Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Irregular Muskies in the WCPP
by zelmsdawg

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/26/2015
Entry & Exit Point: Other
Number of Days: 12
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Part 1 of 3
The fish came out of nowhere, slamming my bait canoe side as I went into the first turn of my figure 8. It wasn’t a large fish, but I didn’t care. It had been almost 2 days of fishing and I was down 4 fish to none. I waited a moment for the fish to turn before setting the hook. Mayhem momentarily ensured next to the boat and then it happened. The fish jumped, threw the hook and landed in the middle of the canoe. And for a fraction of a second, everything stood still.

Oddly, this was not the first time I found myself in this particular situation. However, it typically happens in boundary waters, and with pike. Both my dad and I have been taking BWCA trips starting when I was 6. While we still enjoy it, and will continue to do so in the future, recently we had been looking for something more. Every year, pushing a little deeper trying to get away from people and find less fished waters. The trips have started to almost become somewhat ‘tame’ relative to when we first started exploring the park and we were itching for a new adventure. In addition, we have been fishing muskies for many years now and the possibility to combine these two turned out to be what we were looking for. So sometime around x-mas break of 2014, when I came across this trip report ( in.html), our 2015 expedition started to take form.

And this is my report of our trip. It was made possible thanks to a lot of information from others who choose to share their experiences, and it’s only right that I hopefully return the favor to the next person. The big circle theory. When I read trip reports, I usually look more for information than a story, so that is how I tried to approach this report. What would be relevant for someone who was interested in taking a trip? Do they need to hear about every eagle or squirrel I spotted? Nope. Great scenery or serene sunsets? I don’t think so (well ok, a few made it in). And it’s my story so there. What I tried to do was share what I would have looked for. What were portages like? Terrain? How long did it take getting from A to B? How experienced are the authors? What did we bring and why? Questions like that were what I tried to provide through my words and pictures. I could have written specific descriptions of every portage, lake and weedbed, but I also wanted people to be able to read this without needing multiple bathroom breaks in the middle. I'm not sure I succeeded, but its the thought right? Anyways, I tried to keep it concise. In addition, I hoped to provide more fishing specific information, as I found very little as I prepared for this trip.

Initially, we planned to come in at leneo and spend 2 weeks crossing the park, fishing and exploring to our hearts content. To avoid bugs, have drier portages and gain a vacation day we based our trip around Labor Day weekend. As time and expenses were put together, we realized we’d have to cut back and settled on the west side, garner for our entry point. This allowed us to comfortably drive up to our put in, and took days off the trip time. Murphy’s law struck just as soon as it seemed like everything was lined up. Our group of 4 people changed about two weeks before go day, as one had to suddenly back out. With three being logistically difficult, we ended up going with just us 2, my Dad and I. There was a lot of last minute scrambling and some concerns, but this actually worked out better in several unexpected ways. Most notably because most portage landings were small and it allowed us the flexibility to day trip once we were base camped.

Note: Jester is incorrectly labeled as Jigsaw

Once we decided on the trip, the first months were composed of reading trips reports, looking at maps and researching about the park. As far as maps went, we probably went with less than most people. I used topo maps from this site ( q= dd/3rjzi41vn_MK2014WCPPall_public2-15.kml%3fattredirects=0&d=1)and added the portage information from paddle planner’s interactive map. The campsite locations we got from the WCPP park office. We also looked at several satellite images of the area to get a better feel for what we’d be traveling through. Looking at these, the locations of what you were portaging around were clear, and in some cases you could make out the path itself which helped us know which side to look for it when the time came.

Fishing maps were a different story. I reached out to a lot of people and came up empty for any king of lake map. I would be surprised if one existed. The best I came up with was making a collage of zoomed in satellite images that showed the visibly structure from the sky, which was rocks less than maybe 7ft. But we could see where reefs, islands, bays, etc were and that was a good start. As we spent more time fishing, we filled in some more detail and had a decent feel of the lake by the time we left.

Otherwise it wasn’t that much different from bwca, if you ignored the not having anyone within days’ worth of travel should something go wrong part. A canoe patch kit ended up being a role of gorilla tape. We also made sure to have tent and tarp patches. We got a compact grill to cook over since there wouldn’t be any grates. A stove and some propane as well, but used it maybe twice preferring to take the time to cook over a wood fire. We did pack some warmer clothes given the time of year and how far north we were, but didn’t have to use them as the weather ended up being almost too warm, most days having highs in the 80s. A week away from leaving, we considered getting a satellite phone or SPOT device because it’d be just us 2, but the timing proved too short and the reviews didn’t give us much confidence.

One item that provoked a lot of discussion for us was what to do with a net. On our BW trips, we do a lot of pike fishing and our landing strategy there consists just of lindy fishing handling gloves, single hook lures (spinnerbaits, swimbaits, etc) and a pliers. We’ve handled a lot of fish over the years and are pretty comfortable with it, but targeting muskies we decided to take a net in this case, and its portage/pack-ability was a concern. We ended up removing the handle from a smaller old net, bending the hoop into a larger horseshoe shape. Then we packed in a Berkley musky replacement bag, all of which we assembled which some tape and quick ties in camp. Surprisingly, it worked pretty well.

My expectations going into the trip were one of a rougher wilderness trip. For example, we’ve bushwhacked into some PMAs on portages that were not maintained (other than perhaps by a moose) and I pictured that as about par for this course. And looking for blazes to find the trails was something new to us that caused some preliminary concern. Happily, finding portages turned out to be easier than I anticipated. And for the most part, and the condition as almost as good as in the BWCA. It probably helped that a park crew cleared from garner to haggart earlier in that spring, which covered most of our route. The three portages not covered did turn out to have a little more character to them.

Picking footwear was something I wrestled with for a long time. I anticipated having wet feet the majority of the time, and thought a hiking sandal would be best on that front. But knowing that the terrain was going to be rocky, I wanted the ankle support of a hiking boot. Spraining an ankle in the middle of nowhere would not be a good situation. So as much as I knew wet feet would be uncomfortable, I ended up going with the boots. To give my feet a break around camp, I also brought an old pair of sandals.

For food, everything was about the same but just a couple more days of it. We like to go with a 2 meal a day plan, consisting loosely of a brunch around 10 and lupper about 3ish. A breakfast bar in the morning and some snacks sprinkled in has always been more than enough and lets us fish the prime times without a grumbly tummy. If I've learned one thing over my many trips, a full fishing partner is a happy fishing partner.

DAY 0 – Doesn’t really make sense having a day 0, I know. But this was a Wednesday and both my dad and I worked a full day before meeting in the twin cities around 6pm. From there we drove up to the Moorehead area where my sister lived and spent the night on her couch. That allowed us to cut off a couple hours of driving and eliminated the need to spend the next night at Beresford campground.

DAY 1 – We slept in a little later than we hoped but were driving by 7am. We made 2 stops for gas and another for groceries. Other than that, it was a fairly long, flat drive of cornfields and sunflowers. An interesting side note, we had to go into the customs building when crossing the border. This was the first time it had happened to either of us. It seemed as if everyone other than Canadian citizens and truckers were doing it. Either way, it took about ten minutes and provided a bathroom break before we were back on our way. Both of us used passcards instead of passports, but I don’t think it mattered.

We were hoping to make it to Beresford by 2pm, but the last couple parts of the drive took us longer than we thought. In particular, the last 75km was a very entertaining drive on a curvy, hilly, gravel road. This happened to be my leg of the driving, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Given the comments from the passenger side and later seeing the imprints of fingers in the dashboard, I think it’s a safe assumption that my passenger felt differently. Kidding aside, there was not a lot of shoulder room when you passed a car. A lot of washouts further constricted sections and any abnormalities like a large, deep manhole cover sized hole in the middle of the road, were marked with a just little ribbon at the site. Which not surprisingly, didn’t give you a lot of heads up time to avoid them.

When we finally reached the campground, it was about 3:30. I had called earlier and asked about parking and was told I could get a Manitoba park permit for the vehicle at the campground. However, upon finding the office it turned out that someone was only there Fridays afternoons-Sunday mornings. The sign further informed us to go back to the Black Lake campground if we needed someone. We vaguely remembered passing that turn off a good ways back. After looking for a camp host or really anyone else and coming up empty, we decided the best course of action was to leave a note in the office door describing our situation and apologizing for any inconvenience. We then unloaded at the boat launch and parked our vehicle as out of the way as we could and hoped it’d still be there when we got back. After all that, I think we were on the water sometime around 4:30.

Our canoe for this trip was a SR Quetico 17 ultralight dubbed ‘Daybreaker’ that I had just gotten the previous winter. In addition to this being her maiden voyage, we also decided to use beaver tail paddles for the first time. The river was wide, but windey and paddling upstream with a new canoe that was not balanced well (we were excited to get going) was a bit slow and frustrating. Fortunately, being a Thursday night, we didn’t meet any boat traffic. After about four thousand switch backs, the river finally turned and began heading north. The sun was on the treeline when we entered the southwest end of garner lake. I had hoped to camp on the east end of the lake but by this point it was out of the question. We ended up on an island campsite about a third of the way across the lake. Other than an impressive amount of scattered garbage, which oddly included a large pile of eggshells, it was a nice site. It was dark by the time we made camp and after a quick supper, hit the sack.

DAY 2 – We awoke to the sound of thunder and some building winds. We jumped out of the tent and ran around making sure everything was bundled up and tied down and made it back just as the rain began to fall. Our quick actions were for naught, as the storm blew by quickly. Less than an hour later we were breaking camp and paddling off on what was to be a long day. By the time we reached the east end of garner the clouds broke and the sun came out. The first portage went quickly and soon we were officially in the WCPP. The stream was just wide enough to be a comfortable paddle and plenty deep with a nice sandy bottom and only a few rocks. Paddling up current, we were at the second portage before we knew it. Up to this point the skeeters had made themselves scarce, but we soon kicked up a storm and broke out the dope. This portage went quick too, but it was more like 30 or 40 rods instead of the listed 17. Another short stretch of river and we reached the Everest of the trip, the third portage, longest of the trip listed at about 170 rods. We’ve done a lot of portages, many 200+s and this 170 (probably longer) gained some elevation and gave us a good run for our money. After a short break in the middle and again on the far side of the portage, a tired pair of paddlers were headed up jester.

We took a lunch break at the next portage and regrouped. Up to this point, we had been double portaging, but now that the longer portages were behind us, we started triple+ portaging for ease. The next stretch showed two back to back short portages, but it turned out there were three. Despite this, there was really no question in where we were going, just keep heading up current. When the route turned and headed east, the following 13 rod portage we were able to paddle around by keeping to the north. The river got fairly thin in a couple places, and had to squeeze through some areas, but overall we made it through with less scrapes and scratches than I expected.

Our target was to camp a couple portages later, on the northern part of our route at one of the sites on the sideways ‘S’ shaped lake were one can go up to haggard. However, upon reaching that lake there was still some light left, so we refilled our pockets with some jerky, grabbed a breakfast bar and pushed on. Not long after turning south, we came across a a cow moose that was feeding almost flush to her back in the water. Nearby on shore, 2 younger ones waited and watched.

After the wildlife sighting, we paddled (literally) through a large field of rice and headed into the last two portages before mather. Somewhere between here and the last portage, we believe, is where the portage crew left our route to go to haggard. That meant up to this point the portages had been fairly mild. But having to work under a large downed tree and wade through some brush on this one lived up to my wilderness expectations a little more. Nonetheless, we made quick work of this portage. The only thing that slowed us down was finding our first (and only) blueberries of the trip.

A skip and a hop later we were at the last portage for our day. Or at least we thought we were. Not seeing anything close to a path or a blaze, we went over a dam only to find it looked even worst pass that. Back down the over dam and after a little scouting we found what some might call a trail on the north side. Up until this portage we had gotten through everything (excluding Everest) relatively easy, but perhaps being the end of the day, this one knocked us out. Overhead brush restricted us to fireman carrying the canoe, the path was mostly mud that quickly covered our boots. A poor east landing required us to walk out into the stream a ways before we could load the canoe, but at least cleaned most the mud off.

Exhausted and wet, with the sun once again on the treeline, we started paddling down Mather. Keeping to the southwest shore, we skipped the first campsite and made it down to the narrows where the ‘mather man’ welcomed us. A campsite on the north and south side of the channel, we choose the latter and made another quick supper, watched some tall clouds blow by to the north as the sun set and moon came out.

DAY 3 – I woke up to the sound a fish jumping outside our tent. Rods were still packed, so I didn’t have a change to verify it, but it sounded like a bass. Everything I found prior to the trip said while they were in garner, but they didn’t go any further up the river system. However it came up a few more times while packing up and I’d say with high confidence it was a smallmouth. We were off quickly, full of excitement knowing we only had a couple hours of paddling and one portage before reaching our destination. Just north of what I dubbed ‘the mather cross’ -where 4 channels of the lake met, we saw a solitary bull moose feeding along the shoreline. We got fairly close before he spooked, and got to track his movement as he ran further inland by the shaking of the tree tops. It looked like something out of Jurassic park. While I’m sure it took longer than it felt, we were soon at the irregular portage. Up until this point, we had followed the river system and everything had been connected via waterways. But this land crossing portage, bridging the lakes was the wettest of them all. Multiple puddles exceeded our ankles with the deepest up to our knees. We spent about a half hour finding some branches and logs to lay down over the worst parts, and were able to finish it in a slightly drier condition. But who cared? We had made it to the musky promised land.

We knew it was a large lake, but it still took us a while to match the lake to the map and get our bearings. A lot of small islands weren’t on the topo maps, but by switching to some satellite images I had brought more for fishing, we eventually figured it out. Coming in, I had divided the lake into three sections (and a half). The first and largest was the north main lake basin, followed by a middle-transition area that is heavy with islands before opening up into a south basin. The half I considered to be the NE arm off the northern section. We chose to stay and focus on the north part for several reasons. One of which being the logic of large water, large fish. Having no idea what the topography was like, there was a better chance of nearby deeper water and more mid lake structure that appealed to us. To make fishing easier, we wanted to find a basecamp as centrally located as possible. So, as we came around the corner we knew we didn’t prefer the first campsite location but checked it out anyway and found it usable, but small. Onward we went.

In the middle of the north section of irregular is a ‘Y’ shaped island and to its NE is a slightly smaller, ‘b’ shaped one. This is where we established home base, on the NW corner of the ‘b’. While we typically like to have exposure to the south and/or east, this was otherwise a very nice site. The canoe landing options left a bit to be desired, but we made do and unloaded. A quick snack while we got the tackle ready and it was time to look for our toothy friend.

Another reason we chose this north section was satellite photos showed two large main lake reefs off each the south ends of the Y and b islands that looked like prime spots. Being on the island, we headed that way first. Unfortunately, it was a little windy when we reached the open basin and decided finding those reefs would have to wait for a calmer day. We settled with fishing the windblown tip and within a half hour, I had three follows while my dad landed a nice mid 30s pike. Seeking some wind relief, we spent the evening exploring the bays to the north of our camp. We found some cabbage beds and caught a couple more nice pike, while coaxing somewhere around 15 follows with a couple missed fish. The water was clear and the fish were not shy of the canoe and every follow was ‘hot’. While we were fishing, we saw a solo paddler further south crossing the lake, the first person we had seen thus far. About an hour later, we watched a plane land and take off shortly, presumably with the paddler who we didn’t see again. We went to bed a little chafed that we didn’t net a musky, but overall happy and optimistic about the next 4 days.