Keep Talking About Those Mosquitoes by Brian O'Keefe
AROUND 1968, while at Chinook Junior High School in Bellevue, Washington, I first heard about Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Our library had both Field & Stream and Outdoor Life—one of them had an article on canoe camping there for smallmouth bass, walleye and pike.
AROUND 1968, while at Chinook Junior High School in Bellevue, Washington, I first heard about Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Our library had both Field & Stream and Outdoor Life—one of them had an article on canoe camping there for smallmouth bass, walleye and pike. The story had generic photos of Shakespeare Wonder Rods bent double (after all, they were still fiberglass), stringers of walleye and burly Northwoods individuals in red plaid flannel and wool shirts. Does it get any better for a kid in the suburbs of Seattle?
It took me 40 years to finally make the trip.
The hundreds of remote, unpopulated wilderness lakes have not changed much during that time. In fact, a couple of lodges have been bought out and torn down since I was an eighth-grader, making the area even more natural. The rugged shorelines, intricate lake and river systems, and vast network of lake-to lake portage options should provide canoe anglers a fly-fishing destination of incredible quality for many decades to come. Don’t wait as long as I did.
Our outfitter, Jim Blauch of Moose Track Adventures, looked over and sized up our questionable foursome upon arrival in Ely (pronounced ee-lee), Minnesota. He made a plan for the next six days based on our physical condition and desire to "just do it" and "really go for it." Jim knew me from various sport shows. Next there was Don, a mountainbike racer and paramedic/fireman—in other words, a good pick. Mark, a thick-necked guy with a wrestler’s body who works outside all day, and Anthony, a nursery stock grower with cantaloupe-sized calf muscles must have impressed Jim enough because he laid out a grueling itinerary with 24 portages of up to a mile long. Each.
In June, the waters have warmed up and both largemouth and smallmouth bass are on the grab. I got my first smallie on my second cast. The action stayed hot all day, every day. We could have fished with popping bugs and nothing else, but I tried some new subsurface bass flies around big granite boulders and rocky points with great success. A couple times a bugger rigged as a "popper dropper" worked very well. Okay, everything worked. We could do no wrong.
Pike demolished our topwater offerings; rods with wire leaders were quickly rigged up to save our fancy $4 poppers. The ultimate situation was a cast into a shallow bay with three-foot-tall aquatic grass. After one "pop" the grass would start to wriggle, 10 feet away. Then five feet, four, three, two, one, the telltale path through the grass ending in a wild eruption. Bring long-handled hemostats or Band-Aids.
Many Midwestern canoeists and anglers—mainly walleye anglers—venture to the Boundary Waters each year. Most pick their own route and paddle to familyfavorite lakes and campsites. For first timers and fly anglers from distant states, I highly recommend going with an outfitter. Jim, a "local’s local" and true outfitter in the classic sense, made our trip. His stories, knowledge of the area’s history and mind-boggling topography cannot be garnered from any guidebook. With Jim and his guide buddy, Chris Parthun, our group got a quick but extremely rewarding glimpse into a small and very remote portion of the wilderness area. Yes, we caught nice bass and pike; yes, the scenery was great; and yes, the paddling and portages were strenuous if rewarding. To say the least. But more than all that, I think it was Jim and Chris who showed us what it takes to do their jobs, day in, day out: Respect.
We really came together as a group. As it happened, Don had never met Mark and Anthony, and I had never met Chris. But after a couple days with six hours of paddling and five portages that require two trips each to relocate all the gear, tents and food, we got stronger. We learned the fastest way to pack and unpack camp. We began to function as a team. What seemed like chaos the first day became routine by the third. Jim’s plan was to paddle our asses off for a couple days, then establish a base camp way back on a large remote lake where the fish were big and rarely cast to. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When talking about the Boundary Waters and nearby Quetico Provincial Park, across the border in Ontario, Canada, with people who have paddled there, most light up and rave about the beauty, the vast wilderness, the thousands of miles of shoreline. Then, those who have not been but have heard about the Boundary Waters mention the mosquitoes, blackflies and grueling portages. Please, just keep talking about those mosquitoes so that Jim Blauch can keep some of those backcountry lakes all to himself.
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