Fly Fishing the Remote Northern Lakes of Minnesota

The Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota is home to 1 million acres of pristine, untouched wilderness known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Littered with hundreds of lakes that can only be accessed by canoe, it is a paradise for anyone wielding a fly rod. Just to be clear, I don’t mean paradise as in sandy beaches, mojitos, and the potential to hook up to a 180lb tarpon. This paradise includes: unpredictable weather, ravishing mosquitoes, not seeing people for days upon end, and hauling well over a hundred pounds of gear over 60 miles. To most this may seem more like a hell than a paradise, but to Josh Beasley (@jahbeas), Willis Engelhart (@biggwilliss), and I (@kai_yo_tay) this is truly one of our favorite destinations for chasing fish.

As Minnesota natives, the BWCA has always been in our blood. Most of us grew up going there with our families to camp out for a couple nights. Maybe we would do a little trolling for walleyes with a spinning rod hanging off the back of the canoe. It wasn’t until the three of us had moved westward to Colorado and Montana that we eventually picked up fly fishing and started to see the BWCA through a different lens.

Two years ago, Josh and Willis approached me with the idea of doing a twelve day canoe trip into the heart of the BWCA during the beginning of May, not long after the ice melted off the lakes. The thought of this trip instantly got my blood pumping, how could I say no? I instantly cleared my schedule and started the countdown to what was probably going to be the hardest but most rewarding trip of my life to date. Thankfully, I had a couple months of unbelievable skiing in southwestern Montana to keep my mind occupied, but once the winter season ended and late April came around it was time to start prepping. We all flew back to Minnesota from our western homes. I was fortunate enough to spend a few well-needed days with the family before we all joined in Duluth, MN at the Beasley residence. It had been many long months since seeing my good pals Josh and Willis, so it was great to catch up over some ice cold beers and hear about the stellar fishing in Colorado, as well as the steelhead fishing a couple days prior on the local waters in Duluth.

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After a couple days, and what felt like a thousand errands that had to be done, we were finally ready (or so we thought) to head into the BWCA. Although we had all been into the BWCA before, we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into by attempting this long of a trip.

We woke up at 3am to pack up the rigs and start our journey. Emotions were at an all time high and our stomachs were filled with butterflies and coffee. We had a few hours of driving ahead of us before we could get on the water. It felt like forever as we sang along to familiar bluegrass tunes and caught glimpses of Lake Superior, but we finally reached our launch point around 7am. Our launch point was at an outfitter that we paid to motor us out a few miles (in an area where motors were permitted) to get a jumpstart on the route we had mapped out. We had every day scheduled as best we could for what would be a travel day, fish day, or both -depending on weather.

The first day, we paddled several miles to a lake we had gotten a special permit to camp on. This lake only had brook trout in it, and boy were we in for a surprise. By the end of the two days that we fished this lake, we were averaging 18-inch brook trout and had a couple that were 22­-23inches. It truly felt like something out of a dream, and the iron rich water brought out some unbelievable colors in these fish.

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After an amazing two days on the lake we reluctantly packed up camp and continued on our journey, curious to see what trophy fish the next lake had to offer. This mindset is what kept us persevering through harsh weather to come; high winds, snow, sleet, rain and temperatures that plummeted into the 30’s. Living on a dehydrated pasta diet for 11 days and with only Chaco sandals for footwear (big mistake) would be enough to make any normal person go crazy, but the promise of what the next lake might hold kept us going.

On the seventh day of our trip we traveled nine hours, portaging (transporting canoes and gear from one lake to another) and paddling through sleet and pure exhaustion to get to our next campsite. We finally reached our destination and were just about ready to settle in when we came across the tracks of a 400­-500lb black bear, as well as plenty of wolf tracks only ten yards from where we pulled up our canoes. Although we were all completely exhausted and didn’t want to move any further, we also wanted to avoid any confrontation with either of these animals. We packed the canoes up and headed across the lake. After making it to the next campsite, we were pleased to find no tracks and a perfect place to hunker down. Quickly, we got a fire going to start drying out our soaking wet gear (it rained almost every day), and to get dinner going. On the menu that night was… yep you guessed it, more dehydrated pasta. Josh headed down to the lake for a bucket of water to wash dishes after the meal, when he yelled at us to get over there. Initially, I was expecting to see a some sort of wildlife but when we reached the bank we were amazed by the sight of the Aurora Borealis!

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I can’t explain the peace and stillness that I felt gazing out over the lake at this natural wonder, it really helped recharge my batteries and give us motivation to keep moving on our journey. The next morning we woke up to beautiful blue skies, still waters, and an eagerness to get fishing. It was a very large lake but we managed to find a great stretch with some structure that produced a lot of nice fish, including this monster lake trout.

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Over the next few days, many more miles of travel and a few more monster fish we were all feeling the effects of the weather, the physical exertion, the camp food, and sleeping in a tent for ten days. The morning of the eleventh day we woke up to a quarter inch of snow on the ground and we decided to cut the trip a day early. We felt a little defeated, but we couldn’t keep ignoring the overwhelming desire to bite into a greasy double bacon cheeseburger and slurp down a milkshake. In the grand scheme of things, I believe we came out victorious over the elements that the BWCA had to offer. We shared many moments both good and bad, and bonded to a whole new level of friendship as we worked together on this journey. Many laughs were had, many songs were sung (mainly to keep us from going crazy) and best of all, many fish were caught. Can’t wait to see what this year’s trip has in store, CHEERS!

All photos by Josh Beasley