Lake Trout Slam, Little Knife, Amoeber, Cherry and Hanson Lakes
We arrived at Little Knife Lake mid-day after a long paddle and two brutal portages into and out of Vera from Splash. The paddle in was incredible; never before have I had the chance to start a paddling trip right in the middle of peak fall colors. Rain flanked us to the North threatening a downpour the entire way. By the time we reached Thunder Point around noon, it had started raining lightly. This was the first of 7 straight days where we had rain, but the scenery was too gorgeous, and fishing too good to dampen our spirits, just clothing.
The next 6 days would all be new territory for me, as I had only paddled up to South Arm Knife, never further, from the Ely side of the Boundary Waters. We had heard rumors of good trout fishing, beautiful scenery (specifically the dazzling cliffs on Cherry Lake) and rought, but beautiful portages on this smaller chain of lakes and wanted to find out for ourselves.
We knew our chances of catching big trout would probably be more likely on Knife, Kekekabic, Seagull or one of the other larger, better known trout lakes in the BWCA. But, with the craziness of the busy season in the BWCA this year, we wanted to travel deeper into the wilderness to avoid any crowds. During these next 6 days, we would only see two other groups, only coming into sight of them for a combined total of about 30 minutes. That was about as good as we could have hoped.
Day 1 & 2: Little Knife
The rain that finally caught up to us as we paddled along the North side of Thunder Point continued through our first evening on Little Knife. Right as we crossed the pinch-point threshold into Little Knife, the spotty rain picked up to a consistent drizzle. As always, I try to take advantage of any storm fronts, just before or as they are hitting. Of course, you have to be careful when you are out on the water at these times, but they have consistently been an integral part of my best fishing experiences in the wilderness.
If a storm is kicking up and you are not fishing, you are likely missing out on the best fishing you will experience your entire trip. We would find this was true for the entire trip, as I don’t think we had a period of more than 8 hours straight where we did not have rain. We would also find that those periods after a storm left and higher pressure rolled in made fishing difficult.
As soon as we hit that magic 25’ mark, we dropped our lines and started trolling the south shore towards our intended campsite, on the other side of the lake. My buddy Gardner started with a 30’ Rapala Tail Dancer, and I, of course, had an emerald Doctor Spoon fluttering at the end of my line. Immediately after we paddled over a section near shore that flattened out in 45’ of water, I had my first laker on the line. As there are Walleye in this lake, I wasn’t certain what I had on the end of my line until I had 30’ of line remaining and the fish took an immediate, aggressive dive straight for the bottom.
Even on a 8’ Medium duty trolling rod, this medium-sized trout felt powerful. A few more short runs later and I was able to land the 22.5” trout and get him on the stringer and we were quickly trolling towards camp again. As soon as I dropped back down and let out the same exact 180’ of line that caught me my first fish, I had another strike and another laker on the line. This one was slightly smaller at 21” and we threw it back, knowing we had all the meat we needed with that first fish to feed the two of us.
On my sonar, I spotted a shoreline just south of our intended campsite where it rose precipitously from 80+ feet, to that ideal 25-35 before hitting shoreline. We decided to troll straight at this ‘wall,’ to see if any predator fish were waiting to ambush our bait, coming in from deep water. Sure enough, when the boat was over 20’ of water, our baits more likely 30+, I had a massive strike and I knew I had a large Laker on the line.
“Wait a minute, is that a Smallmouth?” I asked Gardner. “Are you kidding me? That is a giant football smallmouth!” Yes, you are hearing that correctly, I caught a 20”+ 5lbs+ pound smallmouth, trolling a giant spoon in at least 30 feet of water. I was thrilled to catch this bonus fish, a total surprise, which is currently the largest smallmouth I have ever caught.
We made to camp just in time to get our tents setup, process the firewood we had collected while out fishing and prepare for dinner. Just as our chores were complete, the rain stopped and we were treated to a double rainbow, fantastic blush pink mammatus clouds a gorgeous fiery red sunset. That night we had grilled/baked Lake Trout over the fire with fresh dill, garlic, butter, lemon and a side of fried wild foraged Chanterelle mushrooms, potatoes and onions. We spent the entire day soaked from the rain, but I don’t think we’ve ever gone to bed feeling warmer; what a perfect start to our trip. I couldn’t wait for day 2.
Day two the fishing sucked. We found out after a very tough day of fishing that we had been wise to take advantage of the good fishing weather just as that storm hit the night before. We fished from sunup to sundown (with the exception of a few pee breaks and a long lunch back at camp to devour the elk chops my brother had gifted me from his fall trip to New Mexico) and only caught one fish. Luckily, Gardner was now on the board, catching another absolute beast of a Smallmouth, also trolling a giant spoon at least 30’ deep. This one measuring just under 20” and likely weighing 5 pounds. Even though the fishing was tough those first two days, we still managed two personal best smallmouth bass, easily weighing more than 10 pounds combined, and two respectable Lake Trout.
Day 3: Camp on Amoeber and Thunder Point to pick up Eric
On morning three, we woke up super early in hopes of making it to our campsite on Amoeber to drop off some gear to make the trip back to Thunder Point easier. We were headed back to Thunder Point to pick up a friend who had to book his permit last minute. He was joining us two days late so he could attend his grandfather’s memorial service. We arrived on Amoeber after an easy portage from Little Knife just as the sun was coming up over the far horizon. 200 yards into our paddle on Amoeber, the good island site came into view, and so did the two canoes flipped on shore, indicating the site was taken by other paddlers.
Disappointed, but not deterred, we headed to the campsite on the south shore, and happily found it unoccupied. Upon exploring the campsite, we found a big fat Spruce Grouse perched on a branch hanging near the fire pit. He must have been protecting his prized mating ground, because he refused to be chased off by us. At one point, I was able to get within arms-length, and could have reached out and pet him if I wanted. After admiring the grouse and taking a few pictures (this site has a great panoramic view of the lake), we were back in the boat trolling towards the southern portage towards Knife Lake.
The paddle back to Thunder Point was challenging. We were facing a 15mph sustained headwind that seemed to be increasing in tenacity. Lucikly, after about two miles of tough paddling, we were able to take shelter from the West wind on the North side of the island. From there it was an easy two-mile paddle to the previously agreed upon meetup spot – the trailhead to the top of Thunder Point.
Incredibly, once we landed and got out of our boats, we could already see two groups of paddlers heading our direction. The second boat was our friend Eric who had just arrived from his tow that morning, dropping him off at the same location on Newfound Lake where we had set off two days prior. The timing was perfect-we didn’t have to wait more than ten minutes for him to arrive. In true Eric fashion, he handed us each a hefty bag of home-made beef jerky and we headed up the path to capture some photos/videos of the summit.
I’ve paddled past Thunder Point without stopping on a few occasions. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes to reach the top, hiking the very short steep trail to the summit. The view was incredible, especially that of the gateway islands a mile in the distance. The cherry on top was a bald eagle, soaring at least 75 feet above our heads at the summit, no doubt scanning the vast shorelines of Knife for signs of fish.
We didn’t linger long, as our goal was to get Eric on fish as soon as possible, his trip being cut short due to unforeseen circumstances.
We arrived on Amoeber and to our surprise, the island campsite had been vacated sometime after Gardner and I had left that morning. The plan was to head back to the southern campsite for our gear, paddle back to the island to setup camp, hopefully in time to do some quick fishing that evening.
I don’t know if it was the change in weather or our new good luck charm, Eric, but we started catching fish immediately on Amoeber. My fishing report from Amoeber is going to be quite limited, because the first shoreline we trolled after setting up camp immediately started producing big trout, and for the remainder of our time on the lake, we didn’t even try to fish anywhere else. The fishing was simply too good to leave.
That night, we caught 4 trout, keeping the smallest at 21.5” for supper and quickly releasing a 26, 26.5 and 28.5 trout to spawn the next generation of tenacious predators. Two to three ounces of lead weight, 150-180 feet of line and Reef Runners and Little Cleos were proding that first night on Amoeber. Like Little Knife, the first night of fishing on Amoeber was fantastic, but we had been here before. Hopefully our luck wouldn’t run out, and we would continue to produce big trout. The early results were promising, as this lake was averaging an impressive 25.5” per fish.
Day 4: Amoeber TroutSlam
We quickly found out that our success the previous evening was not a fluke. Before sunrise, we sprinted across the lake to hit the exact same shoreline that had produce fish the night before. Valuable pro-tip: if you are finding fish holding structure at last-light, return to that spot at first-light as they are likely to remain through the night. I find this is true for trout, walleye and most panfish.
Our first fish came moments after the sun rose, an impressive 25 incher caught by Eric on the same exact pink/clear/chartreuse walleye runner he had caught two fish on the night before. I was having trouble catching fish on my spoons that morning, but was marking plenty of fish on the bottom on my sonar. I figured that if they weren’t coming off bottom to hit a moving target, I might have some success switching over to vertical jigging in the afternoon.
After no success with my giant noisy Bondy Bait Mini-wobbler (5.5oz), I downsized and switched to a completely different look in a 1oz Rapala Jigging rap, in white. What happened next was perhaps two of the best fish fights I have experienced out of a canoe. Drift-jigging our wind-blown point, aggressively ripping the jigging rap behind the boat, I quickly hooked into a large trout in 40 feet of water, no further than 50 feet from shore.
It has only happened to me a couple of times, but these next two fish felt like what I can only describe as a “moving snag.” Immediately after setting the hook, I could feel a tremendous amount of weight, but couldn’t budge the fish. With my 7’ Light duty extra fast action walleye jigging rod completely bent over, all I could do was keep the line tight, and hope to tire the fish out before attempting to pull it off bottom.
The fight lasted an incredible 5 minutes before the fish tired and I was able to land it, get a quick picture and measurement and get it back into the water. As the fight was rather lengthy and I didn’t want to stress the fish out any more than necessary, I took a quick measurement I am sure was inaccurate. Looking back at the footage, the fish was likely over 26 inches and weighed close to 6 lbs.
Just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I kept at it with the jigging rap along the same shoreline. Not long after releasing my first trout, I was hooked in to something much larger. At first, I wasn’t sure of the side, I could only feel weight. Once again, the moving snag indicated I had something sizeable, but it wasn’t until I fought the fish to the surface in sight of the boat that she really took off.
I am convinced that she didn’t even know she was hooked, until I caught my first glimpse of the glowing silver belly 10’ below my solo canoe. It must have been at that moment she saw my boat, because she took off towards shore, in the opposite direction of my canoe, causing my drag to sing as only a 10+ pound fish was capable of doing.
At one point after making a long run, the fish turned around and came straight back at the boat. I literally couldn’t reel fast enough to catch up to all of the slack line. Luckily, the fish had inhaled the jigging rap, and the hookset held. After another 5-minute fight, complete with many exciting runs and peeling drag, I had the fish secured with the Boga grip and ready for pictures, a quick measurement and successful release. I did not want to hang such a large fish from its jaw, so I did not get an accurate weight, but we were able to tag team an accurate length measurement, putting the fish just above the 30” mark. It was not the largest Lake Trout I have caught out of a canoe, but perhaps the most memorable.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled, as I have been using jigging raps to target lake trout for a few years now, with very limited success, especially out of a canoe. With a 26+ and 30+ incher in one afternoon when nothing else seemed to be working for me, it is now safe to say that I am a believer in the magic of jigging raps.
While we had planned for the potential of packing up camp after one night on Amoeber, the fishing was just too good to leave for an unknown lake. We decided to fish that evening after a large lunch and again in the morning after packing up camp before moving on to Cherry Lake.
We continued to catch fish that evening after lunch and a few again the next morning before our departure from our new favorite honey hole. The action wasn’t as hot, be we caught two more for dinner and enjoyed another beautiful night at our great island campsite. Staying at the same campsite for another night also gave us some much-needed rest. The next day, we were on our way to Cherry by 11 A.M., just in time for the next round of rain.
Day 5: Cherry
Despite the relentless rain, the portages into and out of Topaz were quite mild, at 17 and 7 rods respectively. I don’t remember much about Topaz, as we passed through as quickly as we could on our way to Cherry. We were worried about arriving this late in the day knowing the narrows campsite on Cherry was by far the more desirable, and it was certainly possible that someone had beaten us to it.
When we rounded the bend and the first campsite on Cherry came into view, we could see its occupants were all packed up and getting into their boats (the last group we would see until we returned to South Arm Knife). We paddled with more urgency on our way to the narrows, knowing that there was a possibility they were packing up to move to the better site. Luckily, they were heading back the way we came, and the narrows campsite and all of Cherry Lake was all ours.
Now I am not saying the narrows campsite on Cherry isn’t nice, I was just disappointed because it was pretty much hyped as the best campsite in the Boundary Waters. The landing was just about perfect, nestled amongst some mature Cedar trees which made for perfect hammock camping. The fire pit was about as close to the water as I have seen in the BWCA, which always makes for a great night time campfire. And, of course, the view of the Eastern half of the lake and those fabled bluffs was picturesque.
However, it was one of those sprawling campsites that seemed to go on forever (and so did the signs of human impact). I really like those campsites that are nestled into the trees, providing private tent pads, shelter from wind and line of sight and a little more privacy. This one certainly had all of the conveniences of a good campsite, but I ultimately have to give it a 4-star rating for its lack of tent pads and impact on the landscape.
After getting settled we couldn’t wait to get out and chase some more Lake Trout, even though our hopes weren’t as high as they were for Amoeber and Hanson as this was a relatively small body of water. As we were setting up camp, the rain cleared and a high pressure front came in. The fishing that evening was very tough, but we did muster one very small trout that I released, and Gardner had a walleye strike fishing from shore, that ultimately spit the hook, likely due to a lackluster effort at his bait.
What Cherry lacked in fishing that evening, it more than made up for in beauty. We spent 4 hours paddling around one of the most beautiful lakes I have visited in the BWCA. The bluffs on the North side of the lake rival any I have seen in the BWCA, including the pallisades on Seagull. Additionally, we were treated to one of the most gorgeous sunsets imaginable. It started out bright hot yellow, slowly turning to a cool orange and finishing with a rich scarlet that magically mirrored itself on the calm lake surface.
We were exhausted. We were bummed we left such great fishing on Amoeber, but no one was complaining about either. Cherry was gorgeous and a must-see for anyone traveling through the area.
Day 6: Hanson and SAK
We were eager to get going the next morning, as two loons fishing in the shallows at the pinch point in front of our camp had us wishing we were fishing again, too. We made quick work of the paddle across Cherry and headed towards the difficult portage from Cherry to Hanson. Again, we were kind of disappointed about all the hype. It was certainly a difficult portage, but not the bruising, straight uphill both ways monster that those on the BWCA forum and Paddle Planner made it seem.
As we were fresh off a great night’s sleep and warmed up from the paddle across Cherry, we made quick work of the portage and were on Hanson by 9 A.M. to resume our chase of the elusive canoe country Lake Trout.
As it turns out, they were not very elusive that day on Hanson. The first shoreline we fished, I immediately started marking trout in (again) 40 feet of water. On our first pass, Eric quickly hooked into a Lake Trout in the solo canoe. The next 5 hours were an absolute blast catching one trout after another. Hanson did not have the large trout that we found on Amoeber, but none were less than 20”, most being 23-26."
Again, Dr. Spoons, this time in Nickle/Neon Blue were working for me. For Gardner, he finally started having luck once he switched to a Dr. Spoon and never looked back. However, this was Eric’s Day. He probably caught 12 trout in that half-day, his largest being 27”. That Clear/Chartreuse/Pink walleye runner was absolutely dynamite.
Even though the Dr. Spoon was working just fine, I wanted to catch a few more jigging before the trip was over. This shoreline was even more densly packed with trout than our spot on Amoeber, so I figured it would be a perfect area to drift jig. I downsized my presentation, as the larger tubes and bondy bait I had been primarily using to jig were not producing. Unfortunatley, my jigging raps had both been destroyed by trout on Amoeber, so I went with a simple 3/8oz VMC Mooneye jig with a 5” Kalin’s Jerk Minnow.
It wasn’t long until I hooked into a few trout using this method. The more memorable was the 27 incher that inhaled my jig in 35 feet of water and took me and my light action walleye rod for quite the ride. Unfortunately, halfway through the fight it spit the jig, which subsequently got lodged in his tail. Eventually Eric helped me land the fish using the net, and we were able to get a quick release.
As we were absolutely crushing the 2-4lb trout, we decided it wouldn’t hurt if we kept a few of the smaller ones. Before we knew it, we had three full stringers and decided to stop fishing one we each had our two trout limit. As the weather was supposed to be colder for our last 36 hours of our trip, we decided to pack out four of the fish and have two for dinner that night. We rarely pack out fish, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to return home with some well-deserved fillets. What a perfect close to another successful Lake Trout season!
After a quick trout-filleting party on the shores of beautiful Hanson Lake, we were on our way to the portage that would take us back to South Arm Knife, and eventually back to our tow the next day. But first, we had to experience this fabled “enchanted forest” portage in all of its glory. As it is rather long, and we knew we wanted to stop to take pictures and video, we decided to double portage, saving a light load for the second trip so we could do some serious sight-seeing on our way back.
This portage is absolutely the most beautiful I have witnessed in the BWCA. It is almost like two portages in one. The first section starts out rather typical and flat, but before long you reach a clearing and the elevated portage trail passes next to a beautiful pond that seemingly shows up out of nowhere. As we reached that pond, while it was still raining, the sun decided to come out and we experienced one of those gorgeous sunny rainfalls that l can still picture vividly when I close my eyes.
Just as suddenly as the pond appears, it disappears as the portage trail reaches a seeminly never-ending cedar grove that lines the creek bed that carves out a valley between Hanson and SAK. Suddenly, you come upon a tumbling waterfall surrounded by acres of bright green moss-covered stones and the beautiful trickling sound of that creek flowing between and beneath each rock.
To our left is the second-largest cedar(s) I have ever seen in the BWCA, second only to the giant 1,000 year old leviathan that nestles on the southern shore of Basswood Lake, just a few miles West of Prairie portage.
At some point in this giant cedar’s life, it either split into two main trunks or perhaps it was two trees that grew so close together, they collided and began growing apart in an effort to gather every last bit of sun that made it to this valley. Either way, this cedar was impressive. I am certainly no expert, but it is likely this tree was present before the first Europeans made their way to North America. It was fun to sit and ponder the circumstances that led to such an enduring giant in these harsh northwoods. Its proximity to that stunning babbling creek, I'm sure had a lot to do with its evolutionary success.
Eventually, we had to say goodbye to our new favorite portage (which was easily the least grueling 118 rods I have ever portaged) and make our way towards our next destination on Knife Lake. Of course, we stayed on Hanson as long as we could to enjoy the last day of Lake Trout season, so our only goal was to make it as far as we could on Knife that evening with the remaining few hours of daylight. The further we went tonight, the more manageable tomorrow’s paddle back to the pickup spot would be.
Just as we were feeling good about our progress and hoping to make it, a thunderhead quickly appeared on the horizon. As we paddled another mile, it was clear the storm was heading straight for us and we would again be fighting rain, this time while paddling dangerously close to dark. We decided to skip a quick pit stop at Eddy Falls (a must-see that I had been looking forward to showing Eric and Gardner) and make it to a campsite just to the west.
To our surprise, that campsite was taken! We hadn’t seen another soul since Cherry, so this one caught us off guard. Unfortunately, the next campsite was over a mile away, and we didn’t want to go backwards, so we started paddling west in hopes we could beat the storm to it. We were quickly humbled by nature, and had to pull off in an emergency landing in rather large waves. We were able to pull the canoes up on shore and out of the water, but the woods were so dense all we could do was sit on the shoreline while we got soaked by the storm.
Luckily, it passed quickly and we were able to navigate in the dark another mile or so to the next campsite, which was unoccupied. Unfortunately, right across a narrow pinch point, was a noisy group of campers who quickly dampened our moods. “Wow, people really don’t understand how well their voices carry over water.” Eric said, with a sharp tone of annoyance in his voice. “It’s Knife Lake, what do you expect?” I responded with matched frustration.
Luckily our neighbors went to bed early and we were able to enjoy a clear night and our last campfire and trout dinner of the trip. It ended up being a cold night, but we slept well knowing our trip had exceeded our expectations, and we were on track to have a leisurely paddle back to our tow across Moose the following afternoon.
Day 7: Knife, Vera, Ensign, Splash and tow home
We awoke the following morning to our wet clothes frozen and a beautiful frost blanketing the landscape. As we began to pack up camp on the morning of October 1st, we were treated to the first snowfall of the year. We had slept in, as it was a late night, paddling past dark and we were eager to start our long paddle back.
We were on the water around 9 A.M. which gave us 8 hours to paddle and portage the remaining 15 miles before our 5 P.M. pickup. We made very good time, as Knife was gentle to us that day, not really offering anything in the way of headwind. At one point, the early morning snow turned to sleet, which made for cold hands, but didn’t slow us down. We even had an hour to spare to fish Vera (unsuccessfully) for walleye. I guess we were probably being a little greedy after the great fishing we had that week, to expect a few quick walleye on Vera.
Halfway across Ensign, we were accosted by a stiff wind and hail, which was not too pleasant on our already windburned faces and fingers. But we couldn’t do anything but laugh: “What kind of trip would it be if we weren’t humbled by mother nature every single step of the way?”