The rocky shorelines of Canadian Shield lakes evoke great emotions for many anglers. There is something special about fishing undeveloped wilderness areas where you can literally step out of the boat onto an eons-old boulder and be the first human to ever set foot there.
Voyageurs National Park on the Minnesota-Ontario border is a such place. The park honors the route taken by the French-Canadian traders as they brought goods to trade with the natives in exchange for beavers and other pelts trapped by the Ojibways. From the early 1700s to the mid 1800s, this water highway saw large canoes paddled by entrepreneurs and their voyageurs who traveled long hours through sometimes harsh conditions in their pursuit of pelts to send to England, where beaver fur hats were the rage for many years.
The park encompasses many lakes and 450 miles of undeveloped shoreline. The four largest lakes of the park (Namakan, Kabetogema, Rainy, and Crane) have more than 500 islands. The natural beauty of the area is but one thing that brings people to the area; the excellent fishing is another. Smallmouth bass, walleye, and northern pike are abundant and grow large in these waters.
You can choose to camp at one of the designated campsites, or go in style in a houseboat. A houseboat allows you to get out of the weather, avoid the mosquitoes, and have all the comforts of home in a wilderness setting. Plus it is just enjoyable to fire up and outboard and move your whole luxurious camp from one place to another. There are plenty of places to explore in this park, which is 80 miles of waterway from one end to the other.
Most visitors tow their own fishing boat behind the houseboat, then use the fishing boat to get around once the houseboat is beached. If you do not bring your own boat, one is included with the houseboat rental. I have used Ebels Voyageur Houseboats and highly recommend their service. There are three other houseboat rentals, two on Rainy Lake (Rainy Lake Houseboats and Northernaire Houseboats) and one on Crane Lake (Voyagaire Houseboats).
Houseboats can be beached for the night at any place where you can safely tie off, or you can choose to stop at one of the designated houseboat sites that offer a campfire ring, mooring posts, and, in many cases, a sandy beach. We have found that there are dozens of great places to tie off that are not marked on the maps. We have never found it difficult to find a great place to moor for the night, and sometimes stay for two to three nights at the same spot as we venture out with our fishing boat in search of fish for supper.
Crane Lake, Namakan, and Kabetogema are separated from Rainy Lake by Kettle Falls. This historical site has a boat portage that takes small boats around the falls. Native American petroglyphs are found in the area, linking you with the area’s past visitors. A restaurant at the falls offers an option for those who would like to take a break from cooking aboard the houseboat.
Walleye are found on main lake points, rocky shorelines, and gravel bars. This fine-eating fish is the most sought-after species in the lake. Many first time visitors choose to hire a guide the first day of their trip to help them learn how to find and catch the walleyes before spending the remainder of their trip on their own.
Northern pike inhabit the weedy bays and they are abundant. It’s not uncommon to catch a couple dozen in a day of fishing. Spinnerbaits or weedless spoons casted into the submerged vegetation will be readily attacked by these aggressive fish. There are plenty of “hammer handle” size fish to keep things interesting, especially for young anglers, and if you put your time in, you have a better than average chance of catching a truly big one of 10 pounds of more.
Smallmouth bass are considered one of the gamest fish that swim and they are abundant in all the lakes. The average size is very good, with fish of three to four pounds common. They jump into the air and fight like mad when hooked. It’s no wonder so many anglers can’t get enough of them.
Early in the summer, smallmouth bass will be found shallow, close to logs or basketball-sized rocks. By midsummer, most smallmouth are found where there is a combination of rocks and weeds. Rocky points in weedy bays, sunken islands, and trees fallen into the water should all be checked for these fish. Minnow-imitating crankbaits, diving crankbaits, tube jigs, and spinnerbaits are all good choices.
There may not be a better fishing trip out there for a family. In addition to the great fishing, kids can swim on remote sand beaches, splash into the water from the slide attached to the houseboat, and explore islands and shorelines. Wildlife sightings are abundant. We regularly see bald eagles, deer, beavers, otter, and even the occasional moose.
While this trip is one you should put on your bucket list to experience at least once, I must offer a warning: you will want to go back over and over.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.
Images by Bernie Barringer