Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Irregular Muskies Take 2: WCPP via the Bird
by zelmsdawg

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/29/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Woodland Caribou
Number of Days: 11
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Irregular Muskies in the WCPP, Part 2

Almost exactly 3 years to the date and we were back in the boreal. There is just something about chasing these muskies from a canoe that I enjoy so much. The quiet secluded wilderness that comes from being miles away from everyone and everything. The adventure of several days making your way there. And then challenge of the fishing itself, which when successful is then all the more sweet from extra effort it took to make it happen.

I have found Irregular combines 2 unique factors. On one hand, you are on a lake with no maps and no reports to draw from. It takes several days of hard work and planning to get there. And then once there, you have to come up with your plans on the fly as you analyze the conditions and your observations while exploring the unexplored. This without the convenience of a boat, motor, sonar, GPS and all the other tools we are used to using. Then on the other hand, you have a lake full of unpressured muskies. While they are still not necessarily easy to catch, multiple fish days are common. It is this combination in a remote wilderness that I have found so satisfying. And that is why when this last summer, when my group had to postpone the fall trip we planned, it was an easy decision to head back to the WCPP.

Three years ago, on our 2015 trip, we came in via the Garner river system on the west side of the park. We spent 11 days camping and canoeing with 4 and a half of those basecamped on Irregular. It’s a large lake and we stayed on the northern half of the lake. It’s a fairly large body of water and we got tossed around a little by the wind. But we put 12 muskies in the net, along with a lot of pike, and had a blast.

Naturally, we wanted to come back and for several reasons - fish a different part of the lake, take a different route, etc but one that really sat in the back of my mind was trying to fish rocks more. The first trip, our average fish was in the mid 30” range, but of the few 40”+ fish we saw, all but one were on rocks. Yet almost all our fish caught came from weeds since sheltered bays or fan casting larger areas was where we could fish most effectively (and enjoyably). We couldn’t hold well on any windy or mid lake structure, usually getting pushed into or past each spot with time for only a cast, maybe two. The whole trip I felt like we were missing fish by not being able to work those structures.

Confirming this to some degree, last year I found a short article about a recent fly in trip. The author fished the lake for half a day and caught 2 small fish before “In one half-hour period, we hooked, then lost, three 50-inchers. …off a rocky, wind-smacked shoreline.” Now I do believe a 50 swims in that lake, but I still received this report with some skepticism. First off, it was a promotional deal. Also, when you were only seeing/catching smaller fish, I know how fish can look a lot bigger than they actually are. With the shorter growing season lack of an oily forage base, I don’t think that many big fish are in the lake. Plus, we fished sun up to sun down for days and only saw 2 that were in the 45” class. I would like to think that if there were larger fish, we would have at least saw more mid sized fish or one pushing 50. But if I was wrong and there were big fish on windy rock, I wanted to try and target them.

Fast forward to the present day and we were on our way back, but this time coming up from the south via the bird river system. Our plan was very similar to before: 12 days broken down to 3 days to paddle portage in, 4 days fishing and 3 days back out with 2 for driving. And once again, we were doing it without a SPOT or sat phone. This is was a choice some will disagree with, but we felt comfortable taking the trip just like the many of adventurous souls who traveled these parts before us. Except we had significantly better equipment and satellite maps down to every rock on our route. But we still are aware of how things can always go sideways - Murphy can strike anytime anywhere, but everyone has to draw their own line somewhere.

Leaving around 7am on a Wednesday in late August from just south of the twin cities, we muscled through some rush hour and arrived at Tulapi Falls in Nopoming Park in the early afternoon. We only stopped twice for gas and our drive was uneventful outside of seeing a family of bears in a ditch around Lac Du Bonnet. After pitching our tent, we ate some sandwiches, walked down to the falls and checked out the put in site.

The next morning, we made a quick breakfast as we broke camp and drove over to the access. We had used a second set of gear (tent, bags and pads) which we threw in the back of our van and started ferrying our still nice and neatly packed gear down to the water. We were on the water a little later then we hoped, maybe an hour and a half past sunrise but made quick work of the park. Each portage and campsite was marked with a sign and well-traveled. Going through Elbow, we realized we were going to be paddling into the wind most of the day. Coming into McGregor we saw a homemade trail on the north side that bypassed the short official portage. Not knowing any better, we skipped it and ended up having to walk our canoe through shallow rocks most the way up towards the falls. East of McGregor, there were 2 campsites on either side of the portage where the river dropped quite a bit and made for a great spot to stop and eat. We encountered our first white caps of the trip crossing Snowshoe. We looked for a campsite on the north end of the lake but didn’t see anything we liked. So with the sun setting and both of us getting tired of the wind, we made camp just into the river on a nice little spot and called it a day. That night some weather moved through, but cleared out by the morning.

The next day started with us making are way up the river towards Pre-Chase lake. This was the stretch that had the most question marks for us coming in. We had guesstimated where the portages would be off satellite maps, and were able to confirm the 6 after reaching out to a fellow paddler who had been through the area some years before. Through this stretch we found some things good and others less so. The good was it was a fantastic stretch of river to travel and there were relatively established portages at each portage. The less so was having to walk the canoe several times through muck and finding that one of our 6 portages was actually 4 smaller portages one after another. This was a bit of a downer but the mosquitoes were almost nonexistent, the weather was nice and we had nothing but time. The first 3 portages were straight forward with paths on the south side of the river.

Things got interesting with portage #4, which was more like 4a, 4b, 4c and 4d. Traveling south to north, the first 2 (a,b) appeared to have portages on the West side (red lines), but we just walked up the exposed rocks on the bank. We portaged 4c on a path on the east side but once we put in and paddled around the corner, found ourselves needing to walk rocks again for the final (4d) carry over. Coming back, we found an older flagged trail that combined those portages into one (blue) and took that instead.

The portage for #5 was on the East side and started with a quick climb up a bank but was otherwise short and simple. It was a nice spot and our early morning breakfast bar was wearing off so we took a break to eat brunch. There was another shallow stretch requiring us to walk the canoe coming into portage #6. This path was on the South side of the island. The only thing of note here was when landing on the West end of the island, there is a grassy spot against a rock ledge that calls for you to place your gear as you unload. Which we did and quickly kicked up a swarm of bees who had a hive in the ground. Coming back, it was easy enough avoid them. Overall, we thought it took us about 4 hours to make our way through the river to Pre-Chase lake.

The paddle up “pre-chase”, really a widening of the river, was a stretch seemed to take forever. But eventually it ended and we hopped over a short highway of a portage that included a boat cache and entered the actual Chase lake. Chase through Midway and into Eagle was all paddling and went without a hitch. I couldn’t help but notice large sections of this paddle were over fairly shallow water, or at least enough that I could see the weedbeds. This was a little disheartening as one paddler crossing the southern section of Irregular reported that the lake was shallower than he expected, and I was hoping this wasn’t what he meant.

Two thirds of the way up Eagle, we passed what we dubbed as ‘shark rock’ and just to the north turned NW into the arm that lead to the next series of portages. It took us a little while to find the portage, it was further back in the arm then we anticipated, but there was no mistaking it. The portage immediately climbed 30ish feet up a steep bank and had little to no landing. Once we got everything up to the top, we took a few minutes to recover and then started down the 151rods. Or at least that’s what paddleplanner reported it at. Felt longer. No matter, we were now only 5 portages away from our ultimate destination.

At this point it was late in the afternoon. We had considered trying to push all the way to Irregular up to this point, but ultimately decided that would be too much and started looking for a campsite. We checked out both sites on this first unnamed lake north of Eagle, but neither looked promising from the water so we ended up doing the 2 quick and easy portages to the next lake that had a campsite. There was only the one, but it turned out to be an okay site that was essentially the portage landing. Fine by us, that just made the next morning easier.

It turned out to be a good idea to not push on. As after we broke camp and made our way down the 60ish rod portage, the landing at the north end was possibly even steeper than the first one coming out of Eagle. The previous paddle, who noted the shallow water, described having to scoot down this one on his butt and lower his canoe down via a rope. We didn't have to resort to those techniques to finish the portage, but again I was glad to have good weather and someone else’s help.

The next lake was a little larger, and the following portage wound up the edge some picturesque cliffs. It is during this portage that we ‘officially’ entered the WCPP, and it ended with a wet landing on the north side. Just across the small pond, the next landing was a floating weedbed marked by 2 poles. I think some would call it a winter landing? Either way, the first 40 rods or so were wet and muddy. And this was without any rain for the last several days. Once our boots and pants were properly soaked, the portage climbed up 2 actual switchbacks up a rock ridge before eventually winding down to Irregular.

We made camp at a site recommend to us by the park staff, on the east end of a horseshoe island in the middle basin. On paddleplanner, the site is referred to as ‘NZ’ (we were unable to find the ‘NY’ site). Other than an iffy landing, we enjoyed this camp. We especially appreciated that no moose ran through it any of our nights there.

We had 2 new strategies this year for fishing wind blown rocks. If it was a manageable amount of wind, we would set a course a cast length off the structure and one person would paddle us along as the other spot casted, and then we’d switch. If possible, the person paddling would also troll on the far side of the canoe. If the wind was too much for one person, we would both cast out and troll tight to structure, say around a point, and then veer off to position that allowed us room to drift where we would reel in and look for follows. If it was a shoreline, we’d troll a stretch - maybe a hundred yards, and then swing out to reel in and look for fish. This ended up working fairly well, and it allowed us to cover a lot more lake and access spots we wouldn’t have been able to fish before. Especially for the southern basin which was mostly shoreline. This year we saw and hooked over half our fish using one of the above cast/troll combinations on rocky structure. But we also fished rocks a lot more than weeds so its hard to say one was better than the other.

Our presentations again were almost exclusively spinnerbaits, for the same reasons as before. Their ability to be fished fast/slow, deep/shallow, off rocks or through weeds makes them effective in every situation. They don’t provide much resistance when reeling in, which is an underappreciated fact fishing from a canoe. I can conveniently pack a lot in a one tray, making it easy to carry them in. And perhaps most importantly, they have single hooks. While this makes the lure snag resistant, it also makes unhooking fish much easier as fish are less likely to get tangled in the net. And your odds of a trip ending injury from hooking yourself are significantly reduced. Fish handling gloves were always worn to mitigate any and all chance of injuries because no one wants a trip ending injury. We used the same net set up as before, an older net rim bent into a horseshoe shape that we threaded a musky replacement bag on and taped down. It worked well enough the first trip, so we were happy to use it again. We also used shorter, 7ft rods again. Partly to make traveling easier but mostly because figure 8ing with anything longer in a canoe would be too difficult.

I did try burning a bucktail for a little while. My thought was to cover more water and use speed as an additional trigger. However, on the first day it did not take me long to notice that I was being out fished by my dad who was in the stern. Despite getting the first cast on spots, his slower and slightly deeper presentation was much more effective. I still gave it a couple more shots throughout the trip, but each one was shorter than the last as the fish (and my wrists) preferred the slower approach.

It took us 2 to 2.5 days to fully fish this middle part of the lake with all its islands and bays. There were some large shallow sections, but nothing like I feared. One of our favorite spots was actually adjacent to a large shallow flat. It was a transition where a shallow bay dropped off to deeper water with the wind pouring into it. Dubbed the ‘mayhem spot’ it only showed a musky the first day, but we caught a ridiculous number of 30"+ pike here over the course of our trip, even doubling up several times. After covering the middle basin, we used one of the calmer days to fish the open south basin. We weren’t quite able to fish it all, as even a mild west wind kept us out of the far east bay. The other day we voyaged up to the southern part of the northern half and revisited some highlight spots from our previous trip. This included a stop at ‘airplane reef’, the site of where we had our largest fish sighting (strong mid 40s) in 2015. And just like deja vu, my dad brought up the largest fish (mid 40s) of this trip there once again.

After 4 full days of fishing, we had remarkably similar results compared to our previous trip. This year we netted 11 fish (compared to 12 in 15’), average size was again in the mid 30”s but this year we did get our first fish over 40” (40.5). We saw 2 fish in the mid 40” class, with maybe another 2 or 3 around 40 which was again very similar as 15’. Northerns were plentiful and if anything, too big. Catching smaller fish to eat was a little difficult, but still had several shorelunches. When fishing a large lake like this, I really like not to have to return to camp or to have to find an open camp for lunch like in the BWCA. When hungry, one can catch a fish and paddle to the nearest open point. So simple, so enjoyable.

Our last night on Irregular, we broke camp as much as we could and reorganized our packs. We were able to leave camp fairly early in the morning and made good time on our way back. As the sun set we reached the mouth of the bird river on ‘pre chase’ and made camp on a large open point next to the river. We skipped dinner choosing to turn in right away, partly because it was late and we were tired but also because for the first and only time, there was a bothersome amount of skeeters out.

The next morning, even with some familiarity, it still took about 4 hrs to travel the river and reach Snowshoe. We reflagged some of the landings and portages where we saw old tape, hopefully they will help out future travelers. We took a short lunch break again by the falls on the east end of McGregor, and this time took the longer unofficial portage on the West end of the lake. Originally, we were going to spend an extra day leisurely fishing our way out. But feeling a little beat and tired, we decided to expedite our departure once we realized we could make it back in time to watch Cousins and the Vikings kick off the new season. We pushed down Elbow into twilight and made camp on the west end of the lake. The next morning, Saturday, we got up and made it back to Tulapi Falls in the late morning. It didn’t take long to pack the vehicle and we were soon on the road. We certainly felt better about our decision as within a half hour we were driving in rain. We settled in for a long drive, and only stopping for gas and sandwhich made it back to our beds a little after 1am.

The most noteworthy thing was once again the disappearing act fish pulled after seeing them. I still have yet to see or hear of this anywhere else except for this lake. Anytime we raised a fish, if we we went back on them we would not see a thing. Different lures, approaching or casting from different angles, different times of day, even a different day - it did not matter. Whether you only had a follow or caught a fish or even saw several fish, that spot and/or fish was done for the trip. This was something we found peculiar the last time we were here and we were just as perplexed this time. And just like the last trip, we again found one magic spot that was an exception. This year it was a small weedbed (10’x10’) surrounded by rocks where we caught 3 fish (each a different day) and had several more follows. But nothing a second time anywhere else.

Fish again were not boat shy. We could figure 8 a fish almost as long as we wanted to, but typically moved on after about 5. Otherwise we were spending too much time on these curious fish that might have never seen a lure before. On a similar note, we also replicated what we had previously thought was a fluke. If we were taking a couple minute break with our lures hanging a couple inches or so into the water, like eating a snack or admiring some scenery, when we went to pick our rod up again more often than not it seemed a fish would be sitting there looking at the lure. As odd as it sounds, it was something we started doing intentionally and eventually ended up hooking some in figure 8s.

Otherwise, relative to the north half of the lake, I found the middle section to be very similar. Its still relatively large water, but it was a easier to stay out of the wind and travel from spot to spot. Also quicker, as previously on the north half going from one spot to another could take a half hour plus. It is hard to quantify, but the mid sections also felt shallower. Perhaps more like meso water were the north and south felt a little more like trout water. We still found fish when we found cabbage. Island and reef complexes with access to deeper water also were productive. I should mention since we did not bring in a depth finder, I am defining deep by when I couldn’t see the bottom, which was around 8 or 9 ft depending on light conditions and bottom content.

The biggest difference between our trips was the way we came in. The Garner route was a few miles shorter, but had more portages and seemed less traveled. It was also a bit further to drive. Taking the Bird, it took us maybe an extra half day to get to Irregular, but the trip was mostly paddling and felt easier. Especially with the first leg is through the well-marked Nopoming Park. Once you cross that middle river section you're paddling almost the rest of the way up to Eagle. After that it is a half days travel at most to reach Irregular. One thing that took a little away from the trip for me was that there are 5 fly in camps along this route. And with those we occasionally passed people fishing out of boats. But overall it was nice having a shorter drive and not having to take that gravel road all the way to Beresford. Another plus was there was better fishing through the bird river then there was going up the garner river system. And the bird river lived up to its name showcasing a plethora of bird species. Oddly enough, where we did not see a single sign of beaver on the garner system, they were everywhere on the bird. I don’t know if the habitat is that much different or 3 years was enough for them to spread, but we thought that was weird.

once again, we had a great trip. The weather was good all around and we had little to no bug issues. Arguably the worst thing that happened was I forgot/lost my long time fish slime towel at our campsite. We think it had been left drying on a branch overnight our last night there and it must have fallen in some funny way so we missed it during our campsite sweep before we left. RIP musky crying towel, it was a good run and you will be missed. Perhaps we’ll find you the next time we visit.