Tail-Walkers on the Canadian Border
If you’re looking for fishing excitement and unspoiled wilderness, head for the border of northern Minnesota.
September 1 1988 by Chuck Benda
Sometimes referred to as tail-walkers for their acrobatic fighting ability, smallmouth bass should rank near the top of any angler’s hierarchy of piscatorial adversaries. Although technically a sunfish, not a bass, the smallmouth bears little resemblance to the familiar blue-gills and pumpkinseeds, other than, perhaps, the extraordinary ratio of strength-to-size of the sunfish. In fact, John Herrick-owner and chief guide of The Moose Bay Co., a guiding and outfitting service located on the shores of Moose Lake in Northern Minnesota, just a few miles south of the Canadian Border-believes that there isn’t a freshwater gamefish alive that compares to the smallmouth.
“Trout jump well, walleyes are good to eat, and northerns are big, but smallies will give you every bit of their soul,” says Herrick. “Pound for pound, the small-mouth is, by far, the finest freshwater fish around.” For those who disagree, Herrick has one piece of advice: “Come up and try the fishing in my backyard.”
THE BOUNDARY WATERS
The area he refers to as his backyard starts at the end of the dock behind his house and stretches north to encompass two wilderness parks: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the U.S. side of the border, and Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side. Covering some 14,000 square miles of rugged boreal forest, interlaced with thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams that run with water pure enough to drink, these parks contain some of the finest stretches of wilderness on the continent. Lake for lake, the parks also harbor the finest smallmouth fishing in the world, a boast supported by the In-Fisherman Magazine.
The smallmouth is not native to these waters. As one story goes, lumberyard cooks stocked the smallmouth during the 1940s hoping to provide a variety for their menus. Once there, the smallmouth soon flourished in the cool, clear lakes of the border country. Today, thousands of trophy-sized smallmouth (five pounds and up) inhabit these waters, and no one knows better how to catch them than Herrick.
Once called the guru of smallmouth fishing, Herrick has built a reputation for delivering world-class fishing trips. He has intentionally kept his operation small and personal, employing only two guides. It has taken Herrick, 43, nearly a quarter-century to amass the skill and knowledge that produces such spectacular results. A canoe trip with him to the border country is both an adventure and an education in smallmouth fishing.
After traveling by motorboat some 20 miles-to the limit of motorized travel in the Boundary Waters-we launched our canoes and paddled north some four hours into Quetico. At Herrick’s suggestion, I tied on an S11 (silver) Rapala and cast it shoreward, letting it sit a few seconds before twitching it slightly. As I was about to begin my retrieve, the water exploded beneath the lure and a smallmouth burst into the air, Rapala in mouth. After a brief spurt of tail-walking and head-shaking, the fish dove, finishing the fight with a series of deep zigs and zags. Though only about a two-pounder, his antics quickly whetted my appetite for more. “The top-water action is what makes smallmouth fishing so exciting,” says Herrick. “But it isn’t always that easy to get them to hit top-water lures. The presentation of the lure is important.”
The best way to lure the smallmouth out of hiding, according to Herrick, is to use what he calls the “wait and wait” retrieve. After casting the lure next to shore, wait for ten seconds, then twitch it slightly, wait another ten seconds and twitch it again before completing the retrieve.
Although we were fishing with lightweight spinning and bait-casting gear (six-to eight-pound test line), fly fishermen can achieve the same results with the “wait and wait” presentation. Herrick recommends using the following: large poppers and bass bugs, a seven- or eight-weight outfit, an eight- or nine-foot rod and a weight-forward line.
Top-water action is best in the spring, when the smallmouth can be found close to shore, in shallow areas with gravel or rocky bottoms. As the water temperature climbs, the bass move toward deeper waters. In late spring (June, in the border country), you’ll find more action around stumps and rocks surrounded by deeper pools of water.
By mid-July, the top-water action tapers off and smallmouths are more likely to strike crank baits and jig heads tipped with rubber twister tails. Concentrate your efforts on 15-foot submerged reefs and deep weedlines. “Eighth-and quarter ounce jigs with twister tails are just as deadly, if not more so, than top-water lures,” says Herrick, “but you’ve got to fish them right. Let them sink until they bump the bottom, lift them slowly as you retrieve them, then let them slide down again, It’s a matter of ‘lift and slide.’ “
During the course of our five-day trip, we caught and released dozens of smallmouth. Top-water lures produced the most excitement, but the largest fish-a pair of five pounders, one of which is now hanging on my office wall came on jigs and twister tails fished slowly down the face of underwater rock slopes and near submerged logs.
Between assaults on the smallmouth, we fished for walleyes (a superb table fish) and northerns. One evening, a member of our group caught three bass and six walleyes (including an eight-pounder) in about 20 minutes-all while fishing from shore less than 100 yards from camp. Past trips have produced many walleyes over 10 pounds and northerns in excess of 25 pounds. With that kind of action, it’s easy to understand why many of the prime fishing dates in May and June are reserved a year in advance.
A RECLAIMED WILDERNESS
Even if you choose not to fish, you’ll still end up having the trip of a lifetime. The parks are rich in history, and are like no others on the continent. For thousands of years these lakes and streams were homes to native Americans such as the Laurel Culture, the Cree, and, most recently, the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians. Many areas are named after or derived from the Chippewa: Bassemenani, the dried blueberry lake; Namekan, named for the sturgeon (numa) the Chippewa speared at the foot of a waterfall entering the lake.
The area survived the onslaught of trappers, traders, lumberjacks and miners until the parks were afforded full wilderness protection-Quetico in 1972; the Boundary Waters in 1978. Although a reclaimed wilderness, today, there is little sign of previous inhabitants, other than the portage trails, many of which have followed the same path for hundreds of years.
Like any wilderness trip, an excursion with The Moose Bay Co. involves “roughing it”; the mosquitoes can be voracious and the weather unpredictable. Park regulations prohibit motorized travel on all but a handful of perimeter lakes; if you want to go where the fishing is really good, you’ll have to paddle. Beyond that, however, Herrick and his assistants will see to it that the hardest work you will do will be lifting those big tail-walkers out of the water and into the canoe.
THE MOOSE BAY COMPANY
TT he Moose Bay Company offers complete guiding, outfitting services and lodging. The most popular package is the five-day, deluxe guided trip, for about $900.00 per person. It includes two nights lodging in the bunkhouse, meals, canoes, camping equipment, park permits and fishing licenses. Guests must supply their own clothing and fishing gear. For more information, contact: John Herrick, The Moose Bay Co., Box 697, Ely, MN, or call (218) 365-6285.