Ca­noe fish­ing par­adise

Big small­mouths, walleyes high­light bucket list trip

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUTDOORS - BRYAN HEN­DRICKS

ELY, Minn. — Imag­ine a wa­ter world, mainly ac­ces­si­ble only to ca­noes, where game­fish are plen­ti­ful and big.

Big means 3-pound crap­pie, pie plate bluegills and small­mouth bass that run up­wards of 5 pounds.

I spent the last week of June in such a world, in the Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness of north­ern Min­nesota.

Wa­ter de­fines the Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness, which is known lo­cally as the BWCA. It shel­ters more than 1,000 lakes and about 1,500 miles of des­ig­nated ca­noe routes.

On the big lakes, ca­noes are as nu­mer­ous as power­boats on Lake Hamil­ton. They are mostly long, tan We-No-Nah ca­noes made of Kevlar. They are light enough for one per­son to carry, and they haul a lot of gear.

This trip orig­i­nated about this time last year, when Co­p­ley Smoak of Pearcy, a long­time reader of this sec­tion, emailed a photo of a big small­mouth bass he caught on a fly in the BWCA.

Smoak, 83, has so­journed in the BWCA for nearly 40 years, but he lamented that the 2016 trip was prob­a­bly his last. His com­pan­ions had ei­ther died or were no longer phys­i­cally able to en­dure the jour­ney.

In my re­ply to Smoak, I men­tioned that vis­it­ing the BWCA was a life­long de­sire.

Next thing I knew, Smoak had se­cured a per­mit for 2017. Par­tic­i­pa­tion was manda­tory. My son Matthew and daugh­ter Amy hinted strongly that they wanted to be in­vited, and they were.

“Our en­try date is June 24,” Smoak wrote. “The per­mit is good for 14 days, but five days is usu­ally enough for most folks.”

Smoak is an eclec­tic man. He worked 30 years for IBM, but he’s spent many of his re­tired years col­lect­ing data on Mayan ci­ch­lids for The Con­ser­vancy of South­west Florida.

He also de­signed and builds his pro­pri­etary Omni Rods. It is long and lim­ber like a fly rod, but its dual seats en­able it to be used with a fly reel or spin­ning reel. Smoak was de­nied a patent, he said, be­cause a dual-seat rod was made in 1912, be­fore spin­ning reels were in­vented.

Upon ar­rival in Ely, we stopped at Pi­ragis North­woods Com­pany, where I en­gaged a cus­tomer about small­mouth bass fish­ing.

We are often told that folks in the North­woods con­sider small­mouth bass to be trash fish. That’s a myth. They es­teem their small­mouths as much as we do, if not more.

Even though gi­ant small­mouths in­habit the BWCA, my ac­quain­tance said, most an­glers use small baits and ul­tra­light tackle to catch them.

“Top­wa­ters work re­ally well,” the man said, “but you have to be very sub­tle.” Mean­ing?

“When the bait hits the wa­ter, don’t move it for a good, long while,” he said. “Wait for the rip­ples to die away. Tell your­self a joke. Take a cou­ple of long swigs of cof­fee or what­ever, but don’t move the lure. One second it will be there, and the next second it won’t.

“If you twitch it and jerk it, you won’t get a bite,” he added. “That’s my tip. Good luck!”

That’s how Smoak fishes. He casts a yel­low pop­ping bug early in the morn­ing and late in the evening when there’s no wind and the wa­ter is dead calm. The bug mim­ics a yel­low drake, a big fly that is abun­dant this time of year.

“I cast it to the edge of the grass and let it soak,” Smoak said. “They give it a good work­out, but the Omni Rod al­ways whips their ass.”

We didn’t have much calm wa­ter dur­ing our six days at Bass­wood Lake. Smoak’s ca­noes, 17-foot, square-stern Esquif Herons pow­ered by 3-hp Nis­san out­boards, were packed with pro­vi­sions and gear. That made the 15-mile jour­ney from Moose Lake and back very rough and wet through 20-mph head­winds.

We made camp dur­ing a lull in the rain. Amy’s Hen­nessey ham­mock kept her off the ground, and its batwing-shaped fly was ut­terly rain­proof. Matt and I pitched our tents side by side in a small open­ing down­hill from Amy. Smoak camped in a tiny open­ing up the hill, but his leaky North Face tent made his nights un­pleas­ant.

Af­ter pitch­ing camp, Smoak and I took a ca­noe out to fish a vast expanse of sub­merged grass that he calls “The Biomass.” The wa­ter is only 10-12 feet deep at most, but the grass comes al­most to the sur­face, and it har­bors an im­pres­sive di­ver­sity of fish.

We used light jigs tipped with Char­lie Brewer Slid­ers, tiny plas­tic grubs that we use for bream and crap­pie fish­ing in Arkansas. We cast up­wind and dragged them across the grasstops.

I caught a lot of north­ern pike and yel­low perch, both firsts for me, but Smoak caught two of the big­gest crap­pie I’ve ever seen, as well as a mas­sive bluegill. He also caught a 16-inch small­mouth bass and a lit­tle large­mouth bass.

The wa­ter was very clear, but tea col­ored. Be­cause of this, all of the fish, ex­cept for north­ern pike and yel­low perch, were very dark, al­most black.

The wind fi­nally died the fol­low­ing evening. Amy and I cast top­wa­ters on the lee side of the is­land. I used a bone col­ored Zara Puppy as my tip­ster ad­vised.

North­woods small­mouths don’t blow up on a top­wa­ter the way south­ern small­ies do. They roll on it. I missed the first two strikes, but I fi­nally con­nected on the third. It was a sub­tle, sip­ping strike of lit­tle ap­par­ent con­se­quence, but when I loaded the rod, I lost my breath. The fish dis­placed much wa­ter with a deep, res­o­nant splash that sug­gested im­men­sity. My rod arced deeply, and when I saw the fish up close, my sum­mer was com­plete.

“This is the big­gest small­mouth I’ve ever seen!” I gasped.

It was 21 inches long, about 5-pounds, with a deep hue of bur­nished bronze. If I didn’t catch an­other fish, I would be happy, but there was more to come. Much more.

The next day was bright, sunny and windy. I talked Smoak into trolling crankbaits, a tech­nique that is for­eign to him. I caught a cou­ple of north­ern pike on the lee­ward side of a point with a Ra­pala Jointed Shad Rap in Ten­nessee Shad color, so I sug­gested trolling over the deep end of the point in the wind.

My first fish was a 19-inch small­mouth that glowed in the sun. The next was a 3½-pound wall­eye that fed our group.

The next morn­ing, fish­ing alone, I caught two more small­mouths on a clear Hed­don Baby Tor­pedo. One was 16 inches long. The other was a tad smaller than my 5-pounder.

“They have 6- and 7-pounders out here,” Smoak said, “but a fish like that is pretty much at the up­per end of what peo­ple catch.”

Smoak caught one, too, a 4-pounder while fish­ing with Matthew, on the one calm morn­ing that al­lowed him to soak a fly.

My day­dreams have been stale lately, but those fish re­vi­tal­ized them.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/BRYAN HEN­DRICKS

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette out­doors writer Bryan Hen­dricks (left) caught his three big­gest small­mouth bass ever last week at the Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness in north­ern Min­nesota. The big­gest was close to 5 pounds. Also mak­ing the trip was Co­p­ley Smoak (right) of Pearcy, shown with one of the walleyes caught. Smoak, 83, has been vis­it­ing the BMCA for nearly 40 years.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/BRYAN HEN­DRICKS

Ca­noeists pad­dle on Bass­wood Lake, one of more than 1,000 nat­u­ral lakes in the Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness of north­ern Min­nesota. In all, it has about 1,500 miles of des­ig­nated ca­noe routes.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/AMY HEN­DRICKS

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