We cooked some of the fish over an open fire; we cooked some of it in breading with Ghee on the stove, and had long grain wild rice and more chili with our fish. Just couldn’t miss the spot with all that food. After cooking, I was down on the rock by myself cleaning dishes when Wisconsin guy comes up to help me was some dishes, was nice to have the company to distract me from the dishes, they sucked that night, for some reason the food caked onto the dishes pretty badly. We talked about our wives at home, Wisconsin Guy is a younger fellow, younger than I am, I’m recently married, and it was nice to hear from someone who “gets” what I’m going through, and he has a way of not coming off too strong when he has a conversation with you. As we’re sitting there washing dishes, I looked up to the moon and realized there was a moondog that night! I yelled back at the guys to check it out. Medic man knew what we were looking at but I don’t think the others really understood how rare or cool of a phenomenon this was. I took it in, I couldn’t believe how lucky we were that day and that moondog was the perfect cherry on top of an otherwise perfect day.
The rest of the night 5 of us stayed up and had some drinks and talked about everything from past stories, big foot, to work, and politics. Seemed like most of the guys wanted to take it pretty easy, but I had a water bottle full of Lemon Vodka and needed help polishing that off because there was no way I was going to be drinking the last full day we were out there for fear of a hangover on the paddle out. Pike Guy graciously helped me empty that bottle, together the two of us got a pretty solid buzz and just sat and laughed together with the other three fellas telling stories. The moon continued to be super bright all night.
This was the last full day of our trip, we’d be leaving on Day 6. The plan today was to wake up, pack everything up and head back to Stuart Lake to put some distance behind us in anticipation for leaving. The first portage from Iron to Rush lake felt so much harder than any portage over the whole trip, it definitely woke me up and reminded me that I’m out of shape. Everything went smoothly until we got to the Fox/Stuart. Coming up to the portage there were several aluminum canoes in the way, a patient person was tying all of them up out of the way, we floated around and gave them time to do what they needed to do then we saw them, about 20 boy scouts, or boys from a church group or something. They had all the same packs, probably from an outfitter though I didn’t recognize the letters on the front. We got out and packed up out stuff, there were at least 3 other groups of guys coming and going out from this portage, was hard to tell which direction everyone was going. I think the group of boy scouts was headed in, and everyone else was headed out. The looks on those kids’ faces, they didn’t look like they were having a very great time. We were the only group single portaging so we quickly left everyone in the dust once we got started. THIS PORTAGE SUCKS. The next time I go out to Iron lake, I will seriously consider staying on Stuart or Fox, and just clearing this portage out with some friends with the silky saw, if it isn’t already done by the time I get out there next. Getting to the other end of the portage we found all the backpacks the kids had yet to grab, about 15 more backpacks perfectly lined up and just ready to be carried over the miserably difficult portage.
Getting to Stuart we realized there were a lot more people there than we had seen earlier in the week. Right away we could see at least once of the sites was taken and we knew there were at least 2 other groups coming out of the portage and potentially looking for a site. We paddled towards the island site, one group of guys sat on the nearby site to the south of the portage incase the island site was taken. 2 canoes got back to the island, one came back to us to signal that it was open, and we hopped in our 3 man and went on to join them at the site we had previously stayed at earlier in the week. The weather was still holding out for us, the sun hadn’t changed, still had big puffy clouds floating across the sky, only difference was that today the wind had picked up more usual and was downright nasty at points. We got to our island site, set up for the last time, and now you could really tell that everyone was starting to feel pretty tired. We were all moving a little more slower than usual, a little more lazy than usual, it was clear we were ready for our beds at home and nice warm sheets. This day is a rite of passage, you have to earn feeling this worn out and ready to go home, and when you get to this point you know you did your trip right. We strung out some gear on the nearby flat rock to dry it out from portaging. I did food inventory, emptied out the food bags into the bear vaults and put them away in my backpack, no more need to hang the bear rope! We passed around the last off the cliff bars, saved enough for the next day out, passed out some of the candies, saved a few, and did an inventory of what we’d need to eat that night. The rest of the Chipotle Penne Pasta, one last bag of mashed potatoes with turkey gravy, Medic guy gave me a good idea and next year I’ll be adding dehydrated corn to my mashed potatoes.
While one of the guys who’s been super helpful this trip volunteers to set up the bugout tarp once we get to camp, and about 5 minutes into the task he yells out “Wow that’s a big spider!” and then comments that it was dead, and fell out of the tarp as he was setting it up. The tarp had been set up and put away a couple times since I had last seen this spider, so he had to be in rough shape if not dead. Anyways, so the giant spider that almost ate my arm off when I was just trying to tie up the skirts of my bugout tarp wasn’t just my overactive arachnaphobic imagination. Like I said earlier, you can usually tell the quality of a campsite by the size of the spiders that decide to take up residence in your gear, and that one buggy-ass campsite on Iron Lake was a terrible campsite in my opinion. Maybe a 1/5 or 2/5 stars, 2/5 only because it is such a bad campsite, it’s usually open compared to all of the other slices of paradise on Iron lake!
Our stomach’s growling, we knew we wanted more food than I had provided, so we were going to need some more fish. “Back to Many-Walleye-Falls” medic guy said. The guys made their way to the falls, Wisconsin guy rode with me and we putted around for a few more minutes before we made the decision to park the boat and fish from shore at the waterfalls as well, the wind was just too brutal and wasn’t giving us a nice evening of fishing like it had the night before.
We poked around and took some pictures of the waterfall; the weather was perfect as it had been the entire trip. The little waterfall on Stuart is really cool, you can walk around in much more than you think the portage walks right by it, there’s really a lot of cool stuff to check out. There were a handful of lady slipper flowers on the trail that the guys got some pictures of, the weather was great and picturesque with rays of sunshine being blotted out by the occasional cloud, the weather was moving through really fast and the clouds were just flying across the sky. We got lots of pictures on my cell phone, kind of a risky move as the weather was a little crazy and definitely a “butt puckering” type of paddle.
Fishing the waterfall tonight was slow, we didn’t do as well as we did the first time we were out there. Wisconsin guy and I looked around the waterfall for a bit, we took some pictures of things and everyone enjoyed the sun and then we started fishing. The fishing was slow. Wisconsin guy pulled a little walleye out of what seemed to be 2 feet of water in the moving water, we threw him back. Knowing the fish had to be in there somewhere I got at it, tried my jigs with the “Zman Scented Shadz” that Quetico Mike talks all damn day about, they were killing it for me so far on the trip but not that evening. I tried on a drop-shot hook with a small 3/16 oz drop shot, and put a leech on the hook, a new method to me this year but one of my favorite methods of all time thus far, and right away I caught a walleye right off the bottom from casting out. The drop shot set up is really nice in that it’s a lot harder to snag on a rock, the weight easily sips up and over rocks making it easy to fish the bottom of really rocky spots. Only caught a few before a couple hours went by. Looking out unto the lake I could tell the wind was going to really suck once we rounded the corner from our little bay. WI Guy and I got a head start and paddled out, the wind was so bad we got out onto the shore at the corner of the bay to assess how bad it really was. As we were relieving ourselves, and admiring the make-shift fire ring made by someone who needed a campsite badly at one point and made one on this point, a strong gust of wind yanked our light weight Kevlar canoe off the rocks we had set it on and whipped it out into the bay. I yelled across the bay at the other guys, I could see it took them a few minutes to figure out what was going on, and just as I finished my sentence the wind whipped the canoe back at us. Wisconsin guy sprang through the thick woods like a rabbit-on-crack and somehow jumped out the dangerous rocky outcrop without getting wet, and caught the boat with his arm. I know who I’ll be asking first if they want to come the next time around. So we get in our boat after the shock of being stranded wears off, more so shock that my St Croix rod in the back of the boat would get caught on a tree and fall out. We’re sitting in the canoe and I’m actually worried. The wind was so bad it would have easily flipped a canoe if you weren’t paddling into the wind. Luckily the wind was perpendicular to our campsite allowing us to paddle into the wind, and then get out of the wind quickly once we passed the point that our island was on. About 20 minutes of hard paddling, and a poorly sung sea-shanty we were back out of the wind, and actually getting blown down wind to our campsite.
Cooking was a slow endeavor that night, I had busted out the solo stove lite and was more having fun burning stuff in it than I was actually cooking stuff on it, I started cooking after a little while of burning some pine cones, little sticks, I learned that Jack Pine pinecones work great for cooking on the Solo Stove, they burn for a while and don’t flare up really hot. We didn’t catch a ton of fish, and we all wish that we had more, and also that we had busted out the Zataran’s Cajun breading sooner than the last day, because the guys really thought that was their favorite breading and way of cooking fish, we really dialed in the Ghee on the last day too because we ended up using more of it, and being a little “wasteful” compared to using it previously. I made up the rest of the Chipotle Penne pasta and the chili, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and it was a great night eating, we all definitely felt full as we hit the hay. The night kind of fizzled out fast as we finished eating and cooking, everyone was pretty tired and looking forward to heading home the next day. We got to bed early it seemed.
As usual I was the first person to wake up; usually I wake up super early and then end up crawling back under my quilt after a mid-morning pee but not today. Wisconsin Guy had been talking the whole trip about making it a point to see a Sunrise, and a Sunset. We got a glorious sunset on Day 3 and Day 4, so I think he was set on that. I woke his little butt up and my other buddy sleeping with us in my 3 man tent, and we started slowly packing things and getting water boiling to make up the last of the coffee. From the island campsite on Stuart, the sunrise rose over the campsite on the east side south of the portage to Fox, the sky was clear and the air was crisp, and the sunrise was a perfect warm red that lit up the whole sky as it poked over the tree-lined horizon. Wisconsin Guy was happy; we got his perfect Sunrise before the trip was over. We woke up the rest of the guys, dolled-out the coffee, and finished packing.
The portages out were easy and I don’t think we ran into anyone. We flew through the first part of the trek out, my ankles were killing me, my portage shoes don’t have the greatest ankle support and it seemed like the thought of having a beer and burger at Insula Restaurant in Ely was keeping us going strong. Once we got to the final portage, the portage to the cars, the 1.5 mile “gentle slope down” (to us) was now a 1.5 mile gentle slope up, and it sucks way harder going up than it does going down. Pike Guy and I split the portage, we traded off a few times to share the burden of that long bastard, my ankles were on fire, sweat pouring from my head, I passed it off to him the final 200 yards of the portage, and then it was over. Heaven, a BWCA trip completed and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. Threw all of our crap in the cars, tied the canoes down to the 2 vehicles, and we were off. Btw, the food at Insula is amazing and you have to get the appetize of the Shrimp Wanton Tacos, they’re to die for. Ordered a tray of them just for me, “we’ve been sharing all week, we’re done sharing!” lol.
EP 19 Stuart River to Iron Lake is a tough route, it’s not a bad route, and now that I’ve done it I’d happily do it again just to get to Iron Lake. Iron Lake was an amazing fishery that alone was worth the trip, we barely scratched the surface of the fishing potential of that lake, we put in enough time to catch enough fish, had we been picky and fished in the morning (we were all late morning folks), we could have easily doubled if not tripled our total catch. Curtain Falls is beautiful, and is the perfect jewel to top your crown of a trip here, seeing a few folks out there on the portage was kind of cool too, running into folks so far out in the middle of nowhere. The portages are bad, we single portaged which made them much more tolerable but I couldn’t imagine double portaging on this route, it would slow you down too much. Originally the goal was to get to Iron lake in one day, which I think the next time around it’ll be absolutely doable to make that trip in one day, but with everyone being green on this trip it worked out really nice to have a break day on Stuart before we made the push to Iron. Couldn't have asked for better company out there.